Entering the guerrilla camp, I saw the place was a mess in more ways than one. There were no perimeter guards. The prior night’s fire was still smoldering. Its remnants testified to a bonfire that could have been seen for miles had it not been for the dense pine forest all around. Equipment–weapons, backpacks, and sleeping bags–were scattered all over the place. Most of the “G’s”–guerrillas in SF-speak–were clustered around the two Army Special Forces men who were talking to the guerrilla chief. They were trying patiently–and in vain–to get the chief to focus on any subject for more than 30 seconds at a time. He seemed more interested in what they had in their rucksacks than anything else. The SF guys, who had hiked all night to get there, were part of a dozen-man “A-team.” The other ten were about a quarter of a mile away, waiting for a signal to come in. They must have heard the shots the guerrilla chief fired into the air, and wondered just what the hell was going on. It’s all part of the two-week final exam at the Army Special Forces School.
The exercise is called Robin Sage, and for the trainees, it’s the end of the “Q” course–the qualifications course–that trains these warriors in the specialized tasks they must perform in the war against terrorism. For Robin Sage, about a third of North Carolina becomes the “Peoples’ Republic of Pineland.” Trainee A-teams are inserted all through the huge national forest, aiming to contact faux guerrilla groups. They succeed if they can establish a rapport with the “G’s” and begin training them to survive, work, and fight. Most of the G’s are former Green Berets and others hired to role-play, and their aim is not to make it easy. Many local citizens play roles too, and one of the local radio stations even broadcasts coded messages to the teams. To succeed in the real-world version of Robin Sage, the Army special forces have to be a bit different from our other spec ops.
People picture special forces as guys with painted faces crashing through doors, lasing targets for an air strikes, or–in the lasting image of the Afghanistan campaign–charging the fort at Mazar-e-Sharif on horseback. There is all that, and much more. All our spec-ops guys are smarter than the average bear, and more dangerous. The Army SF guys are no exception, but they focus on a different mission: insurgency and counter-insurgency operations. For that, they need a slightly different kind of guy. As Maj. Carstens explained, “we want men who can thrive in an ambiguous environment.”
When I walked into the ready shack the afternoon before, I saw about 60 Michelin men getting ready to waddle out to waiting aircraft. The few who could stand–each laden with about 150 pounds of equipment, food, and parachutes–leaned back against the walls, or each other. The ones lying on the floor looked more like piles of rucksacks than people. They were the lucky ones who would be parachuted in. The others would spend several hours in a disorienting ride in the back of 18-wheelers, or fly to the insertion point in blacked-out helos.
I asked some of the Michelin men why they were there. I got only two answers: “After 9/11, I want a piece of the bad guys,” and “I like the challenge” were their refrains. SF trainees are older than the usual soldier. Most are veterans of other Army units, and some are recruited directly in what’s called the “18-X” program. The “18-Xers” come here right after advanced infantry training. So far, “18-Xray” has brought in a Wall Street bond broker, an endurance runner who gave up corporate sponsorships to volunteer, a Navy A-6 Intruder pilot, a catcher from the New York Yankees farm team, and a New York cop whose brother was killed on 9/11. That these guys have years of experience before coming to SF benefits the force enormously. They broaden viewpoints and thus strengthen judgments.
However they insert, the trainees first had to find a local “contact” (who could be a farmer milking his cow or a teenage girl on horseback) and then get to the “G camp” by dawn the next day on foot, on mule-back, and over whatever obstacles the training cadre had designed to make their night miserable. (One kinda reliable source told me that catching the trainees off-guard and stampeding their mules is great fun.)
The trainees who reach the Robin Sage exercise have already passed through many tests of skill and character. The Special Forces School used to be a gauntlet for applicants to run through. Now, Carstens and the instructor cadre try to mentor the trainees. Many are weeded out, but most pass. And mentoring isn’t always available. At one point or another in Robin Sage, the “guerrillas” will try to involve the trainees in what may be a simulated war crime. How the trainees deal with it tells a lot about how fit they really are for SF duty. Guerrilla forces can be as bad as they are good and our guys have to know where to draw the line with them. Carstens and his guys look very closely at how each trainee handles the problem.
I’m terribly jealous of Roger Carstens. An athlete of course, a scholarly type, and a good writer (he’s written for NRO even), Carstens commands F Company, which runs the “Q Course.” Among the many reasons I’m jealous is that I’ve met some of the men he works with. Yes, he’s their boss, and can issue orders as he needs to. But my distinct impression is that he doesn’t have to very often. If you’d met some of these guys, you’d know why. Consider Chief Bryant and MSgt. Caseman.
Bart Bryant grew up in a Pennsylvania farming community. A soft-spoken guy, he reads history and hunts deer when he has time. After joining the army in 1988, Bryant was sent to Germany as a military policeman. Bryant volunteered for SF because a senior enlisted man–an injured SF guy–had told him that SF was where the action is.
Bryant has seen a lot of real-world action. He went to northern Iraq, working in rough country with rough people, the Kurds along the Iranian border. The SF Tenth Group had preceded Bryant’s bunch, and had established a very good relationship with the “G’s.” Infiltrating terrorists didn’t fare well in that area. Bryant and the SF guys did.
Bryant likes the “Nintendo generation” guys coming through the school. “There are hundreds of thousands of kids in this country who can carry 150-pound rucksacks and shoot expert,” Bryant told me. “But out of those guys there are very few that can operate in the kinds of environments we operate in.” Ok, why? “In the environments we work in, a solution to the problem at hand may cause other problems in the future. You really have to think through the third-order effects of everything you’re doing.” Chess players, guys who can see two or three moves down the board? “Absolutely. They have to not just look at a fifty-meter target and think if I aim here, I’m gonna hit it. But they gotta look beyond that target and see the effects of hitting it.”
Joe Caseman is a bit of an extrovert. He told me he went to college and “had more fun than I should’ve,” so he got a job. Caseman joined the army in 1980 and is now the NCOIC (head enlisted guy) of Detachment 4, which runs the Robin Sage exercise. Caseman served in Afghanistan, and–like Bryant and the other instructors at the school–brought home lessons learned on the battlefield. He too has a great respect for the trainees. “When I came through, I knew I was going to graduate, go to a team, and travel the world. These guys know that when they graduate, they’re going into a desert somewhere and get to the two-way live fire.”
What does Caseman want the grads to take out of Robin Sage? “It’s for them to at least have seen what it’s like working with indigenous forces in a peacetime environment. When we found out that we were going to Afghanistan and we were going to be taking these G’s in, the only thing we had to look back to was our Robin Sage.” In Afghanistan, operating from a forward firebase, with a hilltop behind it, Caseman’s unit was expecting a resupply mission one night. Having told the guerrillas they were operating with to sit tight, they sent a recon patrol to the hilltop, which returned with a negative report. As night fell, Caseman’s men spotted another group coming over that same hill. Instead of opening fire, their judgment caused them to take a risk. They sent another patrol to see what was up. It was some of the friendly guerrillas, who decided to have a look for themselves, and hadn’t bothered to tell the SF guys what they were up to. The guerrillas learned a lesson, and all it cost was another long uphill walk.
The shock came when I asked how SF was dealing with the usual shortages. Every time I ask any military guy about shortages, I hear a litany of complaints about Congress and Fort Fumble. But not from these guys. “It’s a good time to be in SF,” said Carstens. Because everyone from Big Dog Rumsfeld on down is impressed with what special forces have done in Afghanistan and Iraq, the money is flowing, and the resources are there. But success has a cost: Over the next two years or so, the output of the SF school has to double. Even with the money, there’s a serious problem. SF veterans–like Caseman and Bryant–are in short supply and can’t be spared from the battlefield. How do you get enough back to the school to ensure that the quality of the graduates doesn’t atrophy?
Carstens says they can do it. “Everyone understands the issue, and the sergeant majors are all over this.” He is confident that SF community will come up with some innovative and real solutions. Having seen a little of how he and his guys work, I’d bet the ranch on it.
–NRO Contributor Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration, and is currently an MSNBC military analyst.