As the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) prepared for its 25th anniversary in April 2012, it and its four service components were among the few elements of the military not facing major downsizing and funding cuts. Indeed, as combat operations in Southwest Asia continued to draw down, the impact special operators have had there and elsewhere around the world since 9/11 led the Department of Defense (DoD) to expand their size and capabilities, despite the austerity of the FY 2012 defense budget.
Perhaps the most public issue involving SOCOM in 2011 was the raid by a Navy SEAL team in Pakistan that killed al Qaeda leader and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, who had been the primary target of U.S. forces for a decade.
Under the cover of darkness on May 1, 2011, helicopters carrying SEALs and other SOCOM personnel landed at bin Laden’s compound, only 30 miles from the Pakistani capital city, and killed the terrorist leader and several followers. Suffering only the loss of a helicopter (reportedly a top-secret stealth aircraft) wrecked in a landing accident, the team returned to base in Afghanistan with a wealth of intelligence information.
The raid was planned by then-Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a component of the broader SOCOM. McRaven literally wrote the book on special operations missions – Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice (1995) – and much of the bin Laden raid seemed to come straight from its pages. Three months later, he was awarded his fourth star and promoted to command of SOCOM.
But while the death of bin Laden topped the public perspective, it was the day-to-day efforts of the Navy Special Warfare Command (NAVSPECWARCOM), U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), and Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) – all under SOCOM leadership – that provided critical value to U.S. foreign relations and military operations.
“The American people will expect us to be prepared for every contingency, to answer every call to arms, to venture where other forces cannot and to win every fight – no matter how tough or how long,” according to McRaven.
“How tough” was demonstrated only three months after the bin Laden raid, when a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade hit an Army National Guard CH-47 Chinook, killing all 38 U.S. and Afghan military aboard – including 17 SEALs and five NSWC support personnel. It was the worst single loss of life in the history of Navy special warfare or SOCOM – and the highest single-day U.S. death toll in 10 years of combat in Afghanistan.
But not every “call to arms” involves combat. At any given moment, about 20 percent of SOCOM’s combined force of 60,000 is deployed, not only to the war in Afghanistan, but to 78 other nations as well in 2011. Most of those missions involved working with host nation militaries, training exercises, humanitarian relief, and enhancing U.S. global presence. That included Japanese tsunami relief efforts and response to other natural disasters around the world.
After a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and 33-foot tsunami devastated large areas of northern Japan on March 11, 2011, members of the 353rd Special Operations Group at Sendai Airport handled the arrivals and departures of more than 250 aircraft during Operation Tomodachi, which delivered some 2.3 million pounds of humanitarian aid.
Special operators (Special Forces is a specific designation for those most people know as the Army Green Berets) bear little resemblance to their typical Hollywood depictions. On average, they are 29 (enlisted) or 34 (officer) years old; married, with at least two children; have spent eight years in general purpose forces; have a college degree; have received intensive cultural and language training while attending multiple advanced tactical schools; are athletes (not only football, but track and water polo); and enjoy problem-solving games, such as chess.
Neither are they exclusively male, nor are female members relegated to “office” duty. Women in SOCOM Cultural Support Teams (CSTs) and Female Treatment Teams (FTTs) (which include women from coalition special operations units) go into the field in Afghanistan every day, providing medical care and educational support to Afghan women and girls. While not technically a combat operation, they nonetheless often face hostile reactions in a culture where women traditionally have been kept in the shadows.
The first six-month FTT rotation was initiated in June 2011, as multiple teams moved out across Afghanistan.
“Our mission was to have female medical providers go out into the villages and train the local village women, uneducated women, on basic health care, like treating a fever or recognizing different illnesses,” an FTT officer in charge said as that first rotation drew to a close. “We teach the women to know if they can treat them in the villages or if they need to take them to the hospital.”