Special Forces operate by building rapport with indigenous forces, creating long term relationships before conflicts even begin to take shape. High-tech gizmos provide the flash for movies and video games but in reality it is the human element that determines so much of what actually happens where the rubber meets the asphalt. To get a better idea of what the Special Forces mission is, and the long lasting effects that individual soldiers can have around the world, we present…
[callout]Where this brotherhood began[/callout]
In 1997, eight Special Forces Soldiers traveled to Bolivia to train and advise a battalion of Bolivian Army rangers. Beyond running the battalion’s light infantry certification training, the Special Forces team used their downtime to refine their own techniques and tactical proficiency; and they allowed a motivated 20-year-old Bolivian Army corporal to participate in their team training sessions.
For then-Sgt. 1st Class. Patrick Fensom and his teammates on Operational Detachment-Alpha 716, part of the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne); This training was routine. A few hours of internal team training events during a six-week Joint Combined Exchange Training deployment was usual, and if one or two host-nation soldiers wanted to come along and see how American forces did business, they were welcome.
For then-Bolivian Army Corporal Rod Mendoza, however, this experience came to define the next 14 years of his life. The Army’s Special Forces community is small, and friends are often reunited throughout their careers. But Fensom never expected to see Mendoza again, let alone to see him 14 years later as a Special Forces sergeant first class, training future ODA commanders at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.
“In Bolivia, military service is mandatory, so I was doing my time [in the 90s] and then I volunteered for ranger training,” Mendoza said. “Real American SF guys came to train us for a peacekeeping mission we were preparing to do with the United Nations. When they showed up, I was like, ‘Whoa, this is awesome!’”
Fensom, now a sergeant major and the deputy commandant of the David K. Thuma Noncommissioned Officer Academy, part of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, was a Special Forces weapons sergeant on the 8-man team assigned to train Mendoza’s unit, Bolivia’s Manchengo battalion.
“With the Manchengo battalion our mission was specifically to get them to a level where they could get certified by the United Nations to conduct peacekeeping operations,” Fensom said. “The training incorporated a lot of light infantry, medical and communications tasks, with equipment organic to their unit.”
“We got along with a lot of the Bolivian soldiers, but [Mendoza] was one of the soldiers who wanted some extra training,” Fensom said as he flipped through an old photo album at his desk, pointing at photos of a young Mendoza on a rifle range. “[Our team] always took some time to conduct team training during deployments, and Mendoza was one of two Bolivian soldiers we invited to train with us.”
Mendoza said he wouldn’t have been able to befriend the American team if it hadn’t been for their ability to connect with him on a cultural level.
“[Our team] could converse pretty well in Spanish, and of course all our lessons were taught in Spanish,” Fensom said. “That really was a key to building that rapport; and if you didn’t speak Spanish really well, you had the Bolivian soldiers there to interact with.”
“They spoke some good Spanish, like [then-Sgt. 1st Class Arthur Lilley],” Mendoza said. “He was a great Spanish speaker, and it was a good way to establish a friendship.”
At the end of the JCET, Mendoza gave Lilley his Bolivian green beret as a gift; Lilley reciprocated, giving Mendoza his own American green beret, complete with the 7th SFG(A) flash and the American Special Forces regimental insignia.