It was the kind of year special operations forces (SOFs) warriors live for. Busy, intense, effective, and rewarding are all words that reflect the course of events that U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) encountered last year. The largest of the service components that make up U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), USASOC is undergoing an impressive cycle of growth and transformation while providing the bulk of the warfighting (SOF) personnel for America’s present overseas military commitments.
On Nov. 7, 2008, Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland took over command of USASOC from Lt. Gen. Robert W. Wagner. Mulholland has been a SF officer for over 25 years and has commanded Green Berets at every level, from “A Teams” to Special Forces Command (SFC) itself. Best known for leading Task Force Dagger (and 5th Special Forces Group) into battle in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), Mulholland most recently led Special Operations Command-Central (SOCCENT) for Gen. David H. Petraeus at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). He joins USASOC Command Sgt. Maj. (CSM) Parry L. Baer, Mulholland’s senior enlisted advisor at 5th SFG during the invasion of Iraq, in watching over the most powerful and diverse SOF community in the world today.
Mulholland arrives at a time when USASOC is growing substantially, as the Zone 4 expansion plan that developed from the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) is beginning to show results. All five of the active-duty SFGs are being given a fourth SF battalion, along with additional units being added to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR – “the Night Stalkers”), Civil Affairs (CA), and Psychological Warfare Operations (PSYOPS). There also is consideration of another growth program, known tentatively as “Zone 5,” which would give the two Army National Guard SFGs (the 19th and 20th) fourth battalions as well.
A pair of notable retirements took place in 2008, those of USASOC commander Wagner and deputy commander Maj. Gen. Gary L. Harrell. Wagner will be remembered for his long service with the Ranger community, and was the longest-serving commander in USASOC history. A founding member of the 75th Ranger Regiment, he was the regiment’s first operations officer (S3). Harrell will be remembered for his service as the SOCCENT commander during the largest SOF operation in history, the opening of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (JFKSWCS)
In June 2008, Maj. Gen. James W. Parker handed over command of the JFKSWCS to Maj. Gen. Thomas R. Csrnko. Over the past few years, Parker has taken the JFKSWCS through its greatest transformation since Gen. William Yarborough commanded the center in the 1960s. Virtually every piece of courseware has been revised and updated, incorporating digital delivery, distance learning, and computerized systems to maximize training capacity, efficacy, and graduation rates. Parker’s passionate pursuit of these goals has been driven by the realities of the Zone 4 personnel growth plan, which requires the training and sustainment of an authorized SFC personnel base potentially 60 percent larger than existed on September 11. Similar growth is planned throughout USASOC, and Parker moved mountains to make JFKSWCS ready to supply the SOF warriors that USASOC and the nation need to undertake their roles and missions in a dangerous world.
Csrnko previously commanded SFC and 1st SFG at Fort Lewis, Wash. Csrnko is joined at JFKSWCS by his deputy commanding general, Brig. Gen. Bennet S. Sacolick, and CSM Kurt D. Lugo in taking the school and center to the next planned set of challenges. This is producing the needed flow of SOF personnel to fill the newly authorized units and billets authorized by the Department of Defense (DoD) after the 2006 QDR. One measure of this challenge is that the SF Qualification Course (known as the “Q Course”) since 2008 has needed to produce more than 400 new SF soldiers every year to build each new active-duty battalion, while producing enough replacements to sustain the existing force of Green Berets.
Special Forces Command (SFC)
SFC had another busy year, with Brig. Gen. Michael S. Repass taking over command of SFC from Csrnko, along with CSM Mario G. Vigil relieving Baer. In addition, on Nov. 17, 2008, Chief Warrant Officer 5 (CW5) Bruce R. Watts took over as the third chief warrant of SFC, having previously served in the same position at 5th SFG. Repass and Vigil spent much of the year getting the first new SF units in two decades ready to stand up. Based upon the Zone 4 growth and modernization plan, 5th SFG stood up their 4th Battalion in August, with 3rd SFG beginning the formation of their own 4th Battalion with a planned August 2009 stand-up date. 10th SFG is due to stand up their 4th battalion in 2010, with 1st and 7th getting theirs in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
The result of the Zone 4 program will be an active-duty SF force by 2013, able to deploy up to 300 “A” Teams, as opposed to only about 180 on September 11. In addition, 7th SFG will move south to its new home at Eglin Air Force Base in 2011, making room for the growth of 3rd SFG and other USASOC units at Fort Bragg. And should DoD see the wisdom of adding additional battalions to the 19th and 20th SFGs of the National Guard, SFC might have 420 ODAs to quietly do their valuable work around the globe.
75th Ranger Regiment
The past year once again saw the 75th Rangers acting as America’s fire brigade in the war on terrorism and providing one-of-a-kind infantry skills and capabilities to the nation. In command since 2007, Col. Richard D. Clarke and CSM Douglas O. Pallister took the regiment through an eventful year, which included changes of command in all three of the 75th’s battalions. 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment got its new commander on July 1, when Lt. Col. Brian Mennes assumed command from Col. Lee Rudacille. Sixteen days later, 2nd Battalion, 75th got their new boss when Col. Erik Kurilla relinquished command to incoming commander Lt. Col. Mark Odom. Kurilla spent the rest of 2008 at the National War College and is scheduled to take command of the regiment from Clarke in 2009. 3rd Battalion, 75th had its change of command on May 29, when Lt. Col. Daniel R. Walrath assumed command from Col. Sean M. Jenkins.
The 75th Ranger Regiment continued its high level of tasking around the globe, with much of its work still supporting clandestine missions that must remain classified for some time. Nevertheless, the Rangers clearly have been busy, as shown by recent awards and decorations being presented. On May 2, 800 Rangers from 1st Battalion, 75th gathered at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga., to award 10 Bronze Star Medals for valor, three Joint Commendation Medals for valor, three Army Commendation Medals, and numerous other awards for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then on Sept. 27, Spc. Joe Gibson of the 2nd Battalion, 75th was awarded a Silver Star for Valor while on a classified raid in Iraq on April 26, 2008. During the insertion into the target area, Gibson and his force came under heavy enemy fire that wounded two Rangers. Gibson helped rescue one of the Rangers, who survived his wounds, and then returned to the fight, where he fought a terrorist armed with an AK-47 and an explosive suicide bomb belt hand to hand, eventually killing the enemy with his personal weapon. Gibson later re-enlisted in the Army and continues to serve.
The years since September 11 have seen significant upgrades in the equipment of the regiment, from Javelin guided missiles to the Ranger version of the Ground Mobility Vehicle (GMV-R – based on the HMMWV). The regiment is also upgrading its ground mobility assets with the addition of 14 to 16 Stryker armored infantry fighting vehicles. Reportedly assigned to a company of the 2nd Battalion, 75th, the Strykers will be operating in Afghanistan in 2009.
160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (“The Night Stalkers”)
New leadership came to the Night Stalkers in 2008, when on May 27 Col. Clayton M. “Clay” Hutmacher took over as the 11th colonel of the regiment from Col. Kevin W. Mangum, after three years in command. Welcoming Hutmacher to the Night Stalker leadership team is the regiment’s 8th CSM, Ernest “Jake” Elliott, who has held the position since March 6, 2006. Joining Hutmacher and Elliot as the regiment’s 2nd chief warrant is a legendary Night Stalker and aviator who recently made his own mark in regimental history: CW5 David Cooper. Cooper is a 15-year veteran in the regiment, watching over 340 other warrant officers, and has flown AH-6 Little Bird attack helicopters throughout his Night Stalker career. For his actions in Iraq on Nov. 26, 2006, when he protected more than two dozen SOF personnel and three helicopters trapped on the ground from six heavily armed enemy gun trucks and dozens of insurgent fighters, Cooper was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Presented on July 11 by SOCOM Commander Adm. Eric Olson, the DSC was the first awarded to a living recipient since Vietnam.
There also were some changes in the rest of the regimental leadership in 2008, highlighted by a pair of back-to-back change-of-command ceremonies held on July 11 at Fort Campbell, Ky. Lt. Col. Van J. Voorhees Jr. took command of the 1st Battalion. In addition, Lt. Col. Thomas R. Drew assumed command of 2nd Battalion (the “Darkhorse Night Stalkers”) from Lt. Col. John R. Evans Jr. In addition, on July 17 at Fort Lewis, Wash., Lt. Col. Michael J. Hertzendorf assumed command of the 4th Battalion from Lt. Col. James C. Dugan, the unit’s founding commander.
The 160th SOAR has the distinction of being the most heavily tasked SOF unit on the planet, something they have dealt with since their creation as Task Force 160 back in 1980. Like other highly utilized and leveraged units in USASOC, the regiment has been enlarged with the addition of its 4th Battalion, and continued deliveries of the newest SOF version of the Chinook heavy transport helicopter: the MH-47G. In addition, 2008 saw the retirement of the old AH-6C Little Birds and the introduction of the new A/MH-6M Mission Enhanced Little Bird (MELB). The M-model MELB has many of the features the Night Stalkers have wanted for decades, from a new communications suite to a search and targeting FLIR system.
4th Psychological Warfare Operations Group (4th POG)
Boyd, the commander of the 4th POG, got some new help on Dec. 9 when CSM Fernan T. Castelo assumed responsibility from CSM Steven L. Carney. Castelo moves into his new position from the 1st Psychological Operations Battalion, where he was the battalion CSM. Carney retired after 27 years of active duty and almost six years as the 4th POG’s top enlisted leader.
95th Civil Affairs Brigade (95th CA Brigade)
On Aug. 1, the 95th CAB held a change-of-command ceremony for Col. Ferdinand Irizarry II, where he passed command of the unit to Col. Michael J. Warmack. Irizarry was the first commander of the 95th CAB when the unit was redesignated from the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion in 2006, and will continue to work at the Pentagon as the military assistant to the under secretary of the Army. Previously, Warmack had commanded the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion (CABN). Together with CSM Melvin Bynum, Warmack presided over one of the most interesting years in the recent history of U.S. CA.
The highlight of the year was the creation of a new USASOC CA unit: the 98th CABN. Part of the overall growth of the U.S. SOF community, the standup of the 98th is part of a major CA expansion originally called for by the 2006 QDR. Stood up on March 14 at Fort Bragg, the new unit is commanded by Lt. Col. Ray Malave, has a primarily Latin American focus, and will operate mainly under U.S. Southern Command.
“Although today marks the activation of this fine organization, it does not start today,” Malave said. “The history book for the 98th Civil Affairs Battalion, the ‘Bridge Between’ Battalion, has a few pages already written.”
What Malave was saying was that at the time of their activation, the men and women of the 98th CABN were already conducting operations for U.S. Central Command. In addition, the 95th CAB stood up another new CABN, the 91st, in April 2009.
The 95th’s units that are already downrange were recognized in 2008 for the performance and valor of their personnel in several ceremonies. On July 25, personnel from Company D, 97th CABN were awarded a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars each for valor and service, and two Purple Hearts, for action in Afghanistan. Another ceremony on Sept. 25 honored the 97th CABN’s Team 745 with a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars for a Nov. 2, 2007, firefight with 300 Taliban fighters.
Earlier in 2008, the 95th CAB began a program of outreach that included its first Global Civil Affairs conference. Held between March 17 and 20, the event hosted 400 professionals for discussions and networking across the Army’s entire CA community. Geared with a focus on tactical CA operations and civil reconnaissance, the conference also included an exposition hosted by the group Friends of Civil Affairs. The conference provided the attendees with a chance to look over tools, concepts, and techniques used for effective civil reconnaissance. This included new digital camera and global positioning systems with moving map software.
One month later, the 95th CAB held their 3rd annual U.S. Army Special Operations Command Multi-Cultural Expo at Fort Bragg, which included the Friends of Civil Affairs 10th annual “Around the World” run. Based around the theme of “Celebrating Our Cultural and International Diversity,” the exposition is designed to show the various backgrounds, cultures, and contributions of the 95th CAB’s soldiers, family members, and civilian employees. The exposition also included ethnic food tasting, displays, music, and dancing from countries around the globe.
USASOC headed into its 20th year of service to the nation with a strong roadmap to the future, and a mandate for growth and modernization. Clearly, some time early next decade, a new round of upgrades will be needed, including the planned Group 5 expansion proposals for Army Reserve and National Guard SOF units. There also will be the need for new ground mobility and aerial platforms, both of which will be significant draws on the SOCOM Title 10 funding line when they go into development and production. Nevertheless, USASOC goes into the future with incomparable leadership – at headquarters, out at the component units, the schoolhouse and in the personnel pipeline – and a recent record that is the envy of SOF professionals and politicians around the globe.
This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2009 Edition.