If you’ve never met a Green Beret, you probably assume that they’re like Sylvester Stallone in the movie “Rambo,” soldiers who can eliminate their enemy with nothing else but a paperclip. While there may be some element of truth to that, as I found, the average Green Beret is, in fact, more brainy than brawny.
This quickly became apparent when I met a group of them while on assignment overseas. One minute they spoke to me in English, the next they turned away and carried on a conversation in Ukrainian. I was immediately curious about who these guys were, what their jobs were like and what kind of training they endured to become a Green Beret.
“Some of the locals working with them at Anaconda had just days before fought for the Taliban…Imagine fighting a war never really knowing for sure who was your enemy and who was your ally… ”
I knew that the physical training was rigorous, but I didn’t realize that they were required to learn so much about the culture of the countries they cover. They could discern between the Iraqi dialect of Arabic and the Egyptian dialect and then follow up with a history lesson of tribal strife dating to the western colonization of the Middle East. They were hardly the Rambo guys I expected.
When I heard that this group of soldiers had been sent to Afghanistan less than two weeks after 9/11, (the actual bombing campaign began weeks later) and had stayed there nine months, only to return home for a short time before being sent to Iraq, I knew I had to tell their story.
Months after meeting them, I went to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, home to the 5th Special Forces Group, the 101st Airborne and 160th Special Operations Airborne Regiment, portrayed in the movie “Black Hawk Down.” After some convincing, they finally agreed to let me tell their story.
Ft. Campbell is home to hundreds of Green Berets and many were given the chance to participate in our story. The vast majority of them were not interested in taking part. As we walked around their base with our camera, it was not uncommon for soldiers to insist that their faces be kept out of our shots. Many were concerned about security. As one bluntly put it, “I don’t want my face to be on Al Qaeda’s deck of cards.” Other soldiers were, in fact, too shy to be interviewed. Because each man on a team contributes to a mission, few soldiers are willing to make themselves the center of attention in an interview. Fortunately, a dozen or so volunteered to tell their stories on camera. I was struck by how humble they were about their work. In fact, it took some convincing to get them to even realize that their stories are pretty amazing.
They told stories about working with Afghans to stop the flow of weapons and terrorists coming across the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan at Operation Anaconda. Some of the locals working with them at Anaconda had just days before fought for the Taliban. Of course, the soldiers had to be on the lookout in case one of their newfound friends betrayed them. At night, some Americans stood guard watching for the enemy and keeping a skeptical eye on their new allies while their comrades slept. Imagine fighting a war never really knowing for sure who was your enemy and who was your ally. The Green Berets actually seemed to think nothing of fighting under these conditions. It takes a lot to faze these guys.
Master Sergeant Tony Prior experienced something that none of us will ever have to — he went one-on-one with Al Qaeda terrorists. His team and one other conducted a raid on a house filled with Al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan. Tony and the other soldiers came under intense automatic weapons fire. Soon the teams were forced to fight the enemy hand to hand. One enemy fighter was so close to Tony that he could smell the man’s breath. Tony single handedly eliminated four men despite being hampered by an injury to his arm. The two teams eliminated two-dozen enemy fighters, and Tony and his men made it out without a single casualty. In true Green Beret form, Tony brushes off the notion that he performed valiantly saying, “It wasn’t a heroic act, it was second nature. I won and I moved forward.” Tony was awarded a Purple Heart and a Silver Star for gallantry, the military’s third highest award. Months later, Tony and the other teams were back home leading a very different life.
When they’re not deployed, they’re at Ft. Campbell training and going to classes. Life there seems pretty quiet except for the occasional helicopter and military plane flying overhead. When our crew — myself, producer Jonathan and cameraman Adam — first arrived, we got together with some of the guys we would later interview, meeting them for a beer. Even though they all knew one another, the guys huddled with members of their own team. They say that since they’re deployed with one another for months at a time they become “like brothers.”
We arranged to meet some of them the next morning for combatives training, an extreme wrestling used if they to come face to face with the enemy. They laughed when I told them I’d take part, which made me nervous; I hoped I wouldn’t get hurt. The next day we showed up and a dozen guys were scrambling around on mats flipping each other. First Sergeant Johnson taught me a few moves and paired me up with a soldier about my size. After a few minutes I was flipping Specialist Richardson. The exercise proved that by using your body’s leverage, not your strength, anyone can successfully take on the enemy. Of course, I later flipped my producer Jonathan throwing him over my back. That was the best part.
We watched them train for raids and other situations in which exact marksmanship is essential. At Ft. Campbell there are acres and acres of shooting ranges, each one used for different weapons and types of training. The ranges were constantly busy as we watched them stage mock raids day and night in the freezing December weather. They use real guns filled with paint pellets called simunitions. If the guys are smacked with a pellet, it’s pretty painful. They had me put on a flak jacket, a helmet and safety glasses to guard against stray rounds. I couldn’t believe how heavy the flak jacket was and how hard it was to maneuver in it. It was clear how seriously they take their training.
In all, we spent about a week with the Green Beret’s of 5th Group. Before long, they’ll be heading back to Iraq, something they’ve been preparing for. I look forward to filing additional reports about their continued work in support of the war on terror.