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‘Quiet Professionals’ Continue Key Role in Terror War

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

FORT BRAGG, N.C., Nov. 3, 2008 – They’re called “the quiet professionals” – the elite force that navigated the Afghan mountains on horseback in the opening days of the terror war, and which Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates expects to remain in Iraq and Afghanistan long after conventional forces draw down.

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Sgt. 1st Class Richard Turner, left, Sgt. 1st Class Buddy Lockwood, center, and Master Sgt. Christopher Spence are the faces of U.S. Army Special Forces. They're seasoned soldiers, collectively sharing 52 years of service and multiple combat deployments in a brotherhood Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates calls key in the war on terror. DoD photo by Donna Miles
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Master Sgt. Christopher Spence, Sgt. 1st Class Buddy Lockwood and Sgt. 1st Class Richard Turner are the faces of U.S. Army Special Forces. They’re seasoned soldiers, collectively sharing 52 years of service and multiple combat deployments.

And regardless of what they may hear about plans to draw down combat forces and increase “dwell time” between deployments, all recognize that’s probably not in the cards for them any time soon.

Army Lt. Gen. Robert W. Wagner, commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, briefed Gates during his visit here last month about the contributions his soldiers are making to the war on terror, and the operational tempo they’re enduring.

Army special operations forces are deployed to 45 countries around the globe, he noted, with about 80 percent of those troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We’re heavily deployed … [and have been] continuously engaged since the beginning of the war,” Wagner said.

Most of his troops have been deployed 30 to 70 percent of the time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks – more than even the most heavily taxed conventional forces.

Gates made clear during the second Special Operations Forces International Conference in Tampa in May that he sees little change ahead.

“The war on terror has relied on and will continue to rely on the skill of our nation’s special operators for years to come, as well as the elite forces of many friends and partners,” he said. “This is, after all, a war that more often than not will be fought within nations with which we are not at war.”

Yet there’s a surprising lack of complaining among the soldiers involved about the pace of operations and the demand it puts on them and their families.

“When I volunteered to do this job, I knew what it entailed,” shrugged Turner, who spent 11 years in the regular Army before joining the 3rd Special Forces Group here seven years ago. Since then, he participated in the invasion into Iraq and deployed three times to Afghanistan and several times to Africa.

Spence was among the first Special Forces soldiers to participate in the war on terror, riding horseback alongside anti-Taliban fighters in the Afghan mountains during the opening days of Operation Enduring Freedom. He took an iconic photo of that mission that demonstrated the tenacity special operators bring to the fight.

Since then, Spence has deployed three additional times, to Iraq.

With 22 years of service, 13 in Special Forces, Spence said he’s seen operational demands steadily climb. It’s driven some of his fellow Green Berets to leave the Army, but Spence said he’s seen many quickly change their minds and return.

“They lose the camaraderie, they lose that group of guys they hang around with each day who they know will take care of them through thick and thin, like a little band of brothers,” he said. “And they end up coming back in,” some returning to the same “A teams” they left just months earlier.

That’s despite the top-dollar enticements the private sector is willing to pay for Special Forces experience and expertise.

Lockwood, at 30, the youngest of the group, said he knows he could make more money elsewhere. He called the special incentive pays and re-enlistment bonuses the Army offers Special Forces soldiers “ample to sustain our families,” but said money isn’t what ultimately makes him stay.

“I do what I do because I enjoy what I do,” he said. “I don’t think you could replicate the feeling of the camaraderie of the units we are in and the men we work with in the civilian sector.”

Lockwood, who served with the 82nd Airborne Division during the initial invasion of Iraq before joining Special Forces, said he joined Special Forces to become part of an elite, highly skilled team. He said he was drawn by the specialized training, and the maturity of the force. The typical Special Forces noncommissioned officer is 33, and the typical warrant officer is 39.

Going into combat “with soldiers as good as you or better than you” gives an additional sense of confidence, Lockwood said. “It makes the deployment seem easier when you’re around guys older and more mature who have a better understanding of what is going on, it helps you grow.”

Pressed to sum up that quality that makes Special Forces “special,” Spence delivered it in one word: adaptability.

“Adaptability is probably one of our greatest strengths that we … bring to the battlefield,” he said. It’s “our ability to change with every given situation [and] the maturity level we bring.”

Spence said he’s proud to serve in the group known as “the quiet professionals.” “We are the guys who go in, we are quiet, we do our job, and then we leave.”

Gates called special operators like Spence the best answer to a shadowy terrorist threat. “This kind of foe has dramatically changed the [Special Operations Command] world, thrusting special operators into a new role as the lead component in the fight,” he said at the Tampa special operations conference.

“Special operations had for many years been training precisely for the kind of conflicts in which we now find ourselves: prolonged, messy engagements where tactical success does not necessarily yield strategic success,” Gates said.

In these conflicts, he said, “cultural knowledge and language skills often mean a great deal more than raw firepower.” And victory ultimately will be measured, “not by how well we do the job, but by how well we can train and empower other nations to protect themselves.”

Gates recalled back to the 1990s when special operators continually honed their skills even when it wasn’t always clear how or when they’d be used. He recalled former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker comparing special operators to a brand new Ferrari in the garage that nobody wanted to use for fear its fender might get dented.

In the war on terror, that’s all changed. “The Ferrari is out of the garage,” Gates declared, and continues leading the pack.

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Robert M. Gates

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