The following excerpt is courtesy of Robert A. Trivino’s book A Warrior’s Path: Lessons in Leadership. Robert is a former member of the US Army’s 18th Airborne Corps, 75th Ranger Regiment, and an operational member of the Army’s elite special missions unit. The book humbly highlights Trivino’s own successes – and particularly his failures – throughout a storied career that illustrates how he used them to improve his leadership skills for personal growth but most importantly, for his own men.
The excerpt below is from Chapter 5: “Team Sergeant Time” where Trivino describes preparing to be one of the first Americans to set boots on the ground in the War on Terror in Afghanistan.
September 11, 2001, Fort Bragg, NC
I met with my team at approximately 8 am on September 11, 2001, and we discussed the day’s schedule. Our morning was slow. We all needed to catch up on paperwork and return equipment used for training earlier in the week. I had to return a freefall parachute that I’d signed out for weekend freefall training and I also needed to reply to a number of e-mails that I’d prioritized lower than team training.
I entered the common area of my unit after dropping off my parachute at the rigger’s shed. There was a small crowd of operators sitting and standing around the television. I looked at the television and saw one of the twin towers smoking. I asked the guys what was going on. One of the communications specialists looked at me and said, “An airplane crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. No one knows if it was an accident or what.” I thought to myself, how could an airplane accidentally crash into one of the tallest buildings in the United States?
After a few minutes of news watching I continued on with my daily duties. Later that morning I was in another section of the unit, trying to track down some personal equipment that I left in the parachute bag that I turned in earlier that morning. I went to my friend Jason’s team room and asked if he found any gear in the parachute bag that he signed out after I turned it in. I looked in the bag and found my gear, and we talked briefly about the situation in New York City. That’s when I found out about the second airplane striking the second tower.
We speculated over what was happening, and then Jason said in somewhat of a joking manner, “Things are crazy, and I think we’d be safer outside of this building.” I thought about it for a few seconds and that’s when it hit me – the seriousness and magnitude of the events. I said good bye to Jason and went back to my team room to catch up on some email.
A few hours later we got tidbits of information about potential deployments, clearly leaders at all levels of the government and military were reacting to what was going on, and no one was sure what would happen next. After a few days the potential deployment warnings stopped and on September 14 Operation Noble Eagle began. Operation Noble Eagle was the mobilization of National Guard and military reserve units to assist with homeland security. They provided security on military installations, airports, and at other locations considered potential terrorist targets. I realized we were in for a long road ahead.
It was one thing to see the images on TV, but the true impact of 9/11 was hard to realize until we got to ground zero a couple months later for a training event. We coordinated this training event in Manhattan shortly after the attacks and worked together with the New York City Police Department, who hosted us and supported the training. The seriousness of the situation and the terrorist threat were made more real, and definitely more personal. In fact, we later wore the NYPD and FDNY patches into battle in their honor.
Our final segment of training culminated a couple of blocks away from ground zero, and after we finished, we visited ground zero itself. We were given a short, ten minute brief by some of the officers that responded to the incident, and they shared some of their experiences with us. It was all still fresh and raw in their minds and hearts, and it was clear that they did a lot to try and help. I had never visited NYC before, so the magnitude and scale of the buildings coupled with the understanding of what happened here were almost too much to comprehend.
At the time of our visit workers had already removed all of the fallen debris, but there was still a smell of wet concrete and dust in the air. Spotlights shone on what was left of the fallen buildings, and we all stood for several minutes just trying to take it all in. Damage on adjacent buildings showed how high the rubble had been piled up. Even higher were scars left by falling debris from the two towers during their collapse. The destruction was astounding, the sadness and loss nearly palpable in the air.
I tried to imagine how the people and first responders must have felt during the time of the attack… the chaos, the enormity of the destruction, the attack on the second tower while they were trying to save people from the first. I tried to put myself in their shoes – what would I have done? What would you have done?
After that visit I knew that life for me, as an American soldier, would change. And the lives of all Americans as well. The following month I deployed to Afghanistan in support of the Global War on Terrorism.
November 2001, Fort Bragg, NC
“Bulldog 06, this is Greyhound 71, infiltration of the assault force complete…over.” The helicopter infiltration commander radioed to the overall commander.
“Roger Greyhound 71, I copy infil of the assault force complete…over.”
“Bulldog 06 this is Silver 45, building one secure, moving to building two, over.” The ground force leader radioed the overall commander.
There were a handful of us clustered around the satellite radio’s speaker, listening to the radio traffic from the operation going down on other side of the world. It was a standard, large-scale, direct-action assault. The mission was to find a high value target (HVT). Shortly after the September 11th attacks part of our unit deployed to Afghanistan to initiate the War on Terror, but I was still state-side, listening to it all go down.
At that point it was common knowledge that Al Qaeda was behind the 9/11 attacks, and the entire organization was in everybody’s crosshairs, especially Osama bin Laden. We could hardly wait for our turn to head into the action, to exact some revenge on the terrorists who assaulted our country. Unfortunately, we were in a holding pattern, and all we could do was train and follow the action from afar as our colleagues in Afghanistan were in the moment. So, we sat around the speaker, listening, like Americans did during World War II before mass production of the television set. It was early in the evening at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, and with a nine-hour time differential that meant that it was early in the morning in Afghanistan and the operation had already started.
We monitored the radio traffic as the aircraft inserted the assault force on the target. Something was wrong. We couldn’t tell exactly what happened, but it was clear to us based on the radio traffic that one of the inserting helicopters experienced a rough landing. We surmised that the helicopter was damaged, but the extent of the damage was unknown. You could hear a pin drop as we listened, and I couldn’t help but feel a little strange about the entire situation. Here I was, back home, listening to an operation taking place far away, and learning that perhaps some of my fellow unit members might be hurt, or worse, as a result of the helicopter landing. I couldn’t help but feel a bit ashamed for not being there and being able to bear the burden with them. We continued to listen and wait for any news on the condition of our teammates.
As the mission progressed, we followed the status of the assault based on the reports from the leadership on the ground. We could tell when they made entry into buildings, once each building was secure, and when the entire target area was secure. We were on the edge of our seats, waiting to hear a radio transmission that the HVT was either captured or killed.
“Bulldog 06, this is Silver 45. Location secure. Target not on scene. Repeat. Target not on scene. Out.” No one said a word as the radio transmission was given stating that the HVT was not found. We continued to listen to the radio traffic and followed the progression of the assault all the way through the exfiltration of the assault force. Once we heard the pilots radio that they were clear of the objective area with all their people onboard, we all left the room. I walked back to my team room, anxiously awaiting the opportunity to get over there and get into the fight.
The team room door closed behind me, and I found myself alone with the pungent smell of weapons cleaning solvent still present from our weapons maintenance earlier in the day. I sat down and began thinking about the war, the overall situation, and the future difficulties we would be facing, both professionally as well as personally. During my time in the unit we hadn’t experienced any extremely long deployments, and we hadn’t suffered any casualties. I knew the future was going to hold situations where serious injuries and death were going to become a harsh reality. As a leader, I would be one of the ones bearing the burden of telling family members that their father, husband, brother, or son was killed in action. I wasn’t sure if I was well prepared to do that, but I don’t think anybody ever really is.
As I selfishly reflected on myself and my own teammates, I felt a twang of guilt as I realized that a tremendous amount of people were already suffering. My people…fellow Americans. On September 11, 2001, there were a lot of innocent lives affected; those who were killed or injured during the attacks, and the many more who would carry the losses and pain in their everyday lives. Now I wanted to get into this war more than ever. As I left my team room and headed home, I found a calming comfort in knowing that I had made the right decisions in life so far. Decisions that got me exactly where I wanted to be: ready to go to war for my country. It couldn’t happen quickly enough for me.
The next two months were filled with continued reports from the front as the fight wore on. We continually trained for what we thought the conflict was going to be, but reports from the guys in the mix told of a fight we did not envision. The current battlefield in Afghanistan was nothing like the unit had encountered in the past, and definitely not something that we trained for on a regular basis. Some of the teams, especially the climbing, sniper, and reconnaissance teams, which had spent time training in mountainous and rural environments, still were not fully prepared for what was being encountered. Just a year before, my team and I spent two weeks in the Teton National Forest in Wyoming, training primarily on winter skills like skiing, winter survival, and cold-weather operations. Although Wyoming has similar terrain, our focus was more on operating in snowy and extremely cold environments which we hoped would prepare us for Afghanistan. Time would tell.
As the team sergeant of a sniper element, I knew that some of the most important capabilities would be in sniper and reconnaissance roles. One of my responsibilities was to master all of the team equipment, which included special sniper weapons systems and all manner of special and tactical communications equipment, such as the tactical satellite radio system. This made me one of a handful of operators in my small element that were completely proficient on the radio systems, aside from the designated communication specialists. I wish I could say that I foresaw the potential importance of the communication devices and therefore, that was why I decided to focus on them, but that was not the case. Rather, as a team leader, I felt it was important for me to master all assigned equipment, specifically the most efficient and effective operation and deployment of each item, before I would ask my teammates to do the same. I was responsible for teaching new team members the caveats of all the items, including most of the specialized weapons and all other team equipment. The radio system is the lifeline for all sniper and reconnaissance teams. Without being able to call for support, a small team could possibly find themselves in deep shit really fast.
December 2001 arrived, and the guys in my group were getting antsy. They couldn’t believe we were not deployed yet, and felt like we were going to miss the war. I can remember walking by the common area, stopping by the bulletin board to check on any updates and seeing an extra large Snickers bar thumb-tacked up with a note stating, “Not going anywhere?” Obviously, this was a play on the Snickers commercials at the time, where an actor would pull out a Snickers bar and eat it while waiting for something. The joker made sure he got the largest Snickers bar he could find, meaning that we weren’t going anywhere for a while. At the time, it was appropriately funny, in an odd sort of way. Once I finished reviewing the board I made my way up to the chow hall for some lunch.
My team and I had spent the morning on the range with our sniper rifles and definitely needed to refuel. I loaded my plate with veggies plus extra jalapenos from the salad bar (I grew up eating New Mexican chile at most meals and have yet to find a food too spicy for me). I sat down with my team for lunch, and overheard the conversation at the table, which focused on a possible deployment. One of my team members was immediately interested because he was next to the guy with the “intel.” As was the norm, speculation flew like airplane traffic out of Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport; massive and continuous. I tried to eat my food in silence, but my curiosity got the best of me and I inquired. “So what’s the deal, dude?”
“I’m not sure, Rat, but it sounds like they’re getting ready to send some people out. They’ve not said anything about the size or numbers, but it looks like it might happen.”
“Wow, that’d be fucking awesome it if pans out. All we can do is wait and see,” I said.
I speculated that the chow-hall-net caught wind that the command might be looking at deploying additional forces to assist with advance force battlefield preparation. Basically, teams would deploy and assist with finding the enemy and establishing the conditions to either kill or capture any enemy personnel that were located. I continued to listen and figured, like most chow hall info, that there was about a fifty percent chance that the information was solid. Still, this was more hope for deployment than I had before I sat down to eat, and I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of excitement.
As I made my way to my team room after lunch, I was approached by my sergeant major. He spoke briefly about identifying and training a select group of folks for deployment, and he wanted me to assist with training. These lucky few would need training on communications and gear specific to reconnaissance missions. Even though the deployment was not solid, leadership wanted to be ready when the call arrived. Finally, this was it, what we all wanted, a chance to deploy! Without hesitation I agreed, and began mentally developing a training schedule and prioritizing the tasks to my team. Later that same day, each troop named six individuals to begin the training process for potential deployment: a pool from which the final small group would be chosen. Those selected were from assault elements. Therefore, the majority of the training would focus on sniper and reconnaissance capabilities, as well as utilizing tactical satellite communications.
Over the years I had acquired a distinct skill set that was tailor-made for this assignment, due in large part to my tenure as a sniper. This is what set me apart from the rest of the group, nothing else, as everyone in my unit was extremely capable. In most deployments or missions, snipers are the first ones on location, usually arriving days before the assault element. They are always the last ones to leave the target, covering their assaulting teammates’ exit. When the command to go is given, the assault teams approach quickly, get the job done efficiently, and then exchange high fives as they are leaving the target location with all the glory. The snipers are left behind to surreptitiously make their way back. If they are lucky they will catch a ride home with the assault force, but other times they may find themselves walking out.
In most training missions, the snipers come back late to find the assault teams already cleaned up, relaxing, waiting for the snipers’ return for the After Action Review. As inglorious as that may sound, I loved being a sniper. It was standard procedure for snipers to routinely operate alone, with their team leader somewhere in tow. As a sniper team leader for my unit, I was armed with the autonomy to make immediate decisions without necessarily consulting the leadership. The trust my leadership had in me made me more confident in my leadership and decision making .
It was mid-December, and we were just over a week into training on the satellite communications systems, working on set up, break down and troubleshooting. The training was progressing smoothly. During one of the training sessions I was approached by my command sergeant major, and it was obvious that he had some information for me. He advised me that the leadership decided to deploy a single team to Afghanistan in the near future, and that he wanted me to lead it. The team’s task was going to be battlefield preparation, a military term meaning that the team’s primary mission would be locating terrorists and establishing the conditions to capture or kill them. This team would be working independently from the other unit members already deployed. I stood outside in the rain as he explained the situation to me, and I almost couldn’t believe what he was telling me. He ended his conversation with, “Rat, you can request anyone you want for the deployment, but the team is limited to two people including yourself. You have to be ready in 48 hours.”
“Roger that, Sergeant Major. I’ve got a lot to think about before I make my decision if that’s okay.”
“Sure thing, just let me know who you want so we can get the ball rolling.”
“Yes, Sergeant Major.”
After arriving at my team room, I gathered my teammates and explained the situation to them. It was obvious to me that they all were eager to go, but unfortunately that was not the directive. “Hey, guys, here’s the deal. The sergeant major just dropped a bomb on me. He said he wants me to be the team leader for the team that’s deploying. Right now it looks like they want just a two-man team, so some of you will not be able to go. Sorry, fellas, that’s all the news I have right now. Once I get additional information I’ll update you guys.”
Later that day, I asked if I could see my commander, command sergeant major, and my direct leadership to discuss the deployment. We met shortly thereafter in the commander’s office. I entered the meeting with every intention of selling the advantages and necessities for deploying my entire team to my superiors. After a short time I learned there was more to the deployment than I initially thought, and the commander informed me that the restriction was placed on them by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) Headquarters. My commander could sense my disappointment, and then informed me that he received approval to increase the team size to three. Although not perfect, this was better than two. He stated that the third member of the team would be a Combat Control Team (CCT) member provided by the Air Force 24th Special Tactics Squadron (STS).
My unit worked well with the members of the 24th STS in the past, and I hoped that our assigned combat controller was an individual that I worked with before. Regardless, a combat controller would be a great addition to the team because of their unique skill set, one of many being their ability to call on any aircraft for fire support. The command was doing its best to help me out. But the bottom line was, while they knew what I was asking for was correct, their hands were tied. At the end of the meeting, my direct leadership and sergeant major asked to speak with me. “Hey, Rat, here’s the deal. We need you to pick someone that was identified to deploy earlier in the month, and not necessarily someone from your team.” This took me by surprise, as I wanted to take someone from my team, but now it was suggested I could pick someone else.
After some reflection, I felt there were positives and negatives to both options. Obviously, I wanted to take a team member, but I could see why perhaps the sergeant major might want me to select someone outside the team. Perhaps he didn’t want me to deplete the team of experience, thus limiting the unit’s combat capabilities. Or perhaps he knew if I selected someone that wasn’t identified in the initial selection process for deployment that it might cause concerns of favoritism. The fact was that several of my new team members didn’t have the experience yet to operate the tactical radios on their own. Ultimately, I never asked for his reasoning and toed the line, ending our conversation by replying, “Roger that.”
I needed to make my choice quickly, because we needed to pack our equipment and be ready to deploy within forty-eight hours. I took a look at the names on the list and decided to select my best friend Raymond Redley. Ray joined the unit a few years after I did. I didn’t choose him because of our friendship, I chose him because I had worked closely with him for many years and I trusted him completely. He was and is a great operator.
I was growing concerned with our task once we hit Afghan soil. We needed to prepare and pack for this mission, and as the team leader, I felt like I should give some guidance to the team regarding what we might be asked to do. The hunt for Osama Bin Laden was on, and the teams currently on the ground were using a lot of close air support, primarily delivering two-thousand-pound joint direct attack munitions (JDAMs), which were something I personally had never utilized. I had called in supporting fire from a number of aerial assets, but I never even thought of using JDAMs. These bombs have an internal guidance system linked with a global positioning system (GPS), which makes them somewhat of a “smart bomb.” They were the munitions of choice in the mountainous terrain. On our end, all we had to do was send the pilots a grid coordinate of the enemy’s location, and the pilots would program the guidance system to strike the location indicated. Obviously, the hard part for us would be finding the enemy and determining their exact location. We made sure we obtained the correct equipment for these tasks, and we also made sure we packed the appropriate equipment and clothing for the weather.
I tried to think about preparing the team based on what I thought we would be doing. Unfortunately for me, at this point, the only thing I knew was that we could be asked to do anything – there are many ways to go about finding the enemy. The mission was ambiguous and we needed to be ready for a wide variety of tasks. I wanted to be prepared for everything but I clearly couldn’t bring all of my equipment. As you can imagine, being in the best special missions unit in the world provided me with the opportunity to use and have on hand the best equipment available, but we couldn’t bring all of it, and what we did bring had to be fairly portable.
I thought to myself, How do I provide guidance to my people when I don’t know what the team will be tasked with doing? I decided to focus on the basics, which were being able to shoot, move, communicate, and survive the elements. I learned early on in the unit: the most significant thing that separated us from everyone one else was the near-flawless execution of basic skills at the individual and team levels and above. This allowed us to focus all of our attention on the problem without having to worry about basic issues or tasks that tend to hinder other entities. Obviously, it didn’t hurt that the unit’s ranks are filled with some of the most intelligent and talented people in the business of conflict.
It was my responsibility to prioritize what to bring to enhance our capabilities, and I relied on my experience to guide me. As I thought about our potential tasks, I knew we would need the capabilities to shoot long distances. I’d bring my sniper rifle, along with my M4, with an M203 grenade launcher attached to the underside of the rail system. Reports from the front told us that our guys were locating targets at long distances and then using fire support to eliminate them. Optics would be key, and most definitely a big force-multiplier, as I needed to see the enemy from afar.
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All photos provided courtesy of Robert Trivino