A group of men in fatigues at the Army Special Forces dive-school docks loaded a small inflatable aboard a 36-foot Navy boat Tuesday morning while .50-caliber guns flanked its bow and stern.
The men included Green Berets from the 10th Special Forces Group headquartered at Fort Carson, Colo., and an unidentified Navy crew who are training together for a classified mission somewhere in Africa.
Key West has long been a quiet training hub for special operations forces. Often those forces are drawn to the Special Forces Underwater Operations School on the northern tip of Fleming Key, where elite units go to learn stealthy dive techniques.
How the elite commandos were training was not disclosed, nor were the specifics of their mission with their Navy counterparts in Africa, but the view provided a clear picture of America's most elite fighting forces training in Key West -- a view that is often kept in the shadows.
The Green Berets were all combat divers, meaning they are graduates of the dive school. Looking on was a commander of a Special Forces ODA (or "operational detachment alpha," Green Beret parlance for a 12-man platoon), who asked that his name not be used. He wore a floppy jungle cap and had a large knife strapped to his lower leg.
"The Army and the Navy working together is not necessarily unique, but working together prior to deployment is a little more unique," the commander said.
Earlier in the week, the Green Berets were conducting parachute training with the Air Force, he said.
"The Navy provides a much longer range of movement that we can accomplish ourselves," he went on. "So, we typically rely on them, as well as the Air Force. Special Forces excels in the human domain."
That last part is typically kept classified.
Green Berets, who often refer to themselves as "quiet professionals," historically work closely with the CIA. Training and fighting alongside foreign armies is their speciality. They are considered cultural experts of their area of operations, which includes language as well local customs. The 10th Special Forces Group's area includes Africa and Europe.
"We'll be partnering with a host nation," was all the commander would say about the mission in Africa, but the comment was a nod to the type of missions given to Special Forces.
The group of men were straining and then in one violent push, yanked the inflatable aboard the Navy boat.
"A lot of this includes figuring out how our equipment and personnel marry up," the commander said.
The activity lured the attention of the dive school commanding officer, Maj. Josh Eaton, and his second-in-command, Sgt. Maj. John Thies.
"Hosting other units is not unique to the school," Eaton said.
"Primarily other Green Berets, but also allied nations," Thies added. "We let them use the facilities, so long as it doesn't interfere with our training. It's really an international school."