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96th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne)

Advise, Maintain, Create

Historically peace operations have been overshadowed by combat operations. That has changed under the “new normal” of irregular warfare and military operations other than war. Though combat operations that “win the war” continue to get their share of the public spotlight, more and more attention is now being focused on the troops tasked with the follow-up “winning the peace”—the troops of Civil Affairs. Winning that war in the Central Command area of operations is the mission of the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne), a component of the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade (Airborne).

96th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne)

A U.S. soldier from Company E, 96th Civil Affairs Battalion, talks with an operator from the Mushahidah Water Treatment Plant. Echo Company was attached to the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, and conducted town assessments to gauge the needs and level of leadership north of Baghdad in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. U.S. Navy photo by MC2 (AW/SW) Summer M. Anderson

The 95th Civil Affairs Brigade (Airborne) is a U.S. Army brigade within U.S. Army Special Operations Command whose units support military commanders in the field by working with host nation government and non-governmental organizations as well as indigenous populations on a wide variety of missions during peacetime and in war.

When supporting special operations forces (SOF), these missions include foreign internal defense operations carried out by SOF, support unconventional warfare and direct action missions, conduct civil reconnaissance, terrain analysis, locating civilian resources to support military operations, work to minimize civilian interference with operations, support counterdrug operations, and provide medical assistance to civilian populations. Civil Affairs (CA) teams also identify critical requirements needed by indigenous populations in war or disaster situations and work to rebuild and restore infrastructure and institutions for long-term stability.

“Civil Affairs elements are an essential SOF instrument of force that project small teams to areas of interest and achieve disproportionately large results.”

—Capt. Lucas Overstreet, Mobile Fusion Team 644, 96th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne)

The 95th Civil Affairs Brigade also contains the 91st Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne) responsible for operations in European Command and Africa Command, 97th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne) responsible for operations in Pacific Command, and 98th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne) responsible for operations in Southern Command.

Originally activated in 1945 as the 96th Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, Military Government Group, it was deployed to South Korea to assist with post-war occupation until it was deactivated in January 1949. In 1967 it was reactivated and redesignated the 96th Civil Affairs Group and allotted to the U.S. Army. In 1971 it was reorganized and redesignated the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion. It officially became an airborne unit in 1986.

The 96th Civil Affairs Battalion has participated in a wide variety of military and humanitarian operations beginning with Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada and continuing to present day. It has campaign streamers for Operation Urgent Fury, Operation Just Cause (Panama), Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. The unit has received the Meritorius Unit Commendation (Army) for Southwest Asia 1990-1991 and the Army Superior Unit Award for 1998-1999.

96th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne)

A U.S. soldier with the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion, part of the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade, mans an M60 machine gun mounted atop an up-armored HMMWV. U.S. Army photo

One example among many of how the unit’s troops “roll with the punches” was demonstrated during Operation Just Cause. Company B, 96th Civil Affairs Battalion was notified that it would be participating in the operation whose mission was to oust the Panamanian dictator Gen. Manuel Noriega.

Unlike the combat troops, who anticipated leaving Panama shortly after combat operations concluded, the company expected to remain in country for six months. In a post-operation interview of the company for the U.S. Army Center of Military History, the company’s commander, Maj. John D. Knox, said that initially the company’s missions were “. . . running a displaced civilian camp . . . establishing the new police force . . . [and] nation building with the new government.” Then, a new mission dropped into their lap: weapons exchange. The obvious concern was to get as many weapons off the street as quickly as possible.

Company B team leader Capt. Daniel Jacobs said, “Initially a whole lot wasn’t known about the program. . . . So I did some checking around to find out exactly who’s in charge of this thing. . . . somehow or other it fell through the crack . . . and the plan was never approved – formally.”

Working with 4th PSYOPS, who printed pamphlets and arranged television and radio broadcasts that explained how the program worked and locations of the official exchange sites, the men of Company B went to work to expedite it. Basically, people got an escalating amount of money depending on the type of weapon they brought to one of three collection points: fifty dollars for a handgun, a couple of hundred dollars for an automatic weapon, etc.

In one noteworthy case, Capt. Jacobs recalled a fifteen-year-old kid who heard about the program and after being told the rates “came back with a cache of weapons and received $5,000 for it.”

Originally the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion had a global focus, but with the addition of the other Civil Affairs battalions beginning in 2006, 96th CAB was assigned to the CENTCOM area of operations. In the aftermath of the Arab spring, the crisis in Syria, and challenges throughout the area of operations, 96th CAB is going to be busy.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...