A group of Navy SEALs in Key West this week to train caused a scare in Old Town Wednesday night after many residents reported hearing gunfire on the Truman Waterfront.
The special operations forces were firing blanks near or on Naval Air Station Key West property, specifically the beach that isn't accessible to the public behind the Joint Interagency Task Force South complex next to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, said NAS Key West spokeswoman Trice Denny.
The SEALs were firing blanks from the water, and then they performed a beach landing with boats. It was unclear Wednesday what kind of weapons were used, though many residents who commented on social media websites shortly after the exercise reported hearing automatic weapons fire.
The Navy stressed Wednesday that real ammunition was not used.
Key West police fielded multiple calls from concerned residents shortly after 7 p.m., at which point the Navy alerted media of the exercise, said Key West police spokeswoman Alyson Crean.
"While many of our neighbors see jets and warships here, we host a large number of other missions and operations at NAS Key West, to include special operations forces from all the services," said NAS Key West commanding officer Capt. Steve McAlearney. "As I've said many times, our ability to support these missions is what makes this air station a valuable national security asset."
Such training sometimes creates a dilemma for local Navy personnel who are required to keep such operations classified while at the same time keep residents informed, Denny said.
"Sometimes, we don't always have the most current information on these exercises and for good reason," Denny said. "We're talking about special operators who perform classified tasks. It's the nature of their mission, but we do our best to let the public know. It's not always perfect, but we do our best to strike a balance."
Naval Special Warfare Group Two command in Virginia was not able to provide additional information Wednesday about the nature of the exercise and what actually happened, other than it was "routine training," said Naval Special Warfare spokesman Lt. David Lloyd.
The SEALs may be in Key West through early next week, Lloyd said.
The SEALs from groups on both the East and West coasts are in Key West often, but they are typically not seen or heard by residents, and they do not advertise their training schedules.
The 505-foot USS Cole, the guided missile destroyer that was visiting Key West, was not part of the SEAL exercise as that ship and her crew were in town on liberty before it left Wednesday, Denny said.
Denny confirmed that another exercise was scheduled to occur Wednesday night just south of Boca Chica Field involving SEAL swimmers coming ashore. That training, again with blank gunfire, was expected to occur around the same time as the operation Tuesday -- between 7 and 8 p.m.
The Navy alerted the Monroe County sheriff's office and contacted residents in Geiger Key prior to that operation, said Denny and Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Becky Herrin.
The Navy is urging residents to steer clear of any suspected training locations for the safety and security of the public as well as the SEALs.
Army Special Forces or Green Berets -- who operate the Special Forces Underwater Operations School on Fleming Key -- were not part of the training exercises, said commanding officer Maj. Samuel Kline. Many residents may be more familiar with those commandos, who are often seen parachuting into waters just north of Key West.
The heavy Navy presence in Key West often creates confusion about special operations forces.
"Special Forces" is singular to the Army and refers only to that branch's soldiers commonly referred to as Green Berets. It is often used incorrectly to refer to any premier military unit, such as Navy SEALs.
"Special operations forces" is the correct term for all elite military units, such as Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, the Air Force Combat Control Teams, and the Army's 75th Ranger Regiment, among others.
Navy SEALs were once a little known oddity of the military known primarily only to those in the service and military researchers. They are a stealthy direct action force that can operate from sea, air and land, hence the moniker SEAL.
SEALs specialize in maritime special reconnaissance and target assaults like the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden, which garnered the SEALs wide media attention. They are known for their ability to operate without being seen in countries where an American presence may be politically volatile.
Boca Chica Field busy
Meanwhile, another polar blast of cold air in the northern U.S. means one thing for Key Westers: An influx of naval aviators and support personnel looking for a warm place to train.
Nearly 800 additional sailors and more than 50 aircraft -- including nearly all of Virginia-based Carrier Air Wing One, which alone includes five squadrons -- are at Naval Air Station Key West this week.
"As we are hearing again about the bad weather up north, it is easy to see why this is such a valuable place for air and sea training of all types," McAlearney said. "This is typically our busiest season at the air station, and it will stay that way through April, which is how we like it."
Residents who may have caught a glimpse of the smaller T-45 Goshawks in December coming and going from Boca Chica Field will see them again this week. Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA) headquartered at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, also is back.
A slew of fighter pilots from Fighter Weapons School based out of Nevada, commonly referred to as TOPGUN, are roaring in and out of Boca Chica Field as well.
Much of the activity includes daytime field carrier-landing practice, meaning they will be practicing landing on aircraft carriers.
All the squadrons buzzing around NAS Key West also include a return visit from the $4.5 billion, 1,092-foot USS Theodore Roosevelt, which is out in the Florida Straits, as the pilots continue to practice landing not only at the base, but at sea, said Denny.
The training at the base is required for all seatime aviators prior to actual qualification on the aircraft carrier.
Boca Chica Field has three runways painted to simulate the deck of an aircraft carrier. Naval pilots learn a specific technique, "the pattern," for making a landing approach on a bobbing ship.
Some 160 personnel just from Electronic Attack Squadron 137 out of Washington are here too. That group pilots the EA-18G Growler -- a plane that looks like the F/A-18 Super Hornet, but specializes in electronic warfare.
There's also civilian pilots from the Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC), which flies three different older fighter jets. They will provide additional adversarial training for Navy pilots, in addition to Key West-based VFC-111, the Sun Downers.
The Sun Downers and ATAC pilots play the "bad guys" during air-to-air combat training.