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Indian special forces diving into Puget Sound with JBLM’s Green Berets

Soldiers from the 1st Special Forces Group and Indian Army Special Forces drop from a helicopter into Puget Sound on Friday as part of “Vajra Prahar,” a joint training exercise at Joint Base Lewis McChord.
Soldiers from the 1st Special Forces Group and Indian Army Special Forces drop from a helicopter into Puget Sound on Friday as part of “Vajra Prahar,” a joint training exercise at Joint Base Lewis McChord.

In movies, “cool guys don’t look at explosions.”

In real life, they don’t admit that jumping out of a 99-foot-long Army Chinook helicopter into the chilly waters of Puget Sound with a group of elite soldiers from the other side of the planet might give them a bit of an adrenaline rush.

“It’s just like walking off a dive board at any high school,” an enlisted Green Beret said Friday after participating in a jump from the rear of one of the Army’s largest helicopters into Puget Sound.

We’ll have to take his word for it.

His low-flying leap into Puget Sound was one of the drills unfolding in a two-week exercise linking a select cadre of soldiers from India with Green Berets from Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 1st Special Forces Group.

It’s a partnership the two countries are using as they confront shared worries that terrorists or pirates might harm their interests in coastal waters. That’s the main job handed to the 42 soldiers from India’s special forces who are paired this month with a 12-man dive team from the Green Berets at JBLM.

Friday’s jump from a Chinook helicopter, for example, was practice for how a military unit would attack a beach if it could not land an aircraft. A helicopter would drop soldiers into the water, and then small boats would take troops to their targets. It’s a common technique Green Berets have been practicing for decades.

“Everything we’ll be doing with our Indian partners is about building their capacity” to win using unconventional tactics, said Lt. Col. Terry Butcher, commander of 1st Group’s 2nd Battalion.

Called Vajra Prahar, the exercise is one of the larger events on American soil connecting a foreign military with Green Berets from JBLM.

Most of the time, soldiers in 1st Group are the ones traveling to faraway places. They typically touch down in about 20 nations every year in an arc that stretches from Maldives in the Arabian Sea north to Mongolia and on to South Korea. They’re regulars in Hong Kong, and they spend a lot of time in Japan.

The Army has five active-duty Special Forces groups, each with a focus on a different region of the world. They’re experts in unconventional warfare whose mission centers on preparing for combat and on closely advising the militaries of American allies. The group at JBLM primarily works in the Pacific.

That’s why it’s known as “First in Asia,” a motto that references the battalion of soldiers it has had stationed on the Japanese island of Okinawa since the 1950s and the unit’s responsibility to respond quickly if emergencies break out in the Far East.

“We are routinely the first ones there,” said Col. Steve Johnson, 1st Group’s deputy commander.

The group has its own language school, and it has soldiers fluent in the tongues of at least 10 of the countries they regularly visit. Sometimes, they practice their Asian languages by visiting neighborhoods in Seattle.

For this month’s exercise, the armies picked Puget Sound and a stretch of the Oregon coast for the same reason the Navy Special Warfare Command announced last week that it wants SEALs to train more often here: It’s a difficult environment that will stress tough military service members who might be called up for unexpected challenges anywhere in the world.

“It’s going to be cold. It’s going to rain, maybe even snow. We’re going to be in the water every single day,” a Green Beret captain commanding the dive team said at a Monday ceremony kicking off the exercise.

The Green Berets asked that The News Tribune not name any Special Forces soldiers below the rank of lieutenant colonel to protect their identities in case they are assigned classified missions.

Indian special forces have not visited JBLM to work with 1st Group since 2011. This event is so significant that India sent its ambassador from Washington, D.C., to attend its opening ceremony at JBLM.

“The exchange is taking place at a time, I must say to you, when the political relations between the two countries are extremely strong,” Indian Ambassador Arun K. Singh told a room full of Green Berets and Indian special forces soldiers.

He noted that it follows a recent increase in Indian spending on American-made weaponry. It also follows a September event that brought about 150 soldiers from a conventional Indian army unit to JBLM for an exercise with an infantry battalion.

This time, the Indian soldiers got to visit the headquarters of one of the Army’s most selective units while training with underwater warfare experts.

On Monday, they peppered Green Berets with questions about some of the devices they’d get to use later in the exercise, such as a one-person submarine that can haul a diver close to a target without being detected by an enemy.

By Friday, they were dressed in dive suits similar to the ones the JBLM soldiers wear.

They also showed the same kind of nonchalance that the local Green Berets demonstrated after their plunges into Puget Sound.

“We trained for this at home, jumping into cold water,” said Maj. Puneet Atwal, commander of the Indian contingent.

He said he enjoyed working with Americans to share the methods they’d use on similar missions.

“This is good training,” he said. “This military to military interaction between the countries will be good for our future.”

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646, @TNTMilitary

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