Why Special Forces Are America's Tool Of Choice In Colombia And Around The Globe
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld worries that the world's "ungoverned areas" can become sanctuaries for terrorists. That worry, in a nutshell, explains why the Green Berets are here. And anyone who wants to get an up-close look at how the war against terrorism is being fought in the shadows need look no further than Colombia. Despite its reputation for stealth and secrecy, the Army's Special Forces Command arranged exclusive access to its front-line operations in Colombia, allowing a U.S. News reporter to spend a month in the jungle with the Green Berets.
WELCOME TO HELL
The Army organizes its Special Forces operators into 12-man units called A-Teams--short for Operational Detachment Alpha. The team here in Arauca is assigned to train the Colombians but not actually fight alongside them. The problem is, bullets fly every day in Arauca, and the Americans must find ways to aid their Colombian counterparts while staying out of the line of fire. Sometimes, it's a dicey proposition.
The A-Team here is led by Armand Gadoury, a fresh-faced West Point grad who majored in Latin American geography. The 29-year-old captain is a man of parts, a diplomat with a winning smile who has been trained to kill. But it is the noncommissioned officers who are the heart and soul of A-teams. Gadoury's NCOs are particularly experienced. Sean, the team sergeant (he requested the use of a pseudonym), has logged 21 years in a career he seems to have been born to pursue. When he was 8, he concocted a homemade parachute, dragged it up to the roof of a three-story building, and promptly jumped off. Today, Sean is a veteran Special Forces operator, jump master, and combat diver. He is also fluent in Spanish, Thai, and Laotian. Over the years, Sean has survived a broken neck, two weeks in a Malaysian jungle with just his boxer shorts and a machete, and high-risk military operations from Somalia to Bosnia. Here in Arauca, Sean's vast military knowledge and quiet tact quickly win the trust of the local commander.
Sean and the other members of Gadoury's A-Team are here to show the Colombian military how to take the offensive against the rebels, by training assault and reconnaissance units and advising them during actual military and intelligence-gathering operations. The assignment gives new meaning to the term on-the-job training. By the time they are done here, the Green Berets will have completed what promises to be the largest U.S. military operation in Latin America in more than a decade.
On their first night in Arauca, A-Team members trucked their gear to a military base next to the town's tiny airstrip. That is the headquarters of Colombia's elite 18th Brigade, the frontline unit that is the point of the spear aimed at the rebels. Gadoury's team reports to Maj. Miguel Correa, who runs the Specials Ops show in Arauca and advises the staff officers of the 18th Brigade on tactics, operations, and intelligence.
Correa's first priority, however, is keeping his two dozen Green Berets alive and healthy, and he has his work cut out for him. At 1 a.m. on a pitch-black night, rebels attacked Colombian troops guarding a sprawling oil complex nearby, firing rampas--homemade mortars consisting of propane tanks packed with explosives and shrapnel. The rampas are notoriously inaccurate but ferociously destructive. The next morning, the bodies of seven guerrillas who didn't survive the Colombian counterattack were brought to the Arauca base, slung unceremoniously in the cargo net of a Russian-made helicopter.