Your average fisherman would likely be surprised to suddenly see a team of boats carrying fully armed, tactically dressed military silently cruising by in the pre-dawn light.
But regulars near the mouth of the Pearl River are probably used to it by now.
That’s where Stennis Space Center is on the east bank of the river, north of Interstate 10, on 200 square miles of land. Most of that land serves as a buffer zone for NASA, but there’s a lot more going on out there besides rocket testing.
About 70 percent of the tenants at Stennis are under the U.S. Navy, including everything from meteorology to oceanography to the research lab where engineers and scientists try to create new military technology.
But many of those 200 square miles are devoted to training ranges — for Navy SEALs, active and reserve Navy, and even foreign military.
Yes, about 600 foreign troops get training at Stennis each year through the Naval Small Craft Instruction and Technical Training School (NAVSCIATTS), spokesperson Angela Fry said.
“We are considered a Security Cooperation schoolhouse operating under United States Special Operations Command, ‘where the classroom meets the field,’” she said. “It is a program that falls under the Department of Defense that provides technical support, financial support, and training to United States’ allied nations.”
There are 120 nations whose military personnel have walked the hallways of the facility in Hancock County.
The school offers 20 courses, from mechanical maintenance (like fixing an outboard motor) to instructor development (training people to be trainers in their own countries).
The good thing about Stennis is it provides a lot of different training capabilities — land, urban, river, sea.
“It’s that ability to go from land training to water training basically instantaneously,” said Fry.
Why is the Navy training foreign military leaders?
The school is under the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which aims to “advance U.S. national security and foreign policy interests by building the capacity of foreign security forces to respond to shared challenges.”
“We live in a world where very few problems just affect one particular country,” said Fry.
One example is the terrorist group Boko Haram, an Islamic State terrorist group that has killed more than 20,000 and displaced 2 million people in Nigeria and surrounding countries since 2013. Neighboring country Cameroon has seen increasingly violent infighting between the military and separatists this year.
The most recent graduates of NAVSCIATTS were there as part of the Lake Chad Basin Initiative, the effort to combat Boko Haram. Students were from Cameroon, Chad, Egypt, Iraq, Malaysia, Niger, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, Sierra Leone and Tanzania.
And because the Lake Chad area’s primary language is French, interpreters and instructors from Belgium, France and Canada participated. The Royal Netherlands Army Korps Commandotroepen, which is there for separate training, played the role of opposition forces in training exercises.
The State Department’s senior coordinator on Boko Haram, Dan Mozena, spoke at the graduation.
“These terrorists are monsters; monsters who must be stopped. I believe that you from Niger and you from Cameroon and you from Chad... you are the key to defeating these terrorists.”
“With the quality training you have received here, and with the mud boats and other equipment that you are receiving there in your homes, you are building the capacity to take the fight to the terrorists.”
Col-Maj. Moussa Barmou, chief of Nigerien Special Forces, stressed the importance of partnerships, which is one of the goals of the training school.
“It is a wonderful opportunity that you are having to get to know each other before you could actually meet one day on the battlefield,” he said.
The Lake Chad Initiative Training also marked the first time U.S. Air Force troops lived and trained at the school, said Cmdr. John Green, the school’s leader and a Navy SEAL.
“A dream many of us hold at NAVSCIATTS is that this would one day become a joint training command with not only Navy, but representatives of the other military services standing with us on the instructor’s podium,” he said.
Trainers at NAVSCIATTS don’t just work in Mississippi, they also do a significant amount of training abroad, Fry said.
And funding for all the training comes from several pots of federal money, in addition to United Nations Peacekeeping Funds. The major federal funding sources include Foreign Military Sales, Foreign Military Financing, the Secretary of State’s International Military Education and Training, and the Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program.
South Mississippi residents may be surprised to know they may be able to spot some of the foreign troops out and about on the Coast. And they can even be invited into your home.
The school has a Student Sponsor program, where anyone over 18 can apply to show the troops what life is like in America. On weekends, Coast residents can invite a student to their home for a birthday or holiday celebration (excluding Christmas, when the school takes a break) or to a local festival or event.
Visit www.public.navy.mil/nsw/NAVSCIATTS/ to apply for the program.