Together with 29 other fortunate Americans, including SDSU’s Veterans Coordinator Joan Putnam, I recently had the opportunity to participate in a week-long Joint Civilian Orientation Conference (JCOC) as a guest of U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. I was honored to be nominated both by Admiral William French and by General Michael Lehnert.
There are two JCOC “classes” per year; ours was the 79th. Tours tend to have a unified or “Joint” focus, exposing participants to the work of each military service. We had the good fortune of having our tour devoted to “Special Operations” – i.e. the extraordinary “Special Forces” such as Navy Seals, Army Green Berets, Air Force Commandos, etc.
We gathered Sunday evening in Tampa on April 25, 2010.
Accompanying our JCOC was Douglas Wilson, Assistant Secretary of Defense and Summit Agarwal, Deputy Assist Secretary of Defense. Prior to joining the DOD he ran the mobile product management team for Google’s North American operations. We were also accompanied by General Fiel, an Air Force two star about to receive his third.
By way of “full disclosure” you need to know that the following is written by an anti-war philosopher of the ‘60’s who led marches, gave speeches and wrote editorials against the Vietnam war — in which I assiduously avoided service. I will try to give you a sense of our JCOC experience in the thoughts that follow.
4/26 Wake up call at 6:00 a.m. (3:00 California time!!!)
- Bussed to McDill Air Force Base and to headquarters of the Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) where we were welcomed by Admiral Olsen, the four star who commands SOCOM. Adm. Olsen is responsible for the joint operations of Special Forces in the various services. No cameras or electronics allowed. After Admiral Olsen’s welcome and briefing we were turned over to several other officers to complete the briefing and for some demonstrations/displays. Questions were always welcome.
- Lunch with Special Operations troops themselves.
- Then a short bus ride to U.S. Central Command – from which the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are run.
- Current operations briefing in the command control room (again, no cameras or electronics allowed).
- Then a beachside reception hosted by Admiral Olsen, complete with a parachute drop demonstration (our second of the day!).
- Then a bus back to the McDill airfield where we boarded a C-17 Globemaster for a flight to Norfolk, VA. (The C-17 is a huge aircraft capable of airlifting enormous amounts of supplies/people. It was to be our “ride” for the rest of the week.)
- Bus to hotel.
4/27 Wake up call at 5:30 a.m.
- Bus to Naval Base Norfolk.
- Breakfast on board ship with sailors.
- Ship tour.
- Welcome to Navy Seal base; briefing by Commander. [Without exception the commanders we met were thoughtful/articulate leaders.]
- A word about physical fitness: WOW! I did not know that human bodies were capable of some of the things I saw – for instance a feet-together, standing-still jump to a platform four feet above the ground – ten times!
- Bus to Coast Guard Station.
- Lunch with Coast Guard personnel.
- Strike team demonstration: We were out on boats simulating protecting a large vessel from a pirate attack. I rode (well strapped in) in a jet-powered boat (about 30 ft.) that was intercepting the pirates (who weresome of our classmates in even smaller, more maneuverable boats). Also a demonstration of an at-sea helicopter rescue.
- Coast Guard members must experience a pepper spraying so that they can respond effectively in
the event that some one sprays them. We watched two courageous individuals fight through the pain and subdue their attackers. Ouch!!!
- Bus to hotel.
4/28 5:15 a.m. wakeup call
- Bus to airfield.
- Board C-17 for flight to Ft. Bragg, NC.
- Army Special Ops briefing by three star General John Mulhollen.
- A taste of his briefing: Special Ops is the best of the best. Only about 15% of those who attempt to qualify make it. We have an all volunteer Army. Contrary to what the Russians and Chinese say, ours is genuinely a “People’s Army.” Most of what you will see demonstrated actually takes place at night. Speed is essential.
- I asked what he looks for in Special Forces troops. He responded: “Character, integrity, flexible problem solvers, self-reliant, courage, physical fitness.” He went on to say they look for people who do not believe there is just one right answer. Also, ingenuity, you have to be able to survive on your own.
- He listed five “Basic Truths”: Humans are more important than their hardware. Their quality is more important than their quantities. SOF cannot be mass-produced. Competent SOF cannot be created after emergencies occur. Most special operations require non-SOF assistance. He went on to say that the age of uniformed standing armies confronting one another on a conventional battlefield are gone. Everything is shifting to Spedcial Ops.
- Black Dagger Demonstration: Prepared to respond to “complex, irregular, hybrid threats. Persistent engagement.
- Sniper demonstration.
- Then we had an opportunity to shoot the various weapons. I was 6 for 6 with a 308 at 200 meters; half with an M-24. I had one of the better scores with the Glock 8mm pistol.
- Field lunch (self-warming MRE’s, i.e. “Meals Ready to Eat”) with the troops. I had chicken and salsa with fried rice. Not bad.
- Then a demonstration of how Special Forces clear a building: We became the prisoners while Special Ops and friendly indigenous rebels’ freed us from the clutches of a hostel government. We were airlifted out in three Chinooks helicopters.
- Return to dining facility for dinner with the troops. (Nice dining facility – similar to our campus facilities.)
- Bus to airport.
- C-17 to Beaufort SC.
- Arrive to the sound of F-17’s roaring through their exercises.
- Bus to hotel.
- Go to sleep to the sound of jets screaming overhead. (Throughout the tour we had received sound-suppressing earplugs – when we fired weapons, or rode on the C-17; I had the presence of mind to insert mine and quickly fell asleep.)
4/29, 4:45 wakeup call
- Breakfast with Marines at Paris Island.
- Then we stood on the famous yellow footprints and were given the “welcoming” speech by a Master Drill Sergeant. (JCOC had issued us back-packs, hats and sun screen; now I wished they had issued diapers!)
- Recruit training overview.
- Fitness course demonstration.
- Indoor simulated marksmanship trainer. I got to shoot. Fortunately, my score is classified.
- Rappel demonstration. (I declined.)
- Bus to airfield.
- Board C-17 to Hurlburt Field, FL (in the western panhandle).
- Box lunches in route
- Briefing by (soon-to-be) three star General Kurt Cichowski at Air Force Special Operations Command.
- Capabilities briefing that included tours of various aircraft and explanations of their capabilities.
- Bus (long way) to live range for a demonstration of aerial firepower: We were less than a mile from the impact zone. A-130 Gunships first opened up a safe area with a 25mm gatling gun, 40mm and 105mm cannons, and 105 Howitzers from the air. Then Air commandos were flown in via helicopter, (Mi-17 – a Russian helicopter that is used widely in the third world), to clear the structure of bad guys. (We were on a deck of that structure). Resupplies were dropped from a MC-130E/H Combat Talon – capable of lifting off at 155,000 pounds. Battle won, the commandos were then airlifted out by a CV-22, Osprey. (The twin rotors are each 38 feet in diameter!) Throughout the tour we heard how Air force and Marines like these vehicles despite their spotty safety record. In action one can see why they like them.
- On the long bus ride home in the gathering darkness we were each given NVG’s (Night Vision Goggles) to scan the passing landscape. It was like day. Amazing!
4/30, We were allowed to sleep in until 6:45 a.m. (perhaps to transition us back to civilian life).
- Breakfast in hotel with Airmen. I sat next to an aerial gunner from Chula Vista and across from a female corpsman. Both very impressive.
- A final briefing from General Cichowski.
- Thank you’s, mementos and goodbyes to our team leaders (I was on the Navy team; our team leader was Lt. Bashon Mann – a very capable/considerate guy).
- Bus to airfield.
- Last c-17 ride back to Tampa
- Bus to commercial airport.
So, the natural question might be: What impression did this 1960’s peacenik take away from his week with Special Ops? First and foremost that they are great educators. If education is “human growth and development” (as I believe it is) then these educators are without parallel. Second that they understand and care about character and integrity – because theirs is tested in a way that most of us never experience. Third, that they have thought profoundly about leadership and its responsibilities. Forth, after all the “gee-wiz” hardware, it is the people who matter.
A full-of-wonders experience with some extraordinary people.