Editors note: the following open letter was penned by a current member of 5th Special Forces Group who wanted to speak out against the current toxic command climate that exists in his unit.
Toxic leadership is something that many soldiers and civilians accuse their command of, but rarely is it ever as bad as it seems. Many times in the SOF community this is due to us being hyper critical of our commanders and peers due to our mission set, training, and the sheer fact that we are perfectionists in our own right. In the case of 5th SFG (A) this may finally be a true statement.
5th SFG (A) has long been known to be a very political climate in regards to the command, and many times referenced as 5th Infantry Division to those who call it home. This could be due to a number of reasons. 5th Group area of operations is the middle east and is constantly deployed to the hottest spots in the world. Not to say other SF Groups aren’t, but the Legion calls the middle east home and that’s where the action is. Because of this the officers in the Legion are trying to earn their next promotion whether it is in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or even the lesser known countries that we operate in like Yemen, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. 5th Group has been at the lead, and the first teams in, for wars and conflicts such as Vietnam, Desert Storm, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, the 2003 Iraq re-invasion, and now Syria. This creates a climate where commanders are set up to get the necessary deployments for promotion and can be quite cut throat at times.
Another reason is our location. 5th Group is nestled smack dab in the middle of the 101st on Fort Campbell, KY. When 5th Group was preparing to design our new buildings we had the option to have our own compound like every other group within USSFC and even the 160th who is also at Fort Campbell, KY. Due to desire to cultivate “SOF/CF interoperability” we chose to be co-located with them on the base proper. This has led to those CF (conventional forces) qualities bleeding over into 5th Group to the effect of haircut and uniform inspections, parking requirements, and not being to stage equipment like trucks outside the team rooms. Oh, and nobody is allowed to park behind the load out bays for any amount of time. The uniform requirements might sound like good ol’ bitching by crusty NCOs but when you take into account the fact that we have non-standard Patagonia combat uniforms where ballcaps (as long as they are multicam) and civilian boots are authorized, having to wear a PC and army boots with them because of the garrison mentality is ridiculous.
While this kind of leadership is expected from time to time, and just shrugged off for the most part, the concerning part is how our leadership has affected our reputation amongst JSOC, other SF Groups, and federal agencies. The NCOs of the unit are some of the most experienced within SOCOM and the failure point has not been them, it is the decisions and actions of their commanders. They may have their personnel issues at group but you can always rely on a team to get the job done.
Our last Commander cultivated and encouraged an environment that empowered SF Soldiers and leaders to “do what they feel is right,” not micromanage soldiers, and to get the job done while not forgetting that we are a combat focused unit. The new commander, and those he has chosen for leadership positions, has been a stark departure from that. When the current commander first arrived his priorities were as distant from a combat focus as possible. Immediately he outlawed cell phones in any building, and went as far as walking around the Group footprint to ensure this was being followed. Soldiers were issued a warning stating that anyone caught would be punished. Having a cell phone around any red side computer is already banned, having one in the team rooms is vital to getting work done. He locked many of the doors during the duty day to the Group Support Battalion (GSB) and other support buildings so that only those assigned there could get in. One of these was the THOR3 gym. If soldiers can’t get into the building to work out, then they wont. He routinely walked the grounds conducting haircut inspections and noting uniform violations. This began his time in command and set the tone for how group would run for the rest of his allotted tenure. Much of this is probably due to his background as an Military Police officer before he became SF. Even at his change of command ceremony it was noticeable. The former commander had his guests of honor, who are all respectable in the JSOC and SF communities, and our new one had the Clarksville and Fort Campbell Chiefs of Police. Not one Green Beret. Something didn’t add up.
The real embarrassments came while he was, and is currently, in charge of operations abroad. Multiple decisions, actions, and leadership failures happened that would have gotten any other officer fired, but if you are the son of a US Senator this will obviously not happen and will only be brushed under the rug. While deployed it was so bad that JSOC stated they did not want to work with 5th Group any more. They asked for anyone but the Legion. Other SF Groups or even SEALS or MARSOC who are doctrinally not designed to handle the mission set at hand. They down right didn’t respect him and neither did his soldiers to include officers and NCOs. The reason for this is his inability to comprehend the mission set. It was evident from the start that he could not grasp the situation in the fight against ISIS and they viewed it as a lost cause to attempt to work through it. A few months ago the Deputy Commander quit citing that he will not work for someone like this. If the person closest to him in the organization says this, then it must be bad. The actions that led to this include multiple incidents.
One was the arming of rebels with suppressed Glock pistols. He envisioned his own personal hit squad that would conduct assassinations much like those in WWII. What he got was rebels who killed their neighbors instead and no accountability over them or the pistols, which are gone forever. He staged photos of the rebels ready to conduct airborne operations and rebels with suppressed American rifles, which accomplished nothing. If this is going to be done, then action needs to follow the threat. It was transparent to ISIS that this was not real and only delegitimized the mission in the eyes of the enemy. At its most base form, it made us look stupid. While these tactics may have worked in another war like was employed by the OSS, it is not applicable with the partner forces we have or the countries like Russia who are in the mix On top of all this he lost a hard drive that was classified to level of Secret. Did not secure it properly and it magically vanished off a table. Many members of the military have been fired for less, such as Major Jim Gant.
Naturally though, no punishment was issued. Word of investigations have been floating around for a while, but nothing has come of it. In addition to this, the relationships with the Other Governmental Agencies that they work with have been broken after the previous commander worked his tail off to build them. The feeling amongst the troops is that while we are accountable for our actions, he is not. Also, because of his actions, he has been classified as a “herbivore” or “leaf eater.” Much like the British soldiers in in Afghanistan during the early to mid 19th century, they feel as if they are lions led by a lamb.
With everything going on in the 5th Group AO (Area of Operations) you would think that fighting ISIS and conducting SF missions in one the numerous countries we are currently deployed to would be his priority. On numerous occasions he has been quoted as saying the reunion week event and security at the unit are his “number one priority.” When you are fighting 3 wars the budget for the picnic should not be too high up there. This is something that the leadership in the rear can handle, and don’t need to be micromanaged on a VTC (video tele-conference) from a war zone.
The Colonel is not the only one who exhibits these traits. The SGM of a deployed company was fired for his toxic leadership, company level leadership has expressed a focus on non-combat tasks despite the mission set at hand, and our training division is being forced to move buildings to an area that will make training soldiers more difficult and sacrifice our readiness. These actions boil down to several issues. Careerism, risk aversion, and ego.
In the case of the advanced skills company moving, the fact that training will suffer, add hours to already long days, not be able to have a classroom for student instruction, and not be able to store vehicles and equipment there have all been expressed to the command. The officer in charge (OIC) doesn’t care because it will benefit his career to be closer to the Group HQ and gain his name exposure. It was even stated by that commander that he didn’t trust anyone over there. His words were “guys are here because they are shitbags and I don’t trust them.” That is absolutely not the case. Guys are there because they needed a break and were some of the most respected shooters in their companies. Training has only gotten better since they arrived in their positions, and is the reason units like AWG (Asymmetrical Warfare Group) request to come here for training instead of civilian instruction. The NCOIC (Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge) of the SFAUC (Special Forces Advanced Urban Combat) committee quit because of this too.
5th Group needs a change in our leadership climate, and fortunately we have a good commander coming in to replace the current one. Hopefully this changes. 5th Group is known for its professionalism and ability to get the job done despite the low probability of success. Careers have been made on the backs of the NCOs there and they understand that is how it works. SF Soldiers will set up the good ones so that they can get command, and do what we can to prevent the bad ones from moving on. It can take years to build a good unit like was had before he took over, and only a couple months to ruin it all. That is where 5th Group sits now, and they are in dire need of new leadership. The soldiers have given that unit their all. Marriages have suffered, their bodies are broken, and now their morale is crushed. The Army and USASOC owe it to the men to put the right people in leadership positions despite political connections. Luckily we do have good commanders and Sergeant Majors. Hopefully they will get them in there where they can do the right thing. History has proven otherwise.