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SOCom rose from ashes 20 years ago

Published April 16, 2007


TAMPA - The 1980 mission to rescue American hostages in Iran served as a tragic symbol of the U.S. military's deficiencies using special operations forces.

In a remote Iranian desert refueling site called Desert One, a helicopter collided with a turboprop C-130 on April 25, 1980, killing five airmen and three Marines in a fiery explosion.

From the ashes of that debacle rose U.S. Special Operations Command 20 years ago today.

SOCom came to MacDill Air Force Base in 1987 in the aftermath of the political and military self-examination that arose from Desert One, a mission that magnified the shortfalls of special operations training, coordination and equipment.

"A capability gap was identified that fateful night," SOCom's commander, Gen. Bryan "Doug" Brown, wrote in a 2006 article, "and a strategic transformation would be required to overcome that gap."

So special operations units, the elite commandos drawn from all branches of the service, were brought under one unified command. In 1987, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said SOCom was necessary to combat the "burgeoning terrorist threat."

Today, SOCom is the lead military command in coordinating and fighting the war on terror.

The command, which includes the Green Berets, the Navy SEALs and super-secret Delta Force, among others, has experienced strong growth since the Sept. 11 attacks.

From $3.6-billion in 2000, the command's fiscal 2008 budget is expected to exceed $6-billion. About 54,000 personnel will fall under SOCom in 2008.

"In a sense, they've become the fifth service," said military analyst Chet Richards, a retired Air Force Reserve colonel. "They can get in really quickly. They have good language capability. They are trained to work in a foreign environment and understand what's going on with the people. But often, their work isn't about combat."

Consider the 1989 invasion of Panama.

To rattle Gen. Manuel Noriega and get him to surrender, special operations troops hung a pair of his trademark red bikini underwear, shot full of holes, on a line outside a window at his sanctuary at the Vatican Embassy in Panama City.

They also tied a goat - in some Panamanian circles, a goat is a bad omen - outside and rigged it so smoke appeared to blow out its nostrils and ears.

Winslow Wheeler at the Center for Defense Information, a nonpartisan think tank, said SOCom, like other forces, can't claim success in Iraq.

Still, he said little doubt exists for the need of well-coordinated special forces.

"There are just some things conventional forces aren't set up to do," Wheeler said.

Special forces have been around for centuries. But SOCom can directly trace its roots to the Office of Strategic Services OSS, the intelligence agency that was formed during World War II.

Art Frizzell, 87, a Tampa resident who served as an OSS agent, parachuted behind German lines in France and worked with French partisans to blow up bridges and help organize resistance.

In many ways, Frizzell said, special operations were as much about brains and unconventional warfare in the 1940s as they are today.

"We recognized that we had to be flexible," Frizzell said. "We did the job nobody else could do."

The creation of the OSS, spearheaded by legendary Gen. "Wild Bill" Donovan, faced stiff resistance from the establishment, particularly from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who wanted to monopolize the nation's intelligence gathering.

The OSS was quickly disbanded after the war, part of what military historians see as the troubling trend of dismantling special operations capabilities during times of peace.

"You can't develop these forces overnight," said retired Gen. James Lindsay, SOCom's first commander. "You can't put them together after a crisis. By then, it's too late."

When SOCom was formed, the military establishment was at first resistant, just as it was in the OSS' day, to embrace a special forces command.

"We had some real turf battles that took two or three years to sort out," Lindsay said. "The services weren't exactly enthusiastic."

Today, that territoriality appears to have mostly vanished, he said.

It will always be the bane of special forces, Lindsay said, to get little of the credit when things go right, when the mission is accomplished and the bad guy is killed. "Most people will never know the work that they've done," he said. "That's especially true right now with their work spread worldwide."

William R. Levesque can be reached at or (813) 226-3436.

Special forces in the field

U.S. military special operations units

- such as the Green Berets, the Navy SEALs and Delta Force

- fall under the U.S. Special Operations Command, based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Some of their work:

[Last modified April 15, 2007, 23:43:34]

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