Written by Sgt. Thomas J. Griffith, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune
In temperatures exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit. In full gear, including flak jacket and Kevlar. In ports around the United States and overseas. The Coast Guard has law enforcement officials defending, searching, seizing and detaining. Before that, however, they must attend the Basic Tactical Operations Course at the Joint Maritime Training Center aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.
The Basic Tactical Operations Course primarily teaches students the fundamentals of marksmanship. In seven weeks, students fire thousands of rounds at flat ranges, houses, around barricades and at close range.
“BTOC is the beginning for them to be able to carry out missions,” said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer James Beard, the course chief. “They get a baseline for shooting and the fundamentals of marksmanship on the flat range and in close-quarters combat.”
The course is mandatory for Coast Guard personnel within the deployable specialized forces community. Members of maritime safety and security teams, law enforcement detachments, tactical law enforcement teams and maritime security response teams attend to learn or refresh the skills necessary to perform as part of their teams.
At those units, Coast Guardsmen conduct many special-assignment missions, such as anti-terrorism, anti-piracy and drug interdiction operations.
“The potential is there to use these skills in a real-life situation,” said Phill Hanson, lead close-quarters combat instructor and primary marksmanship instructor. “Since 9/11, the Coast Guard has been tasked with a counter-terrorism and advanced-interdiction mission. These are skills (they need) to be proficient in to win those types of confrontations.”
BTOC includes approximately three and a half weeks each for both flat-range shooting and close quarters combat training with a few classroom sessions interspersed throughout. Students are expected to learn, memorize and explain the nomenclature of their weapons, how to properly disassemble them and perform safety and functions checks.
Students learn the basics of marksmanship with the MK-18, which is an M-4 with close-quarters battle receiver that’s four inches shorter than standard issue M-4s, Sig Sauer P229R DAK and Remington Model 870 pump-action riot shotgun.
“We expect 100 percent participation – heart and soul,” said Beard. “It’s a prime opportunity for them and a time to focus. Similar to the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard places a lot of responsibility at the [junior] level.”
“They’ll have the skills and their teams will expect a certain level of safety and maturity,” he added.
During the course, events get pretty intense. The students are constantly evaluated to make sure they are performing adequately, even off the range.
“It’s an aggressive shooting package and the staff has been overwhelmingly supportive,” said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Alvaro Vasquez, currently a student and formerly the course chief.
Many of the students believe having the knowledge of the instructors at their fingertips is one of the best aspects of the course. All instructors have years of real-world experience serving within the Coast Guard deployable specialized forces, Marine Force Recon, Navy SEALS and other special operations commands.
“The best thing is definitely the knowledge of the instructors and the confidence in using the tactics in real-life situations,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Amber Martinez, who will be only the second female to complete the course. “It’s a little hard on the body, but it’s fun.”
Even after a course is complete, the course instructors’ job is not done. In the two weeks between courses, the instructors put themselves through it to hone their craft and make changes where necessary. They conduct the same marksmanship drills but, due to time constraints, must complete them at much faster paces. Beard calls it unique, just like their branch of service.
“It’s an ever-changing animal,” said Beard. “Each time is different as an assaulter identifies and makes split-second decisions on how to deal with threats. The fundamentals of close-quarters combat are speed, surprise and violence of action. We want them to have a mindset to conduct the mission, not be overwhelmed and remain in control.”