Defense Media Network

A Warrior’s Life: An Interview with Gen. Bryan “Doug” Brown, USA (Ret.)

A Green Beret and founding member of what became the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR – the “Night Stalkers”), Gen. Bryan “Doug” Brown enlisted as a private in 1967 and retired as a full general 40 years later. This past year, the Association of Special Operations Professionals (ASOP) named Brown its “Man of the Year,” and The Year in Special Operations caught up with him to talk about his career.

The Year in Special Operations: First, congratulations on being selected as the Association of Special Operations Professionals’ Man of the Year. Can you say something about this for our readers?

Gen. Bryan “Doug” Brown: First let me say what an honor it is to be chosen as the [Association of Special Operations Professionals] Man of the Year. I am incredibly humbled, as there are many other SOF professionals I can think of that certainly deserve that award. And let me say, if there were a category for the “SOF Family of the Year,” mine could certainly compete. I was blessed with an amazing wife that not only let me launch for 40 years into the night with no idea of when I would be home, and miss anniversaries, birthdays, and even the birth of one child, but was always there taking care of the families I left behind in command. Penny has been such a comfort to the families of our fallen, far more than I ever was. You know, people routinely thank me for my sacrifice, but it is the family of a soldier that sacrifices way more. I cannot tell you how many important events I missed in the lives of my wonderful daughters. So I am thrilled to be the SOA Man of Year; but any contribution of mine pales in comparison to the family that allowed me to even be in contention in the first place.

Can you please tell us something of your upbringing? What were your interests when you were young? And what was it about the Army that made you want to enlist as a private in 1967?

I grew up in a military family, and my father was a command sergeant major, along with being a wonderful father and mentor. Initially I was more interested in sports than academics, and played high school basketball and baseball. I actually went out for and made a semi-pro team in Fayetteville, N.C., that used to play at a stadium on Highway 301. Then I played three games with them and found that life couldn’t be sustained on $3 per game. At the same time, I was not paying attention in college and was working a part-time job while my father served in Vietnam. So on the way home from college one day, I stopped at the Army recruiter and joined the Army. I then went Infantry, Airborne, and Special Forces [SF]  and served on an “A-Team” [SF Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA)] at Fort Bragg [N.C.] in the 7th Special Forces Group [SFG]. The importance of that was that I got to see what Special Forces was really about, and also saw NCO [non-comissioned officer] leadership, and loyalty to the team at the very highest level. In fact, the team I was on eventually talked me into going to OCS [Officer Candidate School].

It seems from the beginning of your enlisted Army career, you wanted to get into the air and work with the best. Can you please tell us what Airborne jump school was like back in the 1960s, and how you got selected and qualified for the Special Forces?

No one could live at Fort Bragg and Fayetteville, N.C., without being interested in jump school! I went to Basic Training at Fort Bragg and immediately signed up to be Airborne. At jump school, the SF recruiters came by and I immediately signed on. The SF qualification course was tough, but compared to the course today it was nothing. Today’s SF soldier is absolutely the best ever produced. While in command at USASOC [U.S. Army Special Operations Command] I approved the 18X Direct-to-SF recruiting program at a very low level; as I recall, there were just 125 applicants per year. Even though the program didn’t exist back when I started, there were in fact many of us who were effectively 18Xs as we came off the street straight into SF after Basic and Advanced Infantry Training. Today, however, the 18X program is well-resourced and much more sophisticated. Again, the importance to me at that time was the chance to see world class NCOs as mentors that took a personal interest in my professional development.

What was the Special Forces Qualification (“Q”) Course like in those days, compared to what it was when you retired in 2007?

There is little about today’s qualification course that resembles the one I went through. I recently spoke with Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School [JFKSWCS – at Fort Bragg] and got to read the latest JFKSWCS publications, and was extremely impressed. To start with, JFKSWCS today it is much better resourced [even though there are still many requirements that need to be filled, especially in military construction] than in my time at the school. Language proficiency is required for graduation, and the sophistication of the entire course is way beyond what it was when I went through. Don’t misinterpret. The requirement for recruiting, assessing, and training people that think out of the box and are problem-solvers was there when I went through and is still preeminent today. But the amount of time spent in physical training, along with proficiency in small arms and building other skill sets, is much greater today. Much less is left to be accomplished at the unit level when the Q-Course graduates arrive at their first SFGs. Don’t get me wrong. The Vietnam-era SF soldiers were great, but today’s JFKSWCS graduate is much more proficient and skilled in every area. The proof of that is on the battlefields in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines, and around the world.

Which Special Forces Group did you spend time with, and what were those days with your first Operational Detachments-Alpha like for you as a young Green Beret?

I was in the 7th SFG at Fort Bragg, and we spent a lot of time in the field. I cannot remember one SF officer that was ever on my team for any length of time, as they rotated through to Vietnam quickly. As it was, my entire team was composed of Vietnam veterans, except me, with several tours each, and I would have been very comfortable going back to Vietnam with that team.

You have the rather unique distinction of being a “mustang” soldier, having enlisted as a private and retiring as a four-star general. How did being a soldier at the lowest ranks of the Vietnam-era Army affect your views and actions as a top commander in the Army of the 21st century?

I hope that it allowed me to always remember that ultimately it is the soldier that makes up the Army. In any discussion about the theory of warfare, budget battles, and force structure, it is important but we should never lose sight of the fact that is that it all impacts the soldier. America gives us its most important treasure, its young men and women, and we have a solemn duty to do what is right for them. That includes the most important aspects of taking care of them; that is that they are trained and equipped for the mission you are about to ask them to do. Sadly, in some places of the armed services today, over the years, we have built processes that no longer support the soldier. They are totally inflexible, slow, and are built to support the process instead of supporting the soldier. As many good things as the Army is doing for soldiers and their families, ultimately we still are bound to a culture of slow, lethargic processes that keep us from being as agile as we will need to be in the future.

To defeat the bureaucracy, we often build organization intended to bypass those processes – rapid acquisition is an example. Unfortunately it does not take long before those become part of the bureaucracy, and we have in fact just added to the burden. Leaders at all levels today operate in a different environment. First we have an all-volunteer force. Next is the information environment that enables but also requires rapid decision-making from the tactical to the strategic level. That includes the plethora of information that is immediately available in the press and on the blogs. Often it’s inaccurate, premature, or taken out of context. Next is the operations tempo. I am told that the soldier that has been in since 9/11 has now been deployed more than even our great World War II veterans.

What made you want to become an Army aviator, and what was your path to doing so in the Army of the 1970s?

I was in Dahlonega, Ga., at the Mountain Ranger Camp, carrying a rucksack and a radio, when a lieutenant asked me to go with him on a “Huey” [UH-1 helicopter] to do a reconnaissance of a potential LZ [landing zone]. I rode in the Huey and immediately was struck that this looked like something I would like to do, so I signed up for OCS and flight school. A beautiful day over the Georgia mountains in the air had an immediate impact on me, as you can see!

What led you back into the world of special operations forces, and into something called “Task Force 160” at the time?

I was in the first Black Hawk battalion in the Army as a company commander. When the 1980 Iran hostage rescue mission by the United States failed at Desert One, we were enlisted to get ready to go back in Tehran after the hostages.

I immediately went to Fort Bragg and the Pentagon to do the planning, and for seven months we did nothing but prepare and rehearse for that mission. I was flight lead with an amazing warrant officer named Mark Moller. My aircraft was tail number 001, and we flew the same aircraft in the same chalk every night. At first there were U.S. Air Force aircraft that were to lead us to the target, but ultimately their aircraft proved so unreliable that the mission was changed to include Army aircraft only, and I was flight lead.

No one in the Department of Defense [DoD] had flown on night-vision goggles [NVGs], so we moved to the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah and other places out west, and trained the entire battalion on goggles. It was risky business, as we used first-generation goggles originally developed for ground soldiers. It didn’t take long before a warrant officer figured out we could cut them apart and mount them to our helmets and increase our efficiency and safety by a huge margin. So there we were, without authority, cutting up goggles and building our own NVGs.

That mission advanced Army aviation at an incredible pace. In fact, most of today’s NVG tactics, techniques, and procedures as well as Black Hawk and Chinook modifications came directly from that mission. Plenty will claim it, but the men involved with that mission are the real pioneers of night-vision flight. The accurate story of what went on has never been told, but believe me, the night capabilities we have today are directly related to the work done by some amazing warrant officers in the 158th [H-60 Black Hawks], 229th, [H-6 “Little Birds”], and 159th [H-47 Chinooks] Aviation Battalions. Then, as that mission went away, we were directed to put the goggles back in the arms room and return to unaided night flight. It was preposterous. We had a capability that was unmatched anywhere in the world and my company never put our NVGs away.

Within days of that, we returned to Fort Bragg to begin planning for a second mission, and that, in my opinion, was the impetus that made the Army realize there was a need for a unique, highly trained helicopter unit that supported special operations and other unique mission requirements. We never went back to our parent unit, the 101st Airborne Division [Air Assault – the “Screaming Eagles”].

One last thing. During all this I was in charge of the Black Hawks but Col. Mike Grimm had the H-6 Little Birds. He and I traveled everywhere together doing the planning and the rehearsals for missions. We became very good friends. Undoubtedly he would have been the first commander of the 160th that had ever served in the regiment had he not died in a crash while on an NVG training mission. Because of that unfortunate accident I was to become the first commander that had actually served in the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment [SOAR] in its infancy. I was followed in the regiment’s command by another 160th SOAR officer who had been a company commander, and that was Lt. Gen. Dell Dailey, USA.

Were you part of the early operational deployments with what became the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and can you tell us anything about the early work of the regiment in the 1980s and 1990s?

In the early days of the regiment, there were no national missions that the regiment was not involved in. Frankly, I was really surprised at what we were called upon to do. It was everything from Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada, where the 160th was the first unit to ever use NVGs in combat, to missions out in the Pacific. We wound up covering the launch of space vehicles including the space shuttle, and, of course, responses to hijackings. I was fortunate to be the officer in command of Operation Prime Chance, the deployment of the 160th SOAR to the Persian Gulf in the late 1980s to help during the Kuwaiti tanker escort operation. Operation Mount Hope, the mission to capture the first-ever Mi-24 Hind helicopter that was being used in Africa, and get it to U.S. hands [was another]. There were also a myriad of other small but important missions, and most of those remain classified today. The real history of that unit needs to be written one day, and I think people will be astounded at the amazing work done by the early Night Stalkers.

You spent almost half of your Army career in the “old” career system for officers, which offered little in the way of opportunities for those outside the primary (non-SOF) service branches, or chances to serve in “joint” operations with your peers from the other armed services (Air Force, Navy, etc.). What are your thoughts on the changes mandated by the Goldwater-Nichols and Nunn-Cohen legislation of the late 1980s, and how did it affect your career personally?

Goldwater-Nichols and Nunn-Cohen were watershed events for the DoD, and both incredibly important. Today we are a much better overall force because we are a joint force. Goldwater-Nichols established the authorities of the combatant commanders, strengthened civilian control of the military, and focused military advice to the National Command Authority.

Additionally it made the services become much more joint. This was important. Joint officers not only need to understand the cultures of the other services, but they must also come to the fight with their service skills that can then be melded into an unbeatable team.

For me, Nunn-Cohen was even more important as a SOF officer. As you know, Nunn-Cohen finally established SOCOM as a unified command. Of course there was resistance from all of the other services, but all would agree now that it was the right thing to do. Even though it was almost 25 years ago I am still surprised that there are parts of DoD that still don’t understand it. The SOCOM commander is a combatant commander that is responsible for the combat readiness and the training, organizing, and equipping of all the various SOF communities within DoD. He has budget and acquisition authority under Title 10 of the U.S. Code that normally resides in the services. During my tenure as the commander of SOCOM [U.S. Special Operations Command], the Unified Command Plan changed to also give him … other authorities, including the lead role in the synchronizing of the Global War on Terror [GWOT]. This was an important change in the SOCOM authorities and allowed a necessary focus on the type of warfare central to prosecuting the GWOT – quite frankly, a type of unconventional warfare [UW] that SOCOM personnel understand and are very comfortable with.

Your biography lists Vietnam, Grenada, and Desert Shield/Storm (DS/DS) as combat tours for you. What kinds of actions did you participate in, and what lessons did you take with you when you later rose to command units of your own going into combat?

I flew assault helicopters [UH-1s] in Vietnam, where I learned a lot. I saw leadership at the lowest levels that was astounding. I saw the value of the Army warrant officers that I think still is the best and most important personnel program in the Army. Quite frankly there is nothing they cannot do. Skill, not rank, makes great pilots. I also saw poor leadership and a draftee Army that with all its brilliance, had incredible problems.

In Desert Shield/Desert Storm, I saw that the system of personnel assessment, selection, and training in the 160th produced the kinds and numbers of crew members we needed. Those were flight missions as tough as I have ever seen, and night after night with zero illumination we went deep behind enemy lines. We also learned, as Gen. Wayne Downing later stated, that the 160th was a combat capability in its own right as we went deep with our MH-60 Direct Action Penetrator [DAP] gunships and hit strategic targets every night. Most of the success from the SOF Task Force I was assigned to during DS/DS was from the various aviation assets.

You’ve held command of all three of the critical counterterrorism/SOF organizations within the U.S. military: Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), and U.S. Special Operations Command. What did getting those command positions mean to you personally as a SOF professional and a soldier?

Professionally it meant I had the opportunity to command personnel that are absolutely the finest and most dedicated people I have ever seen. At USASOC, I immediately learned of the great resourcing disparity between the two sides of the SOF force – combat and support. I was really surprised when I saw the condition of the equipment of the Special Forces  Civil Affairs [CA] and Psychological Warfare Operations [PSYOPS] units. They badly needed modernization, and the JFKSWCS had suffered just as well. Even their MILCON [military construction] was poor. It had never been an issue of lack of attention by the prior leadership; it had always been the management of scarcity. The resources were just never there for proper modernization and updating. In comparison to the force I had just left at JSOC, it was the exact opposite. So I worked hard to get resources to USASOC, and I believe we did pretty well. Special Forces Command’s budget was over 200 percent higher when I left, but still wasn’t enough. Once the war started after 9/11, we still had to fight to get our share of the supplemental funding. But then we started getting a much better share of the budget and SF today is in overall in great shape. The lesson is we cannot have it go back to those days – in the future when the wars are over – and have such a dramatic imbalance in the resourcing.

Ten years ago, when you headed USASOC at Fort Bragg, did you have any idea how effective and rapid the effort by Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, Vice Adm. Robert Harward, former Lt. Gen. Dell Dailey, and their SOF warriors would deliver results in Afghanistan? Just 49 days from first “boots on the ground” to the Taliban surrender still astounds many people today.

That was an interesting time, and I think it proved several things. Once again, that our SOF assessment, selection, and training systems worked. It also proved that the 50-plus years we have been teaching our Special Forces soldiers in UW and counter-insurgency [COIN] at the JFKSWCS was for the right reasons. It also proved that brave men, when given the right support and training, can accomplish amazing feats. I had commanded JSOC, so I had total confidence in their capability, especially under the able leadership of officers like my good friend Lt. Gen. Dailey.

It was the Special Forces soldiers that I was anxious to see work, because they had not done a true UW/COIN campaign for a long time. Of course, they were fantastic. The ODAs that were the first on the ground were tremendous, and really were skilled professionals with a wide range of capabilities. And the 160th SOAR personnel that had put them on the ground in Afghanistan were exceptional. The pressure was really on the Night Stalkers, as no matter what mission you were on during the infiltration, you were depending on the 160th and they came through with precision. I think when the history is written of their first missions, including those performed off of Navy ships at sea in the Gulf of Oman, you will find that, supported by Air Force Special Operations Command [AFSOC] AFSOC AC-130 gunships and tankers, the mission set flown by the 160th SOAR was more complex than Desert One, along with being longer and more difficult than Jimmy Doolittle’s raid on Japan in 1942.

I also need to say that U.S. SOF is joint, and the work of the Navy SEALs and the maritime task forces under then-Capt. Bob Harward were extremely successful. All of the joint training and education done within the SOF communities and resourced by SOCOM had proved its value. I guess it shows the wisdom of Nunn-Cohen doesn’t it?

Many of your peers from that period have described the overall SOF force structure of SOCOM at the time of 9/11 as inadequate for a long-term campaign like the GWOT. Looking back now 10 years, what do you think of that notion, and what measures did you have in mind at the time to change the situation?

First of all, the biggest shortcoming was in Special Forces, 160th SOAR, and the SEALs. Growing all these segments of SOF at once and in the middle of a shooting war would be difficult. We were under tremendous pressure to grow those segments quickly. My decision, though not totally accepted in Washington, was to first grow our schools. Put the money in our schools to grow instructors, facilities. and the equipment to have a greater recruit/student throughput, rather than trying to squeeze more numbers through the existing training base. This is a slower process, but ultimately it paid great dividends as we see the amazing force we see on the battlefield today.

Additionally we did several studies to determine the forces required to do what SOF should be doing around the world. During the height of the wars in the U.S. Central Command [CENTCOM] area of responsibility [AOR – including Afghanistan and Iraq], the other unified combatant commands in places like the Pacific, Africa, and Latin America suffered from a lack of SOF resources. Important areas where we should have had A-Teams doing foreign internal defense [FID] missions were left with no one, and that vacuum could be (and was in some cases) filled by al Qaeda and/or other groups that lead to instability. As we finally grew the SOF forces intending to eliminate that shortfall, most were immediately swallowed by CENTCOM requirements, so we never could grow to the level we really needed to make the GWOT a truly global effort.

We did, however, have greater success in AFSOC. They were critical to growing an important FID capability in the 6th Special Operations Squadron [SOS – based at Hurlburt Field, Fla.]. I really wanted them to focus and grow, and I think they did just that. Additionally we got AFSOC several new AC-130 gunships and ultimately added over 50 new small aircraft with different mission sets. This was the Non-Standard Air Vehicle [NSAV] initiative, which was totally my idea (and some great young U.S. Air Force officers that traveled with me!) and I hope it has worked out. Manned airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance [ISR] was another area [where] I pushed AFSOC hard, and they were phenomenal in their response. I cannot say enough about the contribution of the entire AFSOC community and their capabilities. The Combat Talons [MC-130s], tankers, and the Pave Lows [MH-53 SOF helicopters] were amazing. I flew with every one of them in the AOR and they were capable, dedicated and tireless. During this kind of warfare the USAF combat controller [CCT/TAC-P] guys really carried an incredible load. During the opening days in Afghanistan, we deployed some SF teams without a CCT, and the difference between those that had controllers and those that didn’t was dramatic. Quite frankly no one wants to go to war without them. They are admired, capable, and requested at a rate far greater than we could ever provide. The SEALs are another area we worked hard to grow, but their skill set is so unique and they are so capable that we could never grow them at the rate that we would have liked. Their efforts were critical in the early days of OEF and still are. Here is another force [whose] true impact on the battlefields around the world will never be known or appreciated. They are absolutely phenomenal.

How did the debate about SOCOM’s force structure expansions evolve during your tenure as commander at SOCOM into what was presented in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review?

We did a series of detailed studies to educate ourselves as to the requirements and then we “went to the mattresses.” Our Washington team was well prepared for the debate. They knew our requirements and we ran a “dashboard” to track every issue. This was an amazing amount of work, but the SOCOM staff worked tirelessly. Adm. Eric Olson, one of the all-time greatest SOF leaders and operators, led our effort, and their success is obvious.

As you look back on a 40-year career in the Army, what do you remember as the highlights you are proudest of and most satisfied with?

I am most satisfied with the relationships I built with incredible patriots. People that do not have the opportunity to get close to these kinds of people will never understand; their dedication is amazing. As I have said before, on one occasion while coming back from a White House dinner, someone’s wife asked if that [going to the White House] wasn’t “the neatest thing I had ever done.” It was an easy answer for me. I simply replied that the “neatest thing” I have ever done was picking up a special operations MH-60 Black Hawk as flight lead … looking down the flightline at 23 more just like it in the dead of a very dark night, and launching into the darkness carrying America’s finest warriors. One other thing I’m pretty proud of, though. In recent years, I spent a lot of time in places like the medical centers at [the National Naval Medical Center] Bethesda and Walter Reed. It drove me to start the SOF Care Coalition that has blossomed under the leadership of retired Lt. Col. Jim Lorraine. Every one of the services should have one just like it. Our wounded and our families of our fallen comrades are the real heroes. All it takes is one trip to Walter Reed to visit our wounded, and you will never go home and say, “I had a hard day.”

This interview first appeared in The Year in Special Operations 2011-2012 Edition.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...

  • put anextra paragragh that sums it up

  • What Gen Brown neglects to say is, he’s one of most respected Commanders having served in the Armed Forces. Anyone associated with the General speaks very highly of him. His respect of all U.S. Forces members, regardless of rank, position or service is beyond expectations. I had the honor to serve as a civilian with the General during the infancy of the 160th “Night Stalkers”. One of the highlights of my life. Would follow him , anywhere !!