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Military helicopters and boats swarmed Tampa, but it was just an exercise

The goal was to practice rescuing a city leader from "hostile" forces.

TAMPA, Fla. — If you didn't know it was just a military exercise, you might've thought we were under attack Wednesday afternoon in downtown Tampa.

And for some people watching it all unfold, it sure looked and felt that way.

The city of Tampa is no stranger to armed invasions, but these clearly weren’t Gasparilla pirates.

For about half an hour today, downtown Tampa was the epicenter of a far-more realistic invasion. It was an exercise involving nearly 200 commandos from 11 nations who are all in town for the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference.

Their mission was to rescue a hostage, played by Tampa Chief of Staff John Bennett. There was a rehearsal Tuesday ahead of Wednesday's main event at the Tampa Convention Center.

It featured helicopters, boats, all-terrain vehicles, scuba drivers and ground forces.

“There is no other demo like this in the world that involves the international operations community. So we should be proud in Tampa Day have this in our own backyard,” said Bennett.

Participants included the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group and Navy Seals.

“It’s exciting. Just, you know walking down the street and random people seeing us and saying that was absolutely amazing I’m glad we got to see this,” said U.S. Army Capt. Christopher Shropshire.

The demonstration was well-publicized, so most observers lining the bay – although not all – knew what was happening as commandos began repelling from helicopters, scaling walls and firing loud weapons.

“I mean, it’s wild, I mean I feel bad for people who may not know about it going on in downtown,” said John Dimici, watching from the Harbour Island Bridge. “They might think it’s the city being invaded like Gasparilla”

“I didn’t expect it and I was really impressed,” said Arianna Sabghir.

The command capabilities exercise is part practice – but also part show-and-tell.

It gives the nation’s participating a chance to demonstrate their ability to communicate as a team and capability to confront terrorism, organized crime, even nations considered a threat.

“We don’t do this for recognition,” said Gunnery Sgt. Stephen Roderick with the U.S. Marine Corps. “It’s more of a thank you to everyone here who supports the military. We just want to show them, you know, this is what we do, and we’re here to keep you guys safe."

The exercise coincides with a convention held every two years where top military brass, hundreds of defense companies and contractors discuss the latest innovations, gadgets and tactics.

South Franklin Street was temporarily blocked at the intersection of Water Street. The blockage reached all the way from South Harbour Island Boulevard to the Westin Hotel parking garage.

The four water entrances to the Seddon Channel were temporarily closed for the fast boats and scuba divers participating in the exercise.

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