Special Forces soldiers teach waterborne basics in Panama

by Staff Sgt. Brian Thomas

FORT SHERMAN, Republic of Panama (Army News Service) -- The instructors' dark suntans and wrap-around sunglasses indicate that they teach at a school for lifeguards.

But don't look for whistles around their necks or red crosses on their shirts. This isn't the local beach - it's the lagoon at Fort Sherman, Panama, home of waterborne training for the Jungle Operations Training Center.

A group of 14 U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers makes up the waterborne operations instruction team, or Team Four, in Company A of the Jungle Operations Training Brigade. Its mission is to prepare soldiers to face a myriad of water obstacles lurking in Fort Sherman's dense jungle training area.

Soldiers from the U.S. Army's light infantry divisions, the 75th Ranger Regiment, the Marine Corps and other military units, as well as soldiers from Central and South America, come to Fort Sherman for jungle training.

During their first week of instruction soldiers learn how to cross water obstacles using ropes, ponchos, rucksacks and zodiac boats. Later in the three-week rotation, the soldiers work with JOTC's opposing forces, and in the cordon and search phase. They also serve as instructors for the aircrew survival course, a two-week course open to anyone in the U.S. military.

All the active Special Forces groups are represented on the waterborne committee, with each of the soldiers in the 18B, or weapons sergeant, military occupational specialty. They serve a one-year tour in Panama, with an option to extend for one more. The JOTC tour is an alternative to a three-to-four year assignment instructing at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, N.C., or another similar position, said Master Sgt. Joseph Callihan, team sergeant for Team Four, JOTB.

"If you've never worked in the Latin American theater or been exposed to a jungle environment, you can take that back to your detachment in the 5th Group or the 3rd or 10th, where they don't get much opportunity to work in a jungle environment," Callihan said.

Callihan, a long-time member of 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) said the Special Forces soldiers are ideally suited to fill this role at the jungle school. In the past, when a battalion from 7th SFG (A) was stationed in Panama, Callihan said the battalion was tasked to perform the mission now done by Team Four. When all but one company of 3rd Battalion, 7th SFG (A), returned to Fort Bragg, Team Four was created and the instructors assigned to JOTC.

"One of the requirements here is that we also teach Latin American soldiers the same things we teach U.S. soldiers - waterborne operations, air crew survival, cordon and search operations," Callihan said. "So we have Latin American soldiers come through for this training also, and our guys relate to them a lot better than the standard infantry soldiers.

"(Special Forces soldiers) do really well here. They're extremely knowledgeable in infantry tactics, which is basically what JOTC is about. Since they're already pretty well adept and versed at dealing with foreign countries, it works out really well."

An in-house Spanish language program helps to quickly close the language gap for those who do not come from 7th SFG (A), Callihan said.

Special Forces soldiers are trained to understand the culture and speak the language of the region of the world their group is oriented to, Callihan said.

"Across the board in all the groups, the Special Forces soldiers are extremely motivated, and once given a task and a mission they fall in line and they do a really good job," he said.

The waterborne instructors find the mission at JOTC is not much different from the training missions done while part of a Special Forces "A" Team, or Operational Detachment Alpha, said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Olague, an instructor and member of 7th SFG (A), which is oriented to Latin America.

"This job is a lot like that, because people come here from different countries to go through the waterborne training," Olague said. "They want you to take different instructor jobs, and I decided to come down to Panama and practice my language."

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Thomas is a journalist with U.S. Army Special Operations Command.)