Speaking in Kabul last night, President Obama painted a vision of a new era for Afghanistan and the U.S.
He spoke of “a future in which Afghans are responsible for the security of their nation, … the war ends, and a new chapter begins.” And, he gave credit where credit is due. "This future is only within reach because of our men and women in uniform," he noted, "Time and again, they have answered the call to serve in distant and dangerous places."
The speech came on the anniversary of Usama bin Laden’s death. After days of “spiking the football” for having green-lighted the raid by SEAL Team 6, it was refreshing to hear the president acknowledge those who actually did the job, and their brothers and sisters in arms.
But an anniversary should be a time for reflection as well as appreciation. There is no better time, then to reflect on our special forces, what they do, and what we as a nation owe them.
The SEAL team that flushed bin Laden in his remote Pakistan compound represented more than three decades of U.S. investment in—and commitment to—building the world’s best special forces.
It was not always this way.
The first time our post-Vietnam special forces took on a high profile mission, it turned out badly.Remember Desert One?
“After Vietnam, Special Forces went into mothballs,” recalls John Carney, a now-retired Air Force colonel. That changed on November 4, 1979, when Iranians stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran. After weeks of frustration, the White House made the decision to prepare for a hostage rescue operation. It was, Carney admitted, “a cobbled together pick-up team.”
Young Carney was tasked to go into Iran and find a remote site for refueling the Sea Stallion helicopters that would be used for the mission. The Sea Stallions would have to fly to the far edge of their operating range. So the sorties heading deep into the Iranian desert carried extra fuel.
The rescue team needed at least six helicopters to pull off the mission. Anticipating attrition during the flight, they took off with choppers to spare. But they arrived at Desert One, the refuel-site, with only five working ships.
Even as the U.S. Special Forces team touched down, they knew they would have to give up and go back. Then, as they abandoned the staging base, tragedy struck. One helicopter hit an Air Force C-130 loaded with extra fuel. The giant fireball killed eight.
Instead of riding to the rescue, the operation collapsed in failure and humiliation.
For Carney, and the other veterans of Desert One, it was personally devastating, as well. They knew the men who died… and that the fallen warriors left behind 17 children.
“We got together and said—what are we going to do?” Carney notes. “And we said we are going to put their kids through college.”
The Desert One vets figured they needed to do this. They knew the community. They understood better than anyone the wounds of war and what it takes to heal them, like the daunting challenge of seeing to a child’s education. Warriors and their families would trust them.
In 1995, various volunteer initiatives merged to establish the Special Operations Warrior Foundation “to provide a college education to every child who has lost a parent while serving in Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps Special Operations during an operational or training mission.”
When Carney retired, he found that the foundation had more good intentions than resources.
“I started off just trying to help put money in the coffers,’ Carney recalled, “We needed to throw the gauntlet down…to tell these kids were going to be there for them, and then figure out how to make it happen.”
In 1998, Carney became the Foundation’s Chief Operating Officer, a position that he has held ever since.
With only eight professional staff, the Foundation has honored its commitment to provide for the education of the children of the fallen. All but four percent of donations go directly to program.
Today, the Foundation has the back of every member of the special forces from Seal Team Six, which took out Bin Laden, to thousands of others serving around the globe.
The toughest challenges may lie ahead.
“We added 68 kids to the program” last year, Carney notes. And even as operations in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the demand for Special Operations around the world seems to grow. And with it grows the responsibility of Americans to look after their own. “We need to do more to help the families of the wounded,” Carney believes.
He recently spent time talking to wives who had traveled to Washington, D.C., to be with their husbands as they recovered from injuries. “One has been there for 18 months,” Carney noted. “In a lot of our families, both parents work. You can’t keep your job when you’re gone that long.”
When it comes to helping veterans and their families, there is still a long war to be won.
Americans have never been more willing to help. The Special Operations Warrior Foundation is part of what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called “a sea of goodwill”—more than 400,000 registered Web sites for donors and organizations supporting U.S. service men and women. But, as the Chairman noted, “our nation needs a method to navigate this sea.”
Many groups do not know how to reach veterans and their families, what they need most; or how best to deliver assistance.
Both the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs have concluded that the single most important challenge is to link those who want to help with veterans and their families.
For the Special Operations community, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation has that figured out quite well.
For Americans today who want to commemorate those who really got Bin Laden the foundation might be a good place to start.
James Jay Carafano is a retired Army officer and the president of Esprit de Corps, a nonprofit organization that educates Americans on veteran affairs.