The Year in Special Operations: What made you want to become a soldier in the first place? And what drove you toward special operations as your eventual profession?
Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland, Jr.: Ever since I was a boy, I just knew I wanted to be a soldier. There wasn’t any particular driving force for it, though my father was extremely proud of his service as a USAF fighter-bomber pilot during the Korean War. Two of his brothers also were combat aviators. Still, there wasn’t anyone driving this … it was just something I always wanted to be. Somewhere along the line, that desire became more focused at wanting to join Army Special Forces.
What were your early assignments as a young officer, prior to selection to Special Forces Qualification and Selection (“the Q-Course”)?
I was very fortunate that my first Army posting was to Panama Canal Zone in 1979. I ended up going to the 4th Battalion (Mechanized), 20th Infantry (Sykes Regulars). It was an outstanding opportunity to learn the trade as a small unit leader in an extremely challenging physical and political environment. We had some of the Army’s most experienced and demanding commanders and trainers there, such as Col. Morrie Strickland and Brig. Gen. [later Maj. Gen.] Kenneth Leuer.
I was fortunate to be selected to join the only airborne rifle company then in theater, “A” Company, 3-5th Infantry (Moatengators), for my money one of the finest jungle units in the Army. Undoubtedly, this experience was formative and served me well as knowing what “right looked like” when I later became more responsible for training units and preparing them for operations. I loved being an infantry leader, but my heart was still set on joining Special Forces.
What are your memories of the Special Forces Q-Course when you went through in the early 1980s?
The truth of the matter is that I was very disappointed with the Qualification Course when I went through back in 1983. I knew what good training looked like by then, and candidly, the Q-Course of the day overall fell short of being what it was supposed to be. It was tough, certainly, but lacked the “graduate” level of instruction that I had expected to see. One of the most rewarding aspects of having now served in Special Forces for some time is how outstanding the Q-Course has become. One of the reasons our men and teams performed so well in the early days of Afghanistan is because of what the Q-Course trained them to be ready for. This is because of the real and enduring effort to inject the intellectual rigor along with the physical challenges, all imparted by the best of our NCO and Officer Corps.
You appear to have had the complete SF officer leadership experience in your career, from “A-Team” captain to commanding general of Special Forces Command. Which of these jobs did you find the most enjoyable or fulfilling, and what lessons and experiences have you treasured most from having these jobs along the way?
The obvious answer that jumps right to mind is, of course, leading an “A-Team” [Operational Detachment – Alpha or ODA]. It’s just such a close bonding situation, where a small team of men working together can create such powerful effects, and you build such strong attachments between you and your teammates. They last beyond – well beyond – assignments and careers; for lifetimes. I was recently privileged to preside at the retirement of my then-senior weapons sergeant, now-Lt. Col. Bob Meginnis, this past summer.
But even beyond that, I have to say that my time commanding 5th SFG remains the most rewarding professional experience of my life. What the men of the 5th Legion did in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of September 11 and how they did it are still not terribly well known to the general public, and likely will not be for some time. Similarly, what they accomplished in Iraq has been extraordinary. The honor and privilege of being associated with these magnificent men, and their families, really cannot be accurately captured in words.
Can you tell us a little about how things developed for you and the 5th SFG in the days following the attacks of September 11?
Just like soldiers everywhere must have thought, I knew that this meant war, and that it meant war in Afghanistan, and that meant the 5th SFG. Initially there wasn’t very much in the way of coherent guidance coming in, so we went about putting a plan together on our own. Without question, the most important immediate assistance we received came from the CIA. With nothing but a phone call, a senior officer and analyst flew out to Fort Campbell to provide us with enough information to begin relevant operational planning. In the meantime, we placed four ODAs into isolation, the classic initial planning action of Special Forces operations. This is where detachments conduct dedicated operational planning, protected from outside distractions. This proved to be one of the most important decisions made because it allowed us to put the initial detachments into Afghanistan when the opportunities presented themselves.
What proved to be true throughout our experience in Afghanistan was how relevant and effective Special Forces doctrine proved in practice to be. This ties in specifically to our earlier discussion about the importance of the Q-Course and, especially, our unconventional warfare [UW] culminating exercise known as Robin Sage. From our isolation practices in preparing detachments, to establishing “area commands” built around our “C-Teams” (Battalion battle staffs), we applied our UW tactics, techniques, and procedures to great effect.
Having said that, I was still very concerned. Ultimately, the decision was made that 5th SFG would stand up the Joint Special Operations Task Force [JSOTF] to run UW combat operations across all of Afghanistan. This, candidly, was worrisome to me because we had never trained to operate at what [was] an operational level of warfare. In this regard I received truly exceptional assistance from Col. Mike Findlay, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command [SOCOM] Joint Forces Command. He helped train my staff before deployment, provided our initial information management capabilities, and augmented my staff with some of his senior officers and NCOs.
Additionally, very few people then or now knew just how poor a condition SF units were in due to decades of relative neglect. The result was a significant training deficit, along with low equipment and material readiness/availability. Lt. Gen. Doug Brown [later general and SOCOM commander], our USASOC commanding general, worked incredibly hard to turn the spigots on to equip our teams with the equipment they needed. We were inadequately resourced in so many aspects, except for the quality of the men of the 5th SFG. They were exceptional and overcame the very real and impactful shortages by applying their intelligence, talent, and magnificent ability to establish rapport with their Afghan comrades to achieve decisive effect on the battlefield.
Now, it is safe to say that planning for operations in Afghanistan evolved as operations continued. Nonetheless, I understood my mission statement from Gen. [then-Commander, U.S. Central Command] Tommy Franks, which was to remove the Taliban regime and deny al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan. The challenge was to translate that into operational and tactical practice in a place that we knew virtually nothing about, operating with people with whom we [SF] had no current knowledge of, in a place that was arguably one of the most difficult places on Earth to logistically support.
Finally, it must be said as we deployed that the work of our wives and families was truly outstanding. My wife, the ladies of the 5th SFG, and Lt. Col. Frank Hudson, my deputy commander, built programs and structures to support our families that saw us through operations in Afghanistan and later in Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Our ladies, our families, and our rear support detachments – a job nobody wants, of course – were simply remarkable and essential to whatever success we enjoyed.
When you made the move to Karshi-Khanabad (“K2”) Air Base in Uzbekistan with Joint Special Operations Task Force-North in mid-October 2001, what did you find there?
When we fell in on K2 in October 2001, we were very fortunate to find Col. Frank Kisner [then commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla., from Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), and today a major general] already in place with his Joint Combat Search and Rescue [CSAR] force. This included MH-53J Pave Low special operations helicopters, MC-130 Combat Talons/Shadow special operations tanker/transports, and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment [160th SOAR] MH-60 and MH-47 helicopters supporting the bombing campaign which had kicked off earlier in the month. We absorbed the CSAR task force into the JSOTF, which we had code-named Task Force Dagger, as the JSOTF’s Joint Special Operations Air Component.
K2 was extraordinarily austere and afflicted with all of the environmental challenges of former Soviet bases. Our Uzbeki hosts were very supportive of us, though, and we worked our way through the range of challenges that surfaced throughout the deployment. Col. Kisner did an exceptional job at working with the Uzbeki air base chain of command to ensure we maintained our operational flexibility to get the mission accomplished.
The 49-day campaign in Afghanistan, in the fall of 2001, clearly ranks as one of the most decisive insurgency-based campaigns in military history. What were your impressions during the early months in Afghanistan?
In all candor, the enormity of the task in those early days was massively intimidating. There was so very much that was unknown, so much so that at times you didn’t know where to begin, what to take on. We were all very cognizant that, in the wake of the horrendous attacks upon our country, we represented America’s response to those who did us such terrible harm. At the same time, the Soviet experience in Afghanistan certainly wasn’t lost on us, nor was Afghanistan’s history with foreign armies. We did not want to fail our country or our countrymen.
I cannot tell you how critical to our success our ODAs and the men on them were. Over and over again, I was so impressed with their ability to take absolutely chaotic, incredibly dangerous situations, and bring success from those conditions. Their ability to establish meaningful rapport and operational relationships with their Afghan counterparts was simply amazing. It is important to note that not all of these were “happy” relationships. There is no guarantee that you are going to get along with your counterpart. He (or she) also has an agenda and focus that may be widely different from yours. Nonetheless, it was these SF soldiers and leaders who fashioned these arrangements that allowed us to proceed in prosecuting our campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
At another level of altitude, I was overwhelmingly impressed with how powerful and unstoppable the U.S. is when we all work together. My experience in Afghanistan permitted me to see that power. Whether it was working alongside our CIA brothers, to USAF combat controllers embedded within the ODAs bringing 21st century joint firepower to bear, or a Navy F-18 screaming down on the deck to save an ODA from being overrun; when we quit worrying about who gets the credit and just focus, it is simply awesome to see how powerful our integrated capabilities really are.
Finally, having the opportunity to command that incredible force was simply the professional highlight of my life. The men and women of Task Force Dagger exhibited enormous strength, courage, and skill during extraordinarily difficult and unique circumstances throughout that initial campaign in Afghanistan. Our country has every right to be proud of them and what they accomplished.
Following Afghanistan, you rolled right into planning and training for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Can you give us some sense of what the run-up to that operation was like?
As you can imagine, coming on the heels of our deployment into Afghanistan, taking on the new and distinctly different challenge of operations in Iraq posed its own dilemmas. 5th SFG and I were tasked with commanding Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-West [CJSOTF-W]. Maj. Gen. Gary Harrell, commanding general, Special Operations Command Central, assigned to our task force two very demanding missions. The first and highest priority mission was to conduct special reconnaissance and direct action in the western desert of Iraq in support of the Joint Force Air Component Commander’s mission to locate, target, and destroy Saddam Hussein’s theater ballistic missile and accompanying weapons of mass destruction capability. The second was to conduct unconventional warfare in support of Gen. [David] McKiernan’s Coalition Forces Land Component Command operations in Iraq to destroy the Hussein regime.
To execute these two very demanding missions meant the establishment of a truly integrated coalition joint headquarters. For the integrity and credibility of the operation, it was imperative that the headquarters be fully representative of all forces. Maj. Gen. Harrell supported this initiative completely and CJSOTF-W operated as one of the first fully integrated coalition headquarters of the war. In every case, these U.S. and coalition teams demonstrated their exceptional capability, toughness, and resolve to overcome exceedingly difficult and ever-changing conditions to accomplish the assigned mission. This was classic application of special operations forces executing missions they were uniquely capable of doing in support of the larger campaign … really phenomenal work done by relatively junior officers and NCOs.
Looking back, what operations/missions stand out in your mind as being key to the overall success of the initial invasion run to Baghdad?
Looking back, I recall an amazingly quick and effective campaign that seized the western
desert of Iraq in an extremely short time. OIF witnessed the largest special operations infiltration in history, and every infiltration was successful. Just look at ODA 551, deployed 350 miles deep into Iraqi territory, right up in the Karbala Gap, and surrounded by Iraqi forces … That was a notable story in itself. And while the missiles and WMDs [weapons of mass destruction] were not where we expected to find them, the operational design and execution of operations in the western desert unquestionably served to alleviate strategic concerns of key regional allies and other countries.
Once the main force ground units crossed into Iraq and began their run toward Baghdad, all eyes were on those tough fights. Special Forces A-Teams were in the thick of those. Meanwhile, in the western desert and unknown to virtually everyone, there were a series of exceedingly difficult and nasty close-quarters fights waged between U.S. and coalition special forces and special operations units from the Saddam regime. These were hard-core loyalists operating, in terms of capability, very much on par with our teams. These fights between Iraqi special operations troops on trucks with heavy machine guns and our own SF and SAS [Special Air Service] teams mounted on Ground Mobility Vehicles [specially modified HMMWVs] and Land Rovers sometimes took place at ranges as close as 10 meters. In all, it came down to the incredible and magnificent work being done by small teams of tough, hard, smart professionals supported by unrelenting and professional staffs always working to assess current circumstances and doing the necessary things to get the mission done.
Having recently taken over USASOC and having had a couple of months to look things over, what is the current state of the command?
Army special operations forces are unquestionably one of the most relevant combat formations in the U.S. military today. We are all humbly proud of the work our men and women are doing, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but all around the world. Overall, USASOC is in pretty good shape. Our units are deployed and fully engaged, the schoolhouses are making new warriors, and we are working to ensure that our families have what they need to stay healthy at a time of war. I am so very proud to lead such a great group of young men and women, and be their voice to SOCOM, the Army, and our country.
Looking back, what credit do you give to pioneers like Aaron Bank, Jack Singlaub, and Bill Yarborough?
It is impossible to fully quantify the impact these great men have had on not just Army special operations, but on our joint special operations force … the greatest, most capable such organization in the world today. All of us have the utmost respect for the foundation these giants built for us to stand on today. Perhaps the greatest, most enduring test of their achievements is self-evident once the question is asked, “Does it endure?” Almost seven decades after the Office of Strategic Services was created, the relevance and contributions of USASOC to the security of our nation does indeed endure, and exceptionally so.
This interview was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2009 Edition.