A group of commandos from the Army 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne) will be in Key West this weekend and early next week to take part in a series of maritime training exercises that will include high-altitude parachuting into the ocean and scuba instruction from the cadre at the Special Forces Underwater Operations School on Fleming Key.
What sets the 20th Group apart from most other Special Forces units is that they are a National Guard group, meaning they are not full-timers, but they have to endure the same brutal selection regime that turns ordinary infantrymen into elite Green Berets.
"We go through the exact same training and pipeline as our active counterparts, but the difference is our guys split their time by going back to their civilian jobs," said Maj. Rick Tremble, the B Company, 3rd Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group commander. "Our guys are in law enforcement, some are EMTs and others are small business owners -- just about every part of their community."
The 20th Group's region of focus is usually Latin America south of Mexico, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico -- an area of operations it shares with its active counterpart, the 7th Special Forces Group out of Fort Bragg, N.C.
The visiting Green Berets are out of North Carolina and Florida. Tremble would like to bring them to Key West every year. The War on Terror has kept them busy, and they usually make it to the Southernmost City every three or four years.
Every Special Forces company has a team dedicated to specific skill sets, such as high-altitude parachuting and scuba, and the National Guard Green Berets in town will take part in a wide array of those disciplines. Tremble wants his commandos to have the basics of each skill set in their arsenal.
"I want the company to be as proficient as possible and that includes maritime and airborne operations," Tremble said.
It's not unusual for myriad Special Operation Forces (SOF) teams to visit Key West throughout the year, said Sgt. Maj. John Thies, an instructor at the Key West school. That also gives the SOF units outside the Army, such as Navy SEALs, Marines and Air Force airmen, a chance to view Army operations.
"We always look for opportunities to support visiting SOF units," Thies said. "Our facilities, like our chow hall and barracks, lowers the cost for those SOF units, which is important."
The term Special Forces is singular to the Army and refers only to Green Berets. All the elite units that fall under the command of United States Special Operations Command are called Special Operations Forces. That includes Green Berets, SEALs, Air Force Special Tactics Squadron operators, and the pilots and crew of the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment as well as the Marine Special Operations Regiment that was formed in 2006.
Though Army Special Forces operate the Special Forces Underwater Operations School, the course is open to all comers who qualify in all military branches. The school sometimes even hosts elite soldiers from allied nations. The school lures such commandos because it is considered one of the most physically strenuous and mentally toughest courses in the American military.
Plus, they have some really cool gear.
"They (the Special Forces Underwater Operations School) offers a wide array of maritime environments and resources that we can take advantage of -- equipment, boats, drop zones and instruction are part of all the things the school provides," Tremble said.