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A Breed Apart

After spending a drenching, oxygen-sapping and, at times, bewildering week with National Guard Green Berets as they trained with pack mules deep in the Idaho wilderness, one thing became clear: These Soldiers are special creatures all their own.
The 19th Special Forces Group underwent a 10-mile hike through the Idaho wilderness during a 2014 training exercise. Photo by CW2 Marc Acton
The 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne) underwent a 10-mile hike through the Idaho wilderness during a 2014 training exercise. Photo by CW2 Marc Acton
Special Forces Soldiers are able to adapt at a moment’s notice to any environment, no matter how rugged, including fallen trees in the Idaho wilderness. Photo by Vance Jacobs
Special Forces Soldiers are able to adapt at a moment’s notice to any environment, no matter how rugged, including fallen trees in the Idaho wilderness. Photo by Vance Jacobs
As a unit, members of the ODA, including this 19th Special Forces Soldier, are in perfect balance, just like the loads they entrust their pack mules to carry. Photo by Vance Jacobs
As a unit, members of the ODA, including this 19th Special Forces Soldier, are in perfect balance, just like the loads they entrust their pack mules to carry. Photo by Vance Jacobs

I was only an hour into the climb up the rocky, 1,500-foot Beaver’s Slide peak in north-central Idaho, and the eight National Guard Special Forces (SF) Soldiers I was following were ascending with ease. I was not. I had done a lot of training to prepare for this climb, and my muscles were fine. There just wasn’t enough oxygen in whatever my lungs were taking in—it wasn’t air, because you can’t drown in air, and that’s what it felt like. I just clearly hadn’t put in the work on enough hills.

Just like pack mules themselves, Special Forces Soldiers can travel great distances and undertake amazing physical feats, quietly adjusting along the way no matter how difficult the path or how arduous the climb. Photo by Vance Jacobs

The adaptability of a Special Forces Soldier has to be part of a their personality, says 19th SF Group member “Dave.” On this trip, that flexibility included quickly picking up mule-packing tips from guide Ron Ens. Photo by Vance Jacobs

Not on terrain like this. Beaver’s Slide is part of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, a massive range covering more than 2.3 million acres of towering ridges, whitewater rapids and one of the deepest gorges in North America—deeper even than the Grand Canyon. The Frank Church, as locals call it, is the second-largest unit of the National Wilderness Preservation System in the Lower 48, second only to California’s Death Valley Wilderness. Yet to these super fit Soldiers—Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) from Utah’s 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne)—the setting seemed more like a backyard jungle gym.

At one point, “Jeff” and “Matt” (actual names withheld for security reasons), the two SF Soldiers assigned to hang back with me and make sure I didn’t die, stopped to take a breather. Not for their sake, of course. The rest of the group—the half-dozen SF troops, plus a support team and our civilian guide, Ron Ens, who knew the terrain intimately—had made the entire climb, completing the 3 or so miles (nearly straight up) without a single break. For me, a five-minute rest to enjoy the breathtaking views and the perfect, dry 70-degree weather normally would’ve been welcome. Unfortunately, I was too busy sucking wind.

When we started again, I asked Jeff, the team’s medic, to carry my camera’s monopod, which was an extra 5 pounds or so that I clearly should not have brought with me. Naturally, Jeff thought it was humorous to poke me with it whenever I slowed down. It was hard to argue with him.

“Just put one foot in front of the other,” he said.

“It seems so easy when you say it out loud,” I said.

“But my legs aren’t listening to me.”

“Look, you can see the top from here.”

“I know, it’s right above me. Straight up.

“When we get up there, you’re going to be able to look down here and you’re going to think, ‘What was the big deal?’ ”

In between pokes, Jeff told me about his civilian job working as a counterdrug agent for the state of Utah. I couldn’t help but picture him poking drug addicts with poles.

Eventually, we caught up to the rest of the ODA at the top of the climb around lunchtime, only 15 minutes late. It was just the first day of a four-day trek that would allow these Soldiers a chance to sharpen their skills working with one of the oldest transportation modes known to man—pack mules—and allow me the chance to observe how an SF unit operates in its own natural habitat. But already I had gotten a taste of how these Soldiers conduct business in their element. And business it is.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, is a big deal.

FULL TOOLKIT

Every SF unit specializes in a skill that complements its normal training (Airborne, Ranger, etc.). The 19th SF Group includes operators who specialize in High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) jumps, combat diving and sniper missions. But the ODA Soldiers I was embedded with specialize in working with livestock—mules, horses and other regional animals—and are capable of inserting themselves into the roughest terrain in the world, the kind of places that aren’t accessible by normal means, like the mountains of Afghanistan. Or the Frank Church.

“We started focusing on the pack mule–moving technique about two years ago, as we moved away from mounted capability and [looked] at where we were likely to go,” said “Dave,” one of the ODA leaders, who was prior service Air Force until he joined the Guard. “We started out with just a couple of mules, packing them up, and then last year we did a 16-mile movement in southern Utah. So this is the next step, what we’d call our full mission profile.”

The unique terrain challenges here, like the humongous uphill climb that was making me feel like an ass while I was walking behind one, are what make this the perfect place to train this skill. The Green Berets had gone through training last year at their home station, learning to pack and care for the animals, and this exercise was their opportunity to use the skill firsthand in the wild.

As a member of an ODA, you have to bring many tools to the table, you’ve got to be able to share them, and you’ve got to be able to learn other skills on the fly. In most regular units, Soldiers might do one or two things well. You have planning experts, operations specialists and tactical gurus. In an ODA, you don’t have a battalion of people to rely on—you have to bring skills and be ready to take on anything. The team sergeant, “Brian,” was a perfect example. He had been around pack animals extensively in his civilian career, even working with mules. I watched as he patiently showed his teammates techniques he’d learned. I also watched them take in each one, get it the first time, and then put it into practice. Hardly any questions, hardly any practice. Generally, they saw something once, then had it down.

It’s one thing to lead an animal around a barnyard. It’s another thing entirely to convince one to cross streams it doesn’t want to cross, or to climb over giant rocks and downed trees, or to keep 10 of them that are tied together from getting tangled. Then there’s feeding them and packing them (they can carry about 200 pounds each). But for this group, the lessons were applied quickly, and it wasn’t long before the mules became just another piece of equipment.

ORDER WITHOUT ORDERS

I managed to get through the second half of day one with no issues—due entirely to the fact that the guys gave me a horse to ride. When we pulled into camp (What’s the horse equivalent of “pulling up” to something? Trotted up? We horsed ourselves into camp?), it was as if everyone had a job to do—except that there was no prompting, and no one gave orders. I had barely gotten off my horse and one team member had already started gathering firewood. Others were spreading out tents, gathering more wood and identifying a water source. Tasks weren’t handed out. They just got done.

In a regular unit, a first sergeant would’ve been barking orders, assigning lower enlisted to this or that job. The SF guys just dove in. If I hadn’t already been told who was in charge, there would’ve been no way to tell.

“How are you doing on water?” The weapons sergeant, “Rick,” was checking up on me.

“I’m good.”

“If you need any, let me know. There’s a crick right over here.”

Checking on water supply is normally a first sergeant kind of thing to do. But not with these guys.

Throughout the trip, Rick must have checked on me a dozen times, and he managed to do it each time without making me feel like the slow, non-mountain-climbing pilot-slash-writer that was dragging them down. His ability to look out for his teammates (and me) was just another skill he brought to the table. You don’t learn that from a manual.

 Just before sunset, the Soldiers settle into camp after a 10-mile hike. As an ODA, the members must be in perfect balance with one another, just like the loads they secure with the mules. And these unit members are, to the point that they barely need to communicate at all. Photo by Vance Jacobs

Green Berets are best known in pop culture for the type of shoot-’em-up, high-profile jobs you might’ve seen in video games like “Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon” or “Metal Gear Solid,” but that characterization reflects only one side of them. Every Green Beret out there is capable of blowing stuff up, and Direct Action (DA) missions involving straightforward “take this hill”–style objectives are still common, but their bread and butter these days is serving as “quiet professionals,” the unofficial title given to Army Special Forces. It fits.

In a war zone, you’re likely to find a Green Beret deep in enemy territory, advising or training foreign national forces, developing relationships with indigenous populations, or reducing those local populations’ reliance on unfriendly warlords by teaching them to be more self-sustainable. To pull off those missions, SF Soldiers have to be teachers, trainers and ad hoc politicians—even financial advisors.

These tactics are all part of unconventional warfare, a set of strategies that has proved effective against enemies from the jungles of Vietnam to the deserts of Afghanistan. No one does unconventional warfare better than the Green Berets. These missions are always unpredictable, never simple and almost always far from friendly forces, making independent problem-solving—the same quality driving the Soldiers’ willingness to dive into setting up camp—an absolute must for a successful operator. And many of these missions benefit from having guys like Rick: Soldiers willing to place the needs of others before their own.

As the sun set, my new friends jokingly gave me crap for my apparent lack of cardiovascular endurance.

“He didn’t like it when I was poking him with his own stick,” Jeff said.

Eventually my embarrassment subsided, and I was able to enjoy an evening around the campfire. As I drifted off, snug in my sleeping bag, I promised myself I wouldn’t suck so badly tomorrow.

At least, I thought, I won them over (or they let me think so) with my lack of complaining. Spend time with an SF unit 24/7, and it quickly becomes apparent that refusing to quit in the face of adversity is a given.

DEALING WITH DELAYS

Dawn of day two broke with mules braying, which sounds just like it does on television. The animals are half-horse and half-donkey, and the sound they make is, too—part whinny and part hee-haw. Which is cool, unless you’re waking up to it in a strange place—then it’s downright disconcerting.

Packing up camp followed the same model as setting it up the night before. Everyone just went about his business as the cool morning mist burned off. I managed to stay out of the way. So far so good.

Packing mules is harder than it appears. As our guide, Ron, put it: “A mule can walk a hundred flat miles with an unbalanced load, but 30 seconds up the side of a mountain, and you’re going to be [expletive] screwed.” The Green Berets put their training into practice, loading and saddling the mules and horses just like they’d been taught.

When camp was sufficiently struck, water containers were filled and Ron was happy with the team’s packing job, we headed out. Much to my relief, I wasn’t relegated to horseback purgatory—I was going to have a chance to redeem myself. On the schedule today was a slightly longer trek distance-wise, but with less elevation change. With another day to adapt to the thinner air (my unscientific research says it takes about four days for the body to adapt to it), I was determined not to hold the group back. Unfortunately, it didn’t take the mountain long to strike again. But this time, it struck someone else.

This morning’s victim was a different member of our support team. About 20 minutes into the hike, he had gone ahead to scout our route when the group had stopped to readjust the mules’ packs. When the group started down the trail again, we took a right that he had missed.

Dealing with obstacles is just another part of the day. Finding the location of a member of the party, clearing a long stretch of downed trees (some of them 11/2 feet thick) and taking shelter from a hailstorm are all taken in stride. Photo by CW2 Marc Acton

It took about 20 minutes to notice he was missing. In that time, we had traveled a little over a mile, which meant our comrade was alone with minimal gear (we all had stripped every possible ounce out of our day packs, leaving the mules to do as much of the heavy lifting as they could) and no way to communicate with the group. The mountain showed its displeasure with us, as a steady rain started. Jeff and Matt, the same two who had been on writer-caregiving detail the previous day, were sent back to find him.

Another 20 minutes later, the searchers caught back up to us without our lost hiker. They had gone all the way back to the fork in the road without finding him, and had turned around figuring he had in fact been ahead of the group the whole time. When the two met up with us, we had just reached the highest point in our trek: around 8,000 feet (your body may start to show serious signs of a lack of oxygen at around 10,000). The rain had stopped, so Jeff and Matt dropped their packs with the group and were re-dispatched to the search, while the rest of us lunched on MREs and took in the staggering view off the side of the mountain.

Ten minutes later it started to rain again. A few minutes after that, it started to hail. Our group took shelter in an old one-room logging cabin (more of a shack, really) as the two searchers rode back along our path looking for our lost team member—without the rain gear, which they had left with us.

LIONS DON’T BARK

A revelation struck me there, huddled in the dark of the shack that now smelled of MRE heaters, warmed-up ratatouille and jalapeno cheese, with hail bouncing through the doorway. I should have been picking up on feelings of frustration from the Soldiers by now. For the second day in a row they were being held up—inconvenienced by an entourage that didn’t share their climbing or trail-following abilities. In fact, out of the four non-SF members of our group, two of them had now cost them time and effort in baby-sitting. In my unit, this would have been met with great gnashing of teeth, and more than a few choice words that aren’t fit for print. But instead, the Green Berets were exchanging tips for sprucing up MREs (some things are the same in every unit in the Army) and cracking jokes about how many kids the new team member has (five).

During my time in the Frank Church, I got to hear plenty of stories from the Green Berets’ personal lives. The pole-wielding Jeff would tell me how he rode a motorcycle the entire length of Vietnam. “One time I was driving along and saw some locals fishing,” he said. “I stopped at the next town, grabbed some beer, and went back to where they were and just sat there and fished with them all day. It was the coolest thing.” Another talked me through the local geography of Thailand, describing how he convinced a Buddhist monk to tattoo his back with a vial of ink using an ancient method that combines acupuncture and needlepoint.

The new guy, “Mike,” told me about his Mormon faith—how he lives to serve and how his faith brought him closer to his father. He joined SF because of his five kids. “I wanted when my kids grew up for them to be able to say, ‘Yeah, my dad was a Green Beret,’ ” he said. Along with Arabic, Mike speaks Spanish from time spent on his religious mission to Venezuela. Again, more tools.

Each of their stories, no matter how personal or how fantastic, was delivered in a manner that spoke volumes. No fluff, no “look at me” factor. Just the facts. The thing about being the king of the jungle is that you don’t ever have to bark. I came to realize over my time with the ODA that there’s no “small dog syndrome” in SF units—only the quiet confidence that comes with knowing that you don’t have to prove anything to anyone.

If you were passing Dave in the grocery store, you wouldn’t look twice—he appears to be just like any other guy. His youngish face belies a career that’s taken him to some of the most dangerous places in the world. He doesn’t have the look of a killer—no thousand-yard stare, no awkward social skills that signal, “You don’t know what I’ve been through.” Sitting in the cabin, and throughout the entire trip, he was a perfect example of how the Green Berets just went about their business. No complaining, no posturing. Later, I’d ask him what he liked about the Special Forces community. “SF is just a personality thing,” he’d say. “Certain guys are just drawn to it. And the selection process is more about that than any physical prowess.”

The searchers returned right after the hail stopped, riding into view just as the clouds cleared, the sun shining down on them like conquering heroes. They had found our team member just past the fork in the road. When they arrived, there was barely a mention of the delay. They took everything in stride. No barking required. I briefly wondered what their bite was like, and decided I was glad I’d never find out.

The Soldiers all work as one, whether clearing a trail or pushing forward on it, but each individual comes to the unit with an amazing background and a story to tell. Still, good luck to any outsider who wants to get to know them well. Because of the nature of their missions, these operators simply must stay mysterious, a reality that hit home a couple of days into the exercise. Photo by Vance Jacobs

Jeff and Matt took a few minutes to change out of their soaked clothes and extract their jackets from their packs.

“At least it wasn’t you this time,” Jeff said, reading my mind.

Moments later we were back on the trail, finally headed downhill, toward our next campsite. On the way, the trail got so rough that the unit had to use a chainsaw to cut some of the downed trees, some as big as 11/2 feet thick. Eventually, the obstacles grew so large that we split into two groups. One waited with the mules, while the other cut and cleared a path to our campsite. We all finally arrived there around dinnertime.

Weather in the Frank Church is as unpredictable as it is unwelcoming. The skies, which had been dumping hail just hours before, had cleared, and the sun was warming the temperature back to a perfect low 70s as the previous evening’s camp setup was repeated.

The downed trunks, which had been felled by a controlled burn several months before our visit, were thick where we set up camp. Even the trees that were still standing had no foliage on them, their trunks scarred from the burn. This lack of greenery gave us a panoramic view of the valley where our camp lay, but since almost all the ground was covered in the downed trees, there were walkways that had been cleared through the tree-trunk patchwork. I set my tent just off the main path that stretched the length of the campsite. I’d regret this decision a few hours later.

A campfire was built. More MREs, more stories. Most of them were funny, some were incredible, and all were told, as usual, matter-of-factly. After two days of hiking, sawing, climbing, packing, unpacking and mule wrangling, everyone turned in just after dark. I drifted off peacefully, knowing that for one day, the mountain hadn’t gotten the better of me.

RUDE AWAKENING

I woke up confused, in the middle of a near-death experience. It took several moments for my brain to process the sound of horses and mules galloping by my tent and several more to figure out if they really were right outside my tent, or if I was just dreaming all of this. I was not dreaming. Every few seconds, another 1,000 pounds of horsehair, leather and potential carnage passed by.

Should I evacuate? If unzipped, my enclosure would open right into the area where the horses were. I decided to trust that the herd would see my three-man, orange tent in the moonlight, and retreated to the far end of it, away from what sounded like a definite trampling. The mass migration stopped after a minute or so. It had started raining again, so I went back to sleep, still half wondering if I’d dreamed the whole thing, listening to the rain bounce off the plastic roof, which had never felt so flimsy.

In the morning, around 9 a.m., I unsnuggled myself from my sleeping bag, pulled on a long-sleeve shirt to fight off the morning chill, and stumbled in a fog toward the fire, still thinking about last night and wondering how I managed to sleep so late. At the fire, I found Ron lying on the ground, head propped on a log, fully clothed except for naked feet, with his boots and socks warming by the fire.

He explained that around 3 a.m., one of the mules had broken through the rope that formed the makeshift corral. Our 10 mules and three horses had all made a run for the hills, right past my tent. There was a downed tree on the path, which they all had jumped over, landing less than 2 feet from my head.

Fortunately, their escape had also awoken Ron, who had just now lain down by the fire to dry out. He had spent the last six hours in the rain retrieving the livestock one by one from the hills where they were grazing.

The mountain had challenged us again but lost—just barely.

But the animals’ breaking away was only the first revelation of the morning.

The second was that our SF friends had vanished.

Members of the ODA leads a herd of pack mules and horses through the Idaho wilderness—tied together for safety. Photo by Vance Jacobs

A QUIET WAY OF LIFE

They left behind their tents and almost all of their gear. But no clues. There was no note. And no sign they’d be back.

After some discussion among the rest of the support team, and factoring in the nature of SF training, we made the only logical decision we could: With Ron leading the way, we headed back toward base camp.

 

Green Berets live in a world where deception is necessary. From classified missions to misinformation spread for the sake of counterintelligence, being an SF Soldier requires the ability to hold your cards close to the vest.

I can’t say whether the team literally left us in the dark because of some secret training that the rest of us didn’t have the clearance to be a part of, or if they were just paying me back for my first day’s transgression, but their escape was pulled off without so much as a twig snap.

I thought back to the night before, when Vance, our photographer, had been taking some portraits of the Soldiers. He had casually mentioned to “Wes,” the team’s communications sergeant, that since he hadn’t had time to get his portrait, they could take care of it in the morning. “Sure,” Wes said, “We can definitely take care of that before we head out in the morning.”

The official story is that after leaving us, the team conducted survival training, living off of only what they could carry by hand or procure in the wilderness. What I know for sure is that they left their food and gear in camp and then met us all back at our base camp two days later.

The impression I got throughout my time with the 19th SF Group was that I was never really getting the whole story. After seeing firsthand that the “quiet” in quiet professional is a way of life for these guys, I think that what they did during those two days is anyone’s guess. Maybe they just fished and sat around telling Thailand stories. But probably not.

The trip out of the Frank Church, which took about four hours by horseback, gave me a chance to process the experience—not the morning’s surprise, but the whole trip. I was left with an impression of the Green Berets that was incredibly similar to an experience I once had meeting the actor Jim Caviezel, the man who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. Caviezel seemed like a completely regular dude. And yet he was completely unlike anyone I’d ever met. These SF troops somehow were completely normal, and yet not. These two things that seemed opposite to each other somehow fit here. In the end, they were exactly like me, only better, smarter and stronger. And better at doing things, like climbing mountains. Definitely more “special.”

At least they weren’t better looking. Plus, I’m still a pilot. That’s what I told myself, anyway, on the way down.

Returning to base camp also gave me a chance to reflect upon my time spent in the wilderness. My four days in the Frank Church was like a juice cleanse for my brain. It took a couple days on the mountain to remember that pulling out my phone to text, tweet or talk wasn’t an option—I didn’t get a single bar of service the whole time I was in the wilderness. It took a couple more days to be glad that I didn’t.

Some of the Soldiers that I’d lived with, listened to and ridden the trail with over the week moved on to other training events that I also probably wasn’t allowed to hear about. Others went back to full-time jobs and life as family men.

I went home happy that in the end I had survived the mountain, coming away mostly unscathed. I also returned with a new appreciation for the Green Berets—not just for their mission but who they are as people. They might be great at misinformation and awesome at vanishing acts, but there isn’t anyone I’d rather trust my secrets with. Or my freedom.

 

During the trip, the group’s 10 mules and three horses all made a run for the hills after one of the mules had broken through a makeshift corral. Photo by CW2 Marc Acton

PACK MULE 101

Mules, the offspring of a male donkey and female horse, are highly effective assets for SF teams operating in mountainous terrain. Here are a few mule basics.

1. Large mules can weigh over 1,000 pounds.

2. They can carry up to 20 percent of their weight if packed correctly. That’s around 200 pounds.

3. They possess the qualities of both their parents—they’re fast and agile like a horse, but sure-footed like a donkey.

4. Mules have horselike social qualities that make them great pack animals; they’re hesitant to run off on their own and thus more reliable on the trail.

5. Their reputation for being stubborn is misleading. Because they’re smarter than horses, they’re less likely to do something dangerous, which makes them perfect for treks through difficult terrain.

6. The first known use of mules was in Egypt, before 3000 B.C., when mules were more widely used than camels.

7. One of the biggest threats to a string of pack mules is the rope that ties them together, especially when they stop moving. If the rope goes slack and their feet get tangled, they can easily injure themselves.

8. The key to packing a mule is balance. Our guide, Ron, weighed each side of the packs down to the half-pound to make sure they were perfectly even.

9. The vast majority of mules are infertile. Since 1527, there have been only 60 reported cases of mules giving birth.

10. The U.S. Marine Corps has the military’s only official “Animal Packers Course.” It’s an 11-day class given by the Mountain Warfare Training Center in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

A Special Forces ODA is unlike any Army battalion. There are no leaders nor followers. Each Soldier knows his role, and they complete each task without instruction or question. Here, the members of the 19th Special Forces Group, reconvene after their hike through the Idaho wilderness. Photo by Vance Jacobs

ABOUT THE 19TH SF GROUP

Located: Headquarters in Camp W.G. Williams, near Salt Lake City, UT, with detachments in nine states across the country

Motto: “Anything, Anyplace, Anytime”

Lineage: Utah’s 19th SF Group (Airborne) is one of two Army National Guard Special Forces units. The 20th Group (Airborne) is the other. Like all SF units, the 19th Group traces its unit history back to “The Devil’s Brigade,” a WWII American and Canadian unit of commandos that was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest unit-level military award.