July 3, 2008 · Updated 8:24 PM
The acrid smell of gunpowder was thick and clung to the air at Naval Air Station Whidbey Islands rifle range during a recent round of small arms qualification.
Spent ammo casings littered the ground around positions as the sailors fired machine gun rounds at a posted paper target 50 feet in the distance. Some sailors at the base have to qualify with the M-16 assault rifle as preparatory training for ground combat.
Dozens of NAS Whidbey sailors have been sent to Iraq. These Dirt Sailors often find themselves on the ground toting rifles, which is why the firearms training is important.
Whidbey Island Naval Air Station has supplied over 100 medical, explosive ordnance disposal, communications, security and special operations personnel to operations and augmentation in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The rifle-carrying, heavily laden sailors in desert-colored battle fatigues driving armored vehicles are indistinguishable from the Army or Marine soldiers around them. Recognized officially as Individual Augmentees, or IA, these sailors are commonly referred to by the moniker Dirt Sailors.
They take it in stride, although when they signed up for the Navy they may have envisioned swabbing decks or fighting off high winds aboard ship rather than riding a Humvee through a summer sandstorm in Iraq.
More and more Navy and Air Force personnel are being called upon for support and augmentation of beleaguered Army and Marine ground forces. Currently more than 3,000 Navy and Air Force personnel are serving in combat roles in Iraq and those numbers are slated to increase.
Dirt Sailors are not a new entity. The Seabees, who are primarily responsible for construction in combat zones, have served with distinction in wars since World War II and Sea-Air-Land (SEAL) teams are tasked with land operations in combat.
A NAS Whidbey sailor recently won a Bronze Star for valor in ground combat when he saved the life of a fellow member of his explosive ordnance disposal team.
Operations Specialist Second Class Justin Jewett said that his missions success was attributable to the fact he was doing a job for which he had trained.
It was my job, Jewett said about his time under fire in Iraq. Good training has a lot to do with success.
Many of the augmentee sailors are being pulled from ship duty and put into unfamiliar roles like convoy drivers, oil platform guards, customs guards and crew-served weapons gunners.
Most sailors receive less than three weeks of combat training before filling an augmentation role and until recently, far less. All Army and Marine troops doing the same jobs receive eight weeks of weapons and combat training upon entering the service.
Petty Officer Third Class E-4 Michael Delacruz is a Navy dental technician stationed at Whidbey NAS who returned from Kuwait in mid-March. Though not in an immediate combat role he was sent over as an IA for the Armys 1st Medical Brigade. Delacruz found his experience rewarding and not overly stressful.
Far from being a negative experience for Delacruz, the chance to work with another branch of the service was a great opportunity.
It was fun working with the Army, Delacruz said of his six months as a Dirt Sailor in Kuwait.
Aside from qualifying with a service pistol the only other special training Delacruz received before deployment was a four day course dealing primarily with nuclear, biological and chemical warfare preparedness.
There are other stories coming out of the war zone of Dirt Sailors who are very well prepared for their missions and complete them with ruthless efficiency.
Navy Master-at-Arms E-7 Carlo Aguilar also recently returned from ground operations in Iraq. Aguilars primary mission was the protection of military and commercial vessels and their cargo.
For the 20-year career Navy sailor the chance to participate in the IA and support operations in Iraq was welcome.
When I got to Whidbey there was an opportunity to go to Iraq and I jumped on it, said Aguilar. Not even a second thought.
Aguilar and a team of 12 sailors received intense and effective training from the Marines at a training site in Virginia. The training included life saving skills and tactics and weapon operation. It was completed under extreme stress to simulate combat conditions.
Aguilar takes issue with the reporting of poorly trained augmentees that has surfaced in the media.
We received the right training for the mission that was ordered. said Aguilar, who considers his mission a complete success.
For a husband and father of four children, Aguilar feels above all else the most important thing is that no one got hurt and no one got killed.
For some the role of Dirt Sailor has not been without great sacrifice. At least 39 Navy personnel have been killed in action in Iraq.
With the war in Iraq and operations in Afghanistan ongoing, the use of Dirt Sailors is projected to increase and the need for increased training has not been ignored.
The Navy set up a new command in October 2005 to enhance combat training for sailors who will be assigned to perform unfamiliar jobs in Iraq, but officials acknowledged that none of the sailors currently on duty have learned the full regimen of skills.
With U.S. Army troops being tasked beyond capabilities with combat operations worldwide, the changing role of the average sailor who now augments other branches of the service may well become permanent. With correct and effective training the transition may not be that difficult to make.
The thing that mattered is that I was prepared to go to Iraq, said Aguilar, reflecting on his units readiness level. Support within the command was awesome.