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Commandos

The Making of America's Secret Soldiers, from Training to Desert Storm

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About The Book

Discover what it takes to fight alongside the very best of America’s armed forces in this heart-pounding precursor to American Sniper and SEAL Team Six.

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the most secret and elite of clandestine warriors, including the Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and Delta Force. Offering inside details of the US special operations forces, former Newsweek and Time correspondent Douglas Waller reveals the excruciating training and dangerous missions behind America’s elite fighting forces.

Following them closely into battle in Operation Desert Storm, Waller shares never-before-revealed scenes and details from the US Special Forces–waged Scud-busting night raids, firefights, and some of the most unconventional and dangerous war missions in history.

In this vivid account, Waller’s singular experience not only shines a light on the obstacles these soldiers face but gives an intimate portrait of the individual men and women serving our country. His inside reporting highlights the humanity of these soldiers by sharing their struggles, perseverance, and triumphs.

Excerpt

The Commandos
1
ROBIN SAGE
7:30 P.M., THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 20, 1992

The helicopter ride was surprisingly boring. Ken Swanson had heard stories about the daring of the 160th Aviation Regiment, the U.S. Army’s secret helicopter unit. The all-black MH-47 Chinook, souped up with fancy avionics and electronic countermeasures equipment could juke and dive so fast that its passengers would be flattened on the ceiling. Swanson expected the pilot to put the chopper through its paces for him and the rest of his student detachment. The fifteen Green Beret students squatted on their rucksacks, crammed together like sardines on the helicopter’s deck. Four dim blue lights overhead cast an eerie pall inside the chopper’s belly.

But except for flying blacked out with their night vision goggles, the Chinook’s pilots kept a steady course above the pine forests and tobacco farms of North Carolina’s southern Piedmont. The ride would be the only calm moment for Swanson for the next two weeks.

Kenneth Swanson. Infantry captain. The insignia on his uniform revealed he was one of the Army’s rising young officers: an airborne patch showing he could parachute from planes, a pathfinder insignia designating him qualified to guide aircraft into remote jungle landing zones, an expert infantryman’s badge, a Ranger tab on his shoulder.

Winning that Ranger tab had been hard. Sixty-five days of constant marches, two hours sleep a night, half starving in the field sometimes with just one meal a day. On lonely listening posts soldiers would become so hungry they’d start hallucinating about food. Army manuals called Ranger school the ultimate in leadership training and physical stress. Swanson felt like a physical wreck afterward. Never again, he vowed.

But now Ken Swanson was on the verge of completing the most unusual training the Army had to offer. In two weeks—if he didn’t screw up—Swanson would be able to add another patch to his uniform. This one would say “Special Forces.” And on his head he would wear the Green Beret—that is, if he got through these next two weeks.

Over the deafening whine of the chopper’s engines a helicopter crew member shouted into Swanson’s ear, offering a headset to monitor the radio traffic of the pilots.

Swanson waved it off. The chopper would be landing soon enough, he thought.

That was his first mistake. If Swanson had listened to the radio chatter, he would have heard the pilots tick off their checkpoints along the way to the aircraft’s final destination. He could have confirmed for himself that the pilot had landed at the right spot. Helicopters get lost when their high-tech direction-finding equipment malfunctions. The first rule of clandestine operations: never trust anyone or any machine to do what you’ve been told they’ll do.

Swanson was forgiven this mistake. The MH-47 was not lost. A chopper crew member in the rear of the plane held up a finger. Each team member did the same down the line. One minute to touchdown.

The helicopter landed with a bump. The rear ramp door flopped down. The team members struggled to shoulder their rucksacks in the cramped quarters, shouting “Go, go!” as they piled out.

The helicopter had landed on a farmer’s dirt airstrip, about three miles southwest of the village of Coleridge in Randolph County, North Carolina. As the team clambered out the rear ramp, they took up positions in a half-moon perimeter. The chopper stayed on the ground less than a minute, then lifted off.

The team crouched in the tall grass and waited several minutes more to let their ears adjust to the silence of the night. No one spoke. Only hand signals were exchanged.

A farmer wearing a tan jacket and baseball cap leaned against a white two-and-a-half-ton truck with a tan canvas top, which was parked at the other side of the runway. The farmer waved them over.

Swanson and half his team quickly crept up to the vehicle and circled it with a security perimeter.

The other half of the team raced up. Never taking his eye off the open field behind the truck, Swanson motioned his team to pile in the back. They were sitting ducks if counterinsurgents attacked.

“Hurry,” he whispered a bit out of breath, as he climbed up himself after the last man had boarded.

The truck sped south on a dark two-lane road. Swanson and several team members hunched over tactical maps with pen lights, desperately trying to keep up with the twists and turns the driver made, the bridges he crossed, the miles he had driven, so they would have some inkling where they would be when the truck stopped.

Swanson craned his neck out the back of the truck looking for landmarks in the darkness that he could match on his map. He had wiped clean the acetate-covered map the night before so that if it ever ended up in enemy hands it would reveal none of the coordinates for his dropoff and linkup points with the guerrillas. Those he had committed to memory.

The driver was supposed to take Swanson’s team as far as he could to Pleasant Hill Church, where they were to meet a guerrilla contact. But Swanson’s intelligence file had warned that these drivers, part of the guerrilla auxiliary, were not particularly reliable. The first rule of clandestine infiltration: don’t begin a nighttime walk in the woods to meet a distant contact unless you knew exactly where you were starting from. You would only end up hopelessly lost. If the driver decided to dump the team along the road somewhere short of the church, Swanson knew he had better have pinpointed where the truck stopped on his map or he would never be able to match the map’s legends and contour lines with whatever terrain features he could make out around him at night.

Ken Swanson was not about to get lost at the start of this mission. He was a conscientious officer. Twenty-seven years old and strikingly handsome, he had bright blue eyes, wavy brown hair brushed back, a deep voice, and a gentle manner. An avid outdoorsman, he was a marathoner when Army field exercises didn’t disrupt his training schedule. Ever since he was a child in Moline, Illinois, Swanson could remember wanting to camp out in the wilderness. He packed off to the University of Idaho in 1983 to major in wildlife recreation management. He wore flannel shirts and blue jeans and became a committed environmentalist.

But Swanson did not mix well with the other environmental activists on campus. They were too liberal politically. He may have been an environmentalist, but he was also deeply conservative. It was a conservatism nurtured among the small towns and farms of the Midwest, where people rose with the rooster crow and worked until dark and had little time for big government or taxes or welfare programs.

The Army seemed a natural place for Swanson. He won an ROTC scholarship after his freshman year and applied for the infantry after he graduated in 1986. It was a branch the recruiters were only too happy to give him. The infantry meant he would be outside, not in some stuffy office.

As Swanson expected, the truck stopped about two miles short of his linkup point with the guerrillas. If he had calculated it correctly, he was just north of Benchmark 121.9 on his map, on a road two miles east of Antioch Church. The driver walked to the back, unhooked the latch and dropped the cargo door. It clanged noisily.

“This is as far I’m takin’ y’all,” the driver said firmly with a Southern twang. “They’ve had roadblocks all up and down this road and I ain’t gettin’ stopped by one.”

Swanson’s team piled out of the back of the truck. The driver stared at the captain for a minute, grumbled, then climbed into his truck cab and sped off. Swanson had forgotten to pay him for the ride. The driver might be even less reliable the next time.

Swanson had made his second mistake. There would be many more during the next two weeks of Robin Sage.

•  •  •

From the minute he joined the Army, Swanson had had his eye on Special Forces. There was a romantic quality to the Green Berets, or so he thought. They served in faraway lands on their own with no chain of command breathing down their necks. There was a laid-back sense of confidence in Special Forces. Swanson liked that. Ranger combat battalions were so regimented, he had found, so tightly wound like a coiled spring, you could quickly burn out. In Special Forces, everyone had a specialized skill. An officer didn’t have to micromanage sergeants and sergeants weren’t afraid to tell officers a better way to run a mission.

They were a cocky group. Green Berets hated to admit that anything was new to them. If a Green Beret was heard beginning a sentence with “The first time I . . .” he could end up owing his team a case of beer. The joke in student training: Green Berets lived by three rules. One, always look cool. Two, always know where you are. And three, if you can’t remember where you are, at least try to look cool.

With luck, Swanson would study German or Russian and serve in Europe with the 10th Special Forces Group. The Green Berets were divided into five groups, which specialized in different parts of the world. The desert commandos of the 5th Group were responsible for the Middle East and Southwest Asia. The 3rd Group’s territory was Africa and the Caribbean. Seventh Group’s was Latin America, a popular assignment in Swanson’s detachment. Everybody wanted to fight drug traffickers.

That didn’t interest Swanson. During the Cold War the 10th Group’s mission had been to be ready to infiltrate behind enemy lines in Eastern Europe with exotic weapons to disrupt a potential Warsaw Pact invasion. Now Green Berets were preparing for military training missions in the new democracies of Eastern Europe. Who knew, he might be in the old Soviet Union one day training Russian soldiers, Swanson thought.

His fellow Ranger officers considered him a traitor for wanting to join Special Forces. Green Berets were nothing but a bunch of fast-talking unconventionals, as far as they were concerned. Though the Green Berets have been mythologized in ballads and adventure movies, their history has often been sad and disappointing.

Born out of the World War II Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—which had parachuted “Jedburgh teams” into occupied France to link up with partisans—the Green Berets were organized by the Army in 1952 to harass Russians behind their lines if World War III broke out. The fighters were divided into eight-man units called Operational Detachments-Alpha, or A-teams. Each team, commanded by a captain, had experienced sergeants specializing in communications, demolitions, weapons, intelligence, or medicine. (Today’s A-teams have been expanded to twelve.) Cross-trained in each other’s skills, team members became experts in clandestine warfare: raids, reconnaissance, ambushes, sabotage, underground resistance networks. But the Pentagon questioned whether the force would be of much use in the instant wars of the new atomic age. Europe would be in rubble before A-teams could organize guerrillas. The Green Berets languished in search of a mission.

John Kennedy found it. Obsessed with communist insurgencies, the new president had a romantic view of unconventional warfare and quickly became infatuated with the jaunty Green Berets. Counterinsurgency became the trendy military doctrine in the Pentagon. Special Forces grew fourfold. Hundreds of A-teams were dispatched throughout the Third World to train foreign militaries battling communists. In Vietnam, however, the Green Berets and their counterinsurgency tactics were largely ignored by an Army bent on free-fire zones and body counts. Yet even if the Green Berets had been allowed to fight their kind of war, they would not have won. No Western counterinsurgency strategy would have succeeded.

After the war, the Green Beret ranks were decimated. It was just as well. During the expansion of Special Forces for Vietnam, standards had been lowered to attract recruits. The force was full of screwballs, alcoholics, and cowboys with their Montagnard tribal bracelets from Vietnam and sapphire rings from Bangkok. Ronald Reagan, who shared Kennedy’s obsession with guerrilla insurgencies, rebuilt the force in the 1980s. Green Berets became the military ambassadors of the Reagan Doctrine to roll back communism in the Third World. Mobile training teams fanned out to more than thirty countries, instructing militaries in counterguerrilla tactics, building bridges and clinics, paving roads, and preaching human rights. Progress was made in some countries. But for unsavory regimes, the military training simply increased their proficiency in killing political opponents. El Salvador became the new testing ground for the Green Berets’ counterinsurgency strategy. But it ended up being an impossible assignment. America could no more build a democratic nation in El Salvador than in Vietnam.

The quality of the Green Beret force nevertheless improved during the Reagan years, as did the training. The Vietnam generation of lone wolves and killers faded from the force. Before beginning formal instruction, which for some A-team specialties lasts a year or more, Green Beret applicants now must pass a grueling three-week selection course at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the headquarters for Special Forces. Half drop out. Students march day and night with forty-five-pound packs to test physical endurance. They spend five days in a sleep-deprivation course to stress mental stamina. In one exercise to test how well they improvise, students are presented a jeep with its wheels off and an engine that won’t start and told to move it from one point to another. If there is a flaw in a student’s personality the testers believe it will surface from the mental and physical grind.

The vetting is important. A Green Beret must be both a maverick and a team player—two contradictory traits for a soldier. A good sergeant in the regular Army follows orders with layers of officers watching over him. A Green Beret sergeant can find himself plunked in a foreign country thousands of miles away from home advising foreign soldiers on his own. He must operate on his initiative, by his wits—yet not embarrass his own government.

After enduring the grind of selection, students begin the Special Forces Qualification Course, or “Q Course.” First they spend three months to a year in classrooms studying an expertise such as demolitions, weapons, or communications. Then they are packed off to a Spartan camp fifty miles west of Fort Bragg, the Nicholas Rowe Special Forces Training Center. It was named after Colonel Nick Rowe, a Green Beret who escaped from a Vietcong prison camp after five years of captivity only to be gunned down twenty-five years later by communist terrorists in the Philippines.

For about two months at “Rowe U,” students learn unconventional warfare tactics, many of which were borrowed from the CIA. During this field phase of the training, teams of seasoned Special Forces officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) teach courses in small-unit assaults, marksmanship, survival skills, escape and evasion. The final thirteen days are spent in Robin Sage, the code name for one of the most unusual exercises the U.S. Army has ever devised. Robin Sage covers the guerrilla warfare scenarios a team might face in the field during one year. By learning how to conduct insurgent operations, the students also learn how to combat them as counterinsurgents. Robin Sage takes students back to the original guerrilla warfare of World War II. Only this time they are jumping not into the countryside of France with the Jedburgh teams, but into the hamlets and farms of North Carolina’s southern Piedmont.

Guerrilla and counterinsurgency tactics cannot be learned on an Army post with its fenced-off firing ranges and whitewashed barracks lined neatly in rows. The tactics must be learned where such a war would be fought, among people and villages, dogs and cats, churches and schoolhouses.

To an outsider driving on North Carolina’s back roads, the villages of Troy and Biscoe and Siler City along the way seem no different from other Southern towns. But for the past thirty years, these towns and the farms that surround them have been the training ground for the unconventional warfare of the Green Berets.

Practically everyone gets in on the act. The townsfolk and farmers not only allow the Green Berets to use their pastures and forests, they also join in the exercises. Some villagers play the part of guerrillas driving Green Beret students around the countryside in their trucks for their clandestine missions. Others act as area commanders for fictional resistance forces the Green Beret students must train. On weekends, local police armed with paint guns square off with students in mock battles. Others lend land for drop zones that the Green Berets use to resupply student teams in the field.1

The civilians who play guerrillas take their parts seriously. In some families, the roles have been passed from one generation to the next. Patriotism runs deep in these towns of the Piedmont plateau with their quiet wide streets, general stores, and 4-H Clubs. Folks hang their flags out on holidays, attend church every Sunday, and host pig pickin’s afterward to devour mounds of barbecue and hush puppies. On weekends, farm families in pickups watch student teams assault bridges.

The civilians and the soldiers look out for one another. Farmers offer up chickens, goats, and deer that the students learn to skin and cook for survival training. In return, Green Beret trainers have their students repair barns or chop firewood as part of their civic action training. The local townsfolk warn of rednecks looking for trouble—the Green Berets call them “Billy Bobs”—or strangers nosing around asking too many questions. When they spot a student lost or trying to sneak into one of the gas stations to buy a soda, the townsfolk will telephone the trainers. Students quickly learn that they can’t get away with anything.

About The Author

Steve Wilson

Douglas Waller is a former correspondent for Newsweek and Time, where he covered the CIA, Pentagon, State Department, White House, and Congress. He is the author of the bestsellers Wild Bill DonovanBig Red, and The Commandos, as well as critically acclaimed works such as Disciples, the story of four CIA directors who fought for Donovan in World War II, and A Question of Loyalty, a biography of General Billy Mitchell. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (February 18, 2020)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982128227

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