Howard Altman: Commando leader reminds troops to put the Constitution before their teams

Faced with troop deaths and scandals of a force under stress, the outgoing commander of U.S. Special Operations Command is calling for a system-wide introspective review
Lt. Gen. Raymond "Tony" Thomas, who leads Special Operations Command, sent a letter to his commandos reminding them of their primary duty. [Times files]
Lt. Gen. Raymond "Tony" Thomas, who leads Special Operations Command, sent a letter to his commandos reminding them of their primary duty. [Times files]
Published December 18 2018

The last 17 years have been a grind on the U.S. military, and on commandos in particular.

But the last year has been especially challenging for Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base.

There have been deaths in training and combat, along with the ongoing fallout from the 2017 deaths of three Green Berets and a support soldier killed in Niger. And there have been scandals, like the 7th Special Forces Group soldier who tried to smuggle cocaine into the country and the charges filed against a Green Beret major accused in the killing of an Afghan detainee.

The problems have reached the point that Army Gen. Raymond A. “Tony” Thomas, the outgoing commander, sent an email to commandos earlier this month urging them to adhere a greater principle than their team. The email included guidance co-signed by Owen West, assistant secretary of defense.

“Trust — among teammates and especially with our Nation — is our currency in Special Operations ... we trade on it every day,” Thomas wrote. “We will not allow inexcusable and reprehensible violations of that trust to erode decades of honorable service, teamwork and progress by the members of USSOCOM.”

Drilling down, Thomas wrote that a survey of allegations over the last year indicates the command “faces a deeper challenge of a disordered view of the Team and the Individual in our SOF culture.”

At the heart of Special Operations are small teams of Navy SEALs and special boat crews; Army Green Berets, Delta Force and Rangers; Marine Raiders; and Air Force commandos, often operating far from anyone else in austere locations under extreme duress,

The bond among these teams is especially tight. Breaking it often is considered taboo.

But in his message, Thomas said there are times the taboo should be broken for the greater good.

“The Team — a small number of committed and capable Americans held together by tight bonds forged by shared mission and risk, victories and sorrows — is rightly a celebrated aspect of service in SOF,” he wrote.

“But the Team is not of ultimate value. The Team exists to serve a higher purpose — to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. When the Team becomes ultimate in our values system, our identity becomes distorted and ultimately corrosive to everything we hold dear.”

To that end, Thomas decreed that, starting Jan. 1, the Special Operations Command will begin a 90-day focus on “core values.” That includes re-examining training and the manner in which commandos are evaluated and selected, along with a review of surveys that examine morale to identify troubling trends.

In addition, commanders will be ordered to conduct “personal and direct engagement” with subordinates on the special operations forces cultural climate and report those observations up the chain. Those observations, along with ways to address the problems, will ultimately wind up on Thomas’ desk.

The command will also pursue additional research into the connection between operational trauma and behavioral health.

And all of this is on top of existing requirements that the Department of Defense review the ethics and professionalism of the command and the military departments for officers and other personnel serving in special operations capacities.

Time is not on Thomas’ side.

Sometime next year, most likely around March, a new commander, most likely Army Lt. Gen. Richard Clarke, will take his place.

But the stresses he addressed, after so many years of constant deployment, will still exist.

Stay tuned to see how this three-month review process shakes out.

• • •

The Pentagon announced the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Freedom's Sentinel.

Pfc. Joshua Mikeasky, 19, from Johnstown, Pa., died Dec. 13 at Bagram Airfield, Bagram District, Parwan Province, Afghanistan, from a non-combat related incident. The incident is under investigation. Mikeasky was assigned to 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, N.Y.

In addition, the Marines identified the five crew members of a KC-130 refueling tanker who died in a mid-air collision over the Sea of Japan Dec 6. They are Lt. Col. Kevin R. Herrmann, 38, of New Bern, N.C.; Maj. James M. Brophy, 36, of Staatsburg, N.Y.; Staff Sgt. Maximo A. Flores, 27, of Surprise, Ariz.; Cpl. Daniel E. Baker, 21, of Tremont, Ill.; and Cpl. William C. Ross, 21, of Hendersonville, Tenn.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 61 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel; 56 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one troop death in support of Operation Joint Guardian, one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; one death in Operation Octave Shield and six deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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