Marine Special Operators Set Out to Prove Themselves

By Stew Magnuson
Maj. Gen. Mastin M. Robeson, head of the Marine Corps Special Operations Command, knows his relatively new force inhabits two communities steeped in tradition.

The Marine Corps “should never question that being a Marine is first and foremost who we are,” he said. “But the special operations community out there … should never question that special operations is absolutely what we do and we want to be world class at it.”

MARSOC, headquartered at Camp LeJeune, N.C., was established in February 2006 in response to then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s desire that U.S. Special Operations Command take the lead role in worldwide anti-terrorism efforts.

Until that time, the Air Force, Army and Navy all had their own special operations forces, but not the Marines. Pentagon leaders wanted the service to make a contribution to SOCOM, which was asked to expand its ranks.

The decision to stand up the new command was not without controversy since many Marines believed that the Corps already was an elite force.

Three years after MARSOC’s establishment, Robeson believes that controversy should now be put to rest.

When he said “special operations are absolutely what we do,” he is referring to the Marine Corps’ tradition of operating in countries that are considered “backwaters.” For him, the mission is a natural fit for a service that has always worked in tough conditions.  

“We’ve been doing operations in small wars — the armpits of the world — ever since our [creation]. It’s where we made our reputation,” Robeson said.

“We believe our Marine culture significantly gives us a leg up on the other people that come to SOCOM,” he added.

Along with boosting the number of personnel available to Special Operations Command in a time of need, Adm. Eric T. Olson, SOCOM commander, has asked MARSOC to deploy companies for special operations missions.

“We train to do company level operations as one of our primary contributions to SOCOM but with the ability to decentralize … any time we need to,” Robeson said.

Teams have gone on 31 different deployments in South America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Southeast Asia, he said.

The new force has not achieved the “fully mission capable” designation yet.

Although it is “operationally capable,” meaning it can carry out small missions, and has been doing so for the past two years. Robeson expects MARSOC to reach its full complement of personnel, numbering about 2,500, in fiscal year 2011.

It has mostly been carrying out small unit training in developing nations in an effort to bolster their militaries’ abilities to conduct their own counter-terrorism operations.

But MARSOC has had to emerge from beneath a cloud after the first company deployed into a combat zone allegedly killed as many as 19 civilians in Nangahar Province in Afghanistan.

The March 4, 2007 incident began when a bomb-laden truck exploded near a MARSOC convoy. The company was accused of using excessive force as it departed the area. One Marine was injured in the attack. Afghan witnesses told reporters and human rights investigators that the company fired on civilians who were on foot or in vehicles as the convoy raced away, according to Associated Press reports.

Army Maj. Gen. Frank Kearney, then head of Special Operations Forces at U.S. Central Command, ordered the company out of Afghanistan. That created an inter-service dust up when the first MARSOC commander, Maj. Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik, criticized the decision in the press.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway backed him up and called an Army officer’s issuance of an official apology and condolence payments to victims’ families “premature” since an investigation was still underway. MARSOC said the convoy was fired upon after the detonation.

Hejlik relieved the company commander and a platoon leader of their duties. An administrative court of inquiry in May 2008 ultimately decided not to press criminal charges against the two officers, a decision that sparked outrage in Afghanistan.

Robeson said he perceives no blowback from the incident.

“There are always lessons learned, but there were no consequences,” he said. Other companies remained in Afghanistan, and MARSOC forces have been there ever since.

“Commanders in Afghanistan are going in the opposite direction. They have asked us to double the amount of forces,” he said.

“I have run into absolutely zero points of friction within SOCOM regarding our desire for us to be fully engaged” in Afghanistan, Robeson added.

As for greater acceptance in the special operations community, where inter-service rivalries are common, MARSOC has had to prove itself, officers said.

Col. Daniel Masur, commander of MARSOC’s advisor group, said there is more knowledge now of what the new force can do in the special operations realm.

“The true awareness really comes with our interactions downrange,” he said.

“We’ve been very gainfully employed and every time a MARSOC element goes downrange and works side by side with other SOF elements, that’s where the knowledge comes of what MARSOC brings to the table,” Masur said.

MARSOC can also serve as a conduit between the Marine Corps and units working under Special Operations Command, Robeson said.

In the past, Marine Corps units “and SOF forces have operated in the same area and never even waved at each other,” he said.

Col. Mark Aycock, commander of MARSOC’s support group, said, “Once they see us in action or work with us, then they start to develop an appreciation for what we can bring to the special ops fight. As well as what we can’t bring.”

MARSOC is a work in progress. “Not everything was right on day one considering the time frame given to the founders,” he acknowledged.

There are probably those within the Defense Department who believe MARSOC still needs to prove itself, he said.

“There will always be some sense of rivalry, but it’s going to help us get better in the long run… It’s not a bad thing,” he added.

Army Special Forces have been surprised by the support group’s capabilities, he said.

It provides communications, logistics, military canine units, intelligence personnel and other services to MARSOC deployments overseas. But Aycock has sent some of his teams abroad to assist special operators from other services.

There was also early criticism from some within the Marine Corps community that MARSOC would “gut” other forces — take their best and brightest — especially from the Corps’ force reconnaissance units.

Aycock said he has heard some of these concerns secondhand, but never anything directly.

“I can see where there might be that perception because there are a lot of young Marines out there who believe MARSOC is special. Whether that impression is accurate or not is beside the point.”

There have not been any shortages of volunteers, Robeson said.

If a Marine expresses a desire to join MARSOC, the command works through Marine Corps headquarters to see if the recruit can attend an initial selection process. About 53 percent of those invited make it through and receive permanent orders to join MARSOC.

Aycock said the command is taking a wide net approach to recruiting. It’s “not doing a name-by-name search looking for the Bronze Star winners or the Silver Star winners, etc,” he said.

Robeson noted that those who come to MARSOC have already gone through a rigorous and intense boot camp earlier in their career.

“I’m recruiting a different product than what Navy SEALS are recruiting out of big Navy or even what Special Forces are recruiting out of big Army,” he said.

“That doesn’t make us better, it just means that I’m recruiting from a different population.” He is not arguing that MARSOC forces are superior to other special operators.

“I believe we are equal to them,” he said. “I think that we bring with us a Marine Corps culture that makes us very comfortable in the backwaters and ungoverned spaces of the world.”

Those who believe that Marines are only “shock troops” — good at taking hills in bloody battles — don’t have a firm grasp of military history, Robeson said. The service has always excelled at small unit training, humanitarian operations and other so-called “indirect” skills that special operations forces are required to perform.

“My biggest challenge is ensuring that we don’t overextend ourselves while we’re still in the process of growing the force.”

Aycock said since the command is not fully mission capable yet, he does not have a lot of depth on his support teams. That’s especially true in the intelligence field. The training and retention of intelligence officers is a problem throughout the Marine Corps right now, and MARSOC is “feeling the pain like everybody else.”

Robeson said: “Right now I have more requests for MARSOC than I can effectively support while growing the force at the same time.”

Topics: Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict, Marine Corps News

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