By Lt. Timothy Dahms
The Department of State works closely with the Department of Defense all around the world. For many, entering an overseas post to find a U.S. Marine standing watch in Post 1 is a lasting memory. However, less well-known is the Department’s partnership with the U.S. Navy’s famed Seabees.
The Department’s Naval Support Unit (NSU) is a unit of 139 Navy Seabees within the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s (DS) Office of Security Technology. The unit was formally established in 1966 after the Department identified a need for cleared Americans with construction skills to perform or oversee construction work in secure areas of Foreign Service posts. Fifty-five years later, NSU continues its mission in support of the Department’s effort to protect its people, information, and facilities worldwide.
Today, NSU Seabees carry out numerous tasks across the full range of physical and technical security systems that fall under the responsibility of the Regional Security Office at each post. Seabees maintain and repair locks, safes, forced entry/ballistic resistant doors, X-ray systems, video security systems, vehicle barriers, uninterrupted power supplies, security alarm systems, electronic notification systems, and access denial systems. In addition to installing, maintaining, and repairing technical security system equipment at diplomatic facilities all around the world, NSU Seabees still perform minor construction and construction surveillance in secure areas, too. As Americans with security clearances, Seabees can perform construction work in secure areas without compromising the security of the space. They also perform construction surveillance to prevent foreign intelligence services from using construction workers to plant listening devices. Due to the vast range of systems they work on, Seabees assigned to NSU go through an extensive six-month training pipeline along with security engineering officers and security technical specialists (STSs) within the Technical Security Engineering Office of DS’s Training Directorate. Training is critical. At any given time, approximately 25 percent of the unit is in the training pipeline in a facility built to emphasize hands-on training on real Department systems.
After completing training, Seabees are organized into two categories of operations. Approximately 60 percent of the unit is posted outside of Washington under the Resident Seabee program across 50 diplomatic posts supporting more than 195 diplomatic facilities. These Seabees most often work in Engineering Support Centers or Offices alongside security engineering officers and STSs. Another 10 percent fall within the temporary duty (TDY) pool. The TDY pool is used for special projects or emergent requirements, including response to manmade or natural disasters. The remaining 5 percent make up the NSU staff. The NSU staff is led by a lieutenant civil engineer corps officer as the officer-in-charge and branch chief. The command senior enlisted leader and assistant officer-in-charge is a Seabee master chief. The operations chief is a Seabee senior chief. Together, they oversee seven regional chief petty officers-in-charge that are aligned with security technology’s regional directors for security engineering in the Bureaus of Western Hemisphere Affairs, European and Eurasian Affairs, Near Eastern Affairs, African Affairs, and East Asian and Pacific Affairs, as well as Engineering Services Centers in Athens and in New Delhi.
Recently, NSU Seabees from the TDY pool supported Health Incident Resident Technical Inspections, the closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston, the U.S. Consulate in Basra closure, and decommissioning old embassy buildings in Niamey, Niger, and Reykjavik. NSU also provides personnel to the Security Engineering Services Branch in support of the secretary of state’s travel to maintain a secure environment for communications. Outside of DS, NSU also supports the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) during new embassy construction or major renovations at facilities in certain high-threat locations to perform construction surveillance.
The formal partnership that began in 1966 was built on earlier cooperation. In 1964, a small detachment of Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion ELEVEN supported a construction project at Embassy Jakarta. With the success of this mission, a few months later, the Department requested a 50-person detachment known as “Detachment November” to support Project Demo—DS’s mandate to remove listening devices discovered in Moscow in the then-Soviet Union. The Moscow discoveries led to nearly 100 other devices installed at U.S. diplomatic facilities behind the Iron Curtain and highlighted the Department’s need for cleared American construction professionals who could be deployed worldwide. As a result of the success of the DS-NSU partnership, the Department began utilizing Seabees to conduct construction surveillance, thwarting technical attacks and other nefarious host nation activities before they happened.
Due to the success of NSU Seabees and the great partnership that has developed for more than 55 years, many former Seabees have joined the ranks of the Foreign Service as special agents, security engineering officers, or STSs. Nearly 10 percent of all STSs are former NSU Seabees.
Former NSU Seabees Mario May and Elbert “Bert” Calpo became security engineering officers after finishing their military service. May worked his way up to be the regional director for security engineering of the African Affairs Region before retiring in 2019. Calpo continues to serve and is the deputy officer-in-charge of Engineering Services Center Kabul. Former operations chief for NSU, Shawn Milligan, serves as branch chief for DS’s Protective Technologies Branch. Another former NSU master chief, Jim Petty, serves as section chief in the Security Technology Resource Management Branch. Daniel Guillermety served with NSU from 2012–2016 and recently became a Diplomatic Security Service special agent.
Seabees also continue to serve as civil servants or contractors in support of the DS mission. Former NSU Command Master Chief Steve Haycook served the country for nearly half a century—working for 17 years as a civil servant within the Overseas Support Branch of Security Technology Operations after 30 years in the Navy and two tours in NSU. In 1984, Haycook was on the ground during the third bombing in Beirut, and he served as assistant officer-in-charge of the unit during the completion of the new embassy building in Moscow in 1999 where performed construction security surveillance in 1982.
These individuals are just a few of the many Seabees spread throughout DS and across the entire Department. Within OBO, numerous Seabees and former civil engineer corps officers also find their follow-on career as facilities managers, engineers, and architects.
NSU stands ready to support the dynamic needs of DS and the Office of Security Technology. “The Professionals Around the World”—the motto for the unit—are trained and equipped with the skill sets necessary to be deployed within 48 hours on independent duty in any climate and place. With a proud legacy that was founded in the heat of the Cold War, NSU has come of age throughout The Global War on Terrorism in the 21st century. As great power competition unleashes increasingly sophisticated technical threats, NSU Seabees will continue to be ready to support their Department of State colleagues wherever and whenever they are most needed.
Timothy Dahms is a U.S. Navy Lieutenant and officer-in-charge in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s Naval Support Unit.