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   Texas Guard unit finds new assignment is smooth sailing

Kevin Dougherty / S&S

Texas National Guardsmen get some water time in aboard a 28-foot speedboat. The boat is one of four the Army plans to use to patrol the Tigris River in Tikrit, Iraq.

Kevin Dougherty / S&S

Texas National Guardsmen Spc. Louis Otten, left, and Spc. Carlos Mayorga have one of the best assignments in Iraq: boat patrol on the Tigris River.

Guardsmen test waters of Tigris River on coveted boat patrol

By Kevin Dougherty,
Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition
Saturday, June 4, 2005

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TIKRIT, Iraq — The instructor leans toward the steering wheel being gripped by his attentive student and passes on a few pointers.

“Palm it with one hand,” Staff Sgt. Hector Rangel says to Spc. Louis Otten, who is looking over his shoulder as he begins to back up. “Do it slowly. You don’t need to gun it.”

Rangel, Otten and Spc. Carlos Mayorga, the other student along for the ride, are members of the 3rd Battalion, 133rd Field Artillery, 36th Infantry Division of the Texas National Guard.

As the trio skips and splashes its way across the lake, they and three other soldiers in a second boat know they are darn lucky to have one of the best gigs in all of Iraq: boat patrol.

“Easy strokes, let the motion of the boat do all the work,” Rangel continues as Otten finishes the maneuver. “Yeah, you redeemed yourself.”

With the move complete, Mayorga soon takes his place behind the wheel, and the three go speeding off to make more waves across a man-made lake on a huge palace compound along the Tigris River in Tikrit.

“Not many people can say they were on a boat in a war zone,” says Rangel, a lake patrol officer in Austin, Texas.

While the detail offers troops a refreshing break from the heat and their yearlong tug of war with Iraqi insurgents, there is a practical side to “Rangel’s Navy,” as some call it. The Army says the Special Boat Squadron offers an extra layer of security for the 42nd Infantry Division headquartered on the compound.

The suspicion is that insurgents sometimes use the Tigris River and its tributaries to launch mortars or smuggle weapons and ammunition.

River patrols by coalition forces in Iraq aren’t something new. They’re done in and around the port at Umm Qasr and along the Euphrates River by a Marine small-craft company, among others.

Rangel is the perfect person to head the effort along the Tigris because he does basically the same thing — minus the heavy machine gun — for the Austin Park Police. For the past couple of weeks, he’s been tutoring the others in the basics of boating and water safety.

“I told my wife I got my feet wet again,” Rangel says. “When we got these boats, I was the happiest person in Iraq.”

The fleet consists of four, 28-foot-long vessels powered by dual 115-horsepower engines. Painted an odd camouflage green, they nonetheless give the Army a resourceful way to shore up its palace defense and chase down any waterborne threats that might be lurking.

“We’ll light ’em up,” Otten says.

Members of a field artillery unit, Otten and Mayorga are accustom to launching projectiles. But the pair of boat novices has a blast whenever they launch their yet-unnamed craft into the watery sector they now patrol.

“I just might buy a boat when I get home,” Mayorga says. “My wife asked me, ‘Do you know how to drive a boat?’ I said, ‘No, but I’m learning.’”

The plan is to keep the current team together for several weeks before giving another group of soldiers a shot at the detail.

“They all want to be on the boats,” says Spc. Jeremy Seal, who was on a second boat with Staff Sgt. Joe Flores and Spc. Gabriel Cunnion. “A lot of guys want to be on the boat crew. We got lucky.”

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