When mentioning Special Operations missions, the talk generally centers around those direct action missions, the raids on suspected terrorists’ locations, and the like. Everyone likes those linear, tangible missions and the results are much easier to gauge the success or failure from. But in the Unconventional Warfare or Counterinsurgency environment, the results are harder to pinpoint and the missions are of a much longer duration. Here is where Civic Action Projects are a tremendous boost to mission accomplishment.

Special Operations Forces (SOF) are at their best when the build long term relationships with partner nations. They integrate and enable not only with conventional forces but interagency as well (State Department, Agency for International Development, AID) and others. Many times this type of long term planning will prevent wars before they start.  

Civic Action projects are part of those long-term operations, in Afghanistan, it plays a role in Village Stability Operations, where the poverty level of Afghan civilians hovers around 80 percent.

Back in Vietnam, the role of civic action projects was key for Special Forces troops that set up Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) camps along the border regions of South Vietnam.

In the Horn of Africa and in Latin America, civic action projects work hand-in-hand with FID (Foreign Internal Defense) training, Counternarcotics Operations and nation building.  In these poor, austere environments, the host nation governments have economic, social, and security problems that affect the day-to-day life of the people and the government’s ability to rule properly.

Special Operations Forces ability to operate in small independent teams, having cultural familiarity, language capability and the long-term mindset makes them perfect partners in assisting developing nations.

In Latin America, the SOF teams used civic action projects to boost the host nation and US image in many of the poor destitute countries in the region. Especially in the Andean Ridge nations where poverty rates were very high and the host nation governments were trying to combat illegal narcotics trafficking.

During the long civil war in El Salvador between the years of 1982-1992, the US MILGP helped the Salvadoran government established civic action projects, civil affairs units and ran Mobile Medical Training Team, that treated both military and civilians.

In neighboring Honduras, a latent insurgency was thwarted with the help of many civil action projects. Run out of JTF-B (Joint Task Force Bravo) at Palmerola Air Base, the US built roads and schools, dug wells, and conducted numerous medical, dental and veterinary clinics. Special Operations Forces had a constant presence in providing training and assistance of the Honduran military.

After the conclusion of combat operations in Operation Just Cause in Panama, the follow-on mission, Operation Promote Liberty continued for five years as the US helped the new government of Panama conduct refugee operations, road building (Fuertes Caminos), reconstruction and medical activities that boosted the host nation friendly government’s image for the people.

Our own experiences with civic action projects were included in almost every mission during that era. They were never glamorous but were big-time rapport builders with both our host nation troops and the civilian populace that live in very close proximity to the bases (cuartels) in Latin America.

Often, it was improving their fresh water supply, digging a new well or improving the system that was in place. Special Forces engineers were masters at building things on a meager budget and many a well or school was put in place using an SF engineer NCO leading a project of host nation troops and/or civilians.

Two particular projects stand out, on the first, my partner Dave Ortiz and I were training CN (Counter-Narcotics) troops in the Chapare Valley. In one area, the entire economy of the region operated mainly on the river. The locals had small boats, houseboats and every contraption known to man to haul goods up and down the river.

During rainy season and the expected flooding, a number of trees washed downstream and had blocked the river. The locals, who due to the CN efforts of the Bolivian troops and the DEA were not on good terms with the Americans. But they reached out and asked if “the gringos” could help.

Taking a boat to the area where the trees had choked the river, we decided that it could be done but would be a good mission for our demo students (luckily teaching a course at just the right time). Dave showed the troops how the use C-4 (explosives) packed in the right spot with det cord wrapping around what they could reach. A Bolivian TV news crew pulled up in another boat and was filming the entire thing. More and more C-4 was wrapped up in the trees and the look I got was “don’t ask no questions!”

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A fuse was lit and we retreated to a sandbar that was much too close for comfort. The explosion blew the trees and limbs high into the sky with a deafening roar. A tree trunk about three feet in diameter flew in the air just past us sounding like a freight train.

So the two”gringo DEA men” as the tv station reported blew the obstruction in the river and were helping the poor Campesinos after all. We got a call from the Ambassador who watched it on television and asked, “You think Dave used enough explosives?” On the small screen, it was even more impressive.

On the second a Special Forces A-Team from 7th SFG was conducting a six-month counter-narcotics mission in the Chimore base area of Bolivia. Training was going to cease for 14 days over Christmas where the SF team was looking forward to a break from the austere jungle camp and enjoy a break in Panama on the beach.

But just before Christmas, the American Ambassador had been kind of roped into agreeing to repair a school in the mountains of Sucre. The school ran around the clock with elementary school early in the day, high school in the afternoon and adult education in the evening. To do the necessary repairs USAID estimated would take close to $200,000. They had a budget of $70,000, the Ambassador asked SF to take a look and see what could be done. Having no engineering experience, I asked for my senior engineer to fly down with me and we’d take a look.

After poking around he said, the work could be done but only for the materials, the labor would be very high and the time would take at least 8 weeks. Relaying our findings by telephone to the Embassy, that is when they asked if the team would give up Christmas to fix the school. To a man the team agreed. The embassy sweetened the deal and put everyone up in the nicest hotel in town which had a pool but no beach.

We contacted the local government officials, the School’s admin staff, and the tv news again to put the call out to the civilians to help out. We couldn’t pay for labor but would furnish lunch for volunteers as the teachers cooked for everyone. The project had to be done in two weeks when training resumed.

No one knew what to expect, the US’ image wasn’t great there but this was a project that was to help everyone in town. On the first morning, we got to the school just at sunrise to see 350 volunteers to help with the labor.

The engineer NCOs were the true commanders of the project, I just ran interference and tried to stay out of their way. All of the work was done, including the re-wiring of the school which wasn’t on their list of issues to get re-worked. The classrooms were ripped out and replastered, the bathrooms were gutted and new ones put in, including a new fresh water tank. The patio which was broken up and a constant headache for the teachers as children at recess were falling and getting cut constantly was ripped out and replaced. Everything was repainted. Chairs and desks repaired, chalkboards were replaced.

And it was done for $65,000. The hundreds of Bolivian civilians who turned out to help were instrumental in getting it done. Working together with the SF team, by the end of the project, the rapport made during those two weeks would have taken years in the conventional method. Workers were bringing their families over to meet the “Norte Americanos” and no longer the “gringos.”

Our senior engineer could have run for Mayor that year and won easily. These anecdotes aren’t the exception, they were the rule that SF lived by during that era. One of the reasons 7th SFG was so successful in Latin America was because of the rapport with the local populace.

As you embark on your journey in the course, you’ll gloss over the Civic Action mentions…we all did. But it will make missions much more successful in conjunction with the typical training and advisory tasks that SOF always do. Robin Sage used to end with a day of Civic Action projects for the SF students. It was a way of giving back to the people of North Carolina who supported the course but it also taught a valuable lesson on taking care of the populace in a UW environment. I hope that they still do that. It is a worthwhile endeavor.

Photos US Army, author