Conquering the ‘stairway to hell’

Written by Lt. Cmdr. John P. Kousch.

In the labyrinth and confluence of ladders, corridors and gangways aboard the 540-foot T. S. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Maritime Academy’s cadet training ship, it was a “hellish” close quarters combat training for 15 members from four maritime safety and security teams from Boston, New York, New Orleans and Galveston, Texas.

Maritime Safety and Security Teams work together during a joint training. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Maritime Safety and Security Teams work together during a joint training. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

In the chilly shores off Sandwich, Mass., someone joked of how much warmer it was in Texas, but, it sure heated up as soon as the games started and ramped up for a couple of hours.

Training multiple law enforcement teams simultaneously is a rare and precious opportunity, so this particular event means a lot to the trainees and to unit commanders.

Maritime Safety and Security Team Boston Command Senior Chief William P. Klein’s role is crucial as one of the training observers.

“MSST Boston and New York had previously worked together; Galveston and New Orleans the same,” said Klein. “However, the connections ended there.”

The New York members had never worked with Galveston, New Orleans never with Boston, and so on and so forth – and it didn’t matter. Rank insignia was non-existent. Several members graduated from the Coast Guard Special Mission Training Center’s Basic Tactical Operator Course in Camp Lejeune, N.C., where they trained in advanced weapons and close quarters combat.

However, as the hellish event began, BTOC graduates’ performance were barely distinguishable from non-graduates — a testament to each unit’s standard training programs and the inevitable result from the teams’ “forming, storming and norming” phases that unfolded within a compressed two-hour timeframe.

“BTOC really establishes a solid foundation for all Deployable Specialized Force Tactical Operators to employ CQC in a real-world event,” said Petty Officer Third Class Jon W. Sykes of MSST Boston. “Honing our skill-set during training opportunities like this is absolutely essential to establish and maintain proficiency.”

The teams were grouped into two Advanced Interdiction Teams: 3, MSST New Orleans and Galveston; and 5, MSST New York and Boston.

AIT-5’s major component is currently deployed to U.S. Central Command in support of the Coast Guard Atlantic Area’s on-going participation in anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa. AIT-3 is preparing to deploy this spring.

Training goals were simple: (1) have each advanced interdiction team share their respective standard operating procedures for executing CQC through a crawl, walk, run approach during a basic training evolution and (2) to reinforce and “hardwire” standard CQC tactics, techniques, procedures and nomenclature taught by SMTC during BTOC back at home base during daily training.

Overall, it all came together in one succinct event for one “hellish” adventure.

The gauntlet at hand consisted of executing exterior CQC movement along a weather deck leading to the focal point — hitting a complex system of dual stairways accessed via two center fed, opposing double doors —the guts of the “stairway to hell.”

Surprisingly, the first evolution went smooth, followed by increasing proficiency across the second and third runs. Best practices were shared; self-critiques led to lessons learned and teachable moments.

Maritime safety and security teams navigate the 540-foot T. S. Kennedy. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Maritime safety and security teams navigate the 540-foot T. S. Kennedy. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

“The real win here was the ability for all of us to come together in rapid fashion as a team and compare CQC notes to improve our ability to respond to a crisis,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Oliver “Ollie” Haeske of MSST Galveston.

Impressively, the trainees’ demonstrated their collective and individual abilities to effectively navigate several principles specific to the CQC: rapidly process information, effectively deal with a maze of angles, red zones and sectors of fire. In fulfilling the training objectives, the teams were outstanding in seamlessly shifting between deliberate and dynamic CQC movements.

Whether direction was given from a seasoned tactical operator who joined the U. S. Marine Corps in 1989 – participating in Desert Storm before joining the 82nd Airborne which eventually led to his enlistment in the Coast Guard, to a junior Maritime Enforcement Specialist A-school graduate preparing to attend BTOC in a month — success was achieved through mutual exchange of ideas — increasing individual proficiency and contributing overall to the team’s ability to respond to a non-compliant boarding.

From obscure vantage points throughout the massive ship, observers watched the teams “jell” through the intensive training.

In evaluating the teams, it was strongly evident that whether the members trained together or individually, their pride, dedication and professionalism are only matched by their collective desire to learn, improve and to serve with excellence—even under “hellish” conditions.

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