tampabay.com

SoCom out of the shadows, for a week

Vice President Dick Cheney will attend a ceremony today capping off Special Operations Forces Week.

By PAUL DE LA GARZA
Published June 10, 2005


TAMPA - It is among the world's most secretive military organizations, rivaling the CIA and the National Security Agency.

Since 9/11 it has taken center stage in the war on terror, fighting America's enemies in the shadows.

The U.S. Special Operations Command, or SoCom, based at MacDill Air Force Base, oversees the nation's elite military commandoes. The Special Operations Forces, which include well-known fighting elements such as the Green Berets and the Navy SEALS, have played pivotal roles in Afghanistan and Iraq, helping to establish American military dominance early.

But the public rarely hears their war stories. SoCom doesn't like to advertise - except once a year.

At Special Operations Forces Week at the Tampa Convention Center, SoCom cracks open the door and allows outsiders to peek inside their world. This year for the first time, SOF Week, which began Monday and ends today, featured commandoes from other countries.

The conference also brought together defense contractors and SoCom leaders to discuss the effectiveness of weapons systems specifically tailored for special operations.

About 400 vendors displayed advanced technologies, such as parachute training simulators and a modern version of a Jet Pack, a futuristic machine that looked like a one-person helicopter.

Today Vice President Dick Cheney will award medals for heroism at MacDill and address the SoCom conference at the convention center.

Cheney spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride said the vice president would visit SoCom and MacDill-based Central Command, which is running the war in Iraq, to thank the military.

"Vice President Cheney is looking forward to again visiting CentCom and SoCom to meet with our servicemen and women, and to help decorate members of the Special Forces for protecting America from those who wish to do us harm," she said.

In a rare interview before the start of SOF Week, SoCom commander Army Gen. Bryan Brown addressed the historic nature of the conference.

He said that Special Operations Forces from around the world need to work together to combat not only terrorists, but drug traffickers, high seas pirates and common criminals.

"Security impacts in one country today can and will impact a second country tomorrow and a third country the day after that," Brown told Special Operations Technology magazine. "Partner nations can no longer be content to react to a security concern only after a situation has occurred."

Brown noted that the conference had attracted special operations forces from 64 countries.

He also boasted about America's shadow warriors, as Special Operations Forces are known. "We've become a more mobile and lethal force than at any time in our history," he said.

In a brief interview at the convention center Thursday, Brown called the conference fantastic. "It's been very well supported by Tampa," he said, "and much more successful than I ever envisioned."

Earlier in the day, SoCom briefly opened the door to reporters and photographers.

In the exhibition hall, the weapons systems that stood out included a virtual parachute training machine with 3-D simulations of various terrain.

Inventor Jeffrey Hogue of Systems Technology Inc., said the idea was to allow Special Operations Forces to practice multiple jumps without injuries.

Another nifty gadget: a camera known as Dragon Eggs, which is the size of a grenade and can be tossed through the window of a building and beam video images back to the operator.

The highlight of the day was a demonstration of a Mark V Special Operations Craft, used to carry Special Operations Forces, primarily SEAL combat swimmers, into and out of operations.

The 82-foot, 57-ton aircraft - maintained by a Special Warfare Combat crew, or the "boat guys" - is equipped with twin, 50-caliber machine guns, among other weapons.

During the ride, under cloudy skies off Harbour Island and Davis Islands, the boat's captain, Petty Officer Anthony Blond, demonstrated its maneuverability.

After cranking it up to 65 mph, Blond brought the boat to a dead stop, and made a quick turn.

Blond, 23, has served in Iraq and said he would not trade his job for anything.

"We're kind of like the behind-the-scene guys," he said. "It's a special group."