Dont forget the "other soldiers"


Jul 31, 2003
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American Special Forces are playing a key, often clandestine, role in the global war against terrorism


February 4, 2003

ARAUCA, COLOMBIA- The lumbering cargo plane carrying the heavily armed men touched down at dusk. Its propellers churning, the U.S. Air Force C-130 popped its rear cargo hatch, and two dozen Green Berets spilled out. Straining against the hot engine blast, the men quickly unloaded pallets of ammunition, food, and gear. Minutes later, the big plane vanished into a moonlit sky.

In President Bush's global war on terrorism, America's Special Forces are on the front lines. But as the president said in describing that war after the September 11 attacks, the front lines would not always be readily visible, with many battles being fought in the shadows, far away from the bright lights of the television cameras. Around the globe, from Afghanistan to the Philippines, U.S. Special Forces are either fighting, getting ready to fight, or teaching friendly forces the arcane and deadly arts of war. In Afghanistan, it was Special Forces working with militias like the Northern Alliance that sent the Taliban fleeing in panic into a warren of mountain redoubts. If war comes in Iraq, Special Forces will play a key role early on, lighting up targets for smart bombs in the desert outside Baghdad and attacking Iraqi missile launchers before they can maneuver to fire. The new missions mean more money lots of it. This year, Bush plans to increase the budget of all the Pentagon's Special Operations forces by 20 percent, to $6 billion.

Here in Colombia, the Green Berets deposited by the C-130 are prosecuting one of Bush's most important, and perilous, foreign-policy initiatives. With all the talk about Iraq and North Korea, Colombia hasn't received a whole lot of attention. But it has been very much on Bush's mind. Last fall, he promised Colombia's new president that he would do all he could to help him fight the rebel groups that control nearly half his country. In November, U.S. News has learned, Bush signed a secret order, National Security Presidential Directive 18, that officially widened the role of the American military here to do just that. During the Clinton administration, the Pentagon provided only counter narcotics assistance. Now, under Bush's new order, U.S. military and intelligence agencies are helping Colombia hunt down and wipe out the rebel groups. The directive "says to me that [the armed groups] are in fact more than simply drug guys," says Gen. James Hill, chief of the U.S. Southern Command, which directs all Pentagon operations in Latin America. "They are terrorists. And [the NSPD] directs us to go after them, in support of the Colombians." Colombia, in other words, is the latest battleground in the war on terrorism.

It is a very different battleground, however, from Afghanistan or the Persian Gulf. In this steamy, oil-rich jungle province, the rebel groups control the local government, extorting hundreds of millions of dollars in oil royalties. They regularly bomb a strategic oil pipeline a joint venture of Occidental Petroleum and Colombia. They produce cocaine and heroin, then sell the drugs for weapons. Guerrillas have kidnapped or killed more than 120 American businessmen, oil workers, activists, missionaries, and tourists. All three of Colombia's armed opposition groups are named on the U.S. State Department's official list of terrorist organizations. Some of their most violent leaders are under indictment in the United States.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld worries that the world's "ungoverned areas" can become sanctuaries for terrorists. That worry, in a nutshell, explains why the Green Berets are here. And anyone who wants to get an up-close look at how the war against terrorism is being fought in the shadows need look no further than Colombia. Despite its reputation for stealth and secrecy, the Army's Special Forces Command arranged exclusive access to its front-line operations in Colombia, allowing a U.S. News reporter to spend a month in the jungle with the Green Berets.

The Army organizes its Special Forces operators into 12-man units called A-Teams short for Operational Detachment Alpha. The team here in Arauca is assigned to train the Colombians but not actually fight alongside them. The problem is, bullets fly every day in Arauca, and the Americans must find ways to aid their Colombian counterparts while staying out of the line of fire. Sometimes, it's a dicey proposition.

The A-Team here is led by Armand Gadoury, a fresh-faced West Point grad who majored in Latin American geography. The 29-year-old captain is a man of parts, a diplomat with a winning smile who has been trained to kill. But it is the noncommissioned officers who are the heart and soul of A-teams. Gadoury's NCOs are particularly experienced. Sean, the team sergeant (he requested the use of a pseudonym), has logged 21 years in a career he seems to have been born to pursue. When he was 8, he concocted a homemade parachute, dragged it up to the roof of a three-story building, and promptly jumped off. Today, Sean is a veteran Special Forces operator, jump master, and combat diver. He is also fluent in Spanish, Thai, and Laotian. Over the years, Sean has survived a broken neck, two weeks in a Malaysian jungle with just his boxer shorts and a machete, and high-risk military operations from Somalia to Bosnia. Here in Arauca, Sean's vast military knowledge and quiet tact quickly win the trust of the local commander.

Sean and the other members of Gadoury's A-Team are here to show the Colombian military how to take the offensive against the rebels, by training assault and reconnaissance units and advising them during actual military and intelligence-gathering operations. The assignment gives new meaning to the term on-the-job training. By the time they are done here, the Green Berets will have completed what promises to be the largest U.S. military operation in Latin America in more than a decade.

On their first night in Arauca, A-Team members trucked their gear to a military base next to the town's tiny airstrip. That is the headquarters of Colombia's elite 18th Brigade, the frontline unit that is the point of the spear aimed at the rebels. Gadoury's team reports to Maj. Miguel Correa, who runs the Specials Ops show in Arauca and advises the staff officers of the 18th Brigade on tactics, operations, and intelligence.

Correa's first priority, however, is keeping his two dozen Green Berets alive and healthy, and he has his work cut out for him. At 1 a.m. on a pitch-black night, rebels attacked Colombian troops guarding a sprawling oil complex nearby, firing rampas home made mortars consisting of propane tanks packed with explosives and shrapnel. The rampas are notoriously inaccurate but ferociously destructive. The next morning, the bodies of seven guerrillas who didn't survive the Colombian counterattack were brought to the Arauca base, slung unceremoniously in the cargo net of a Russian-made helicopter.

Such attacks are more rule than exception, so the Green Berets' first days at Arauca are spent shoring up the 18th Brigade's security arrangements. Cameras, lights, motion-detection sensors, sandbagsthe Americans have brought them all and more. A sniper watchtower rising from Correa's barracks at the rear of the base provides a clear view of Arauca, a flyblown ranch town. The Venezuelan border lies just a mile beyond, affording the rebels ready sanctuary when they need it. Early on, Correa's and Gadoury's men rebuilt the rectangular sandbagged bunkers they found and introduced the Colombians to the triangular design the Special Forces favor. Three-sided bunkers require fewer men to defend and allow those inside to cover each other in firefights. Such precautions aren't for show. One night, soldiers of the 18th Brigade learned that a car bomb was being assembled nearby. Correa quickly ordered his men and a reporter inside the redesigned sandbagged barracks. The night passed without incident. But the preparation paid off weeks later when four car bombs exploded.

Dangerous as things can get in Arauca, that's not the ultimate destination of Gadoury's A-Team. That distinction belongs to a place so desolate and dangerous that the U.S. Air Force won't fly its cargo planes there. Instead, Gadoury's men board a rattling Colombian C-130 that hauls them and their gear a half-hour west to a beleaguered outpost called Saravena. If Arauca is Dante's first ring of hell, Saravena is its innermost ring. On the flight there, the C-130 passes over the Occidental-Colombian oil complex known as Ca簣o Lim糧n, then follows the 480-mile pipeline that runs from Arauca to the Caribbean. Oil began flowing through the pipeline 17 years ago. Since then, the pipeline has been bombed 962 times. From the windows of the C-130, Gadoury's men view a sea of lime-green coca bushes. They are controlled by the rebels, an endlessly renewable source of cash for more weapons purchases.

Dog bombs. No city in Colombia has been more devastated than Saravena. During the past year, 76 attacks have leveled buildings across town. The mayor's office, the police station, the town's only bank even the Colombian Army's one urban post have all been razed. The pink-stucco airport terminal demolished by seven mortar rounds is a shell. Rebels use an endless variety of tactics: bicycle bombs, burro bombs, dog bombs, mortars shot through sewer openings, booby traps, land mines. They even cut the top off an ice-cream truck and fashioned it into a launching pad for rampas.

The new quarters for Gadoury's A-Team in Saravena aren't much to look at. The town's military base is a postage stamp of grassy land next to the airport, which is wedged between two small farms. There's no fence around the base, just a 7-foot earthen berm. The Colombian commander, Col. Santiago Herrera, greets the Special Forces soldiers and briefs them on his operations to secure the base and the town.

As they move into their quarters, the Americans are a magnet for their local counterparts. Some of the Colombians scale the sandbag wall of the lemon-yellow barracks and just stare at the newcomers. Sean attracts lots of attention. He stands less than 6 feet tall, but his chest is wide and deep, his legs broad as tree trunks. One Colombian eyes him and wonders whether he takes special vitamins. Sean laughs. But he didn't build his body from a bottle. For years, he served on a combat scuba team dubbed "the body nazis" because they trained so relentlessly.

Soldiers like Sean may be larger than life, but their missions require anonymity. The Special Forces troops are puzzled, at first, when the Colombians address them as Sgt. A Pos or O Pos. Then they remember that their blood types, not their names, are stitched on their uniforms' right pocket. And while they may trade war stories among themselves back at the GB Club at Fort Bragg, N.C., most avoid talking to journalists or mixing with outsiders. Like Sean, most of the soldiers here asked that they be identified by a pseudonym. They are not known as the "quiet professionals" for nothing.

Publicity or not, the mystique is real. When Sean and the other members of the A-Team head to the firing range for target practice, Colombian soldiers mob them like rock stars. The men obligingly pose for photographs and let their Colombian counterparts try out the toys. Their M-4 rifles are modified M16A2's with collapsible stocks and cut-down barrels for close-quarters combat. The PAQ-4 infrared scope and ACOG optical sight draw longing looks; the Colombians' Israeli-made Galil rifles have only iron sights.

The contrasts go beyond mere hardware. A-Teams are encouraged to spend as much time as possible on the firing range, but for the Colombians, ammunition is in such short supply that after each patrol, they must account for every bullet. Now that Gadoury and his men are here, however, that's all changed. The Colombians will fire hundreds of rounds during their Special Forces training.

The exercises are not for the faint of heart. All of Gadoury's men are expert marksmen, but they still must hit the range every week. One day, they work on transition firing switching from rifles to 9-mm pistols. Another time, Gadoury's weapons sergeant, who asks to be called Art, designs "stress tests" to hone their shooting skills. The tests require them to distinguish in a heartbeat between hostile targets and civilians or friendly forces. Gadoury's men know the drills well. During their annual advanced urban-combat training back at Fort Bragg, Special Forces soldiers fire more rounds than any other unit in the Army. Their shooting scores, as a result, are higher than those of any unit except the superelite (and much smaller) counterterrorist Delta Force.

Advanced weapons training is just one of the ingredients that go into the making of a Special Forces "operator." To earn the Green Beret, a Special Forces soldier must pass a grueling six-week qualification course at Fort Bragg, home of the Army's Special Forces Command. Then there are language classes and up to a year's further instruction in one of five specialties: medicine, communications, weapons, engineering, or operations and intelligence. The soldiers are trained in direct action and special reconnaissance missions. They must master the intricate timing and techniques of sea and air infiltration like their counterparts in the Delta Force and Navy SEAL units.

But there are differences. To fulfill a mission like this one in Colombia, Special Forces soldiers must work side by side with foreign militaries and resistance forces and teach them, often under combat conditions, how to wage unconventional warfare. This unique skill is what sets them apart from the Pentagon's other elite units. A select few make it into the exclusive club; only 30 percent of a small pool of highly qualified applicants eventually wear the Green Beret.

Once they're in, the job can take them anywhere. The Special Forces soldiers in Colombia have seen action in every major American conflict of the past two decades. Doc Weaver, Major Correa's physician's assistant, is a 23-year Army veteran who was in Panama during the first Bush administration's effort to unseat Manuel Noriega. Sgt. Daniel McInnis, a specialist in psychological operations who works with Special Forces, was among the first Americans into Afghanistan pursuing the Taliban.

While an A-Team must master many difficult skills, only one team in the five assigned to a Special Forces company qualifies for airborne infiltration. Gadoury's team is one of them. The training required to win and maintain that qualification is extraordinary. Every four months, Gadoury's men must complete a series of jumps culminating in a nighttime leap from above 30,000 feet with full combat equipment and oxygen. These are known as HALO jumpsfrom high altitudes with low openings of parachutes close to the ground. Pedro, Gadoury's intelligence sergeant, has racked up a staggering 1,400 free-fall jumps. As a member of the Army's Golden Knights exhibition team, the sinewy, silver-haired Puerto Rican has jumped into Yankee Stadium before a baseball game and onto the deck of the aircraft carrier Intrepid.

All their hours and years of preparation are critical; in Saravena, war has a way of intruding on the boredom.

Gadoury's team has been waiting for trouble. It is, after all, why they are here. One day, their Colombian counterparts get a tip that guerrillas plan to shoot down an aircraft at Saravena's airport, using rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The Americans and the Colombians stage a live-fire demonstration to head off an attack. About an hour before midnight, Art, Gadoury's weapons sergeant, hauls out a bunch of ammo cans and mounts an MK-19 grenade launcher on the back of a humvee. The MK-19 spits out 50 grenades a minute. The humvee has been modified almost beyond recognition. The top has been sawed off; the doors and windshield removed for quick access, egress, and 360-degree firing positions. It looks like a giant convertible, with its exposed gun mount jutting up in the middle like a flagpole. Just outside the front gate of their modest new base, Gadoury's men park the humveee while Sean heads over to the mortar pit with a bunch of illumination rounds. The plan is for the Colombians to get things started, lighting things up with the illumination rounds. Meanwhile, Art primes the MK-19, then sets an M203 grenade launcher and an M240 machine gun on the ground. The Colombians are nearby with their .50-caliber machine guns. This is some serious firepower. The minutes tick bybut no illumination rounds. In the distance, a cow lows. Still no illumination rounds. Sean radios the Colombian captain. The firing pins on the illumination rounds are worn, so they improvise, popping off a red flare. It's party time. Art and the others let loose with their weapons. The jungle seems to vibrate. And the plan, it seems, works. Nearly a month passes with no attack on aircraft coming into or going out of Saravena. But success is never guaranteed. Weeks later, the rebels launch a mortar round at a Colombian C-130. The round misses, by a wide margin.

Still, success breeds success. The aggressive jungle patrols that Herrera's 18th Brigade initiated soon after he took command paid off big time one day when Herrera's men captured a rebel leader who calls himself El Indio. The man is apprehended on the river border between Colombia and Venezuela. It is a major coup. El Indio has been a key link in the drugs-and-guns daisy chain, brokering deals across the border and ensuring safe passage for rebels back into Colombia. El Indio participated in the 1999 killing of three American activists, Herrera says, and reported directly to two top rebel chieftains who have been indicted by the United States for the three murders, for the kidnapping of American oil workers, and for cocaine trafficking. Informants report that Venezuelan military officers have assisted El Indio and other rebels fuel for an international crisis.

As Christmas approaches, word of a rebel holiday offensive spreads. The U.S. Embassy closes nonessential offices. Amid the building tension, a Green Beret in Arauca can't resist a bit of gallows humor. He sends a package rigged to look like a letter bomb on one of the supply flights to Saravena. The package is addressed, in a sprawling red scrawl, "To the gringos in Sarabomba."

Soon, real bombs begin exploding. On December 22, a bus full of Occidental Petroleum employees is attacked and set afire. Two passengers die; 15 are injured. A raid by the 18th Brigade the following night yields five guerrilla suspects, caches of Beretta pistols, a machine gun, grenades, detonators of Venezuelan military make, and a few crude homemade mines. On Christmas Eve, a car is found in downtown Arauca packed with ammonium nitrate and shrapnel. Disaster is averted. But a policeman is killed and another wounded by a bomb in a neighborhood not far away. On New Year's Eve, mortars pummel the Banadia pumping station a major oil facility just east of the Saravena base.

Worry that the rebels can strike anywhere, anytime has made the Colombian military reluctant to send any unit smaller than a 140-man company out on patrol. That leaves them blind to what's happening around them. To solve the problem, the Special Forces' A-Team is training three Colombian assault companies and several small reconnaissance teams. There's a hitch, though. Gadoury needs to find a place for this new force to conduct a final field exercise, a live-fire nighttime operation. No one's going into the jungle to chase guerrillas until all the kinks are worked out. The first area Gadoury proposes is no good it turns out to be a known guerrilla stronghold. To scout the area let alone use it would put the Americans in conflict with their rules of engagement: They're not supposed to venture where combat is likely. That description, of course, could apply to all of Arauca province.

There is another problem. The rules make the American soldiers feel like sitting ducks, unable to take aggressive action even when they have intelligence identifying a clear threat. The men believe they may fire back only if they or the Colombians on the base are directly attacked.

In the end, Gadoury decides to reconnoiter training areas closer to the base. At 8 a.m. the team sets off on foot, loaded down, as always, with their M-4s, lots of ammo, and water and food. Their Camel Baks are full, and before long the men are sucking from the water hoses. Col. Jairo Bocanegra, the chief of the Colombian instructors, leads the party. Two Colombian counterguerrilla platoons have set off earlier to flush out any guerrillas. Bocanegra reminds his men to look before they shoot. Watch out for friendliesand unfriendlies. Bearded men, men dressed as policemen, and women with guns are to be considered probable rebels. Gadoury reminds his men to let the Colombians do the shooting. Pedrorolls his eyes. "I'm coming home alive," he says. Pedro walks point. The rest fall in.

They pass through open fields. Then it's into the jungle. The Colombians pass around green berries, chewing them to slake their thirst. It is 9 a.m. Every soldier's shirt is soaked with sweat. Another half-hour brings them to a one-room ceramic-block house. It is adorned with a large tree branch wrapped in green paper and white cottonthe family's humble Christmas tree. The gaunt farmer offers the men a seat at his porch table, while his 13-year-old son dips drinks from a barrel. Gadoury gamely accepts the drink, creek water flavored with a squeeze of lemon, and gulps it down. After listening to the man's worries and poring over a map, the group sets off again. The A-Team's warrant officer, a savvy 17-year veteran, reminds the men not to make easy targets by silhouetting themselves along the ridgeline. The day concludes without incident. The training site has been scouted. It has been hot work, but no one has gotten hurt.

Since reaching out to civilians is a critical element of Special Forces work, Gadoury's A-Team brought along two-man psyops and civil-affairs units. Herrera understands why. "This kind of war," he says, "is 80 percent psychological." Many of the rebels are third-generation fighters, like one of the captured prisoners Herrera interviewed one night. He asked the teen, who had joined the guerrillas four years earlier, at age 13, "What do you do?" "Soy sicario," said the youth. "I'm an assassin. And you are the plague." So Herrera is trying to win over the fourth generation, the children of Saravena, with almost daily psyops outings. Sometimes he puts on a circus, with soldiers as clowns performing stunts and skits. Twice a week, children are invited to the bases to ride on the tanks and swim in the three pools, since there are none in town.

We're here. The main job of transforming the Colombian military is just beginning. The first Colombian counterguerrilla battalion will learn maneuver, reconnaissance, ambush, and sniper tactics. Later on, it will get new hardware (weapons, night-vision goggles, and helicopters) and more know-how (assistance with tactical intelligence collection and analysis and mission planning). But the informal back and forth between American and Colombian soldiers is just as important as the new gear. The Americans are sharing what they know; they are also sending a message: We're here with you.

One lesson the Special Forces try to impart is the value of letting lower-ranking soldiers the NCOs make real decisions. A unit can become paralyzed if it has to wait for an officer to issue every instruction, but the tradition dies hard, especially in Latin American armies. The Special Forces' own example, where it is the sergeants who have the expertise and do the training, makes the case best. Watching Gadoury's A-Team, Herrera's soldiers are impressed. Sean attends Herrera's daily staff meeting; Pedro, the intelligence sergeant, works daily with his counterpart. The A-Team is tied into the Colombians' radio net.

In Gadoury's case, of course, it doesn't hurt that the path here has been blazed by other Americans, or rather by one in particular: Sander "Booger" Kinsall, a legendary Special Forces character and world-class schmoozer, who has been dispatched by the U.S. Embassy in Bogota to help get the mission off the ground. A quintessential Green Beret gone native, Kinsall has spent 19 years in Latin America. "I'm absolutely loyal to the U.S.A.," he says, tucking a tobacco chew beneath his lip. "I just prefer to live down here." Blond and full of blarney, Kinsall owns a farm in Panama, has a Panamanian wife, and angles for new assignments in the region every chance he gets. Like Sergeant Petersen in John Wayne's The Green Berets, Kinsall works his dog-eared notebook of phone numbers until he finds spare parts, a chain saw, an unused motorcycle whatever Gadoury's men need. If he takes credit every once in a while for the good deeds someone else has pulled off, what the heck, he still delivers.

A good thing, too. Gadoury and his men know they will see precious few American planes over Colombia if President Bush authorizes combat activity in Iraq. U.S. spy planes are already being diverted. Logistical challenges are constant, since the 18th Brigade has no airlift capability of its own. Occidental Petroleum lets the Colombians use its Bell and Russian-made HIP helicopters to ferry troops, supplies, and casualties. But it's catch as catch can.

Ask the Special Forces operators in Arauca and Saravena, and they'll tell you how they could be doing more, if they had more resources and fewer restrictions on their mission. Cameron, a burly young engineering sergeant whom teammates call the "eating machine," believes the Colombians need a fast-roping tower and demolition training so they can clear helicopter landing zones for assaults. The 6-foot, 2-inch, 225-pound former Ranger hankers for more action. He and a few others here have decided to try out for the Delta Force or seek a Mideast assignment with Special Forces A-Teams there.

Other operators here see their mission as critical but too limited. What they need, they say, is the ability to patrol with the Colombians to make sure what they're teaching them is taking hold. Kinsall saw the same problem, he says, in El Salvador. After training by Special Forces A-Teams, Salvadoran reconnaissance teams ventured out beyond the range of communications and fire support and attempted to engage in combat rather than stick to their surveillance mission. When they took casualties, they blamed the Americans' tactics. Not until the Americans got out to observe them did they discover why things had gone wrong and correct them. "We're only using 20 percent of our capabilities," Major Correa says, "under the current rules of engagement." As it stands now, the Special Forces will help the Colombians plan their culminating exercisea real combat operation in guerrilla territory but will wave goodbye to them at the base's gate.

Gen. James Hill, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, understands his soldiers' views. "I'd be unhappy if they didn't feel that way," he says, "because, professionally, that's the way they should feel, because they could do a more thorough job, if they could get out there and see them. The trick is, does that extra benefit outweigh the risks? And the answer, in my view, is noat this time."

Buildup. The risks include losing American lives in a conflict that does not have the same popular support as the hunt for al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Still, America's mission in Colombia is expanding. To reinforce his team in Arauca, General Hill is sending casualty-evacuation helicopters and a 12-man forward surgical team. Other A-Teams are training a Colombian commando battalion to capture leaders of the rebel groups. Still others are training a new beefed-up police force, called carabineros, to go into areas and hold them once the military has retaken them. And U.S. advisers are being assigned to Colombian brigades around the country to help in the all-important tasks of intelligence and aviation support.

Washington has a big stake in Colombia, senior Bush administration officials say. It is not only South America's oldest democracy but also the source of most of the illegal drugs Americans consume. U.S. assistance, like the training provided to Colombia's 18th Brigade, will help the nation end its 39-year-old conflict and reclaim its now lawless tracts of jungle, Bush and his advisers hope. They believe that what the Americans teach the Colombians will make the most difference, since it is their war to win or lose.

In Saravena, Sean is working closely with the 18th Brigade's mortar team to improve its crude aiming techniques. Looking back on his career, Sean counts the hundreds of soldiers he has trained, Americans and others in armies around the globe. Raw and unskilled, they became professional soldiers under his stewardship. In Colombia, Sean has spent weeks mentoring a promising young lieutenant. The soldier soaked up everything the veteran Green Beret had to offer. As they prepared to part, Sean gave the man the machete he had used to survive so long before in the Malaysian jungle. "My only request," Sean told the man, handing him the machete, "is that I see it strapped to your side the day you get your general's star."



Senior Master
MTS Alumni
Jul 30, 2004
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Twin Cities
unfortunately...special forces will most likely never get the recognition they deserve, due to the nature of their work...people never hear about least not until decades afterwards...


More unfortunately, special forces gets plenty of credit when involved in low-intensity conflicts like these, but are usually ignored by the regular brass at times when their advice is most critical, such as in Vietnam and Afghanistan.