They don’t look like your typical Army soldiers. These guys are all out of central casting. Jokingly I thought to myself these soldiers are obviously the A-team – having no idea that the term actually refers to their 8 to 12 member operations teams known formally as “Operational Detachments Alpha” or ODAs. This is the world of US Army Special Forces – the Green Berets.
Fox News was given exclusive access to First Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group’s last pre-mission training before these frontline forces deploy to Afghanistan. The Fort Bragg based battalion traveled to a dusty, desert like base camp near the Mexican border that looked a lot like Afghanistan thanks not only to its natural landscape of red sand and mountain air but also because of a fabricated Afghan Bazaar (think shopping center) and mock village that included Afghans acting as local villagers and random goats and chickens roaming the unpaved village streets.
“This is the culmination exercise for our battalion – the teams have been training all year and we do these when we have an upcoming deployment,” explains Major Michael Sullivan. This thirty eight year old war veteran is the operations officer for the entire battalion and is preparing to deploy for the fifth time. Asked about how he prepares to leave his wife and three kids to head into harm’s way, his eyes drift to the right for several seconds before he explains, “I don’t know if I ever really prepare myself… It’s hard…getting the kids ready – it’s hard to say they are ever used to it and I think as they get older they get more dependent on you being around and that assurance that dad is there. It’s difficult.” He explains that as his kids get older they understand the danger. Twelve members of the battalion have been killed in action in Afghanistan since the start of the war.
The battalion commander, Lt. Colonel Christopher Riga, confirms the danger. Without emotion he explains “most of our deployments and most of the operations that we execute are very high risk. Everyday our soldiers are in harm’s way. They are at the tip of the spear and executing operations that are extremely dangerous and complex.” The battalion’s A teams typically travel out to remote locations and often live with the populace – in the villages – conducting possible combat missions and also trying to gather intelligence and information.
Twenty nine year old Captain Aaron Baty is an A-team leader whose dad was in a Special Forces unit for 22 years. Following in his father’s footsteps, Baty was commissioned as an officer in 2003 and was itching to get assigned to a unit that would deploy in the aftermath of September 11th. This husband and father of three is deploying for the third time. When asked about what he is giving up when he deploys, he does not explain that he might miss out his young daughter’s first steps or first words. “You could potentially be giving up everything when you deploy. You always make that plan for when I get back what will I do but in reality you don’t know if you’re coming back… You give up the possibility of seeing your kids graduate high school and walking your daughters down the aisle, waiting for my son to stop being a seven year old boy and start being a man that I can do things with.”
Special Forces soldiers deploy approximately every six months. When they are home they are not just sitting around. Their schedules are packed with training. Lt. Col. Riga explains “They are looking for something…that puts greater responsibility on them. They’re looking for a mission that will seem more important because they are at a greater risk.”
President Obama has approved a “surge” of some 30 thousand additional US forces to Afghanistan and for the first time since 2003, there are now more US forces in Afghanistan than in Iraq. Lt. Col. Riga points out the soldiers “…know it’s a critical time in our nation’s history…They have spent a lot of time in [Afghanistan.] There has been a lot invested – a lot of lives lost…”
Despite the dangers of his job and the time away from home, Capt. Baty like every other soldier interviewed, is eager to serve. “…It’s a better feeling to know that the fight is on someone else’s front door step and you can come home to yours…It’s worth it because… it is our country and I do believe in what our country stands for.”
“It’s what we do and what we love – we have a stake in it for people that have deployed multiple times – to continue on with what they had done previously. We’re Americans. We don’t quit. We want to win – that’s who we are,” adds Major Sullivan. “I don’t think there’s anyone who is tired of it – there are some of us who would love to go and stay until it’s over.”
Sullivan carries around a FDNY (Fire Department New York) baseball hat attached to his backpack. It’s with him at all times – a reminder of the terror attacks of September 11th and part of his motivation for continuing his 16 years of military service. “9/11 is something that hurt us all and I don’t want that to ever happen again to this country.”