by Ryan Labadens, U.S. Navy Public Affairs

Being a part of the Navy or any other branch of the military can put service members into harm’s way, whether they’re simply stationed abroad or happen to be deployed at a hazardous duty location.

As such, the Navy has provided training in basic combat and life-saving skills necessary for operations in combat situations, specifically through the Expeditionary Combat Skills (ECS) course taught solely onboard the Naval Construction Battalion Center (NCBC) in Gulfport, Mississippi.

According to the ECS Facebook page, the ECS course is designed to provide personnel with basic expeditionary combat skills training necessary to professionally and safely perform high risk security operations when assigned to Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC) or Naval Special Warfare (NSW) organizations.

“What we do here essentially is we take the people going to a [NECC or NSW] command and give them the basics on their combat training,” said Brian Prendergast, site lead for Linxx Global Solutions Inc., the contracting company charged with teaching classes at ECS.

The course – which has evolved over the years since its inception here in January 2008 – is basically taught in four phases, said Prendergast, with a new class rotating in every week and another class graduating at the end of its four-week training period.

Like every other aspect of Navy operations in a COVID-19 environment, the school uses COVID-19 mitigation practices like mask wearing, cleaning and disinfecting of equipment, and social distancing where feasible to continue training the Sailors who cycle through the course.

“We’ve got a constant rotation of Sailors coming in for the course from all over the country, so we keep pretty busy,” said Prendergast, who noted that the ECS course at Gulfport is the only one of its kind offered by the Navy to its service members.

Phase 1 of the course involves teaching Sailors how to get used to setting up and using their gear, or Individual Combat Equipment (ICE), in a combat environment, said Prendergast.

The ICE consists of items such as armored plate carriers (vests), helmets, holsters, ammunition pouches, rifle slings, compasses, safety glasses, gloves and a first aid kit, to name a few.

They also teach basic first aid in Phase 1, instructing them on how to tend to battlefield injuries and assess injured personnel from head to toe, how to properly apply tourniquets and combat gauze, how to open and secure the airway using the Nasal Pharyngeal (basically a nose hose) and how to perform needle decompression to release trapped air in the chest.

“First however, we teach them that they need to win the fight, because you can’t go out there and help somebody who has been shot or otherwise injured on the battlefield without taking out the enemy first, or you’re going to wind up being a casualty yourself,” said Prendergast.

“And we also teach them how to move the injured person to a more secure area to get them ready for evacuation off the battlefield.”

Another skill taught in Phase 1 is land navigation.

“We’ll teach them the basics in class, using maps, the compass and protractors, teaching them how to get the proper azimuth so they can get a good direction on where they need to travel to, and teach them a pace count,” said Prendergast.

“And then once we get that all tied together in the classroom, we take them out to the field to perform the practical applications portion of the land navigation, where they go through both day land navigation and night land navigation.”

Phase 2 involves basic weapons training, mainly focusing on Beretta M9 service pistol combat shooting, as well as weapons safety, dry firing the weapon, proper use of force, and Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN) warfare.

“During this portion they’ll have an M9 with them in the classroom, where they learn to disassemble, reassemble and perform a function check on that weapon system,” said Prendergast.

Phase 3 involves weapons training using the M4 Carbine, a rifle that serves as the Sailors’ primary weapon when in a battlefield environment, as well as continued training with the M9.

“This phase of the course is all weapons training,” said Prendergast. “We incorporate the M9 into this because that’s their secondary weapon; their primary weapon – their primary means of defense for themselves and others – is that M4.”

Instructors teach the students how to perform a Battle-sight Zero on the M4 Carbine to effectively adjust the siting on their rifle and accurately engage targets out to a certain distance without constantly adjusting their aiming point.

They also teach the fundamentals of disassembling, reassembling and performing function checks on the M4 Carbine, as well as daytime and nighttime qualifications on both the rifle and pistol.

“We also teach them how to transition from their primary weapons system (their rifle) to their secondary weapons system (their pistol) if their primary one malfunctions, or if they need to reload and that threat is within range of their secondary weapons system,” said Prendergast.

“It’s faster to take care of that threat, go ahead and find cover and then fix your primary weapons system.”

The instructors teach the students various aspects of firing their weapons in a combat situation, such as moving and shooting, firing from behind cover, and firing from standing, kneeling and prone positions at the shooting range they use off base.

“We give them lots of rounds to practice with. On average, this schoolhouse puts more than three million rounds a year downrange,” said Prendergast, counting bullets for both the M9 service pistol and M4 Carbine.

Phase 4 ties everything together that the students have been taught, said Prendergast, and includes combat mindset and basic communication training in a battlefield environment, improvised explosive device (IED) recognition and convoy operations, and judgement-based engagement training.

They also practice in a computer-based convoy simulator and a firearms training simulator and engage in practical field exercises at the simulations range located on base.

These are designed to test what they’ve learned in class and help them learn to work and communicate together as a group in a simulated combat environment.

Builder 3rd Class Eyad Essa, who was going through the course before reporting to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 5 at Port Hueneme Naval Base, California, noted how strongly this training drove home the importance of communication, especially in a combat setting.

“Communication is definitely key, because that’s what will make us work well together as a team,” said Essa.

Prendergast, who is himself a retired U.S. Navy Seabee, summed up what he enjoys most about the material he and the other instructors teach onboard NCBC at the Expeditionary Combat Skills course.

“I see it on critiques all the time for this course, people saying that this course teaches us what we need to know before we go into harm’s way,” said Prendergast.

“And when you see those critiques and those students saying ‘Hey, I really appreciate what you guys do and the passion that you guys have for this,’ then that’s a good feeling because you know you’re helping somebody out.”