CAMP KRUTKE, Afghanistan – A Petty Officer 3rd Class is seated before a group of seniors. His hands clasp together and his brow furrows as he strains to remember the answer to a question he has been asked.
“Are we taking any crew-served weapons with us? How many people are in the convoy? What happens if our communications go down?”
The young petty officer who is the convoy commander, strains to provide the answer, but he is overwhelmed. He has no answer for his troops.
“These are things you have to take into consideration,” cautions Steelworker Chief Christina Greenwood. “You are in charge of this convoy. You are the one who has to have the answers. Your people are going to look to you for leadership!”
Greenwood looks at the Petty Officer and asks him to think harder, but his blank expression says it all: he is in over his head.
Sailors assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 15, review the contents of a candidate's package during a Seabee Combat Warfare Specialist qualification board on September 14, 2013. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel Garas)
Greenwood asks the young man to take a break and leave the room. As he does, she begins to furiously scribble notes. There is no actual convoy. Instead, she is chairing a board for a candidate seeking to earn his Seabee Combat Warfare (SCW) qualification in Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 15.
The SCW program serves as the cornerstone for combat training in the Seabees. Completing the program recognizes the training and qualifications of those who serve in Construction Battalions of the Naval Construction Forces (NCF). To earn the pin, service members must complete Personal Qualification Standards (PQS) which include Seabee Combat Warfare volume I and II, Naval Construction Force 1&C, and Navy Safety Supervisor from the Navy's Non-Resident Training Course (NRTC) website.
In addition, service members must be within physical standards, qualified with the M-16 rifle or M-4 carbine and currently assigned to a unit of the NCF in any rating capacity. The lengthy prerequisites currently make it one of the more challenging warfare devices to earn.
After consulting with other members of the board they conclude unanimously that the board can go no further. They have only combed over the first part of the board and see problems.
“I think he still doesn't understand how a Final Protective Line (FPL) and a Primary Direction of Fire (PDF) work,” says one Petty Officer. “It's not a good spot, and he's using the wrong symbol for it.”
“His sectors of fire are too wide,” says another Petty Officer. “They're too wide. They need to be narrower.”
“His landing zone to medically evacuate casualties is too close to his communication's tent,” says a third.
Fixing small errors like these might be assigned after the board finishes and are known as tasker's. But the consensus of the board is that the candidate needs additional time to understand the basic fundamentals.
After calling him back in, Greenwood explains that the board will cease and he will have to begin again in a few days. The candidate looks disappointed, but Greenwood tells him to relax, breathe, and to go over his basics. She explains that he now has a better idea of what to expect. She also reminds him that he now understands the expectation.
“He wasn't prepared. He should have had a murder board first, so they know what we expect,” said Greenwood. “We don't expect them to know everything, but we do expect them to know the basics.”
Greenwood understands his disappointment, but has no intention to pass people who do not qualify, nor does she seek to fail people. That would defeat the purpose of a board. She explains that earning a SCW pin is no easy task, and it is not awarded lightly. Boards are meant to be as much of a learning experience as they are a measure of knowledge. Instead she says that she is giving him a second opportunity.
“I look for the rate and pay grade to get an idea of exactly what they should know,” Green says. “They should have the knowledge of at least one pay grade above their own.”
As the young petty officer leaves, he states while he was initially daunted, he will try again. Earning a SCW pin is crowning achievement in a young Seabee's career and is essential to gaining greater opportunities in the NCF.
As he walks down the hall, Greenwood stops him to impart one final bit of information.
“Remember, this isn't just about earning a pin. What you learn may save the life of one of your shipmates,” she says.
The SCWS program dates back to 1992, after a Master Chief's conference concluded that the Seabee community should have a warfare designation to recognize the Seabees' past accomplishments to the Navy. Seabees have placed themselves into harm's way since their creation in 1942, often following the Marines ashore to construct runways and field hospitals. Adopting the motto “We build, We fight,” they would consistently find themselves acting as de facto infantrymen to defend their projects from the Japanese. Since then, Seabees have placed heavy emphasis on tactical field training and basic combat skills.
“Tactical training is essential for us to function in an expeditionary environment,” said Steelworker Chief Willis Bowman, the SCW program coordinator for NMCB 15. “If we can't survive in a tactical environment, we can't do our job.”
Bowman sits behind his desk in a small tent, working continuously. He reviews and completes the packets of candidates before he submits them to the Command Master Chief for approval. Next to his computer is a mountain of packets. He points to them and notes the sheer volume.
“End of deployment rush,” he says.
As the end of deployment looms, more and more people who started the program at the beginning are completing it. For a reserve battalion especially, there is no better time to become SCW qualified than on a deployment. Access to materials, subject matter experts and hands-on training is available. It will be far more difficult at home on drill weekends.
But Bowman is glad many people are finishing the program. He says that it shows a strong desire amongst Seabees to become qualified and will provide a wealth of experience in the years to come when deployments may not be so frequent.
“Earning your SCW pin demonstrates motivation and a desire to learn the basic skills of our warfare specialty,” said Bowman. “For many it earns you respect because you've been through the process and you can relate to your juniors.”
Other Seabees echo Bowman's statement.
“Getting your SCW pin means you are stepping up. Going through the program gives you a better understanding of the basics,” said Builder 2nd Class Jarrod Powell. “It also gives you a better understanding of our heritage and where we came from.”
Powell added that during his time in the course he learned an extensive amount of knowledge. As a former Marine, it's something he takes seriously. “What you learn could save one of your shipmates,” he says.
That same day, another board is convening. A Petty Officer 2nd Class has just completed her package and has presented it to a board for review. If the board finds the packet to be satisfactory they will begin the second phase and ask a battery of questions to assess the fluency of her knowledge.
After she turns it in, the board asks her to step outside and wait. As soon as she steps out the board pours over the contents of her package and begins to evaluate it. Geometries of fire are calculated, camp layouts are measured. No detail is left unchecked.
After careful review and only finding a few minor issues, they conclude the packet demonstrates competent knowledge. The candidate is brought back in.
The candidate finds herself sitting before a board of several Petty Officers and one Chief. They begin to immediately ask her questions on everything from naval history to contingency operations.
“Who was the father of the Seabees? What is the maximum effective range of the M-240 B machine gun? What are the 10 classes of supply?
The candidate answers the questions in rapid succession, but stumbles on a few. When pressed on how many pressure points are on the human body, she hesitates.
Rolling her eyes upward, she searches her memory to remember the answer.
“Twenty?” she asks nervously. “Eighteen?”
She is guessing and the board does not approve. They know that she has the answer, but it is in there somewhere.
“Forget that,” says one of her inquisitors. “How many rings are on a 463L pallet?”
“It's twenty-two. Didn't you already ask me that?” she replies in a confused tone.
The two lock eyes, and he gives her an intentional look. A smile stretches across her face as she gets the hint.
“There are twenty-two!” She says excitedly.
Her inquisitor and the rest of the board members nod approvingly.
“Confidence is what we look for,” says Equipment Operator 1st Class Sergio Zamora. “If they say things like ‘I guess that's it' or ‘I think so,' that's going to open up more questions. If they know it, we'll help them a little to see if we can pull it out.”
Zamora feels that boards are a way to measure confidence and gauge potential leadership. He mentions that knowledge in the subjects is important because potentially any service member that is SCW qualified might put into a position of leadership.
“We want somebody that is willing to have a briefing in front of whatever troops they're leading and do it with confidence,” Zamora says. “No matter what their rate is.”
After three and half more hours of grueling questions the board ends. The candidate is asked to step outside and wait. Afterwards, board members discuss amongst themselves and will decide the results. After a few more minutes, they ask the candidate to re-enter.
The Chief Petty Officer chairing the board asks her how she thinks she performed.
“I've learned so much, but I feel like I missed a lot,” she says.
“That's normal,” he replies.
At that moment, all members on the board stand up in unison. The Chief walks over to the seated candidate, his eyes casting a doubtful glance. After a terse moment he sticks out his hand, a smile stretching across his face.
“Congratulations,” he says.
A visible burden is lifted off of the candidate's shoulders and she smiles in relief. She reaches out and shakes the Chief's hand.
Soon, the board surrounds her and a frenzy of congratulations and back-slapping ensues. The board members begin recalling their own experiences.
Through the buzz of activity in the background, the Chief takes the candidate aside and quietly tells her a phrase that has been uttered numerous times at the conclusion of countless boards.
“Remember, this isn't just about earning a pin. What you learned in this course may save the life of one of your shipmates.”
NMCB 15 is currently deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and is an expeditionary engineering element of U.S. Naval forces supporting units worldwide through national force readiness, humanitarian assistance, and building and maintaining infrastructure.
By U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel Garas
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