Green Berets

Originally published in the Clear Lake Courier — March 27, 1996

Several years ago a 12-man U.S. Army team was sent to a remote village in northern Thailand.  As soon as the team arrived, they set up a medical clinic and started giving checkups and shots to the children. A local drug warlord, who didn’t like their presence on his turf, quietly circulated the rumor that they were infecting young children with HIV.  They barely got out with their lives.

Such is the routine of Special Forces soldiers, commonly known as Green Berets. Their main business is unconventional warfare, going into hostile areas to train, equip and lead partisans or guerrillas against the enemy.

Their second primary mission is foreign internal defense, to promote national or regional stability.  They train a nation’s defense forces to combat an insurgency, but normally don’t get directly involved in the fighting.

They’re designed for training, not combat: “A 12-man A-team can do little but run for it when it comes to a fire fight. Our true function rests in our ability to train, communicate and establish trust with indigenous forces, whether they’re Filipino troops or Montagnard tribesmen in Vietnam.”

Nations requesting U.S. help to defeat guerrillas or rebels usually have poor reputations due to government corruption and human rights abuses.  Otherwise, guerrillas would never have obtained a foothold in the first place.

There is no clear-cut right side to support.  Some of the SF advisors thought we helped the wrong side in El Salvador (and Vietnam).

The first task of a team entering a region is establishing rapport, gaining the trust and confidence of the natives.

As described to me, “A team is completely at the mercy of those they’ve been sent to support.  If the situation gets ugly, all the team can do is make a run for the border and sometimes that’s hundreds of miles away.”In many cases it takes weeks and months of low level contact before you gain their confidence.  You dress like they dress and eat what they eat and abide by their culture.  One false move and you’re toast.”

Teams rely on advanced combat skills, stealth, and language expertise.  They must be culturally adept and able to live for long periods of time on the run. Every SF soldier speaks a primary language and has a working knowledge of a second.

Each team has two demolitions experts, two communications technicians, two medics, and two weapons specialists. I talked to one solder who is a demolitions expert with a bachelor’s degree in Russian history.  He speaks Russian, Ukrainian and Italian.

SF teams can be found around the world, sent by our leaders as tools to support U.S. national objectives. From Delta Force at Desert One, to countries throughout South America and Africa, to Iraq during Desert Storm, they are there.

During Operation Restore Democracy, teams fluent in French/Creole operated in 500 Haitian villages to restore civilian rule.  They provided law and order, resolved disputes and helped set up police forces and government services.

Every team is assigned to one of the Army’s five groups, designated for specific regions of the world.  For example, 1st Special Forces Group out of Fort Lewis covers Asia, and 7th Group out of Fort Bragg covers Latin America. The groups belong to the U.S. Special Operations Command, which pulls together all Special Operations Forces.  (Army Rangers and Navy SEALS are two of the others.)

How did this Navy officer get interested in Green Berets?  I was researching my Naval War College assignment for a paper on El Salvador’s recent struggle against communist guerrillas. My first call, to the Special Warfare Center archives at Fort Bragg, started an avalanche of information.  It seemed as if every person I called gave me the name of someone else who had been there.

They all had interesting stories.  To quote one sergeant major, “And some of them are true.”  I told him those were the only kind I wanted to hear.

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