Op-Ed: Alligators Vs. Green Berets – The Dangers Of Special Forces Training In The Ogeechee River
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The difference between a war story and a fairy tale is a war story starts out with, “There we were, no lie,” and a fairy tale begins with “once upon a time.” Well this is about as close to a war story you will ever hear me tell.
I was working out at the gym and saw this enormous gator somebody had caught on video, strolling across a golf course in South Carolina. I’m sorry – did I say enormous? I believe the word is GINORMOUS. I mean, this beast was YUGE – a refugee from a Godzilla movie.
Judging by the size of it in comparison with the grass blades alone, that thing is at least fifteen feet long, a monster by North American standards. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was pushing eighteen feet, which puts it into Nile crocodile territory.
I’ve seen Nile crocs in Africa. The Royal Crocodiles in Cote d’Ivoire – the Ivory Coast – are quite a spectacle to observe, especially around feeding time. I have also seen the saltwater crocs of northern Australia; they are the king of the giant lizards as far as I’m concerned. Up to 23 feet in length and very aggressive, the saltwater crocs are able to swim way out to sea, across the Torres Strait from the Cape York Peninsula to Papua New Guinea (93 miles). By comparison to these aforementioned monsters, the North American alligator is relatively docile.
Of course, it’s a different story when you’re right up close with one, on the gator’s turf or even worse, in his watering hole. You can tell yourself all you want about how shy and nonaggressive these things are but at the end of the day, you’re still dealing with a living fossil. Alligators and crocodiles have been around about 180 million years, since the Mesozoic Era, about as close as we’ll probably ever get to seeing a living dinosaur.
Gators are dangerous animals. An alligator’s brain weighs only eight or nine grams; about a half a tablespoon. This lack of brainpower means there is no such thing as a “nice alligator.” While fatal attacks are not normal, non-fatal attacks, unfortunately, are not as rare. If it’s hungry, an alligator will eat anything that moves, including humans.
Our team of Green Berets was involved in some training out of Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, and part of that training involved ‘helo-casting’ – an infil/exfil technique that involves launching ourselves out of helicopters over water, then being recovered by helo extraction. We wore our regular BDU’s (Battle Dress Uniform), and donned swimmer’s vests over our web gear and fins over our boots. Our rifles were snaplinked to our webgear, and our ammo pouches contained a standard double basic load of ammo; four hundred and twenty rounds. In all, our web gear weighed about 40 pounds.
The plan was to launch in two choppers, each bird carrying six of us. We’d helo-cast into the water, then form circles holding each other by our web gear or swimmers vest until the choppers came back around, treading water with the fins over our jungle boots. They would lower these metallic caving ladders and the idea was to climb the thing – soaking wet with all that weight – then somehow clamber aboard the chopper so your buddy below could get up the ladder. The key technique was to climb by putting the heel of your boot in the ladder rungs as there was no way the fin would make it.
The whole event involved about fifteen to twenty minutes in the water, a day and a night iteration. Flying across the great Ogeechee River delta, it was impossible not to notice the hundreds and thousands of gators lining the banks of the river. The place was positively infested with the creatures. As the “main mofo in charge” on my bird, I got on the intercom to the pilot and over the din of the engine and the blades I hollered: “Uh, hey, there’s a lot of gators down there.” Brilliant statement of the obvious, I know.
Army Aviation came back with: “Don’t worry about it. We’re gonna go to a place where there are no gators.”
This was reassuring – not. How would a chopper pilot know where the gators were or were not? These guys were up in the air all day, and more importantly, they weren’t launching themselves into that muddy river water down below.
We followed the incredible twists and turns of the river delta, past more gators than I’d ever seen in my life, until we came to the confluence of two rivers, over a wide area. This was where we helo-casted in, going out in pairs, one man from each side of the chopper. Once in the water we assembled into a circle of six, holding onto each other’s web gear and finning to stay above surface.
None of us talked about alligators.
Then – after the longest fifteen minutes you can imagine – we heard the choppers coming around. The Blackhawks hovered overhead, dropped the caving ladders off each side of the bird, and one by one we slowly climbed up and were pulled aboard by the crew chiefs. Then it was time to rotate back to Hunter and wait for nightfall.
After dark, we did it all over again. Flying in, the chopper blast was cold against our wet uniforms. This time the gators were not visible. It occurred to me that they might be hanging out in the water. In fact, the supposedly gator-free place where we helo-casted earlier, could have been full of gators resting on the bottom.
This thought was on my mind after we casted out and were treading water, waiting for the choppers to return. We could feel the gravel on the bottom of the river, on the edges of our fins. What would a gator on the bottom do if it were disturbed by our fins? I imagined one of the giant lizards instinctively arching up and locking on to one of us and pulling us down. Of course, I kept this thought to myself as we tread water and waited for the choppers to return.
Again, after the longest fifteen minutes of our lives, the choppers came around and recovered us, and none of us thought anything more or less of what we had just done. We were big, bad Green Berets after all, and if any of the gators decided to go to war against us, we had our US Navy Mk III dive knives on our kit. Like they always said in SF; we’d suck it up and deal with it.
Sean Linnane is the pseudonym of a retired Special Forces career NCO (1st SFG, 3d SFG, 10th SFG). He continues to serve as a security professional on six continents.