The community of U.S. special operations forces (SOF) is a small one by military standards, comprising only about 54,000 military and civilian personnel. Therefore, when you look at U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), and see that it comprises around half of that total, their contributions to the American SOF community begin to come into perspective. USASOC is also the SOF component with the greatest variety of units, and with the greatest range of capabilities. From the Special Forces Command (SFC) with their highly capable Green Berets, to the world-class flying skills of the Nightstalkers of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), USASOC covers the spectrum of special warfare like no other grouping of units in history.
2009 was a year of relative stability within the USASOC leadership, with Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland Jr. continuing to command. Brig. Gen. Raymond P. Palumbo, a career Army aviator, is Mulholland’s deputy commander, with the command’s senior warrant officer, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Bruce R. Watts and Command Sgt. Maj. Parry L. Baer also continuing in their jobs in 2009. What this has meant during a critical period of growth is that USASOC has kept a consistent set of policies and procedures in place while fighting America’s wars and tending to their soldiers.
John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (JFKSWCS)
It was another busy year at the JFKSWCS, so it was fortunate that its commander, Maj. Gen. Thomas R. Csrnko, remained in his job throughout the year. The JFKSWCS senior enlisted advisor was a different story, however, as Command Sgt. Maj. Peter J. Sabo took over on July 16, seeing his wife, 2nd Lt. Jacqueline M. Sabo, commissioned as an Army officer at the same ceremony. The same day another change-of-command ceremony took place, with Chief Warrant Officer 4 Tommy J. Austin relinquishing command of the JFKSWCS Warrant Officer Institute to Chief Warrant Officer 5 Tony L. Fox at the John F. Kennedy Auditorium.
But during most of 2009, the JFKSWCS staff was busy doing their jobs of turning out new special warfare soldiers, including Green Berets, civil affairs (CA) soldiers, and psychological warfare (PsyWar) professionals. Key to this effort are the tried-and-proven culmination exercises to each of the selection, qualification, and training courses for each community supplied personnel by JFKSWCS. In 2009, this began with a “Robin Sage” culmination exercise that began Jan. 8 for the 241st Special Forces (SF) Q-Course class to be training on the Fort Bragg, N.C., range complex. Robin Sage exercises begin with students infiltrating the notional country of “Pineland,” situated in or near Alamance, Anson, Cabarrus, Chatham, Davidson, Guilford, Hoke, Montgomery, Moore, Randolph, Richmond, Rowan, Scotland, Stanly, and Union counties in south-central North Carolina. A unique feature of these culmination exercises is the use of volunteer civilian roleplayers from the local communities, some of whom have been involved for more than five decades since the first such maneuvers in the 1950s. In 2009, the JFKSWCS staff ran a total of eight SF Q-Course classes and Robin Sage culmination exercises, the last of which was run in November. The last such training evolution was for a class of 52 CA and 58 PsyWar soldiers, including 47 Army reservists, who graduated on Dec. 15.
U.S. Army Special Forces Command (SFC)
SFC shared the same kind of command stability as USASOC and JFKSWCS, and shared the same benefits. For Maj. Gen. Mike S. Repass, Command Sgt. Maj. Mario G. Vigil, and CW05 Watts, this allowed them to concentrate on building up SFC in what is the greatest expansion in its history. The command grew a new SF battalion in 2009, and began to construct the facilities that will allow the permanent movement of one SF Group (SFG) to a new base under the 2005 Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) mandates. SFC also took time on April 22 to celebrate its 22nd birthday since SF became an official U.S. Army branch in 1987.
1st Special Forces Group:
Col. Randolph R. Binford continued to command 1st SFG across the largest area of responsibility (AOR) of any SFG in 2009. However, the end of the year brought some unexpected and troubling casualties when, on Oct. 1, two 3rd Battalion, 1st SFG, Green Berets were killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) while deployed to Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) on Jolo Island. Sgt. 1st Class Christopher D. Shaw and Staff Sgt. Jack M. Martin III, both 26, were the first casualities of an IED while deployed to JSOTF-P, and the incident signaled a deadly new escalation by insurgents in the southern Philippines. The introduction of IED technology into the Philippine AOR is a troubling development, being watched closely by SOCOM, USASOC, and SFC.
3rd Special Forces Group:
The 3rd SFG established its 4th Battalion on Aug. 18, at Fort Bragg, N.C. The activation continues the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review-mandated expansion that includes one new battalion for each of the five active-duty groups. Col. Gus Benton II, the 3rd SFG commander, said of the event, “The unfurling of the 4th Battalion colors marks an exciting new beginning full of opportunities and possibilities for even greater 3rd SFG success in the future.” Lt. Col. Fleming Sullivan, the new 4th Battalion’s commander added, “… it’s a perfect blend of experienced officers and non-commissioned officers, along with those fresh out of the Special Forces qualification course and other operations support personnel whose first tour in special operations will be in this battalion.”
In many ways, 2009 was about stories of individual 3rd SFG soldiers being recognized for their service and personal fortitude. For Sergeants 1st Class Luis Morales and Daniel Plants, along with Sgt. Raymond Ysasaga of C Company, 3rd Battalion, it came in the form of a Silver Star for actions as part of Operational Detachment A (ODA) 3336 while on a raid with Afghan commandos on enemy forces in the Shok Valley of Afghanistan on April 6, 2008. The raid, which was part of Operation Commando Wrath, turned into a six-hour firefight, ultimately resulting in the award of 10 Silver Stars.
“Integrity is the baseline for great leadership. Soldiers are always watching you; you always have a reputation, whether you know it or not,” Ysasaga said of their actions. “When it comes down to it, your integrity is all you have. Do the right thing even when no one is looking.”
On the other end of the recognition spectrum in 2009 was Sgt. 1st Class John “Mike” Fairfax, an intelligence non-commissioned officer with 3rd SFG headquarters. Fairfax lost his right leg, along with suffering severe eye and lung injuries from an IED, in Afghanistan back in the summer of 2005. For Fairfax, the long road back came with the fitting of an artificial leg, and becoming the first amputee to complete the Army’s Jumpmaster Course this past November. Today, he is a working jumpmaster, teaching and certifying other Green Berets the critical airborne skills of their trade.
5th Special Forces Group:
2009 saw SFC’s busiest and most decorated SFG gain a new commanding officer, when Col. Christopher Conner turned over the reins to Col. Mark Mitchell on Aug. 17 at Fort Campbell, Ky. Conner, who has combat experience in Operations Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan, and Iraqi Freedom, is one of the most experienced SF officers in history, and will be missed by his 5th SFG troopers.
7th Special Forces Group:
For the soldiers of the 7th SFG, the big news of 2009 was the groundbreaking for their new home at Eglin Air Force Base (AFB), Fla., on March 27. Attended by Repass, along with a number of military and political leaders, the ceremony marked the physical beginning of 7th SFG’s eventual move from Fort Bragg that is mandated by the 2005 BRAC. The initial construction phase, composed of more than 600,000 square feet of facilities, will cost $380 million. According to Lt. Col. Joe Tyron, SF command engineer, the new 7th SFG headquarters complex will be the first group-sized facility to be built for the recently enhanced Special Forces Group of four battalions. “The range complex that surrounds the headquarters and living areas will be state-of-the-art and one of the best in the special operations community,” according to Tyron.
2009 also saw 7th SFG get a new commander, when, on May 9, Col. Sean P. Mulholland turned over command to James E. Kraft Jr. at Meadows Field at Fort Bragg, N.C. Sadly, one of Kraft’s first duties was to deal with the loss of two of his soldiers in a helicopter crash in western Afghanistan on Oct. 29. Sgt. 1st Class David E. Metzger and Staff Sgt. Keith R. Bishop were among seven special operations soldiers lost in a 160th SOAR MH-47 Chinook transport helicopter.
10th Special Forces Group:
The 10th SFG welcomed a new commander during a change of command ceremony at Fort Carson, Colo., on June 24. Col. Darsie D. Rogers, Jr. handed the unit colors and command over to Col. Sean P. Swindell, after 18 months as commander with an eight-month deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom VI. During his final comments to the 10th SFG, Rogers praised his soldiers for their hard work and dedication to the mission.
“From the day I joined your ranks as commander of SF ODA 082, until today, my last day in the 10th Special Forces Group, you have always been committed to excellence, exceeded all expectations, and always, always accomplished the mission,” he said.
Swindell has some major challenges ahead in 2010, as the 10th SFG is scheduled to be the next group to stand up a fourth Battalion. But there was also time to remember some significant achievements by the 10th SFG Green Berets in 2009. On May 14, Staff Sgt. Jarion Halbisengibbs of 3rd Battalion was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for actions on Sept. 10, 2007, in Samarra, Iraq. During the same ceremony, Sgt. 1st Class Michael D. Lindsay was awarded the Silver Star for his actions during the same operation.
19th and 20th Special Forces Groups:
SFC’s two Army National Guard SFGs, the 19th and 20th, spent much of 2009 supporting cooperative training and combat missions, often backfilling for their active-duty SF brethren. Sadly, these duties did not come without cost in 2009, as four 20th SFG soldiers lost their lives in combat actions in Afghanistan. Capt. Ronald G. Luce Jr., Sgt. 1st Class Severin W. Summers, and Sgt. 1st Class Alejandro Granado from 2nd Battalion were killed in an IED blast on Aug. 2, while Staff Sgt. Matthew Pucino of the same unit lost his life in a similar incident on Nov. 23.
The 20th SFG also get a new commander when Col. Randall Zeegers relieved Col. Steven Duff on July 18 at a ceremony held in Birmingham, Ala. Zeegers, commenting on the ongoing work of his Green Berets downrange said, “Currently we have a battalion in Afghanistan and we have members of another one of our battalions in the Caribbean and Central America. The demand for us is even more now than it has ever been in the history of the 20th Group. …”
75th Ranger Regiment:
For the soldiers of the 75th Ranger Regiment, 2009 was like other years: filled with combat, training, decorations, and change. The change came in the form of new leadership, when on Aug. 6, Col. Michael E. Kurilla became the 16th commander of the regiment, relieving Col. Richard D. Clarke. The 75th grew considerably under Clarke, from 2,500 to more than 3,700 Rangers, with the addition of a fourth company to each battalion, along with additional “low-density” support personnel. As for Kurilla, his view of the regiment’s duties were summarized as follows:
“Every day for the last eight years, Rangers have gone out into the night and boarded a helicopter, plane, Stryker, MRAP, or HMMWV, and without fanfare or recognition, carried the weight of the nation’s future on their shoulders.”
2009 also saw the arrival of a new regimental sergeant major on March 11, when Command Sgt. Maj. Doug Pallister turned over responsibility to Command Sgt. Maj. Chris Hardy.
The soldiers of the 1st Battalion of the 75th began 2009 by taking a moment to remember some of their impressive combat achievements during their 12th combat rotation in 2008. In a ceremony on March 6 at Fort Benning, Ga., no fewer than 19 Rangers were decorated with more than 600 awards, including 60 Bronze Stars and 93 Army Commendation Medals. The battalion’s rotation was composed of more than 350 missions, in which 360 enemy combatants were killed, and more than 750 suspected insurgents were detained. Later in 2009, on Dec. 9, a 3rd Battalion Ranger, Staff Sgt. Michael E. Norton, was awarded the Silver Star for saving the lives of two fellow soldiers.
Not all the Ranger ceremonies were quite so positive, however. On Nov. 16, there was a gathering to honor the 25th anniversary of the 75th’s 3rd Battalion, and the 45 Rangers who have given their lives in the training and battles fought by that unit. The 3rd Battalion of the 75th Rangers have perhaps the most distinguished combat record of any infantry formation in service today, with actions like the seizure of the Haditha Dam in Iraq, and jumping into Osama bin Laden’s hunting retreat early in the Afghan campaign in 2001. But that record also includes the deadly Mogadishu firefight in 1993, with its heavy casualties and numerous losses. Ally Keller, a Ranger wife who attended the ceremony, said, “We need to remember the soldiers of the past and those who are fighting now and the sacrifices they have made. [Many] gave their lives for our country and have served and are serving, and they deserved to be honored.”
160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment:
The leadership of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment underwent a significant change in 2009, as Command Sgt. Maj. David L. Leamon took over from Command Sgt. Maj. Jake Elliot as chief enlisted advisor to Col. Clay Hutmacher on June 24. The end of 2009 also brought word that Chief Warrant Officer 5 Robert D. Witzler would replace the regiment’s respected and highly decorated senior warrant officer, Chief Warrant Officer David Cooper, on March 29, 2010. Cooper became the first living soldier since Vietnam to receive the Distinguished Service Cross, and is reported to be joining his former commander, Brig. Gen. Kevin Mangum, on the command staff of a new Army Special Operations Aviation Command sometime in 2010.
Part of the expansion of Army SOF aviation has been the enlargement of the training infrastructure for the community. On March 9, the regiment opened a new Aquatic Training Facility to focus on water escape and rescue procedures. The training is conducted in exact replicas of the unit’s MH-47 Chinook, MH-60 Black Hawk, and A/MH-6 Little Bird helicopters, and should provide lifesaving skills for 160th crews who go down over water in the years ahead.
As previously mentioned, the 160th lost an MH-47 Chinook in western Afghanistan Oct. 26 with the loss of two 3rd SFG Green Berets, along with five members of the regiment’s 3rd Battalion. Chief Warrant Officer 4 Michael P. Montgomery, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Niall D. Lyons, Staff Sgt. Shawn H. McNabb, Sgt. Josue E. Hernandez Chavez, and Sgt. Nickolas A. Mueller were all killed in the crash of their aircraft.
95th Civil Affairs Brigade:
The 95th Civil Affairs Brigade (CAB) reached a strength of four CA Battalions in 2009, and maintained their leadership team. Col. Michael J. Warmack and Command Sgt. Maj. Melvin Bynum continued their stewardship of the 95th as it continued to grow with the standing up of the 95th CA Brigade’s new 91st CA Battalion. The leadership of the new battalion, Lt. Col. Daniel Barzyk and Command Sgt. Maj. William Houston, are justifiably proud of their new command, which was deployed downrange and in action before the units were even activated. Warmack commented, “While most battalions do not deploy until their activation date, they’ve succeeded in standing up and deploying their full capabilities simultaneously. Already the 91st has established a proud lineage. Already the 91st has suffered casualties.” Maj. Robert D. Lindenau was killed in action in October 2008, and Sgt. 1st Class Douglas Franklin was injured in an attack in July 2008, resulting in a traumatic brain injury, both in Afghanistan.
4th Psychological Warfare Group:
Col. Carl E. Phillips assumed command of the 4th Psychological Operations Group (POG) from Col. Curtis D. Boyd in a ceremony on Meadows Parade Field at Fort Bragg on Aug. 4, 2009. During his command tour, Boyd stood up nine new PsyOps companies and became the first-ever 4th POG commander to take his flag forward into the fight and lead the Joint PsyOps Task Force downrange.
U.S. Army Special Operations Support Command
2009 saw extensive change within the component unit of the U.S. Army Special Operations Support Command, when on Feb. 2, the Sustainment Brigade (Special Operations) was redesignated as the 528th Sustainment Brigade. Then on July 17, the 528th received new unit colors and a new commanding officer during an activation and change-of-command ceremony on Meadows Parade Field. Col. Lenny Kness received command of the newly activated unit from Col. Duane Gamble during the ceremony. Prior to the change of command, the new colors of the recently redesignated unit were unfurled by Command Sgt. Maj. Charles Tobin and Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland, Jr.
“There’s a saying that amateurs talk about strategy, while professionals speak about logistics,” Mulholland said. “No matter how tough of a burly Ranger or Green Beret you may be, without the ammunition, the food, the clothing, and equipment you need every day … well, let’s just say you can only do so much with rocks. It is the logisticians behind the scenes, the communicators, and special operations medical specialists bringing their magic to the battlefield, who allow the warfighting piece of this command to do what they do.”
This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2010-2011 Edition.