Morale: Midnight Calls From Ukrainians Under Fire

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June 13, 2022: While the U.S. and other NATO countries keep their active-duty troops out of Ukraine, there are a growing number of American and other NATO country military veterans in Ukraine to help any way they can. The most valuable of these foreign volunteers are those who belonged to the U.S. Army Special Forces, many of whom have years of recent combat experience plus their Special Forces training on how to organize, train and support local guerilla fighters behind the lines in some future war. During the Cold War the U.S. had trained one the seven Special Forces Groups (brigades) to operate in Europe, especially Eastern Europe and parts of Russian like Ukraine with a recent history of guerilla operations against Russian forces.

Ukraine is also benefiting the U.S. Army Special Forces reorganization that began in 2009, as most American troops were withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. Officially, the reorganization was in recognition of changes that have already evolved and established themselves since September 2001. This happened because there are only seven Special Forces Groups altogether and, given personnel shortages, not quite 7,000 "operators' ' were available for action so some changes had to be accepted. After 2001, it was decided to assign most of these troops, the best counter-terrorism operators America has, against Islamic radicals threatening the United States. Several thousand Special Forces troops were initially held back for possible use in Korea, South America or Africa. That eventually changed.

Each of the five active-duty Special Forces groups has three battalions (about 1200 troops altogether), in 2009 the plan was to add another battalion to each group. In 2001, the 5th Group (responsible for the Middle East) was keeping two battalions overseas and one back in the states for rest and training. On top of the heavy workload, the 5th Group was also about twenty percent under strength.

Each of the five Special Forces Groups specializes in one region of the world, and the 5th has responsibility for the Middle East and Afghanistan. The other four Groups help out, even though they don't have the language and cultural awareness talents of the 5th Group. That said, the Russian speakers of the 10th Group (specializing in Europe) found lots of locals in Afghanistan and Iraq who spoke Russian. The two National Guard (reserve) Groups (the 19th and 20th), have also been called up, as these groups are full of Special Forces veterans who retired or got out to get away from the frequent overseas duty (and make more money). These men have experience and skills, although they can now expect to see a lot more time overseas than the average reservists. Some Special Forces operators have spent 70 percent of their time overseas since September 11, 2001, and the average is close to fifty percent.

The 1st Special Forces Group specializes in East Asia and the Pacific (Southeast Asia, Korea, China and the Pacific in general). The 3rd Special Forces Group specializes in the Caribbean and West Africa. The 7th Special Forces Group specializes in Latin America.

After 2003 the 3rd and 7th Groups were frequently putting members on active duty in Afghanistan. Under the 2009 reorganization, the 3rd Group had Afghanistan to itself, with one or two battalions from the 7th Group as needed. In effect, the 3rd Group will be responsible for Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The 3rd Group will still have one battalion for use in its original area (the Caribbean and West Africa). The 7th Group also kept a battalion in its original area (Latin America). The 10th Group also assigned some of its troops to Africa (the new AFRICOM).

The 5th Group now concentrated on the western half (Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Yemen, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt) of its original area of operations.

Since the 1980s Special Forces have belonged to SOCOM (Special Operations Command), which is itself still a small force (53,000 troops in 2009). Most of these are from the army, but SOCOM troops represent less than eight percent of army personnel. The majority of SOCOM people are providing support for the 13,000 operators (Special Forces, SEALs, commandos. Rangers and other specialists) who are constantly overseas chasing down terrorists.

For veterans of the 10th Special Forces Group, now is the time to do what they had always trained for. Active-duty members of the 10th Group are all over eastern Europe, except for Ukraine. The Special Forces are particularly popular as trainers and advisors because unlike the troops usually assigned to this duty, the Special Forces troops arrive speaking the local language and aware of local customs and needs. Even if a Special Forces operator did not know the local language, he was eager to quickly learn the language and culture of the troops or civilians they were working with. Special Forces also had a well-deserved reputation of being well trained and adaptive combat troops. Many had recent combat experience, so their advice was valued as was Special Forces trainers’ willingness to learn from the locals.

Some of the Special Forces vets currently in Ukraine had been there while on active duty. From 1991 to early 2022, Special Forces teams were frequently in Ukraine to assist the armed forces of newly independent Ukraine. Knowing the local culture made it easier for Special Forces operators and the locals they worked with to stay in touch. Cell phones and cheap international phone calls evolved after 2010. It was even easier to stay in touch. After 2014 and especially after February 2022, those cell phone conversations, along with frequent exchanges via email and Internet message boards and social media, became a valuable source of assistance for Ukrainians who were dealing with combat, not just preparing for it. This sometimes meant calls to Special Forces vets in the middle of the night from Ukrainian soldiers needed specialized advice to deal with an immediate situation. This worked and was great for morale on both ends of the call. It’s not often that a military trainer gets that kind of feedback.

 


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