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U.S. Army Special Operations Command Year in Review

In the world of U.S. special operations forces (SOF), about 50,000 military and civilian personnel make up America’s most-focused asset in its current military conflicts across the globe. U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) represents about half of that force, and has the greatest variety of units, roles, and missions, and  the greatest range of capabilities. From Special Forces Command (SFC) with their highly capable Green Berets, to the world-class aviators of the new Army Special Operations Aviation Command (ARSOAC), USASOC covers the full range of U.S. SOF, as it has done for almost 60 years.

It was another year of relative stability within the USASOC leadership, with Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland continuing as commanding general. On July 26, however, USASOC’s Deputy Commander Brig. Gen. Raymond P. Palumbo handed over command to Maj. Gen. Kurt Fuller, a member of the 75th Ranger Regiment with combat experience dating back to Operation Urgent Fury (Grenada, 1983). Command Sgt. Maj. (CSM) Parry L. Baer continued his duties throughout 2010. This steady leadership is helping USASOC grow in size and capability as America enters its second decade of global war.

Brig. Gen. Bennet S. Sacolick accepts the colors, and command, of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School from Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland, Jr., commanding general of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Aug. 17, 2010, at the JFK Plaza on Fort Bragg, N.C. U.S. Army photo by Janice Burton

John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (JFKSWCS)
Aug. 17, 2010, saw a significant change in the leadership of the JFKSWCS, when Maj. Gen. Thomas R. Csrnko turned over command to Maj. Gen. Bennet S. Sacolick. Sacolick’s SOF career is vast, with tours in Special Forces (SF), Rangers, and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). His combat experience is a laundry list of America’s conflicts, including Operations Just Cause, Desert Storm, Task Force Ranger, Joint Endeavor, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom. Also in August, JFKSWCS got a new deputy commander when Col. Ferdinand Irizarry II arrived. A 1981 graduate of Johns Hopkins University with a bachelor’s in psychology, Irizarry is a career civil affairs (CA) professional who previously was the first commander of the newly formed 95th Civil Affairs Brigade at Fort Bragg, N.C. The job as JFKSWCS senior enlisted adviser changed hands as well, when Command Sgt. Maj. Peter J. Sabo handed over his responsibilities to Command Sgt. Maj. Anthony A. Pettengill, Sr., on June 21.

U.S. Army Special Forces Command (SFC)
SFC said goodbye in 2010 to Maj. Gen. Michael S. Repass, who moved to NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, where he took up the duties as commanding general, U.S. Special Operations Command Europe. On June 19, his replacement, Brig. Gen. Edward M. Reeder Jr., took over command of the regiment, and is now bringing a career of SOF/SF experience to SFC. SFC’s senior warrant officer, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Bruce R. Watts, was relieved by Douglas D. Frank, while Command Sgt. Maj. Mario G. Vigil continued as the command’s senior enlisted adviser. The command also grew another new SF battalion in 2010, and continued the construction of new facilities at Eglin AFB, Fla., that will allow the permanent movement of 7th Special Forces Group (SFG) to a new headquarters mandated under the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC).

1st Special Forces Group
The Pacific area of responsibility (AOR) is the largest military venue covered by SOCOM, and providing SF A-Teams to work there is the job of the 1st SFG out of Fort Lewis, Wash. This past year has been a good one in continued progress in combat venues like the Philippines combating Muslim insurgent groups, as well as more peaceful applications of American “soft power.”

This past year, 1st SFG, in concert with Marines from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), worked on a number of projects designed to project positive images of the American military at work, along with building useful infrastructure and conducting real-world relief operations. Medical and veterinary clinics are a popular mission, especially when they can help conduct operations that have long-term effects like inoculations and dental work. Others, like those of Joint Task Force (JTF) Comet in 2010, helped complete a road project in Sulu province. JTF Comet and Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) worked together to complete the improvements to the four kilometers of paved road that connect the Maimbung and Parang Municipalities.

Members of 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) conduct maritime training operations aboard MH-47 Chinook helicopters from 4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment at Solo Point, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Sept. 1, 2010. U.S. Army photo by Maj. Matthew R. Gregory

“The Maimbung-Parang Road turnover ceremony marks another significant accomplishment by the Partners in Peace to bring peace and development to the region,” said Maj. Joel Thomas, USA, the TF Sulu commander. TF Sulu is one of three such units that is part of JSOTF-P, and works with TF Comet to conduct a wide array of humanitarian and infrastructure projects. TF Sulu also works side by side with the Philippines armed forces and local government to bring greater security and improved living conditions to the people of the Sulu province.

3rd Special Forces Group
Col. Mark C. Schwartz took command of 3rd SFG (A) July 8 from Col. Gus Benton II, marking two years and two deployments for Benton. Maj. Gen. Michael S. Repass, then-commanding general of the U.S. Army Special Forces Command (Airborne), presided over the ceremony and said it was a “momentous” day for group, bidding farewell to Benton and welcoming Schwartz. “I’ve appreciated your candor, courage, and compassion,” Repass said to Benton,  “You did what was necessary for the mission and for the units. The unit has performed superbly under your command.” Repass also said that everything Schwartz had done in his career as a Special Forces soldier had led him to this point, and that Schwartz was the right man to replace Benton. “You are very well prepared and I have no doubt that you will excel,” Repass said. Schwartz had previously served with 3rd SFG (A) as the group executive officer and as the deputy commander of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan from October 2007 to June 2008.

His most recent assignment had been as the director of operations, Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan.

A much more somber occasion occurred on Oct. 6, 2010, at the White House, when Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller, a Green Beret, posthumously received the Medal of Honor. Miller, on point with a mixed 3rd SFG/Afghan National Army patrol in 2008, was killed during a vicious firefight in northern Afghanistan. Miller’s valor, dedication, and personal sacrifice were honored when President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to his family. This was the first such decoration for a USASOC warrior since the 1993 Mogadishu firefight, and a long overdue recognition of what all of SFC has done since the attacks of 9/11. For all the soldiers of 3rd SFG and all the Green Berets of SFC, it was a chance to take a moment to remember.

Godspeed Sgt. Miller.

7th Special Forces Group
In August, seven 7th SFG soldiers were awarded the Silver Star for heroic acts of displayed during the group’s deployment to Afghanistan from 2007-2008. Sgt. 1st Class Mario Pinilla, Staff Sgt. Daniel Gould, Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Clouse, Master Sgt. Julio Bocanegra, Sgt. 1st Class Antonio Gonzalez, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mark Roland, and Sgt. 1st Class David Nunez were honored for their courageous acts during their deployment. Sgt. 1st Class David Nunez’ posthumous medal was presented to his brother, Spc. Rene Nunez of the 82nd Airborne Division.

“[These men] laid it all on the line and risked absolutely everything they care about in life for the sake of the mission at hand, and their partner and Afghan forces teammates on their left and right,” said Col. James Kraft, 7th SFG commander. “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s true honor.”

For the soldiers of the 7th SFG, 2010 also brought the beginning of construction on their new home at Eglin AFB. The initial construction phase is well under way, with more than 600,000 square feet of facilities costing $380 million planned. Designed from the beginning for the new four-battalion SFG structure, the new 7th SFG Headquarters also sports one of the finest range complexes available for training and mission preparation in the continental United States. Military history records that both the Doolittle (1942) and Son Tay (1970) Raids did their training and practice on the Eglin AFB ranges. They are a national treasure, and nobody knows this more than the Green Berets of 7th SFG, who cannot wait now to move south to their new home.

Sgt. Richelle Aus, an Army medic from C Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, talks to Afghan village children following a humanitarian aid drop at a closed clinic outside Kabul July 24, 2010. The clinic closed more than three months ago due to a lack of funds, forcing villagers to walk up to 6 miles for medical aid. U.S. Army photo by Tech. Sgt. Gloria Wilson

And while local community support in the area of northwest Florida has been overwhelmingly positive, the Army, SOCOM, USASOC, and the 7th SFG itself continue to work hard to keep that support solid. Key to this has been a town hall outreach program. This program is not only aimed at Florida, however, and one such meeting took place for 7th SFG families in Fayetteville, N.C., on May 11 and 12. Hosted by the workforce boards of Oskaloosa and Walton counties, the meetings were designed to acquaint 7th SFG family members with everything from schools and shopping to regional health care and housing markets. The 7th SFG BRAC-mandated move is rapidly becoming a model for similar transitions that are pending around the country.

10th Special Forces Group
The 10th SFG activated a new battalion during a ceremony at Fort Carson, Colo., on Aug. 19. Col. Sean P. Swindell, the 10th SFG commander, had been overseeing the creation of the new 4th Battalion (4/10th SFG) throughout FY 2010, the third such activation in just three years. Both 3rd and 5th SFG had activated 4th Battalions in 2008 and 2009 respectively, and lessons learned during those activations proved useful for the creation of 4/10th SFG.

“This is the one opportunity you have in your career to shape something in your own image, to take ownership of something from the ground and build up from there,“ Maj. Guillaume Beaurpere, 4th Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, (Airborne) activation commander, said of his new command. “It was a synchronized equipping effort which allowed us to establish the facilities first, and then subsequently launch the equipment forward. We did that throughout the year, and it bought us a lot of time to make sure the facilities were prepared and secured, to properly store and account for the equipment.”

One thing that 4/10th SFG will need soon is a new battalion operations facility, so the entire unit can be co-located at Fort Carson. In the meantime, the 4th Battalion and its companies are being housed in existing facilities in the 10th SFG compound area. However, those areas required renovation to accommodate the companies and Operational Detachments-Alpha (ODAs) to train and operate within. This included team-room renovation and wiring for network improvement for computers and phones at all levels.

A spent shell-casing flies as a member of the U.S. Special Operations Forces Team, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), fires his weapon June 19 outside the Dominican Army’s 1st Infantry Brigade in Santo Domingo. The U.S. team is one of many special operations forces teams competing in the Fuerzas Comando 2010 competition. Along with the rifle and pistol event, soldiers participated in a sniper marksmanship event and critical shooting skills. U.S. Army photo

“We had some clear guidance from Col. Swindell as we occupied these facilities,” Beaurpere said. “Regardless of how long we stay here, he wanted us to make sure that we left the facilities in working order for whoever came in behind us, so we took that to heart. We have a good plan out there, and now we are simply waiting for the facility to be built. It was a synchronized equipping effort, which allowed us to establish the facilities first, and then subsequently launch the equipment forward. We did that throughout the year, and it bought us a lot of time to make sure the facilities were prepared and secured, to properly store and account for the equipment.”

Along with finding a place to house the new battalion, there was also a requirement to fill its ranks with trained and operationally ready SF soldiers. 4/10th SFG’s new soldiers conducted a cold-weather mountain warfare training exercise and has a company conducting Special Forces Advanced Urban Combat training. There also has been a focus on individual and institutional skills, including soldier tasks such as zeroing weapons and fitness training and physical conditioning. The entire unit standup process includes achieving USASFC (A) 350-1 training requirements that each SF ODA must accomplish to be certified “operational.”

“As we progress, the key piece that we always keep in the back of our mind is the validation of the battalion for operational employment,” Beaurpere said. “Our intent is to go through validation throughout the next several months, culminating in a large exercise in late winter/early spring in 2011. Following that exercise, we would then be postured to execute whatever mission the group commander wants us to execute. It’s been a coordinated team effort, not only for the guys at the battalion, but also the group staff. It’s not something you do in isolation; we had the benefit of other groups doing this. A lot of soldiers worked very hard and were instrumental in the activation of this battalion.”

With the 4/10th SFG finally stood up, that leaves the fourth battalions for 1st and 7th SFG to begin the process.

19th and 20th Special Forces Groups
SFC’s two Army National Guard (ANG) SFGs, the 19th and 20th, once again spent their year supporting cooperative training and combat missions. This often involved doing duties for which their active-duty SF brethren would be used in more peaceful times. Ten years after 9/11, however, the SF soldiers of the ANG are, as often as not, performing combat missions alongside their active-duty Green Beret brethren, using the same combat skill sets, along with their unique civilian talents.

One example of this came in August, when SF soldiers from the Florida National Guard’s 3rd Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group (3/20th SFG), deployed once again to support ongoing combat operations in Southwest Asia. Prior to this deployment, the battalion spent three months training at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center in Starke, Fla. This localized training provided many of the soldiers the opportunity to stay close to their families in the months before the deployment. Lt. Col. Don Lovelace, the 3/20th SFG’s commander said of the training, “It offered us the ability to obtain the maximum training value to prepare for combat operations. Many of these soldiers have trained their entire career to conduct military operations when called upon.”

Similar sentiments came from other 3/20th SFG officers. “The training has been more detailed, more time-focused, and more equipment, emphasis and money has been focused on this training,” said “Maj. Scott,” a company commander. “Myself and my soldiers are more prepared for this mission we’re going to be doing downrange than any other deployment I’ve been on.”

The reality is that many of the 3/20th soldiers already have one or more deployments under their belts since 9/11. Third and fourth tours overseas are not uncommon. This experience, along with the tough training requirements of SF soldiers, prepared them as much as possible to perform the difficult missions required of them, because an improvised explosive device bomber or insurgent does not check to see if a soldier is active duty or ANG before he pulls the trigger.

10th SFG(A) Special Forces soldiers practice positioning and movement after exiting from a helicopter at Fort Carson, Colo., Aug. 19, 2010. Photo courtesy of 10th SFG(A) Public Affairs

75th Ranger Regiment
Col. Michael E. Kurilla continued as the 16th commander of the regiment, making good use of the new fourth company added to each battalion, along with the addition of the planned “low-density” support personnel. March 22 saw the arrival of a new regimental sergeant major, when Command Sgt. Maj. Chris Hardy turned over his responsibilities to Command Sgt. Maj. Chris Merritt. As in previous years since 2001, the regiment remains 100 percent committed downrange, with only occasional visits home for retraining and short rest periods. Ten years after 9/11, while casualties continue to be unbearable, Ranger recruitment levels remain high, and morale unbreakable. When 3rd Battalion/75th Rangers (3/75th) commander Col. Daniel R. Walrath handed over command of his unit to Col. Fredrick “Mark” O’Donnell on Aug. 6, he spoke with great pride of his Rangers.

“This battalion has led the shift in our national main effort and we are now leading the main effort fight in the main effort province by operating in advance of conventional forces to shape their long-term success,” he said. “The successes in central Helmand and Marjah realized by conventional forces beginning February 2010, we were there in May 2009. This is what Rangers of this battalion do – they have been the force of choice for those missions that others could not do, or would not do, the force of choice for the mission impossible. But just being chosen to get in the ring is not enough – this battalion doesn’t leave the field of battle until it has completed its mission and vanquished its enemies.”

Army Special Operations Aviation Command (Provisional)
There is something new in the air at USASOC: the long-awaited christening of the Army Special Operations Aviation Command (Provisional)  or ARSOAC. ARSOAC is the result of the impressive growth by the existing 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), along with the infrastructure needed to provide USASOC with its own highly specialized air attack and transport capabilities. USASOC has also gone into the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) area with their first acquisitions of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). As a result of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review by the Department of Defense (DoD), both SOCOM and USASOC sought and received approval to create a one-star Army special operations forces aviation force command. ARSOAC will provide the appropriate command and control, manning, and visibility for the complex and sensitive tasks required of ARSOF aviation units and organizations.  ARSOAC will be composed of four component units, spread across the country. In addition to the existing 160th SOAR, ARSOAC will also have a U.S. Army Special Operations Command Flight Detachment, at Fort Bragg, along with the new Systems Integration Management Office and Special Operations Aviation Training Battalion, both at Fort Campbell, Ky. Two new companies of the 160th SOAR will operate the new MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAVs.

The names of ARSOAC’s first command team read like a 160th SOAR history of the past decade, with Brig. Gen. Kevin W. Mangum standing up the command on March 25, 2011. Mangum previously commanded the 160th SOAR, and spent four tours with the regiment dating back to when it was still Task Force 160 back in the 1980s. Mangum’s first deputy commanding officer is Col. Steve Mathias. Helping these gentlemen is a legendary warrant officer and Nightstalker, Chief Warrant Officer 5 David F. Cooper. Holder of the Distinguished Service Cross and a former 160th SOAR chief warrant officer, Cooper is a link to the great Nightstalkers of the past, and a touchstone to future SOAR aviators, whatever they may fly.

Soldiers from the 75th Ranger Regiment descend in an MH-6 Little Bird helicopter flown by pilots from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment into a staged firefight during an exercise demonstrating the range of U.S. Army special operations capabilities for the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference on April 28, 2010, at Fort Bragg, N.C. U.S. Army photo by Trish Harris, USASOC DCS PAO

For the Nightstalkers, 2010 saw the end of production for an aircraft near and dear to their hearts: the MH-47G Chinook. Arguably the most capable SOF transport helicopter in the world today, the MH-47 has been the lynchpin of the U.S. war on global terrorism since 160th SOAR Chinooks dropped ODAs 555 and 595 into Afghanistan in 2001. At one point,   Mulholland (who commanded Joint Special Operations Task Force-North) had only six MH-47E airframes to carry men and supplies covertly into and out of Afghanistan, and the Chinooks delivered. For that reason, modernizing aircraft to the MH-47G standard and buying more of them has been a Title 10 funding priority for SOCOM. Now that the last of the -47G aircraft have come off the Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) line at Boeing in Philadelphia, Pa. Next on the modernization list will be a SLEP program for the regiment’s MH-60 Black Hawks, and an out-and-out replacement for the aging A/MH-6 Little Birds, some of which have been serving since the 1960s.

In addition to helicopters, the 160th SOAR got an entirely new kind of aircraft into service in 2010: the General Atomics MQ-1C Grey Eagle UAV. Based upon the wildly successful MQ-1 Predator, the Grey Eagle is an evolved design with greater performance, endurance, armament, and payload. The idea has been to provide USASOC SOF personnel with UAV services tailored to their specific needs, but exceeding the capabilities of smaller, man-portable systems like the RQ-11 Raven. To this end, the 160th SOAR has attached a company-sized MQ-1C unit called Quick Reaction Capability 2 (QRC 2). QRC 2 is one of two Grey Eagle companies that will be added to the 160th SOAR in the near future. QRC-2 was stood up at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., in 2010, and has since been deployed overseas to Afghanistan.

QRC 2 is composed of an MQ-1C system, with four UAVs and two control stations, manned by 17 military and 29 contractor personnel. This allows a continuous “orbit” over an area nearly 24/7, with infrared, day video, and SAR sensors, a laser rangefinder/designator, and four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. Most of the ground support equipment and much of the airframe/airborne systems are identical to those of the earlier MQ-1 Predator-series UAVs, allowing for a high level of field sustainability downrange. The first combat engagements of QRC 2 took place in early 2011, with spectacular success. And while the two Grey Eagle companies for the 160th SOAR are well on their way to being formally accepted and flagged, there is the tantalizing question of whether the potential growth of dedicated UAV units for ARSOAC is going to be an inevitable reality in the not-too-distant future.

95th Civil Affairs Brigade
Col. Michael J. Warmack turned over command of the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade (CAB) to Col. James “Jay” Wolff on July 9. He was assisted throughout the year by Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas E. Wall, who actually spent much of his SOF career as an SF weapons sergeant with the 7th SFG. There also was some time to remember past-service achievements when Lt. Col. Daniel Barzyk, then-commander of the 91st Civil Affairs Battalion, presented awards to soldiers of Alpha Company (Alpha/91st CAB), which returned to Fort Bragg in September after an eight-month deployment to Afghanistan. Among the 40 soldiers recognized at the ceremony on Dec. 3 were three who will be honored for heroism on the battlefield. They included Sgt. 1st Class Marius Orhon (Army Commendation Medal with Valor device), Sgt. Erik S. Crouch (Bronze Star with Valor device), and Capt. Ryan J. Schloesser (Bronze Star with Valor device).

4th Military Information Support Group (MISG)
In 2010, the 4th Psychological Operations Group (POG) was reflagged as the 4th Military Information Support Group (MISG). This change of unit designation reflects the DoD-wide shift to the Military Information Support Operations (MISO) mission. “MISO is the dissemination of information to foreign audiences in support of U.S. policy and national objectives,” according to DoD. Col. Carl E. Phillips transitioned the 4th MISG to its new designation in 2010, and continues to command. 

Along with a new name, in 2010 the 4th MISG got a new senior enlisted advisor, Command Sgt. Maj. Fernan T. Castelo. 4th Military Information Support Battalion (MISB) also got a new commander on Aug. 18, when Lt. Col. Daniel Guadalupe took command from Col. Kris Kenner. Finally, the 4th MISG also got a new company (while still flagged as the 4th POG) on April 8, when Echo Company of the 9th Psychological Operations Battalion (E/9th POB, now E/9th MISB) uncased its colors.

U.S. Army Special Operations Support Command
2010 saw the 528th Sustainment Brigade get a new senior enlisted adviser, when Command Sgt. Maj. Charles Tobin took over his duties. Though the 528th rarely makes the news, it is worth remembering part of a speech Mulholland gave in 2009.

“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 first appeared in The Year in Special Operations: 2011-2012 Edition.


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

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-7092">

    Why isn’t 5th Group mentioned?