Special Forces Guard troops go to the fight

19th Special Forces Group (Airborne)

Thursday, May 2, 2002

Special Forces Guard troops go to the fight

By Henry Cuningham
Military editor
During the military budget crunch in the 1990s, the Army decided to buy equipment for the five active-duty Special Forces groups and put off purchasing for the two National Guard groups.

‘‘Sept. 11 showed us that may have been a problem,’’ Brig. Gen. David P. Burford said.

Staff photo by Brian Thorpe
Brig. Gen. David Burford is congratulated Friday by his wife, Susan, during his promotion ceremony at the Army Special Operations Command headquarters. He is a National Guard officer.

‘‘Now we see that those Special Forces guys from the National Guard are going to be going to the real fight right away, and we can’t wait to equip them later,’’ Burford said. Burford, a 49-year-old National Guard officer, is deputy commanding general of U.S. Army Special Forces Command at Fort Bragg. About 85 percent of his job is not related to Guard issues, he said.

In his civilian career, he is manager of business development for Southern Company Generation and Energy Marketing in Birmingham, Ala.

Special Forces Command oversees the training and equipping of all seven Special Forces groups. The soldiers are trained to conduct guerrilla war, instruct foreign military forces and do reconnaissance deep in hostile territory.

Burford’s promotion ceremony on Friday highlighted the role of the two National Guard Special Forces groups, whose soldiers mostly have full-time civilian jobs, in the war on terrorism. The 19th Group is based in Utah, and the 20th Group, which Burford commanded, is based in Alabama. Both groups have units spread over several states.

About 700 Special Forces guardsmen have been mobilized for the war on terrorism, and 400 are overseas, said Maj. Robert E. Gowan, a spokesman for U.S. Army Special Forces Command. Special Forces soldiers have been mobilized from Colorado, Utah, West Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, Florida and Kentucky, Burford said.

Soldiers from the National Guard’s 19th Special Forces Group are in Afghanistan with Fort Bragg’s 3rd Group, said Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Lambert, the commanding general of Special Forces Command.

The National Guard soldiers are ‘‘together, hand in hand, slugging it out there in Afghanistan,’’ Lambert said. ‘‘They are paying the price. We have lost one man. We've had another hit in the face.’’

Sgt. 1st Class Daniel A. Romero, a 30-year-old 19th Group soldier from Colorado, was killed April 15 after confiscated Taliban weapons exploded accidentally at a demolition range outside Bagram, Afghanistan.

Burford’s promotion ‘‘solidifies that team and makes you part of the general-officer leadership,’’ Lambert said at the outdoor ceremony at U.S. Army Special Operations Command headquarters.

The war on terrorism is bringing to the fore many of the issues about limited training, hand-me-down equipment and readiness to deploy for part-time soldiers, especially in Special Forces.

‘‘You have to realize that the Guard has to recruit and train their own,’’ Burford said. ‘‘If you are here at Fort Bragg and you ask for three replacements, they just show up one day. In the National Guard you need three replacements, you’ve got to go down to the shopping mall, find 10 to train eight to graduate three.’’

The mobilization of the National Guard Special Forces soldiers increases the demands for training at Fort Bragg, said Maj. Gen. William G. Boykin, commander of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.

‘‘They have a number of people who are not fully trained,’’ Boykin said. ‘‘We are putting a lot more National Guard through.’’ The soldier killed Feb. 23 by a Moore County deputy in a case of mistaken identity during a training exercise was a member of the 20th Special Forces Group.

Once trained, Guard soldiers have to cope with balancing full-time jobs and sometimes living at a distance from their military units. Special Forces soldiers are expected to be among the Army’s best enlisted medics, engineers and weapons experts.

One of the top complaints of Guard units is the lack of full-time staff.

‘‘You are asking a Guard group to process the same promotions, order the same amount of ammunition, construct the same amount of training schedules with about 14 people at a group headquarters, as opposed to about 200 here on active duty,’’ Burford said. ‘‘It’s very, very, very difficult for them to get it all done.’’

Training time is also limited.

‘‘They drill two days a month, maybe three in some cases, and attempt to sustain the same training levels and minimums as do the active component, because there is one standard, and they do so,’’ Burford said.

Skeptics wonder if part-timers can meet the rigorous standards, especially for combat-oriented jobs where there are no civilian equivalents.

Burford points to one National Guard company that reported to Fort Bragg.

‘‘On the day they got here, they scored 285 as an average on their P.T. test,’’ Burford said. ‘‘They are not at all, by any stretch of the imagination, second-class citizens.’’

That was out of a maximum of 300 points.

‘‘That’s pretty good for a guy who yesterday was a banker and today is a Special Forces soldier,’’ Burford said.

Burford also likes to tell the story of the Special Forces guardsman who was a constitutional lawyer and sat down with Haitian officials to draft the nation’s new constitution.

The Army is trying to avoid some of the pitfalls it encountered in putting the 20th Special Forces Group on active duty during the Persian Gulf War buildup, officials say.

‘‘We literally shut down the 7th Group, and we trained for about 90 days, and then we packed them up and sent them home, and nobody got to do anything,’’ Lambert said.

Burford, who was a battalion operations officer in the 20th Group at the time, said being pulled out of civilian life, trained and not sent to war ‘‘was a bitter pill for us in terms of manpower and retention.’’

‘‘We are not going to activate a whole bunch of folks,’’ Lambert said. ‘‘We are going to activate them as we need them, on a rolling schedule.’’

Special Forces soldiers also are limited to 24 months on active duty. A four-star general told Burford to be ready for three to five years of fighting.

‘‘You call both groups up now, what are we going to do at month No. 30?’’ Burford said. ‘‘We are holding a little back for those future engagements which we haven’t yet encountered and we can't necessarily predict so we will have something in our pocket when that occurs to also supplement the force on a rotational program.’’

Reprint from Fayetteville Observer

Military editor Henry Cuningham

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