The pair of MH-60 Blackhawks roared past the target building.
One of the birds came into a hover, and operators started fast-roping. Time was of the essence. They were supposed to have hit this target some minutes before. The ISIS cell leader that was inside might have already left.
An MH-47 Chinook carrying the blocking force landed in a nearby soccer field. Rocket-Propelled Grenades (RPGs) began whizzing through the night air as the terrorists understood their mortal peril.
With a sense of urgency, the operators breached the target building and began flowing smoothly into its rooms. Minutes later, the call went out on the net, “Target secured.” They had captured the High-Value-Individual (HVI) and successfully completed their mission — or so they thought.
Train as You Fight, and Face a Court-Martial
It was a chilly night in March 2019.
The Green Berets of A Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group (A/1/5) were conducting pre-deployment training for an upcoming rotation to Syria. This was their last training mission before they were to be greenlighted for deployment and combat operations.
Master Sergeant John Hasenbein was serving as the Mobility Sergeant Major in the assault force, one of the four main leadership positions during the operation.
Literally a poster Special Forces operator, MSG Hasenbein had served his country and Special Forces Regiment admirably. With 12 combat deployments and over 20 years in uniform, 15 of which in Special Operations, MSG Hasenbein was someone younger Green Berets looked up to and aspired to become.
A poster Green Beret: MSG John Hasenbein featured on an Iraqi Special Operations (ISOF) poster.
A/1/5 is the Crisis Response Force (CRF) of the 5th SFG, an elite cadre of Green Berets who specialize in Direct Action (DA), Counterterrorism (CT), and Hostage Rescue (HR) missions. Each Special Forces Group has a CRF company. A/1/5 is the strategic reserve of Central Command (CENTCOM) in case anything goes awry in its Area of Responsibility (AOR), which in this case is the Middle East. Realistic pre-deployment training, thus, is of the essence.
That night’s training event was organized by F3EA Inc., a company that provides mission support, security, and training services to the U.S. Special Operations and Intelligence communities. It also provided the roleplayers who acted as the Opposition Force (OPFOR).
During the previous days, a series of training missions had tested the capabilities of the A/1/5 operators. This last mission involved the capture of an ISIS cell leader, the HVI, and the rescue of a hostage. Mr. Ahmed Altameemi was playing the HVI.
Before moving to the U.S. and working for F3EA, Mr. Altameemi had been a member of the Iraqi Counterterrorism Task Force (ICTF), an American-trained Special Operations unit. He was, therefore, intimately familiar with how such missions work.
At 22:36, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment’s (160th SOAR) MH-60 Blackhawks roared over the target compound; the operators fast-roped and stormed the building. MSG Hasenbein and three more assaulters were the first to come into contact with the HVI and detain him.
After they had detained him, Mr. Altameemi broke from his flex cuffs at least twice. Then, MSG Hasenbein and another operator (SFC B.) moved the HVI to a different floor of the target building and reapplied flex cuffs. Mr. Altameemi, however, continued to resist. At that point, MSG Hasenbein delivered multiple knee-strikes to Altameemi’s head and multiple punches to his body in an attempt to pacify him.
He then held a handgun to his head with the intention of making the HVI roleplayer comply with their directions. Mr. Altameemi was heard saying “that’s too much, brother.” Several assaulters that were in the room, including MSG E., the Ground Force Sergeant Major, repeatedly asked Mr. Altameemi if that by saying “that’s too much, brother” he meant to say “Real World” — the safe word that would alert the operators that he wanted them to pause the exercise. In the video footage, Altameemi doesn’t give an audible response to the assaulters.
The HVI after having been re-detained.
Before the training mission had begun, the F3EA exercise controllers had instructed Mr. Altameemi to drop his AK-47 once the assault force neared his building so he could be taken alive. If “killed,” Mr. Altameemi had been instructed to give the operators the necessary information to keep the training scenario going.
As with every similar training event that might involve violence, the exercise controllers are responsible for providing a clear set of Rules of Engagement (ROE) to both the operators and roleplayers during the pre-mission brief. Moreover, a safe word is given, to be used in case of an emergency during the exercise, in order to let everyone know that they have to pause if need be. In this case, the safe word was “Real World.” On that night, the F3EA’s pre-mission safety brief didn’t specify how much physical force operators could use with the roleplayers.
At that point, F3EA Observer Controls (OCs) present during the incident notified the lead target controller about Mr. Altameemi’s injury. Their supervisor, however, elected to continue with the exercise. And Mr. Altameemi himself insisted that he could continue — physical violence, after all, is common in such exercises that prepare warfighters for the rigors and realities of combat.
It was only after the exercise was completed that Mr. Altameemi went to a nearby health clinic to be properly treated for his injuries, which included blunt facial trauma, scalp hematoma, abrasions, and a TBI.
A picture of Mr. Atlameemi following the incident.
The Company Commander, Major E., who saw the roleplayer at the airfield, stated that he had a lump on the side of his head, some dried blood and abrasions on his face, and his nose appeared swollen. The Ground Force Commander, Captain P., saw the roleplayer after he was treated by the F3EA medic and observed only general discoloration around his face.
Following the incident, Lieutenant Colonel C., the battalion commander, ordered an Article 15-6 investigation.
The Investigating Officer (IO), Captain K. found that the failure of multiple control measures from both F3EA and A/1/5 led in part to the injuries suffered by the HVI roleplayer. CPT K. further wrote that while certain actions would be investigated by Criminal Investigation Command, known as CID, the control measures in place didn’t work appropriately to manage the situation. He recommended that the unit retrain in the Law of Armed Conflict, and create and utilize a standard operating procedure (SOP) for roleplayers. He also advised that F3EA conduct a review of procedures with unit leaders in advance of any exercises.
Numerous Green Berets present during the incident were called in to provide sworn statements. SFC B. stated that Mr. Altameemi was uncooperative throughout the scenario. “We are always taught,” he stated, “to escalate as the role player escalates. Even in training… Therefore, when the roleplayer escaped his restraints for a third time, I believe that MSG Hasenbein was escalating force in order to restrain and detain the roleplayer, preventing injuries and or death to any other assaulters, including himself in terms of the scenario.”
MSG E., the Ground Force Sergeant Major, and thus in charge of command and control, stated that he observed the roleplayer being non-compliant and resisting. He witnessed SFC B. and MSG Hasenbein forcibly put the roleplayer on the ground. He observed that the roleplayer was bleeding from his nose after being struck by MSG Hasenbein and asked the roleplayer three times if this was “Real World.” The HVI roleplayer didn’t confirm.
A/1/5 assaulters with the HVI.
With regard to the training mission’s ROEs, MSG E. stated that both their leadership and F3EA representatives had stressed the need for the operators to be more aggressive and treat the scenarios with more realism. It is crucial to highlight that this request was reemphasized after the training exercise had begun and was based on the After Action Reports (AAR) of previous objectives that the A/1/5 Green Berets had completed in the same training exercise.
According to SSG C, Jimmy Adams, the F3AE representative in the training mission, spoke to all about the previous training scenarios and the handling of the roleplayers and that they weren’t treating the scenario and the roleplayers to a realistic standard. Additionally, the F3EA representative made it clear that the Assault Forces would have to take it more realistically with the scenario. Mr. Adams brought this up because he had observed a very relaxed posture with the roleplayers and a general joviality with which the roleplayers were treated during the callout mission scenario. The Ground Force Commander also stated in his sworn statement that the one point emphasized was to treat all objectives as if they were real world and the Assault Force should not worry about the comfort of the roleplayers.
“The exercise,” the investigating officer concluded,
“lacked clear and concise guidance regarding the rules of engagement and level of force that A/1/5 could use when executing training scenarios with F3EA roleplayers. F3EA did not articulate clear boundaries and A Co failed to fill the void with guidance on use of force levels. Both failures led to the circumstances surrounding the injured roleplayer. While some ambiguity is necessary for realistic training, baseline guidance is necessary to mitigate risk appropriately.”
The CID, which separately investigated MSG Hasenbein for aggravated assault, dropped the case, determining that there was not enough evidence to substantiate such a charge and a court-martial.
The Case Reopens
A few months after the incident, the 5th SFG had a change in command. Colonel Joseph Wortham assumed command of 5th SFG; Command Sergeant Major Maurice Golden became the senior enlisted leader; Lieutenant Colonel Haake took the 1st Battalion. Not all changes were welcome, however. LTC Haake reopened the case against MSG Hasenbein and also accused MSG E. and SFC B. with lying in their sworn statements.
LTC Haake recommended General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand (GOMOR) to both MSG E. and SFC B. A GOMOR is essentially a career-ender. Major General Brian Winski, the Commanding Officer of the 101st Airborne Division and of Fort Campbell, where 5th SFG is located, approved both GOMORs. His justification was that they allegedly heard Mr. Altameemi saying “Real World” but stated the contrary. CID voice recognition experts, however, who studied the video footage determined that it was non-conclusive.
MSG E. and SFC B. were then pressured by COL Wortham and CSM Golden to assume responsibility for not intervening in the incident and stopping MSG Hasenbein. As a pressure point, the 5th SFG leadership offered to put their GOMORs in temporary counselling packet instead of the permanent file — in what is a clear case of unlawful command influence and a prosecutable offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). MG Winski, moreover, offered testimonial immunity if they testified against MSG Hasenbein. Both MSG E. and SFC B. have said that they were pressured by their command.
As a result, MSG Hasenbein is facing a court-martial. His reputation has been tarnished. And his family is on the balance.
Why the leadership of 5th SFG is prosecuting MSG John Hasenbein? After all, LTC C., the Battalion commander during the exercise, didn’t recommend adverse action following the official investigation. Could it be because the 5th SFG leadership is trying to prevent a lawsuit from F3EA?
SOFREP believes that LTC Haake reopened this case to protect the F3EA and the company’s leadership because they were in the wrong. Following the incident, F3EA was re-employed by the 5th SFG to again train A/1/5, despite their clear ineptitude in the previous exercise.
It is, moreover, puzzling why LTC Haake didn’t go directly to Major General Brennan, the Commanding Officer of the 1st Special Forces Command (Airborne).
An F3EA roleplayer got a little scuffed up after multiple escapes from being zip-tied and strongly resisting each time– something that was the direct result of the recommendations made by F3EA officials when they thought that the A/1/5 operators weren’t treating their training realistically enough. This is backed by multiple witness statements.
The F3EA pre-mission briefing, moreover, didn’t specify how much force operators were allowed to use with a roleplayer. The briefers, however, highlighted to the Green Berets that they should “train as you fight.” Everyone present got the same message of what this request meant.
You can’t ask operators to be aggressive and treat training with as much realism as possible and then condemn them for abiding by your requests. And you can’t leave them to hang dry and use them as scapegoats to save your own skin.
And yet this appears to be a common theme in the 5th SFG, where the climate has become so toxic that Green Berets do anything and everything to get out or be reassigned
The United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), CID, 5th SFG, and F3EA didn’t return calls for comment from SOFREP.
This article was co-written with John Black. John Black is a retired Special Forces “Green Beret” with more than 20 years of experience in the military at both 5th SFG(A) and 3rd SFG(A). Additionally, he has ten combat deployments in places such as Iraq, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, and countries throughout Africa. He has a degree in Strategic Studies and Defense Analysis and is currently working on his Masters.