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In SEAL Team Six success, lessons from 'horrible night' in Iran 30 years ago

The SEAL Team Six raid of Osama bin Laden's Pakistan compound Sunday is being seen as a historic success. But the roots of that success are in lessons learned from the failure of a mission to free the US hostages held by Iran in 1980.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / May 3, 2011

A US Army helicopter left in Iran during the aborted Operation Eagle Claw in 1980 is displayed in Tehran on April 26, 2011. The success of SEAL Team Six in Osama bin Laden's Pakistan compound Sunday was founded on changes made to special operations after the failure of Eagle Claw.

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Washington

The Navy SEAL commando raid of Osama Bin Laden’s compound this week – ultimately resulting in his death – is being hailed as one of the most pivotal black operations achievements in the highly secretive existence of US Joint Special Operations Command.

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SEAL Team Six – known among operators as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DEVGRU – drilled for the bin Laden mission for months. In preparation for the close quarters battles that would come with storming the compound, team members fired upwards of 700 rounds of bullets a week in houses built specifically for learning how to dodge and avoid shooting ricocheted rounds, according to former operatives.

But the special mission units of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which execute the most classified US military operations, have not always enjoyed such extensive coordinated training – or such success. In fact, JSOC – the Pentagon’s umbrella command for the Army's Delta Force and Navy SEALs – was founded on the heels of some very public failures.

The lessons learned from previous failures – particularly one “horrible night” in April 1980 – helped to make the strike on Mr. bin Laden’s compound “a great day” in special operations force history, says retired Delta Force operative Lt. Col. Lewis “Bucky” Burruss.

It was the aborted attempt to rescue the 52 hostages being held in Iran in 1980 that Burruss calls “the wakeup call in the desert” for the US military. “It brought everyone around to the need for better special-operations capability,” adds retired Rear Adm. George Worthington, the first deputy secretary of Defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.

How special ops have changed

Known alternately as Operation Eagle Claw and Desert One, the mission was a heartbreaking and public debacle that failed to bring Americans being held captive home and resulted in the deaths of eight US service members.

Yet the failures ultimately resulted in the creation of a more highly coordinated and resourced Joint Special Operations Command.

It also shaped the formation of some of the Pentagon’s top officers, including former Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker, who was part of the attempted Iranian hostage rescue as a Delta Force operator. “He was on the ground that night,” says Mr. Burruss. “He learned a whole lot and never forgot it.”

Current Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz was flying with special operators immediately following the hostage rescue attempt, and received some of the first training that was an effort to revamp the force.

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