"Silver Wings Upon Their Chest"

by David H. Hackworth

Special Forces and Rangers are the U.S. Army's most elite soldiers. They've proven their worth in past wars and are proving it again as the cutting edge down on the ground -- where it really gets mean and nasty -- in combat operations in Afghanistan.

A lot of factors make today's Green Berets and Rangers extraordinary soldiers, beginning with a tough selection process and even more rigorous qualification training. The all-volunteer troops who manage to make it through are then sent to exclusively male units, where the screws are turned even tighter on their realistic, very rugged training. It's here that they're forged into lethal fighting teams, not only becoming total hands-on experts in their specific skills but also learning the jobs of their teammates as well as they know their own.

Since Roger's Rangers in the 1750s, these special units have been leading the way for the conventional Army to follow. And these days, they're all paratroopers. Storied World War II paratroop commander Gen. James Gavin said, "Show me a man who will jump out of an airplane, and I'll show you a man who'll fight."

Not only do these highly motivated sky soldiers belong to elite units with incredible battle records that make them as proud as they are battle-savvy confident, they also have priority of training funds and training areas. Unlike the rest of the Army, which says that it trains as it fights, these elite units do train as they fight and continue to maintain the highest soldierly standards.

The five active-duty Special Forces Groups are all assigned specific regions, such as the Middle East, Africa, Latin America or Asia. Each group operates in its assigned area, learns its area of operations, makes local contacts, works with and trains indigenous units and practices its language skills. Frequently, as in Afghanistan, their operations become hot, and often, as in the long war in the Balkans, they work covertly from the shadows. More than often, not even their wives or parents know where the soldiers are or what they're doing.

Unlike regular Army units, which constantly play musical chairs and have turnover rates as high as 35 percent per annum, these special units stick together for years. This continuity provides critical unit cohesion where everyone knows their team players, the playbook and the plays backward and forward.

A lot of young men ask me for advice about joining the Army. I usually tell them to "Go Army Ranger," and that once they get weathered -- if they want to be total professionals -- to try to qualify for the Green Berets. I make this suggestion because I've watched these soldiers fight around the world and know well the stern and splendid stuff they're made of.

Afghanistan is a testing ground for conflicts of the future, where small, elite units -- which are agile, hard-hitting and fast-moving -- will be the main movers. Special Forces and Rangers out there now are writing the draft chapters that will comprise the textbook for future fights in this long war against terrorism and other potential conflicts.

Hopefully, the Army brass will read the tea leaves and transform some of their U.S.-based heavy-tank units -- which in modern warfare will soon become as obsolete as the bow and arrow -- and form more Special Forces and Ranger units. Let's also hope the brass will take a hard look at why these special units haven't lost their strong warrior spirit and warrior ethic, and how they've kept from lowering their standards to accommodate the PC social experiments of the past decade that have caused most of our armed forces to put "Consideration For Others Training" over preparing to fight.

In Afghanistan, the Rangers and Green Berets have already received more than a basic load of Purple Hearts. But strangely they're not getting the normal tax-exempt status for being in a combat zone even though they're right in the middle of the killing fields -- and even though the Special Forces soldiers are considered so critical to the war effort that they've been put on a stop-loss, meaning they've been frozen from retiring.

I think it's time George Bush made this happen by signing an executive order giving every warrior in and over Afghanistan a tax break, and postdate that sucker to Sept. 11. Don't you?

http://www.hackworth.com is the address of David Hackworth's home page. Sign in for the free weekly Defending America column at his Web site. Send mail to P.O. Box 11179, Greenwich, CT 06831.

(c) 2001 David H. Hackworth
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