Navy outreach clarifies SEAL training plan in Kitsap

POULSBO — Visibility is counterintuitive for U.S. Navy special operations personnel. They expend a great deal of effort to remain unseen, in the field and at home, and undergo much training in the ways of clandestine actions.

A few did, however, make an exception earlier this week, as several representatives from Naval Special Warfare Group 3, along with local support staff, hosted an informational open house at the North Kitsap High School Commons on May 2 to explain a recent proposal by the Navy to utilize select areas of Kitsap County shoreline to conduct various special operations training scenarios.

The training, officials said, may occur on any of a number of selected areas of private, public, state and Department of Defense-owned lands along stretches of Puget Sound and the southwestern Washington Coast, after obtaining permission from property owners or managers.

The majority of Kitsap County shoreline is among the potential sites, including the east side of Hood Canal, the stretch along Puget Sound from Kingston to Suquamish, all the northern beaches of Bainbridge Island and most of the eastern side of Kitsap from Poulsbo to Manchester.

Though the announcement may come as a surprise to some, according to Navy officials such training has been going on in the area for at least a decade, as the region offers particularly desirable natural conditions. Most residents probably don’t notice anything unusual – and that’s half the whole point.

“We struggle with trying to talk about scale, because it’s very small unit training,” Capt. Mark J. Bollong, commodore, Naval Special Warfare Group 3, said. “Our organization, that’s what we do. We’re a very small unit. It’s supposed to be very low visibility. That’s what we’re training the guys to be able to do, is to be able to operate in an area without being detected.”

Typically, Bollong explained, Special Warfare Group 3, which is actually headquartered in San Diego, visits the Pacific Northwest for training purposes “a couple of times a year, in three month blocks. Typically, he said, during each training block, just one “element,” or group, is actively training, which means that during any given scenario there would be only about 20 – and sometimes less than 10 – participants.

“We’re not bringing hundreds of people in,” Bollong said. “Well less than that.”

Owners and managers of property that is ultimately selected as a preferred training location will be contacted by the Navy to obtain permission, Anna Whalen, an environmental planner with the Navy Facilities Engineering Command Northwest, said.

“We’ll work through the Navy’s real estate office,” she said. “They’ll start contacting those private property owners to see if they’d be willing. If they say no, then we look for another location. We’ve kind of worked with the trainers over on this side for them to tell us what it is they’re looking for, and we try to find those properties that will help achieve that training goal that they have.”

No private property owners are going to get contacted, Whalen said, until after all the training’s official environmental impact documents are completed, based on the areas chosen as the most preferable staging areas.

Though residents may see some of the very early stages of training operations, as they take place during daylight hours, Whalen said there exists no possibility that any training scenario would impact ferry operations or take place in a location for which no permissions had been previously granted.

The Navy proposal is quite specific in detailing the types of intended training that will take place in the area.

Some specific areas of concentration include: diver and swimmer training, insertion and extraction training, launch and recovery of watercraft, unmanned underwater vessel training, over-the-beach drills (wherein trainees exit the water and advance inland while remaining hidden), special reconnaissance training, simulated building clearance training (wherein trainees conduct area/structure clearance to secure a site or engage in threat scenarios, including use of simulated munitions), high-angle climbing and rescue techniques and unmanned, low-altitude aircraft systems training.

The proposal also specifically lists some activities as strictly off-limits during the training sessions, including: the use of live-fire ammunition, explosive demolitions, manned air operations, off-road driving, vegetation cutting, digging, tree climbing or the building of campfires or infrastructures.

“When we come out here for a training event, we have some clear objectives we’re trying to reach,” Bollong said. “We’re trying to get guys, that are already very proficient, but we’re trying to bring them up to a very challenging graduate-level of proficiency in a very challenging maritime environment – which is why we’re here in the Pacific Northwest.”

“Puget Sound,” according to the training proposal, “including Hood Canal, and the southwestern Washington coast offer unique conditions which create opportunities for realistic and challenging special operations training in a safe, sheltered, cold water environment.”

All of those features makes the area a kind of one-stop training shop for spec ops personnel.

“If they can operate here they can operate in many, many different locations around the world,” Bollong said. “You have the cold water. You have the high currents. You have the very complicated shorelines that have lots of very hard to navigate areas that really challenge the guys.”

Written feedback to the training proposal can still be submitted through May 18. Email nwnepa@navy.mil to respond, and visit www.navfac.navy.mil/NSOEA to learn more.

— Luciano Marano is a reporter for Kitsap News Group. lmarano@soundpublishing.com

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