Ship’s Serviceman Seaman Charles Allen patiently waits his turn in line. He has been dreading this moment for the better part of a week. The yells of his fellow classmates echo off the walls inside the vastly empty warehouse located in southern California. He tries to believe that “it” will not be that bad, but deep down, he knows it will.
Allen volunteered for the United States Navy, was selected for orders to Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) America (LHA 6) and chosen to be a member of the ship’s security force. As a reward for that commitment to his country, he must be pepper sprayed in the face.
During a three-week security training course ran by the instructors of ACADEMI from Nov. 6 to 22, 30 Sailors, including seven attached to America, learned physical defensive tactics, weapons handling, dynamic shipboard security procedures and an array of other fleet-concentrated skills.
Students file into a bus at Naval Base San Diego, set to travel to ACADEMI, a premier training facility. Role is taken, the bus door closes, and after a 20-minute drive, they arrive.
It does not seem like much at first. If someone was not looking for it, the building would simply disappear amongst the countless similar buildings surrounding the area. Once inside, it transforms: A gun range and simulated ship display to the left, classrooms to the right, and plenty of wide-open space to run an Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) spray training course.
Instructors spend much of the first day talking about operational risk management and safety. Throughout the week, students are taught how to perform Mechanical Advantage Control Holds (MACH), takedowns, baton handling techniques and handcuffing procedures.
“For the first week of training we go through deadly force classes [and emphasize] safety. Obviously, safety is paramount here. [We then] introduce them to the use of force continuum,” says Ruben Diaz, ACADEMI instructor.
Students also learn that they will have to endure the OC spray training course at the end of the week. They must be sprayed across the forehead and maneuver through a gauntlet of scenarios that highlight lessons taught throughout the week, all while their faces feel as though they may melt off.
“The purpose of us spraying the students with OC is so that if they’re out there in the fleet and they actually have to use OC, they know what it feels like, so they don’t panic,” said Diaz. “And the second reason why we go through the course is so if they do get any OC in their eyes, they can fight through it and maintain positive control. It gives them confidence in that.”
“I’m a little bit nervous, but it should be pretty fun,” Allen claims while waiting for his turn to attempt the OC spray training course. After a brief pause and what seems like a moment of clarity, he shakes his head and mutters, “I’m about to be pepper sprayed in the face.”
Almost half of Allen’s fellow students have already gone through the course, and now it is his turn. He walks to his mark, turns away from the instructor and closes his eyes. He is asked to turn toward the instructor standing 15 feet behind him. He does. The spray hits the left side of his forehead and makes its way to the right. He opens his eyes and begins the course.
The excess fluid from his forehead begins to drip into his eyes as he navigates his way through, using MACH maneuvers, baton strikes and blocks, and verbal commands. After completing the course, he is taken to a decontamination station where the OC is rinsed off. This seems to anger the OC, intensifying its effects.
Allen is led to a fan, where he keeps his nose only an inch or two from the twirling blades that blow cool relief to his face. He stays there for the better part of the next 20 minutes before he can finally open his eyes for an extended period of time.
“Maybe in a day or two I’ll be like, ‘You know what, maybe it wasn’t so bad,’ but right now it’s the worst thing in the world,” says Allen. “It’s very effective. I can’t imagine not complying with someone who has the capability to use this.
“I didn’t have a very good understanding of OC spray,” he says. “Even with being in the military, I didn’t understand it all that well. Now, I know its effects and what it can do.”
Allen and his classmates have all completed the first week of training and will move on to weapons portion following a much needed weekend to recover.
The only time Cryptologic Technician (Technical) 3rd Class Daniel Wood has ever fired a gun was during boot camp nearly two years earlier. He pays close attention to the instructor’s lessons on the Beretta M9 pistol; the pistol adopted by the U.S. Armed Forces in 1985.
“This course will not only familiarize them with the weapon, but it will allow them to use it in practical applications and feel comfortable using it,” claims Timothy Loy, ACADEMI instructor. “We will give them some hands-on training for what it feels like to actually fire these weapons.”
After a few classroom lessons, Wood and his fellow students learn to handle the weapon. Safety, loading and aiming are among the hands-on lessons received. Soon after, students are asked to take the weapon apart and reassemble it to give them a better understanding of how it works. And then, it’s off to the range.
Students grab their eye and hearing protection, and file into the gun range. After going through a dry-fire portion, it’s time to shoot. The last time Wood shot the M9, he received the grade of marksman; passing, but not quite acing the qualification course. This time he hopes to improve.
Sailors may earn a marksmanship ribbon for passing the gun qualification by receiving a score from 180-203 on a scale of 0-240. To earn the label of “sharpshooter,” which adds a bronze “S” to the ribbon, a score of 204-227 is required. Anything higher than a 227 earns the shooter the title “expert” and a marksmanship medal is awarded. A similar scoring method is used for the M16.
The weapons qualification course consists of firing from strong-side supported (standing), weak-side supported (standing) and strong-side supported (kneeling), from varied distances. Wood completes the course and waits as an instructor tallies the holes in the paper target at the end of the range. He scores a 232 and, after just a day-and-a-half of training at ACADEMI, is considered and expert with the M9.
“I did very well,” exclaims Wood. “It was second time I ever shot the pistol. I didn’t really know what to expect, but the instructors were really good. I think this training is excellent to prepare us to handle weapons when we’re on watch.”
After completing the M9 qualification, Wood and his fellow students learn about the M16 rifle, and perform a similar qualification course. The course requires them to shoot from standing, kneeling and prone positions.
The final weapon training received is for the Mossberg M-500 shotgun. To qualify with this weapon they must go through a practical weapons course. While being timed, students maneuver through and around obstacles, while making sure to keep their shots on target.
“It gives the students different types of scenarios that they might encounter out in the fleet,” says Loy.
After a full week of weapons training, the class is finished with their qualifications and head home for the weekend. They will have to combine all that they have learned to this point to make it through the next week.
For the final week of ship security training, students move their lessons to a simulated ship display, complete with ladder wells, passage ways and plenty of rooms for a “bad guy” to hide.
“The third week is a conglomeration of defensive tactics and shipboard tactics,” says Chris Pilkington, ACADEMI program manager. “They learn how to come into a room dynamically, how to take back a ship and how to protect the ship.”
Working in teams of six, the Sailors learn the importance of communication as they maneuver through the ship, while ensuring no direction is left uncovered. The “point man” heads up the front of the train, calling out every door and obstacle he sees. The “team leader” calls the shots and steers the team, while the “six-man” ensures rear security.
While Sailors seem to thoroughly enjoy practicing these lessons, the importance of these lessons is not lost in the midst of the enjoyment for Chief Warrant Officer 2 Chris Conley, America Maintenance Material Control Officer and ACADEMI student.
“It’s very important,” he says. “We’re learning how to work as a team, with weapons, in a [potential] real-world scenario. The information that is being given to us is [critical] and something we really need to know.”
On the final day of class, the Sailors work together during multiple scenarios that are designed to put the students in a different frame of mind and make them think outside the box.
“The scenarios that they’re introducing to us today are all scenarios that [may] have happened in the past,” says Conley. “They’re putting us in those types of situations to see how we react to them as a reaction force and as a reaction team.”
After completing the final evaluations, students earn their certificates of completion and are now eligible to be part of America’s security force.
The seven graduating students from America will add to an increasing percentage of the command that has attended the class. America has had 185 Sailors complete the course and expects that number to be no less than 235 by the ship’s expected 2014 commissioning date.
While the training helps achieve America’s goal of having the proper amount of qualified personnel onboard, graduates can utilize the information long past their time on the ship.
“I’m very impressed,” says Conley. “This is probably one of the best courses I’ve taken. I think it’s important for watches specifically, but it also gives a lot of other information that I can carry on for the rest of my career.”
ACADEMI instructors seem equally impressed with the influx of America Sailors they have seen recently.
“America Sailors: They’re a real tight group of Sailors,” exclaimed Diaz. “They take care of each other. Motivated, they’re very motivated. They’re a good group of students.”
“We’ve gotten quite a few America Sailors [recently],” said Loy. “They are very motivated and are looking forward to getting to their command. That should be a really good command.”