THE FIRST MARINE COMMANDOS WERE ‘SET UP FOR FAILURE’
Editor’s note: This is the second in a five-part series.
Here’s one of the Marine Corps’ all-time ugliest secrets: Ten years ago, amid the endeavor to meet Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s demand for a new commando force, the service’s senior leaders were so opposed to the idea that they quietly lobbied for it to fail.
That resistance, coupled with a surprising lack of direction provided by higher authority, would critically hamper the first MARSOC unit sent into combat — and good Marines paid dearly as a consequence.
As detailed in the first installment of this series, “Task Force Violent: The unforgiven,” MARSOC is the Marine Corps component of U.S. Special Operations Command tasked with discreetly executing difficult and highly sensitive missions in some of the world’s most dangerous places. It was little more than a concept in December 2005 when Maj. Fred Galvin was chosen to command MARSOC’s first combat unit, Marine Special Operations Company Foxtrot. And in March 2007, their deployment to Afghanistan was cut short after Galvin’s Marines were accused of indiscriminately killing innocent Afghans and the entire unit was ordered out of the war zone.
They were exonerated, eventually, after the Marine Corps convened a rare court of inquiry lasting three weeks to examine the allegations and more fully understand what led to Fox Company’s failure. The three senior officers overseeing those proceedings determined that Galvin and his men acted appropriately when, in the frantic minutes following a suicide attack on their convoy, they used measured and justified force while responding to an ensuing enemy ambush. A three-star Marine general ultimately agreed with that conclusion, and the highly publicized case soon disappeared from the headlines — though it still haunts many of these men to this day.
READ PART 3: Marine commandos survived a nightmare. No one believed their story
READ PART 4: Embattled Marines came under fire — on the home front
READ PART 5: Now on the outside, betrayed Marines fight to recapture their stolen honor
What has emerged only now is a troubling picture of the institutional dysfunction and adversity that thwarted these Marines from the outset. Neither the Defense Department nor SOCOM offered the Marine Corps much guidance as it endeavored to get MARSOC off the ground, according to a recently declassified report detailing the court of inquiry’s findings. Galvin provided that document to Military Times along with approximately 1,500 pages of newly available courtroom testimony. The report and testimony make clear that Fox Company’s Marines were sent to war without the overarching direction and ground-level logistical assistance they would need to sustain themselves in theater and prove effective on the battlefield.
This dynamic was a major impediment for MARSOC and Fox Company, the report concludes. Politics internal to the Marine Corps made matters worse. And as the court’s three officers would conclude, the conditions were overwhelmingly such that MARSOC’s first commandos never stood a chance in Afghanistan. Task Force Violent was destined to fail.
Everything started with Rumsfeld, who was determined the Marine Corps would establish a special forces component even though the service’s leaders thought that doing so was a misguided waste of everyone’s time. The prevailing logic inside the Corps was — and is — that Marines are inherently special, members of a force whose very mission and history was providing unique and diverse capabilities within the U.S. military’s broader portfolio.
Rumsfeld got his way, of course. MARSOC was activated Feb. 24, 2006, expanding the capabilities provided by Navy SEALS, Army Green Berets and other elite units. This was his logic: U.S. commandos offered the agility and precision needed to pick apart the complex terror networks taking root in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond, and the specialized training to help fledgling foreign militaries enhance their own capabilities.
America’s long-term strategy would need to be surgical and stealthy, Rumsfeld foresaw. It would require more manpower, the latest weaponry and cutting edge technology, and greater commitments from all services — especially the Marine Corps, which had avoided full-scale involvement since the advent of Special Operations Command in the late 1980s.
“I believed then, as I believe now, that special forces would have a growing role in U.S. national security affairs,” Rumsfeld told Military Times. “The addition of the Marine Corps to that activity was one element of a broader approach. Exactly how they fit in, I assumed would evolve. I wasn’t in a position to look at that from a micro standpoint. But from a macro standpoint, the Marines had significant capabilities, and it seemed to me that they would find a niche.
”Rumsfeld, who served as defense secretary from 1975 to 1977 and again from 2001 to 2006, acknowledges there was resistance to his initiative. His top military advisers at the Pentagon offered a range of input, he said. Some were for it, others against it. The Marine Corps’ brain trust, he noted, felt strongly that the service “didn’t need to be diluted” with a special forces component.
“I decided that on balance it made sense to go forward with MARSOC, he said. “And in retrospect, I’m not uncomfortable with that decision.
”The individual components that compose SOCOM viewed MARSOC as one more mouth to feed, another organization that would compete for funding and missions. Within the Marine Corps, though, Rumsfeld’s directive was heresy and those in charge undermined progress. Senior leaders nitpicked the construction of MARSOC’s North Carolina compound and initially sought to deny its commandos the monthly cash stipend all special forces rate. Those matters would be remedied but not without a substantial fight that robbed MARSOC’s planners of valuable time and resources they could have used to focus on bigger issues.
“The service early on didn’t believe in the idea of MARSOC and threw up any roadblock it could to slow it down,” said a source familiar with efforts to stand up the command who, like many interviewed for this series, asked not to be identified. “The naysayers lashed out at everything imaginable.”
‘THE MARSOC ANIMAL’
MARSOC’s foundation was the service’s Force Reconnaissance companies, a nimble force highly trained to conduct missions behind enemy lines. These Marines have long filled a limited special operations role for Marine commanders, and in 2003, when the service activated Marine Special Operations Command Detachment 1 as a proof of concept, Force Recon provided the operators. Det. 1, as it was known, made a successful deployment to Iraq in 2004 and was then disbanded as plans took shape for MARSOC.
By December 2005, Galvin, an infantry officer by training, had been a Force Recon platoon commander for a combined six years between two separate units. He was qualified as a terminal air controller, authorized to direct combat airstrikes from the ground. He’d also served as an instructor at Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1, the Corps’ equivalent to the Navy’s fabled Top Gun. Few others possessed the rank and experience required to lead a special operations company.
Another name discussed was Maj. Doug Zembiec. A decorated Marine whose exploits in Iraq earned him the nickname The Lion of Fallujah, Zembiec had other aspirations. He was working for the Marine Corps’ Special Operations Training Group in 2005 before being chosen for an assignment with the CIA’s Special Activities Division, a revelation recently brought to light by the Washington Post. Tragically Zembiec was gunned down in Baghdad while leading a small troop of Iraqi forces in May 2007. Four years later, MARSOC established a leadership award in his honor.
Headquartered at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, MARSOC would stand up with two battalions, one there on the East Coast and another out West at Camp Pendleton in southern California. Fox Company would be first out of the gate, its nucleus comprising personnel from Lejeune’s 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company.
The task of filling MARSOC’s key leadership billets fell to Col. Peter Petronzio, who oversaw the command’s early organization and operations. Petronzio, who previously commanded 2nd Force, reached out to his friend Lt. Col. George Smith, then the commanding officer of 1st Force at Camp Pendleton, seeking recommendations for a company commander. When Galvin’s selection was announced, Smith, who would later serve as a character witness for Galvin during the court of inquiry, emailed Petronzio praising the decision.
“Serving as a Force platoon commander for four deployments is unheard of, and I’d argue that he’s in that small handful of officers who are truly [subject matter experts] in this community,” wrote Smith, now a one-star general overseeing the Marine Corps’ effort to study the integration of women into ground combat jobs. Galvin, who earlier in 2005 earned a Bronze Star for battlefield valor while leading Smith’s “hammer platoon” in Iraq, was preparing 1st Force for another combat deployment when he received orders to MARSOC. Smith noted this in his email to Petronzio, calling Galvin a “gifted trainer,” someone who “sees opportunities where others see obstacles.” Smith described Galvin’s training curriculum as “aggressive, realistic and safe.”
“He is a tireless worker and extremely detailed-oriented,” Smith continued. At 36, Galvin was “mature beyond his years,” a trait Smith attributed to two data points on Galvin’s resume: time served both in the enlisted ranks and out in the private sector. Galvin, who deployed to the Persian Gulf in the early 1990s with a tank company, later served in a light armored reconnaissance unit. He attained the rank of sergeant before transitioning to the Marine Corps Reserve, completing his college education, and spending two years as a stockbroker and financial adviser with Chatfield Dean and Smith Barney.
Although his girlfriend at the time objected, Galvin talked a lot about seeking an officer’s commission. He’d grown restless on the outside. And by 1995, he was a new second lieutenant, single, and back on active duty.
“Most important in this email,” Smith concluded, “is my strong belief that he is exactly the type of experienced leader required to command one of the initial Marine Special Ops Companies.
”This exchange between Smith and Petronzio, which Galvin provided to Military Times, is noteworthy for another reason. In signing off, Smith wished Petronzio well in the year ahead and “best of luck as you continue to wrestle with the MARSOC animal.” Petronzio’s reply offers an unvarnished glimpse into the challenges he faced both in finding leaders who possessed the right mix of character and acumen, and from the senior leaders who micromanaged the process with little regard for flexibility and common sense.
“It pains me every day to not mention your name here,” Petronzio wrote back to Smith, “but I will stay true to my word and keep quiet. We just need more smart aggressive guys, and it surprises me but the pool is not nearly as deep as I thought it was. I remember Fred and am very excited to get him on board. … Take care brother, and have a good new year. You would not believe the stupidity I face every day here.
”MARSOC struggled to recruit and retain talent. Apart from very sizable signing bonuses offered to those who passed its demanding selection process, there was little long-term career incentive for Marines to join and stay with the new command because the service promotes personnel based on demonstrated proficiency and accomplishment within their primary job specialties. The Army and Navy figured this out years prior with the advent of their special operations forces. And while leaders in MARSOC pushed the Marine Corps to follow suit and establish a legitimate career path for its commandos, the institution pushed back — fixated on the belief that it was of greater value to the service if everyone who spent time in MARSOC would eventually cycle back to the fleet. Indeed, it would take nearly a decade before a formal job specialty was created for MARSOC’s officers and enlisted Marines.
“We’re Marines. Our greatest strength is that we’re monolithic as an institution,” said the source familiar with efforts to develop MARSOC. “And our greatest weakness is that we’re monolithic as an institution.
”Smith did not wish to speak with Military Times about his email exchange with Petronzio. A Marine spokeswoman at the Pentagon said the general was reluctant to explore opportunities at MARSOC because he was eager to return to the service’s infantry community once his assignment at 1st Force Reconnaissance Company came to an end in 2006. He did precisely that and has had a succession of prominent assignments ever since.
Petronzio, who retired in 2011, also declined to be interviewed. He said only that he has no regrets about selecting Galvin as Fox Company’s commander and that he would do so again without hesitation.
GIVEN COMMAND, BUT NOT A MISION
To function effectively, earn others’ respect and be regarded as a valued member of SOCOM, MARSOC would have to play nice with others. Galvin understood this from his Force Recon experience. Smith, in his email to Petronzio, highlighted the major’s appreciation and aptitude for partnering with other elite units.
Galvin also recognized the enormity of his responsibility as commander of MARSOC’s first operational unit. Though he didn’t yet know where Fox Company would deploy, he had been entrusted with the lives of 120 men and intended to ensure they were trained and outfitted to accomplish their mission and come home safely. Moreover, he knew that their success — or failure — would shape opinions about MARSOC well beyond the Marine Corps.
He checked out of Camp Pendleton and drove East, making four stops meant to build rapport with MARSOC’s potential partners, understand what vehicles and specialized equipment SOCOM had available, and to lay groundwork for some of the training he’d envisioned for Fox Company. First, he hit the Joint Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence at Nellis Air Force Base outside of Las Vegas. Then it was on to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, headquarters for the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Next, Hurlburt Field in Florida, home to Air Force Special Operations Command and the Joint Ground Liaison Office, which facilitates intensive, lifelike training scenarios for commando units. Finally, Galvin went to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, meeting with leaders at Army Special Operations Command and Joint Special Operations Command, the shadowy organization that in 2011 dispatched SEAL Team Six to to kill Osama bin Laden.
He arrived at Camp Lejeune on Feb. 10, 2006. Five days later, after an interview with MARSOC’s top officer, Maj. Gen. Dennis Hejlik, Galvin’s assignment was official. But something was off, he recalled of their discussion. Hejlik, a prior-enlisted sergeant like Galvin, stressed to his new commander that he was forbidden from ever leveraging the general’s name and rank while preparing Fox Company for prime time. Were there any questions, Hejlik asked next. Yes, Galvin said. He had three:
1. What is Fox Company’s mission? Would the Marines focus on reconnaissance, the quiet art of information gathering? Would they be used as a raid force, to capture or kill enemy operatives? Or would Fox Company be charged with training foreign forces?
2. To whom will Fox Company report? Galvin wanted to know who would own his unit once they were deployed. He hoped to meet with these leaders so he could understand their objectives and hear their guidance for shaping Fox Company’s training, which was scheduled to last 11 months.
3. Where will Fox Company deploy? This was crucial, Galvin said. To structure the unit properly, select the right vehicles and equipment, and provide his men with the proper training, he’d need to know where they were going, what the environment was like and what threats they could face. Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa all were possibilities, and each presented unique challenges.
Hejlik never responded, Galvin said. MARSOC directed him to focus Fox Company’s training on preparing for direct action and special reconnaissance missions, and he complied. A source within MARSOC at the time acknowledged the challenges Galvin encountered internally but said that such ambiguity can be common for commanders throughout the Marine Corps. “Uncertainty comes with the territory,” the source said. “It’s the nature of our business — and not the good nature of our business. No one had that information and was withholding it from him. They just didn’t know.
”Fox Company’s Marines were boarding the Navy ships that would transport them overseas when the word finally came down from SOCOM that Fox Company was going to Afghanistan. It would be another 10 days before they learned their primary focus would be to train the Afghan military — not direct action and special reconnaissance as everyone in MARSOC envisioned. The late notification set off a mad scramble to train for the new mission and familiarize the Marines with rules of engagement and cultural customs specific to Afghanistan. They soaked up what they could over the next three weeks.
Hejlik, who retired in 2012 as a three-star general, did not respond to requests seeking comment. He was contacted separately by Military Times and via the Marine Corps Senior Leadership Management Branch in Quantico, Virginia. In December 2007, three weeks before legal proceedings convened at Camp Lejeune, he provided a signed statement to the court of inquiry responding to more than two dozen questions about Fox Company’s predeployment experience and subsequent challenges in theater.
The unit’s training, Hejlik said, was developed by Galvin with input from his chain of command and MARSOC headquarters. It was based on a “draft mission guidance letter from SOCOM,” he said. When asked if SOCOM had a role in creating, observing or evaluating Fox Company’s training, Hejlik responded no. And then the subject of Afghanistan came up.
“There were many challenges faced by Fox Company as a result of the decision to send them to Afghanistan vice Iraq,” Hejlik wrote. “The company was unable to focus their training on the specific theater in which they were going to operate. … Additionally, the company had very little experience in Afghanistan operations, as most were [Iraq war] veterans. While there are differences in the operating environments, both geographically and philosophically, MSOC F would have faced similar challenges integrating with [other SOCOM elements] given that they were a new unit with unknown capabilities.”
The court of inquiry would fault SOCOM for the ambiguity surrounding Fox Company’s intended employment. But Galvin believes his command could have and should have done more to demand answers to the three questions he asked a year prior. In that regard, he said, “MARSOC set us up for failure.”
THE BREAKING POINT
Galvin’s unit also lacked internal logistical support, a shortcoming that would create tremendous frustration for the Marines and their commanders in Afghanistan. (Much more on that in Part 3 of this series.) For its deployment, Fox Company was to integrate with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, one of the Corps’ seven rapid-response forces that travel aboard Navy amphibious warships. But the MEU (pronounced “mew”) would be little more than a floating chauffeur. It would support Fox Company only until it detached and began reporting to Special Operations Command. Once that happened, MARSOC headquarters believed that SOCOM’s infrastructure in theater would see to the Marines’ needs.
Galvin foresaw this problem months prior. Soon after their training commenced in March 2006, the Marines spent four weeks in Nevada’s high desert focusing on patrolling, raids and coordinating air support. Galvin and his leadership team were happy with what they saw, but the experience highlighted their manning gap. Who would maintain their vehicles and radios once they were on their own? Who’d address administrative needs, and ensure they’d have food, fuel, ammunition and other supplies?
They designed four personnel packages and sent the request up their chain of command at MARSOC.
1) The heavy package: With 19 support personnel, Fox Company could sustain 24/7 mission capability.
2) The medium package: With 16 support personnel, the unit could sustain missions lasting up to four days.
3) The light package: With 13 support personnel, Fox Company could sustain missions lasting two days.
4) The bare minimum: This plan called for six support personnel. Anything less, and Fox Company would be unable to sustain itself in theater without outside help, they said.