Sgt. 1st Class Lynn Davis laughs at the way most civilians view his job as a Green Beret.
"People think it's like James Bond or MacGyver stuff where you can make an explosive out of two chocolate bars, a spoon and a little (duct) tape," he says.
The reality is less glamorous, say Mr. Davis, a 10-year veteran of the US Special Forces, and his colleagues, interviewed in Tbilisi, Georgia, their current posting.
Chief Warrant Officer Jim Sissons recalls delivering a baby in Northern Iraq, pulling rotten teeth in Mauritania, and patrolling war-ravaged towns in Bosnia. While it's true that Special Forces train to fight covert commando missions behind enemy lines, that kind of mission may come up once, or never, in a Special Forces soldier's career, these soldiers say. Much more often, they are carrying out missions like the one in Georgia, where Mr. Sissons' unit is teaching the former Soviet republic's army brass how to run their army, American-style.
As the US continues its war on terror, special operations have become a sort of "force du jour" among Pentagon planners. In Georgia, the Green Berets from 10th Special Forces Group are training the Caucasus nation's struggling military, in part to fulfill US hopes that it can hunt down terrorists suspected of hiding here.
In Afghanistan, Special Forces soldiers fought with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Defense experts dubbed it the "special operations war" and "special forces" has become a catch-all phrase to describe military and civilian special operations.
But there is only one unit officially called Special Forces a small, low-key cadre within the Army that traces its roots to World War II. The elite unit's actions have sparked both controversy, as in several missions in Vietnam, and a fascination with the troops known informally as the Green Berets.
The soldiers typically spend at least six months of the year deployed, in small groups or alone, and are trusted to execute missions with greater responsibility and risk than assigned to the average GI. They study the language and culture of the countries they work in. Sometimes they can't even tell their families where they are going partly out of security concerns, partly because they don't want to jeopardize their chances of entering other, more covert units, like Delta Force. "If we had our way, we would go in and you wouldn't know until we got out," says Chief Warrant Officer Hurley Gilpin, a Green Beret since Vietnam.
Special Forces launched covert guerrilla missions behind enemy lines during the Vietnam War, drawing accusations that they sometimes killed innocent civilians. "They were fairly unapologetic that they were trying to eliminate communist insurgency in the south," says Tim Brown, a senior analyst with Globalsecurity.org, a military think tank in Washington D.C. The Army charged one Special Forces commander and his men in the killing of a Vietnamese double agent. The killing was part of a CIA program that assassinated thousands of Vietnamese. The charges were later dropped.
Special Forces also had many ingeniously successful missions during the war, Brown says. For instance, soldiers captured North Vietnamese weapons, sabotaged them, and slipped them back. The guns exploded when fired, killing North Vietnamese troops.
But the label of dangerous renegades stuck to Special Forces, and for a decade the unit struggled with that reputation and some Army brass hesitated to use them in combat. That changed during the Persian Gulf War, when Special Forces troops collected intelligence and performed combat missions behind Iraqi lines. Perhaps their greatest success has come in Afghanistan, where their ability to innovate allowed them to direct the Northern Alliance and local forces against the Taliban on the ground, while calling in US air strikes to assist in the campaign.
The Special Forces unit traces its origins to the Office of Strategic Services, a World War II operation that fostered opposition to Nazis and their allies in France, Central Europe and the Balkans.
In June 1952, the first Special Forces unit was activated, with a primary mission of training, equipping, advising, and assisting foreign forces. The training was intended to professionalize the armies and defend a nation from internal attack. The unit also trained for missions such as guerrilla warfare, reconnaissance, rescue, and counterterrorism. Wearing green berets as a sign of their special status, many of the first Special Forces soldiers were natives of Eastern Europe, trained to fight behind enemy lines and in the mountains.
Today, there are five active-duty Special Forces groups and two National Guard groups, roughly 9,000 soldiers in all, most of them enlisted soldiers, their average age 31. The Special Forces unit is built around the concept of 12-man teams resembling self-contained armies with weapons, engineering, communications and medical experts. The teams are tight-knit on and off the job, members say. They know the names of one another's children, who call them "uncle," and families socialize together.
Green Berets say they were drawn to special operations because they wanted to work with a more professional group of soldiers, where everything wasn't designed with the buck private in mind.
The soldiers live under different rules, in a gray area between overt and covert operations. In the Balkans, for instance, Green Berets move among the locals without helmets, body armor or visible weapons. They live in houses among civilians, as a sort of tripwire to let commanders know if problems are coming.
Expected to improvise to suit their needs, Green Berets get the Army's new weapons first and modify them to fit the situations they face such as urban combat at close quarters something too dangerous for traditional units.
One Green Beret, or a small group, are expected to carry out a mission with little supervision. In spring 1991, for example, after the Persian Gulf War, Sissons and other 10th Group soldiers went to northern Iraq to manage the flood of Kurdish refugees. He and 50 other soldiers delivered supplies to 100,000 Kurds in one camp, organizing what had been a chaotic distribution of food, water, and medicine and setting up camps for the Kurds to live in. The numbers of those dying of starvation dropped dramatically.
One day, as Sissons was walking up a hill, a Kurdish man pulled him into a tent. His wife was about to have a baby. Working with what he had at hand, Sissons pinched the umbilical cord with a paper clip. "And I cut the cord with this knife right here," Sissons says, pulling out a pocket knife. The father named the baby after him.