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US strike force takes shape

Amid a buildup of conventional forces, the elite units brace for frontline duty.

By Ann Scott TysonSpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 21, 2001


As US aircraft and warships begin massing in the Persian Gulf in the first deployments of America's war on terrorism, much is resting on the professionalism, determination, and sheer gusto of men like Navy SEAL Mike Curtis.

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"When we get the opportunity to play, it gets us motivated," says Curtis, a 23-year veteran of the Navy's elite special forces. As for the terrorists who devastated America last Tuesday, "we will seek them out and make them pay for it," he says.

As it readies itself for a new type of unconventional 21st-century combat, America is counting heavily on Curtis and the rest of the military's 46,000-strong Special Operations Forces to carry much of the burden of rooting out and destroying terrorist cells.

When the call comes, quick thrusts from these elite units will likely be interspersed with punishing airstrikes in a type of joint operations much different from the massive division-and-corps maneuvers the US military prepared for in the years of the cold war.

The conventional buildup is on full display. In recent days, the US has started moving nearly 100 aircraft - heavy bombers as well as attack fighters - to within striking distance of Afghanistan. The buildup includes the dispatching of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and its accompanying ships to the region.

But behind these high-profile deployments, the nation's elite forces are also preparing for the frontline role they will play in America's longterm war on terrorism.

Legendary for their toughness and bravery, the predominantly male special forces operate in small teams, poised to carry out rapid, covert, targeted actions in hostile, politically sensitive regions.

Two of the nine "principal missions" that special forces constantly train for are combating terrorism and unconventional warfare, ensuring them a core role in today's campaign.

Their ranks include 30,000 Army personnel, such as the famed Rangers, Green Berets, Nightstalker aviators, and secret Delta counterterrorism forces, headquartered at Fort Bragg, N.C. The Navy has a 5,500-strong special force of Sea-Air-Land (SEAL) teams and specially trained boat drivers, headquartered in Coronado, Calif.

Complementing these are the 9,500 members of the Air Force Special Operations Command based at Hurlburt Field, Fla.

A grueling duty roster

Highly trained yet lightly armed, some 5,000 members are deployed in about 70 countries around the world in any given week, on missions ranging from hostage rescue to intelligence gathering to "psychological operations" - or PSYOP - designed to "demoralize the enemy."

Skilled in high-tech communications and foreign languages, as well as ground combat, special forces members are known for their flexibility and for "thinking outside the box." For each stage of a mission, they plan for numerous contingencies.

Yet the defining trait of the special forces, members say, is a focused determination to get the job done - and an utter unwillingness to give up.

"You have to be a driven, goal-oriented person," says former Sgt. Mike Goodale, an Army Ranger awarded a Bronze Star for his role in the fatal October 1993 raid on Mogadishu, Somalia. "You have to be willing to sacrifice everything you have to get the job finished," says Mr. Goodale, who was wounded in the firefight in which 18 fellow Rangers perished.

Frank Hoagland finds it difficult to put into words the intensity of his 17 years as a Navy SEAL, or "frogman." "Being a 'frog' every day of my operational life was very physically and mentally demanding," he says. SEALs must be "hard men who are willing to do hard work for the good - under any circumstances."