Saturday, May 7, 2011

My Day with USASOC at CAPEX

A fortunate group of civilians gets chosen each year to participate in a Capabilities Exercise with the brave men and women in the United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC).    I was fortunate to be on this year's CAPEX list and drove with great anticipation to attend the event in Fort Bragg N.C.

USASOC oversees Special Operations Forces (SOF).

The current commander of USASOC is an amazing American patriot, Lieutenant General John F. Mulholland, Jr.

I had the opportunity to speak to Mulholland a few different times during the day.  The man is humble, focused on team, a patriot, and no nonsense.  His soldiers spoke about how what the man says in public is truly how the man commands.

CAPEX takes us civilians through a capabilities exercise, and at times you feel as if you are actually in the presence of the X-Men.  The men and women are not just amazing athletes, they have the smarts, instincts, bravery, and resolve to conduct their missions.  Being in their presence for a mere 24 hours inspires me to be more focused on life and work and to, well, just be better.

While going through our activities, I was struck at how often these brave men and women are deployed.  Some go out on 8 month missions, come home for 2-4 months, and rotate back out.  During the 2 months "at home", they are expected to train, do paperwork, stay certified, be "on call", and fit in time with their families.

Our day was action packed.  The goal is to show us the capabilities, so as civilians, we understand how funding is used to support and build capabilities.  I can tell you that when the world needs a hero, you cannot go find a unit of heroes overnight.  Heroes are made over a period of time.  You have to build them over years and help them perfect their trade so they can avoid the need for a hero, or, when the worst happens, you have heroes at the ready.  Without fail, these men and women do not want to be recognized as heroes.  If you want to laud their team, go for it, but they prefer not to be singled out.

The CAPEX methodology uses progressive unconventional warfare scenarios.  They are somewhat based on inevitable or plausible future world events designed to demonstrate Army Special Operations Forces’ diverse capabilities.

I attended a lovely dinner with my new team mates at the Chris' Steak house (not Ruth's Chris, just Chris).  The conversation was spirited and lively.  When we talked about the injured and the fallen, and the needs for their families, even the war hardened men in the room became choked up.  I was not the only one holding back the lump in the throat.

The morning came early and I got ready in my room, anticipating the day.  Stretching.  A few exercises to get ready.  Then board the bus.

As we rode towards the exercise, they started to tell us a little about what to expect.  Then our bus hit a checkpoint and we were boarded by the (exercise) enemy.  The enemy wanted to indoctrinate us and make us work in socialized labor camps.  We got off the bus for our indoctrination.  We were told to turn off our cell phones, face the back of the person in front of us, walk in 2 lines, hands out of pockets.  I saw a man talking on his phone.  Suddenly his feet left the ground and there was shouting.  The man was hauled away screaming for us to help him.  I was yelled at to not look away from the back of the person in front of me.  In my head I am thinking, "This is not right.  We outnumber them.  I don't care if they have guns.  They are beating him."  I know this an exercise and I'm wondering what part of my psychology is being tested.  I asked a soldier later if I "did the right thing" going along and he told me that every situation is different.  Sometimes you fight early on, sometimes you go.  It just depends.

Then, we get to "come out of role" so we can be briefed by Mulholland.  He asks us to do three things:  1.  pray for our troops; 2.  when we see them in uniform, go up and shake their hand, talk to them, thank them; and 3.  support their mission space - with words and budget.  The US Navy Seal instructors have a saying, "The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in war".  I wear a USMC shirt when I run that exclaims, "Pain is just weakness leaving the body".  USASOC is a good example of both of those mottos.

Back in role, we are told to use the bathrooms quietly for a "comfort break" and to assemble in the hall in 2 lines.  We are then treated to a demonstration by the Black Daggers.  Amazing feats of mind and body over nature.  Reminding me again, heroes are not created overnight.

Back on the bus we are headed to our labor camp.  I'm wondering what my contribution will have to be in this labor camp.  I think to myself, "Maybe I can dig a ditch and then create a secret way out.  How involved will this exercise go?"  But I did not have to think about it for long.  Our brave troops had trained guerrilla fighters and these fighters came to rescue us and help us re-connect with our US troops for repatriation.

Since we kept running into bad guys, the exercise naturally gives us an opportunity to train with guns.  I shot 5 different weapons.  My trainers told me I had missed my calling, under their expert guidance, I shot all targets on first shot with two exceptions.  My first shots on the Glock were low and wide.  My soldier gave me some pointers and suddenly I was rocking the Glock to take down hostiles.  My other challenge was on the sniper target range and a last, far away target on the Scar (Special forces Combat Assault Rifle) gave me a little trouble but after the soldier "doped the scope" and told me to aim the cross hair a little off to the right, bullseye.  Heroes are not created overnight.

Once we were trained on how to man the scopes and the guns, we were ready for the next event, witnessing a hostage rescue.  The soldiers smiled when I walked up to put on my flak jacket.  They kept looking around and found what they announced to be "the smallest one we could find Ma'am".  Then came the helmet which, by the time we fitted it on my head, the strap was quite long.  We stood on top of a structure - visualize sort of a grated structure that creates a see-through roof.  We watched our soldiers break into the house with amazing precision and take out the hostiles while preserving the hostage's life.  I marveled at this.  All soldiers are on separate legs but they they moved along, in separate rooms, in precise synchronization, it was as if they belonged to one being.  Heroes are not created overnight.  After all was clear, the soldiers then showed us how they are trained to create their own tools of trade, including their own explosive devices.

Then, it's off to a village.  We go through a house and see how the soldiers are trained to look for digital devices, home made bomb making, and the subtleties they need to learn.  You cannot just barge through homes looking for things.  A digital device could be taped to back of a carpet.  A tarp that is rolled up but looks a little worn might be scraped for bomb making.  This takes smarts and strategic thinking, not just brawn.

We then meet up with Mulholland and other soldiers at a mess tent and a feast of MREs.  I am actually quite surprised at the breadth of choices.  There is a vegetarian MRE waiting for me at the table.  Nice touch all y'all!  I look at the caloric content on back and this one meal has more calories in it then I eat in a day!  Leaving me to wonder what type of workouts I am really doing?  There are instructions:  eat carbs first.  If you are not hungry enough to eat everything, then eat a little of everything.  My feast is a veggie burger in BBQ sauce, a muffin top, applesauce, and a protein bar.  I ate a little bit of the MRE and marveled at how the soldiers ate them like you and I would eat a meal at home.

Break time is over and now we head to a conflict between the bad guys and our soldiers.  We are standing on roof top and watch a German shepherd pick out a man just walking along.  The dog was trained to look for bomb makers.  He got his man!

Then a gunfight breaks out.  One of my soldiers, a 24 year old that dreamed of being part of special ops since he was 3 years old, is on the ground and in pain. I am ticked! I had just talked to this young man earlier.  He is so self assured.  Entered the US Army right after high school graduation.  I had told him, "Your parents did something right.  They must be so proud!" He said, "Ma'am, I hope you are right.  Frankly, they are pi###d that I joined.  Not sure they are over the shock still.  I have no military in my family."  He smiled, so proud to serve.   This image is in my head as I walk up to my lead soldier and tell my lead soldier I want to help carry our fallen man off the field.  He looks at all 60 inches of me and says, "Are you sure ma'am?  He's going to be very heavy.  You have to get him out of harm's way and then fight the downwind from the 3 helos to load him up."  I smile and say, "I can do this." As I approach my downed soldier, the medic, and 3 men they are a little puzzled as I stand near the feet and say, "Hi there.  Tell me what to do, I want to help carry him to safety."  One man shouts, "Don't drop him ma'am.  If you think you are going to drop him, yell so we can hear you and gently put him down."  I just smile and nod.  Yes, I carried him and did not drop him.  We load him onto the Chinook.  One of my soldiers looks at me and says, "Ma'am, you are a bad a##".  I smile and buckle up into my seat.  I cannot get the lap belt tight so my seat mates start a heave-ho to tighten the belt laughing as we get it tight.  I notice machine gunners in the front windows and ask if we can get a chance to shoot, not allowed.  I ask if we are going to get a chance to rappel out the back of the helo.  Not allowed.

We fly in circles, the machine guns are buzzing.  The gunners are busy.  It sounds like a high pitched drill hum?  Not sure how to define it.   I look across the aisle and give a thumbs up to the person that was sponsoring our group.  Lump back in the throat again.  Great granddaughter, granddaughter, daughter and wife of men that served and the amazing women married to them, I gave thanks to God for the day's experience.  My name made the list at CAPEX.  A gift and a blessing.  What I need to do with that gift and blessing, I am not completely sure.  I will continue praying for the brave men and women that volunteer to serve and their families.  I will pray for God to lead me and guide me on what to do with this amazing experience.

I am sure I am missing many details from the day, such as the demonstration of leaflets dropping to warn the village of upcoming operations.  Or the focus on winning hearts and minds of the countries we are located in and helping them, help themselves.  Or the focus on helping women learn how to have a safer childbirth.  It's not just about might and fight, it's about men and women with hearts that fight for right.


This unit is truly SINE PARI - without equal.

From a leadership perspective, here are the core SOF Truths:

SOF Truths
Humans are more important than Hardware.
Quality is better than Quantity.
Special Operations Forces cannot be mass produced.
Competent Special Operations Forces cannot be created after emergencies occur.
Most Special Operations require non-SOF assistance

For more about USASOC, go to: 

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