When several thousand Iranian students stormed the grounds of the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 4, 1979, taking the Americans of the staff and Marine security contingent hostage, it was a shock to the world. An even bigger shock came five months later. Unbeknownst to the public, President Jimmy Carter had approved a high-risk operation dubbed Operation Eagle Claw to attempt extraction of the 53 American hostages.
The plan of attack called for Special Operations personnel to perform an assault on the embassy and extract the hostages. Marine helicopters flown in from a nearby aircraft carrier would then fly the hostages and assault team to a desert airfield where they would fly out on transport aircraft. However, from the start, Eagle Claw experienced unforeseen, crippling issues. Problems with the Marine helicopters and a massive dust storm led to the mission being aborted. Then, as the rescue force prepared to leave the staging airfield in Iran’s Great Salt Desert, known as “Desert One,” the mission turned tragic.
As members of the rescue force watched in horror, one of the Marine helicopters inexplicably slid sideways, slicing into one of the supporting C-130s and igniting a raging fire. Red-hot chunks of metal shot across the landing area as munitions in both aircraft “cooked” off. “It was the most colossal episode of hope, despair, and tragedy I had experienced in nearly three decades of military service,” one participant would later say.
Five airmen from the 8th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla., died at Desert One, along with three Marines of the helicopter crew. Another member of the rescue force was badly burned. The hostages would have to wait until January of 1981 to come home, and Eagle Claw would be labeled one of the worst failures in American military history. Nevertheless, from this terrible tragedy, the true colors of the personnel of the Special Operations Forces came shining through to take care of their own.
Helping the Children
As is common with such events, Operation Eagle Claw quickly left the public view and the American public moved on. The 1980 presidential election, along with high inflation, interest rates, and gas prices, took over the nation’s attention. Within a year, with the hostages released and a new president, the Desert One debacle was almost forgotten. However, the families of those who were killed and incapacitated at Desert One, including 17 children, found themselves staring into a bleak future. Survivors’ benefits, still based upon the old draftee system, had still not been updated in the late 1970s, and there were few options for the kids of those who had died trying to rescue the hostages.
The men of the mission decided to give something back to the families who had experienced an immeasurable loss, so they literally “passed the hat” to raise money for the education of the children left behind. The idea took hold, and within a year, the “Bull” Simons Scholarship Fund was created. Relying initially on donations from SOF personnel and other members of the military, the fund was named in honor of Special Forces Col. Arthur D. “Bull” Simons (who had led the Son Tay POW rescue mission in Vietnam). The fund provided children of the nine men killed or incapacitated in Operation Eagle Claw with full tuition to attend the college or university of their choosing.
As word of the fund spread through the ranks and the press, interest and donations grew. Jim Lewis – now Dr. Jim Lewis – was the first to graduate (from medical school) with an education paid for entirely by the fund. Jim’s father, Capt. Hal Lewis, was one of those airmen killed at Desert One. Other SOF communities saw their personnel strike up similar drives, raising money to send their children left behind to college. In the next logical step, these disparate groups coalesced in 1995, forming the Special Operations Warrior Foundation (SOWF), which is still active to this day.
As Col. John Carney, USAF (Ret.) and the former CEO for the SOWF explains, “The most important thing about this program, I feel, is that we are taking worry away from the warrior that is in harm’s way. We assure them that their family will be taken care of if something happens to them. And that is a huge load off their minds, so they can concentrate on the monumental tasks in front of them. We will send their kids to college for four years. Tuition, room, board, books, and incidentals are covered. That is one huge load we take out of their rucksacks. I’ve had commanders write in and tell me we are really making a difference for their guys, telling us how much the security of knowing this in the back of their heads helps their warriors focus and lift that impending sense of worry while in battle.”
To prove his point, Carney shared the following story. “One day, as I was sitting in my office, I got this satellite phone call. This guy called me directly from the action area, … and his buddy had just gotten killed. This Army officer was calling me directly from Iraq, in the field, to make sure the foundation knew about the casualty and that his buddy had children. And he said to me, ‘I want to be able to give [his wife] something positive – and that is that her children will not be forgotten and will have the opportunity to go to college.’”
Over the years, the SOWF has grown from part-time volunteers to a full-time staff of five, a CEO, and a volunteer Board of Directors of approximately 20 people. From this small staff comes a great deal of financial relief and support, though the value of the SOWF often goes far beyond a check in the mail. “We send them Christmas cards and birthday cards,” Carney explains. “We give them [the families] an extended family. It is a gift that cannot be measured to offset a loss that cannot be measured. Some of these ladies are pregnant when they lose their husbands, so we stay in contact with them until the kids become college age and give them emotional support along the way.”
In the last three years, the foundation has expanded its services to include employing a full-time psychologist that follows up on a monthly basis with the kids. “These children have problems that we can help with,” the SOWF psychologist explains. “Sometimes the foundation can even help where schools and other counselors can or will not. I remember a sixth-grader who had always struggled in school. He was evaluated while in elementary school and found to have some learning problems, but nothing severe enough to warrant special education services. His mother sent me those assessments, and I guided her through the process of requesting classroom accommodations. As a result of our work, this young man was able to receive appropriate help in his classroom, and experienced his first truly successful school year.”
Since its humble beginnings, the SOWF has served hundreds of families, and is currently helping more than 500 children of over 400 personnel killed in a training accident or combat mission. With each new U.S. operation involving Special Operations personnel, there is the potential for terrible, personal losses.
Thanks to the support of members of Congress and SOF personnel in the field, including people currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, support for SOWF is growing. Each year, troops donate over $800,000 by themselves. The need is unfortunately there, but so is the support. “Last year we raised $5.3 million,” says Carney, “which represents a vast increase over those first hatfuls of cash passed on to families over 20 years ago.”
The Legacy of the Lost
Today, the SOWF obtains its funding primarily from private donors, corporations, and participation in the Combined Federal Campaign. In addition to personal donations from troops, the foundation operates as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, conducting fundraising drives.
Carney hopes to raise $36 million for the SOWF by 2010 to ensure the endowment is large enough to provide scholarships for the alarming number of children being added to its rolls since September 11. So far, SOWF has raised approximately $9 million.
It seems quite fitting that people who live by the code “leave no man behind” would expend so much effort and contribute so much of themselves to take care of the families. “It’s a tight-knit group of us – a 63,000-strong, tight-knit group,” says Carney. “The Special Operations folks believe in taking care of their own, and they consider this organization, and the people it serves, part of that group.”
That’s a powerful group.
For further information, visit The Special Operations Warrior Foundation at www.specialops.org.
This article was originally published in The Year in Special Operations: 2005 Edition.