A select group of volunteers expected to help Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis intercept migrants at sea gathered at a Panhandle combat training facility this fall for lessons on how to use rifles and pistols, treat “massive hemorrhages” and practice “aerial gunnery.”
The training sessions, authorized this summer following a surge in migrant arrivals by boat to the Keys, mostly from Cuba and Haiti, were for a specialized unit of the Florida State Guard, revived last year by the Florida Legislature. The unit that received the training has the power to make arrests and carry weapons under state law, unlike the majority of State Guard members, who so far have responded to natural disasters.
A $1.2 million purchase order signed in August makes clear the DeSantis administration felt it had an “immediate and emergent need for specially trained personnel” to intercept migrants traveling by boat.
A draft plan of instruction shows the vendor, Stronghold SOF Solutions, offered to recruit, vet and train volunteers at its facility in Defuniak Springs, where a 45-square-mile body of water, vessels for on-the-water training and a Bell 412 helicopter were available to recruits. (The state was responsible for providing the ammo and the weapons.)
The contract was executed without a competitive process, made possible after DeSantis declared a state emergency in January related to illegal immigration.
DeSantis, now a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has described illegal immigration as one of the nation’s biggest problems. He has said on the presidential campaign trail that U.S. Border Patrol agents should be allowed to shoot border crossers“stone-cold dead” if they display “hostile intent.”
“When somebody’s got a backpack on and they’re breaking through the wall, you know that’s hostile intent and you have every right to take action under those circumstances,” DeSantis said in September.
Stronghold SOF Solutions has trained about 60 people so far. But it remains unclear how many, if any, members of the specialized unit have been deployed to the Florida Keys, where the number of migrant landings have dramatically decreased in recent months.
Stronghold SOF Solutions CEO Calvin B. Graves deferred questions about the training to the state.
The governor’s office and the Florida Department of Military Affairs, which oversees the agreement with Stronghold, did not respond to requests seeking comment, including whether volunteers were trained on all the lessons outlined in the Stronghold’s draft training plan.
In its purchase order, the state wrote that the agreement with Stronghold was necessary because the Florida Department of Military Affairs was “unable to adequately address this emergency need” over immigration. The emergency, the state said, required “immediate augmentation of (the) current Florida State Guard with such specially trained personnel.”
Once trained, State Guard members would be expected to intercept “waterborne migrants” by patrolling the ocean by boat and aircraft, and have the ability to “hastily shift from reconnaissance to interdiction mission in a semi-permissive environment,” according to the purchase order.
While border security and interdiction of migrants is the job of the federal government, state law enforcement has traditionally played a supporting role in those efforts. But in recent years, DeSantis has led a more aggressive response to the issue in Florida and tested the limits of what states do on an issue that has become an emotionally charged political matter.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment on the state’s plans.
Recruiting, vetting and training
The documents, obtained by the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times through a public records request, show that the state put Stronghold SOF Solutions in charge of recruiting, vetting, and medically clearing the 60 personnel for the State Guard’s specialized unit.
Part of the vetting process included criminal background checks and screenings by a physician and a licensed mental health professional, records show.
Once cleared, recruits underwent a two-week training program that was billed as a “SOF (Special Operations Forces) skill refresher.” The training was videotaped, and certain officials with the State Guard and the governor’s office were allowed to view the training “with a minimum 24 hour notice.”
The eight-part program drilled into weapons training, first aid and “tactical casualty combat care,” aviation and maritime search and rescue missions, and “aerial gunnery” practices.
“First, students will receive a safety briefing from the pilot on threat to aircraft (internally and externally) as well as considerations for shooting while underway,” the training package says. “Second, students will engage targets at a hover and while moving to familiarize themselves.”
On the third day, recruits were also to receive instruction on “forced entry,” including how to use “various mechanical breaching tools, their function and uses, as well as fundamentals of mechanical, ballistic and explosive breaching,” according to Stronghold’s draft training plans for the unit.
Trainees were to be taught to provide immediate treatment under the threat of an active shooter or other dangers. They were to be taught that the “most effective way to reduce morbidity and mortality is the precise application of combat fires by all personnel.”
“Continue the mission, gain fire superiority, then treat casualties,” the draft training program says.
To graduate from the course, recruits were tested and had to successfully show “proficiency in all aspects” of the training program and demonstrate that they would be able to use these skills without instructor assistance, as well as why and when to execute the skills.
Stronghold touts having trained various special force units, such as Army Rangers, and police officers. It also lists Eddie Gallagher, a former U.S. Navy SEAL who was accused of war crimes, as one of its instructors. It is unclear whether Gallagher participated in the State Guard members’ training.
Growing the State Guard
The State Guard was initially revived by the Legislature, at DeSantis’ request, to support the state’s overworked National Guard. Since then, the State Guard’s scope has expanded from 400 volunteers to 1,500, and adopted a militaristic approach that turned off military veterans who attended its first training class, in June. About 120 State Guard volunteers graduated that month.
DeSantis activated the State Guard for the first time in more than 75 years after Hurricane Idalia hit the Big Bend area in August. The governor activated them again to respond to severe weather this weekend.
When state senators were voting to approve adding the specialized unit, they were told it would support local police after emergencies such as natural disasters.
“The specialized unit within the State Guard will be as a sort of an MP (military police), law enforcement type of entity,” state Sen. Bryan Avila, a Hialeah Gardens Republican, told senators in April. “Whether it’s a sheriff’s office or a police department, they will be there to augment those local agencies to provide that stability.”
DeSantis wants to continue growing the State Guard and is asking lawmakers for another $57 million for the program for the upcoming fiscal year starting July 1. That would include millions to create a new headquarters at Camp Blanding, where the Florida National Guard is headquartered.
Earlier this year, lawmakers assigned the program more than $100 million to spend on planes, boats, training and other items, despite doubts from some senators that the program wasn’t capable of spending so much money.
Last week, some lawmakers questioned DeSantis’ budget director, Chris Spencer, about the State Guard’s funding and mission.
When asked how much of the more than $100 million was spent, Spencer said he didn’t know, but that he expected it to be spent over the next six months.
“I don’t have the number in front of me,” Spencer said.
Spencer was also asked if State Guard soldiers would replace Florida National Guard members who are dispatched to state prisons, which do not have enough corrections officers.
“All options are on the table,” Spencer said.
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