MSgt Davis a Force for Calm

5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) 

Reprint from Washington Post  Sunday, December 23, 2001; Page A13 By Dana Priest

An Unconventional Soldier
Sgt. Davis a Force for Calm in Helping to Liberate Afghanistan


ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. -- When President Bush sent the U.S. military to defeat Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, few could have guessed how much the effort would depend on soldiers like Master Sgt. Jefferson Donald Davis.

Davis was not a B-52 pilot who raked the ground with explosives. Nor was he a Marine who parachuted behind enemy lines.

Davis was part of the Army's 5th Special Forces Group's Operational Detachment-Alpha, or "A-teams," which were pivotal in winning the first phase of the war. The units assisted anti-Taliban rebels and played an invaluable role in directing U.S. airstrikes to their targets.

Davis, like many A-team members, "wasn't the loud, abrasive Hollywood image" of a Green Beret, said Chief Warrant Officer Rob Way, a colleague for 12 years. Davis was calm and patient, he said.

In size, character and equipment, A-teams are unlike the conventional Army's traditional, less nimble, tank-dependent forces, which have not been called to duty in the Afghan war. The insular, independent-minded, 12-man A-teams, led by young captains, are at the heart of the Army's Special Forces operations. Davis, as the "team sergeant" and ranking noncommissioned officer, was the soul of Operational Detachment-Alpha 574.

Davis, 39, was killed Dec. 5 in southern Afghanistan by an errant U.S. bomb that also took the lives of two other Special Forces soldiers and three of the Pashtun fighters they were assisting.

Last week, Davis was buried here in his home town on a gentle green hill cuddled up against the sharp Appalachian Mountains. His remains were surrounded by his family and friends, and by the remaining able-bodied members of his team, who stood sullen and red-eyed as a warm breeze carried taps over the flag-draped coffin.

His minister eulogized him as a great father and husband. A close friend said he "had done one last favor for his country." Maj. Gen. Geoffrey C. Lambert, head of the U.S. Army Special Forces Command, declared his legacy to be that "children in Afghanistan could now play outdoors and Afghan girls could go to school." The Army awarded him the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.

But the men who lived with him in isolation for weeks at a time before and during overseas assignments said they will remember Davis ("JD") as the calming big brother. He took care of them in peacetime, they said, kept them focused in war and absorbed the bizarre challenges of Afghanistan with a laugh.

Davis set the tone from the first day he walked into the 574th's team room, in a dingy set of buildings on a corner of the Fort Campbell, Ky., headquarters of the 5th Special Forces Group. While his new team wondered how he would fit in, Davis sat mute for two days.

"What's up with this guy?" Sgt. 1st Class Vaughn Berntson remembered thinking as he watched Davis watch the others. Finally, Davis spoke: "I just needed to feel you out," he explained. "I'm a calm guy. I seldom get mad, and if I do get mad, I'm not going to yell and scream. I probably just won't talk to you for a couple of days."

Davis's experience was typical of most Green Berets who remain in the 5th Group all their careers. He watched for Iraqi troop movements from dug-in desert hideouts before the Persian Gulf War in 1991. He helped organize the Kuwaiti resistance to Iraq. Trained as a medic, he taught combat medicine at the joint Special Operations schoolhouse. Most recently, he deployed with his team to Kazakhstan to train Kazakh troops in small unit tactics and counterterrorism. That's where his team found itself on Sept. 11.

When the 574th was tapped to go into Afghanistan, Davis realized it would be the first time most of his men had seen fighting. "We're going to stick together. We're going to be okay," he reassured them, colleagues recalled. Then, he turned to his self-assured weapons sergeant, Brad Fowers, 24, and flashed a broad smile. "Hey, Bad Brad! You ready for this?"

"This" turned out to be a classic example of secret, unconventional warfare, the kind Special Forces were created to fight. Special Forces are the main Army component in the military's elite Special Operation Forces, which includes Air Force and Navy units.

Special Forces soldiers are smarter, more mature and more willing to take risk than soldiers in the conventional force. They specialize in a range of missions, from counterterrorist raids performed by their covert brethren (women are excluded from Special Forces units) in the Delta Force, to training foreign militaries in 120 countries.

In Afghanistan, A-teams, often working with Delta and Air Force special operators, swept through the northern part of the country alongside the ethnic Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara fighters of the Northern Alliance.

In the Taliban heartland in the south, A-teams were clandestinely inserted to work alongside warlords and tribal leaders of competing Pashtun groups. Davis's team was spirited into the tiny village of Kotwal in mid-October, and then worked in tandem with tribal leader Hamid Karzai, who became Afghanistan's first postwar leader yesterday as head of the interim government.

Capt. Jason Amerine, the 574th's team leader, worked closely with Karzai. Davis was trying to bring some order to a growing collection of Afghan fighters whom Karzai had convinced to surrender in the towns they entered. Finding the disparate groups impossible to organize, he put them on security patrols around their camp, and tried to keep them out of trouble, colleagues recalled.

One night, Amerine said, he and Davis went to check on one Afghan patrol guarding their camp. They found a lone man sitting on the ground smoking hashish. Davis just laughed. "The most important aspect of guerrilla warfare is patience and having a sense of humor," Amerine said. "JD would laugh and just go in and fix what needed to be fixed."

History may record Davis as one of the men who helped liberate Kandahar, the last Taliban-controlled city to fall, earlier this month. But his best friend, a 5th Group warrant officer, left mourners with a different image.

Unable to leave Afghanistan, the warrant officer wrote a letter for his memorial service. Often, when they were together, they would ride their Harley-Davidson motorcycles, the warrant officer wrote. "That's how I'm always going to remember him, on his motorcycle, wearing his vest, glasses and skull cap -- and a huge grin he always had on his face."

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