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SOCOM Year in Review: 2011-2012

Humanitarian disaster relief still made up a large chunk of SOCOM’s downrange activities in 2011, much of it this time centered on the massive 9.0 earthquake/tsunami that struck Northern Japan on March 11, 2011. Key again, to bringing relief aid to the 300-mile long strip of the Japanese Pacific coast ravaged by the events of March 11, were the professionals of AFSOC. AFSOC personnel, including elements of the 320th Special Tactics Squadron, landed their first MC-130s Hercules transports at Sendai Airport on March 16, and cleared runways for C-17 Globemaster IIIs to arrive four days later. In just 21 days of operations, U.S. Air Force Combat Controllers at Sendai Airport controlled more than 250 aircraft from the Air Force, Marines, Army, Navy, and Royal Australian Air Force participating in Operation Tomodachi. Those aircraft delivered more than 2.31 million pounds of humanitarian aid and more than 15,000 gallons of diesel and gasoline to fuel humanitarian convoys and recovery vehicles. Also part of Operation Tomodachi were the Special Operations Group, U.S. Marine Corps Task Force Fuji, Marine Logistics Regiment 35, and Army Logistics Task Force 35.

And then there was one more SOF rule, epitomized by the words, “Leave no one behind.” On Dec. 6, 2011, there was a decoration ceremony for five soldiers of the 1/10th SFG in Stuttgart, Germany, for three actions on May 17, Dec. 17, 2010, and July 3, 2011. In the first action, one Green Beret and an allied soldier were taken under fire and wounded while searching the home of a suspected improvised explosive device (IED) bomber. Though only able to fire with one hand, and with their vehicle being disabled for a time in deep mud, Staff Sgt. Jeffery Musgrave managed to withdraw with his injured allied partner. For this, Musgrave was awarded a Bronze Star.

In the second incident, a “worst case scenario” erupted during another multinational (U.S., Afghan, and French) operation in Afghanistan. Three French engineers, an interpreter, two Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) members, and a Special Forces A-Team member were conducting a site assessment for future placement of an ANSF checkpoint when the team started taking enemy fire. One soldier was rendered unconscious by an IED blast, but recovered and repelled an enemy attack. Another soldier strained both his hamstrings carrying a slain French officer down a mountain, while still another SF soldier scaled up and down a mountain three times to save his comrade. One other SF soldier was shot in the arm three times, yet continued to aggressively engage the enemy, while another SF soldier ran through a burning building to evacuate its residents to safety. For their actions that day, Capt. David Fox, Sgt. 1st Class McKenna “Frank” Miller and Staff Sgt. Matthew Gassman received Silver Stars, and Musgrave was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor Device, as well as the Purple Heart.

The final incident, however, says everything about why U.S. SOF warriors are among our best citizens. While back at home base, a Special Forces soldier and his friend noticed a fire in a building in Böblingen, Germany. After directing his friend to call the German authorities, Spc. Willie Smith, Jr., next did something that he said was instinctive on his part.

Special Forces Soldier In Afghanistan

A Special Forces soldier provides security for inbound aircraft after completing a cordon and search of a suspected bomb making facility at a remote village in the Arghandab District Dec. 10, 2009. DoD photo by Sgt. Debra Richardson

“I ran up and down three or four stories to inform the people of what was going on,” Smith said. “I just wanted to ensure I got everyone out of that building.”

Going door to door, Smith attempted to alert the sleeping residents of the fire. By the time the fire department and Polizei arrived, most of the residents were evacuated, but the crowd mentioned there was still an elderly couple inside. Smith then ran back inside the building along with two members of the Polizei to retrieve the couple from harm.

“The gentleman did not want to leave his wife because she had problems walking, so he stayed in the building with her,” said Smith.

Moving through thick smoke, Smith and the rescue team located the couple, who were disoriented and having trouble getting out of bed. He took control of the handicapped, elderly gentleman and escorted him down the stairs, while the other rescue team members led the elderly woman to safety. Moments later the roof of the building collapsed. For his quick thinking, actions, and personal courage at risk to his own life, Smith, was awarded the Soldier’s Medal.

No one gets left behind.


The End of Osama bin Laden

Clearly the highlight of 2011 for SOCOM was the operation on the lips of every adult human being from Washington, D.C., to Hong Kong – the one that killed al Qaeda chief bin Laden. After more than a decade of trying to target the elusive al Qaeda leader, a National Security Agency “wireless wiretap” pulled a call from the mobile phone of a suspected courier who had been under observation for years since 9/11. This led to the creation of a task force to run the lead to ground, which turned out to be an unusual residential compound in the town of Abbottabad, Pakistan. Just a few hundred yards from the Pakistani Army Military Academy, the entire compound was a bizarre mix of high walls, no outside communications, and suspicious activity.

While the CIA continued to watch the compound, then-Vice Adm. McRaven, was “read in” on the discovery, and was tasked to create a JSOC task force specifically to prosecute the target if bin Laden was found to be there. He also was asked to begin preparing a plan to actually conduct a raid into Pakistan, with the clear understanding that he would have use of the full range of conventional weaponry, equipment, and other systems in developing his plan. For the core of his task force, McRaven chose from personnel assigned to the SEAL Special Mission Unit (SMU) that is an organic component of JSOC. He also apparently tapped a previously unused aviation capability, a small force of low-observable SOF “stealth” helicopters, piloted by members of the 160th SOAR.

Coalition Special Forces Soldier In Afghanistan

A coalition special operations forces soldier defends his position from insurgent small-arms fire during a daylong firefight in Nuristan province, Afghanistan, April 12, 2012. Afghan National Army commandos and coalition special operations forces, the first to visit that area in more than two years, defeated insurgent forces overrunning a village. Commando-led missions provide national security by encouraging local villagers to look to government forces for support rather than insurgents. DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Clayton Weis

Over winter and spring 2010-’11, the task force practiced together, working out an assault plan that could stand up to real-world mission events and still provide the breach teams a good chance of clearing the three-story main building with minimum risk. Full-mission rehearsals had been conducted, and the task force was ready. By spring 2011, the CIA was saying that the compound probably was where bin Laden was hiding, and the decision was made to deploy McRaven’s task force to Afghanistan. The “go” orders came from President Barack Obama during the final days of April, and following a one-day weather delay, the operation was launched on May 1.

Of course, the raid succeeded, with bin Laden killed by one of the SMU SEALs. And while one of the stealth helicopters was lost to flight conditions during the final approach to the compound, the plan McRaven and his JSOC staff prepared adapted brilliantly to the emergency. No U.S. personnel were lost or seriously injured during the raid, and every mission objective seems to have been achieved. But the raid did not succeed because of split-second decisions on the objective, or even the high-technology tools that JSOC was able to throw at the problems presented. It succeeded because of ideas, sacrifices, and efforts of good men, some made decades ago, often before some of the JSOC personnel on the raid to Abbottabad were even born.

It succeeded because eight SOF warriors died in a pyre of burning jet fuel on a lonely stretch of Iranian highway in 1980, and good men who saw it promised themselves that they would never allow such a travesty ever to happen on their watch. It succeeded because visionary men like Doug Brown, Charles Beckwith, and Richard Marcinko asked, “Why not?” and then created units like the 160th SOAR, Special Forces Detachment-Delta, and SEAL Team SIX. It succeeded because statesmen like Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., Former Rep. William Nichols, D-Ala., Sam A. Nunn, D-Ga., and William Cohen, R-Maine said, “This is not good enough for our warriors, and they deserve our best.” But perhaps most of all, it succeeded because of all the sergeants, warrants, and chiefs who make up the bulk of SOCOM’s force structure, who stepped forward when called, and said, “Choose me, sir.”

The year provided proof that America has and is maintaining  world-class special operations forces, with personnel and capabilities the envy of almost every other nation on Earth. And to the enemies of the United States, the operation was proof that they attack, oppose, and harbor America’s enemies at their hazard. From the low-water mark that was Desert One during Operation Eagle Claw in 1980, the United States has moved to the summit of the SOF world today.

This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2012-2013 Edition.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...