Tampa, Florida – Recently the SunCoast Credit Union Gasparilla International Film Festival in Tampa Florida hosted war reporter and filmmaker, Alex Quade’s documentary “Danger Close: Inside Special Ops” telling the story of her journey into combat with U.S. Army Special Forces Green Berets in the Global War on Terrorism in Iraq. Tampa seemed all but a perfect setting for the premiere as it’s the home of the U.S. Special Operations Command located within MacDill Air Force Base just south of the city.
Having known Alex Quade for some time, I was honored to accept her invitation to the premiere to sit with the Green Berets of Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 072 of the U.S. Army 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), as well as to check the documentary out before it hits major theaters later this year. “This is the closest Americans will get to go along with elite special forces troops and other amazing service members.” Ms. Quade said. “And I hope it shows the love in this brotherhood and for each other.”
I made my way to the mezzanine level of the historic Tampa Theater past a sea of heroes of Green Beret past and present. Men standing silently or speaking in low tones, their berets and hunter green blazers of the Special Forces Association identifying them as original members of the Brotherhood. Hardened by the wars and operations they’ve conducted within the Green Berets yet still gracious and humble in the way they carried themselves. Quiet Professionals.
I found a small section that myself and few other Special Operations veterans took as ours and settled in with our beverages awaiting the introduction of the film. As the lights dimmed to denote the beginning of the documentary. I began to notice the sky blue painted ceiling become dotted with small LED white lights to present a sort of starry night atmosphere with two cherub-esque wooden angels framing the screen frozen in a perpetual bugle call. Then the black screen turned to the green grainy glow of night vision and the viewer is immediately front and center for an air assault combat mission briefing. The location: Helmand Province Afghanistan. The scene then cuts to video of regular army troops tucked into one of four Ch-47 Chinook helicopters with aerial camera footage interspersed as the assault force takes off and heads to its objective. As the helicopters made their final approach I couldn’t help but notice I had leaned in towards the screen, eyes wide… looking for threats. I noticed other veterans doing the same. Eyes wide, some pulling on their lower lips, looking for threats.
Then like a gut punch the radio crackles “2-5 I have enemy contact on ALL friendlies.. time Now!”The assault force begins to take effective fire from the Taliban. Cut scenes of captured Taliban video from the target is spliced into the scene depicting just that. You watch in anguish as a Taliban RPG team readies their ordinance. “Oh shit! We have an RPG fired!! Tree line to the northeast!” And Apache pilot Stewart Pitou’s gun camera footage captures the missile tracking directly into a Chinook. “We have a missile strike on us!” And then radio silence as the gun camera films the grisly scene as the Chinook packed full of soldiers plummets to the ground in a fireball. Pilot Stewart Pitou swung his Apache death-dealer into action and began engaging the enemy with gusto. American soldiers were on the ground and he made it his mission to protect the soldiers on the ground and to make the enemy pay.
The night raid quickly became a combat search and rescue. Sending a group to the crash site to collect the dead and to find “the reporter.” Alex Quade was supposed to be on that Chinook, instead she was with the group fighting its way to the crash site. “They thought I was on that bird, and that I was unaccounted for.” said Alex, “We had American soldiers willing to risk their lives to recover the fallen. These men had to count the bodies twice looking for the embedded reporter, for me,” I couldn’t help but look back at the wooden cherub angels frozen in their bugle call and not find symbolism. “I have this huge responsibility. I have to tell their stories.”
Ms. Quade’s commitment to telling the stories of our troops and especially our Special Operators is unsurpassed in many Special Operations circles. It is hard to downright impossible to gain an embed with U.S. Army Green Beret teams. We don’t know you, we don’t know how you will react to situations, or how you will move. And therefore we will not trust you. You must earn that. Yet, Alex Quade has put in the work and has proven herself time and time again with Green Berets. Retired Major General and former commander of USASFC, Mike Repass had this to say about Ms. Quade, “What I have come to learn about Alex is that she is not objective about our troops. She genuinely loves the men and women she reports on and has strong personal and intense relationships with the people she covers. She is a good person.” This sentiment was echoed by the Green Berets of ODA 072 and by the Gold Star family of fallen Green Beret Rob Pirelli who was killed in Diyala Providence, Iraq in 2007.
“The house that Rob built.”
Rob Pirelli was assigned to 10th Special Forces group ODA 072 as an 18C or “Charlie,” a highly skilled Green Beret engineer. In Green Beret terms Charlies basically “built shit, then blow shit up.” And Rob, coming from a family of builders took to his role with ease. “Rob built Combat Outpost 072 with his bare hands.” said Aaron Brandenburg, Rob’s senior 18C and close friend. “He would go out on patrols or missions, then stow his kit and get back to work building the camp up.” Rob was an integral part of the team and quickly became a Brother to the other Green Berets of ODA 072. Rob would do anything for his brothers and it showed with every nail he pounded into that camp.
Diyala Province in 2007 was the most dangerous place to operate in Iraq. ODA 072 operated within this ‘kill-box’ and on one patrol had an encounter with insurgents that quickly turned into a gunfight. “Guy with AK…Guy on the roof…AK! to the RIGHT! ” shouted the gunner of truck two. Rob maneuvered towards the threat and began engaging. Then in the midst of the fight the dreaded code-word came across the Green Berets Peltor headsets, “EAGLE DOWN..EAGLE DOWN!!” Rob was on his back, motionless. the team 18-Delta medic, Tim, saw Rob laying on his back. “[We]made our way to him and looked at his helmet and I saw an entry point….He was gone…” In honor of Rob the camp was renamed Combat Outpost Pirelli.
Mrs. Quade wanted to tell the story of Rob and made contact with the Pirelli family and after several visits Rob’s father made Alex promise to let the world know that his son’s sacrifice wouldn’t be forgotten. Alex was tasked by another important person as well. Medal of Honor recipient and former Special Forces veteran of U.S. Army Rangers, Green Berets, and Delta Force, Colonel Bob Howard. “My mentor Ranger Bob tasked me with Charlie Mike, or continue mission in her quest to tell the stories of our Special Operations heroes. So America and these men’s families never forget their sacrifice for this country.”
Hence the basis of the documentary ‘Danger Close’ that highlights the war reporters Kerouac-like journey of hopping, skipping, and jumping her way through war-torn Iraq to Combat Outpost Pirelli and to the Green Berets 10th Group ODA 094. Alex quickly builds rapport with the team and is then eventually invited along with the team who is rolling out on a ground assault mission where she meets ODA 094 members Patrick and 18D, or team medic, Chad Taylor. I won’t give out the details of this portion of the documentary in full, but what I will reveal is that the ODA and Alex’s armored vehicle comes under effective enemy fire and here the war reporter finds herself in an ethical dilemma. The ODA began receiving enemy fire from a series of buildings and immediately returned fire. The gunfight began to become sustained and Patrick the team 18E, or commo guy who was manning the .50 caliber machine gun on top of the vehicle revealed that he was going to need ammo. “I heard Patrick shout down into the truck ‘I need some .50..someone hand me a box of .50’ and there was no one really there to give him ammo.” Mrs. Quade told SOFREP, “I found myself in a type of ethical dilemma as a journalist. Do I get involved, or stay as an unbiased observer?”
This dilemma has plagued war reporters for decades such as famed war reporter and author, Joe Galloway and his time in the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam. When asked what Ms. Quade did she simply said ” I asked the 18 Delta Chad, who was driving, for his knife.” The boxes of extra .50 caliber ammunition were tied down to prevent it from shifting while the truck traversed the oftentimes rugged terrain of Iraq. “I heard her shout for my knife and I just handed it back to her.” Green Beret Chad Taylor said, “I didn’t really think much about it, it is what it is.” A phrase both Alex Quade and most all members of the armed forces understand all too well.
It is what it is.
I was invited to a small gathering with Ms. Quade herself after the documentary where I sat with the Green Berets and veterans featured in the film. Green Berets Patrick, Chad Taylor (a fellow 18 Delta and some of the best medics in Special Operations), Apache pilot Steward Pitou, their loved ones, and the Pirelli family all sat in the warm night at a quiet, small after-party outside a local eatery in downtown Tampa. I wanted to do my journalistic duties by getting an interview or quote from each and every one of them. To tell their story, to let America know that these quiet, humble men clean-shaven and cherishing each sip of whiskey or beer in front of them, that these men are heroes. But I did no such thing. I sat with them, feeling the brotherhood that all current and former Green Berets remember and miss all too well. I listened to Rob’s mother talk about her son with such awe and reverence that it made me proud to be in the midst of her strength and a bit jealous I never knew her amazing son. I slipped into the bar and bought the table a large bottle of champagne, quietly said my goodbyes and thanks, and then slipped away into the Florida night, grateful to have spent the evening with real American heroes.
Feature Image courtesy of: Derek Gannon