A while back a friend asked me what the differences are, between the Special Forces of my day, and this generation of Green Berets.

After careful thought I have decided that the spirit is virtually identical, the mission and organization are basically the same, and everything else is a lot different. The spirit of Special Forces, when I joined it, was forty percent Knights of the Round Table, and maybe sixty percent Robin Hood’s Merry Men. I’m pretty sure that’s what it is today.

The attitude is businesslike, but with gusto.

The twelve-man A team, the Operational Detachment Alpha, is still the heart of the Group: two officers, a captain and a warrant officer, formerly a first lieutenant, two operations and intelligence NCOs, two weapons men, two commo guys, two medics, and two engineers. Each of these specialists is vastly more highly trained than their counterparts in conventional units. The medics train for a year.

The engineers know all kinds of improvised demolitions techniques that most demolitionists don’t know. They can design and build field fortifications, dig a well, or build a school. The weapons men can do repairs on all kinds of US and foreign weapons, and at a level that a conventional unit can only get from an ordnance depot. In my day the commo guys sent coded messages 1,500 miles with an old radio we were still using from the OSS in World War II. It consisted of two boxes about the size of cigar boxes, some cable, a code key, and an antenna made of wire strung in the trees.

A former team sergeant, with experience on the old radios, and with the new ones, writes, “Commo today is terrific. The team is in constant contact with their Area Specialist at Group Headquarters, who transmits directives from the commanding officer and operations officer.  The Satellite bouncers can make the world-wide trip in six seconds via the MILSTAR high-flyer.

The AN/GRC 112 is a search and rescue radio, with each ODA Member carrying one.  It has an automatic GPS locator, built into the radio, which is activated as soon as the set is switched to the “On” position.  

However, a young Special Forces officer, former enlisted medic, recently returned from Afghanistan, has some qualms about the new radios, “On the commo- they use the latest technology from satellite real (now this second) time communications, including tracking every maneuver element on the field like a video game, on the computers back at headquarters. How it works, and what it’s called is classified.

But they have stopped teaching Morse code, which is the only thing that works in an atmosphere recently charged by, say, a nuclear explosion. By the way, satcom is the first thing knocked out by a nuke.”

Special Forces still has the same, always sought but seldom achieved, goal of having every man highly trained in his own specialty and cross-trained in two others.

It’s been a brilliant organizational scheme since it originated in the ‘50’s. With everybody double-slotted the team can be split in two. With good cross-training it can be split into three or four locations, and still function efficiently.

They also aspire to be fluent in one language, from their operational area, and able to limp along in two others.

My old team sergeant friend assures me that today’s SF is much more serious about the language requirement than we were able to be when all we did was go to Vietnam and back, over and over.

We used to figure that it took about five years before a Special Forces man was fully qualified. Some very good SF guys never reach that goal.

The mission is much the same. SF was formed to organize, train, and lead guerrilla forces, much as the OSS did in World War II, in which they trained and directed guerrillas in France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Burma, China. Irony of ironies, OSS helped Ho Chi Minh get started in Vietnam.

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When the OSS became the CIA, they lost their military arm. Special Forces was designed to replace it.

Since their activation in ’52, the organization formed to lead guerrillas has worked with counter-guerrillas, and trained conventional armies. Their first shot at working with actual guerrillas came in Afghanistan.

The major difference today, one which is also a huge improvement, is that Special Forces is now part of the US Special Operations Command, which also includes the Rangers, the Navy SEALs, and the really beautiful part, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the Nightstalkers–which specializes in flying choppers into places where no one else can fly, in weather nobody else can fly in, at night, and the Air Force’s 1st Special Operations Wing, which has its own inventory of helicopters. But their mainstay is the C-130.

One seasoned SF NCO writes, “1st SOW assets include both MC and AC-130, specialized aircraft that provide both transport and close air support to Special Operations Forces.  The AC-130H model SPECTRE gunship offers two 20mm Gatling guns that fire a 1, 565 gram projectile at 3,300 feet per second, at 2500 rounds per minute, with pinpoint accuracy.  There is also a 40mm Bofors trainable cannon available for those really special hostile targets, and a mighty 105-mm howitzer firing a 33-pound projectile at 1,620 feet per second for the learning impaired bad guy who just didn’t get it the first time around.  Both in Afghanistan and most recently Operation Iraqi Freedom, the SPECTRE gunship played key roles in decimating enemy forces to include light and medium armor.”

Jim Morris is a longtime Soldier of Fortune correspondent and former Special Forces officer. His SOF memoir The Devil’s Secret Name, is in print from St. Martin’s, and his novel, Above and Beyond, is in print from realwarstories.com.

Picture: SFC Doney 5th SFG: This is a photograph of Sergeant First Class (SFC) Norman A. Doney (standing on far right) with a group of Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) soldiers who were training with the 5th Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces, September 1968. (S. L. A. Marshall Photograph Collection).

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