While the Ramadi SEALs were learning about the conventional forces and making themselves useful, the Army and, to a lesser extent, the Marines were learning about SEALs. This was the first time in their history that SEALs had operated in direct and continuous support of conventional forces in combat. When Jack Williams went to Colonel John Gronski, and later to Colonel Sean MacFarland, and made his SEALs available for brigade-support duty, this put Navy SEAL–U.S. Army relations on a totally new footing—at least in Ramadi. The respect went both ways. The SEALs had nothing but admiration for the Soldiers and Marines. Lars Beamon said it this way: “In writing this book, Mister Couch, I want you to never lose sight of one thing. The bravest and noblest men in uniform are those Army specialists and Marine lance corporals. They’re our most courageous and patriotic fighting men, and they’re out there day in and day out. For many of them, it’s becoming year in and year out. We SEALs are honored to call them brother warriors.”
Over at Camp Corregidor, Lieutenant Sean Smith and the Delta Platoon SEALs were bonding with the1-506. At Corregidor they lived, ate, and worked in close proximity with the Army. At the daily battalion staff meetings, Sean or a platoon representative was present. The SEAL camouflage uniforms and battle dress differed from those worn by the Army. Smith found Army uniforms so that his SEALs would look like their Army counterparts. More important, during the battle of Ramadi, they went out into the streets and bled with them. “We asked the 1-506 if we could wear their battalion insignia on our battle dress,” Smith said. The insignia of this storied battalion is the famous ace-of-spades patch. “We were honored that they allowed us to do this. We earned the right to call ourselves Soldiers.”
But what did the Army think of these SEALs and the SEAL task unit in Ramadi? Many had experience with Army Special Forces and a few had worked with the classified special missions units. The majority of the Soldiers and Marines at Ramadi had never worked with SEALs, so I made it a point to ask them what they thought of these sailors in their battlespace. I started with Mike Bajema.
A MASSIVE, INTENSE, FIGHTING MACHINE
“My first impression of the SEALs was in meeting Jack Williams and his senior chief petty officer in the brigade operations center at Camp Ramadi. It was just a few days after we arrived. We shook hands and he nearly broke all the bones in my right hand. Simply put, Jack appeared as this massive, intense, fighting machine—very intimidating. But one thing that came across right away with Jack and the other SEALs I met that day was their honesty. They didn’t care about a man’s branch of service or rank or physical size. I found that the SEALs tended to judge a man on his character, his courage under fire, and his determination to kill the enemy. I was never treated as anything less than an equal and always given the respect of being a different type of warrior on the battlefield. My preconception
of the SEALs was solely based on my experience working with the Army Special Forces teams. Those experiences were not positive, as the Army SOF community, in my experience, is quick to assert their sense of importance in most situations. First meetings are always a ‘tab check’ of who has the most Army [shoulder] tabs and school identifiers—airborne, Ranger, Special Forces, sapper, et cetera. This never happened with the SEALs. They only cared how a man performs or reacts when in contact with the enemy—in a tank, as dismounted infantry, as a medic, or as an operations center communicator. They just wanted a man to do his job like his buddies’ lives depended on it—and in Ramadi they often did.
“The Army SOF community I worked with previously was very reluctant to share their information with conventional forces. It seems like the information they had was too valuable or too secret to get passed on to others in the battlespace. The SEALs always followed the rules of disclosure, but they worked really hard on passing information down to the conventional guys on the ground. In return I passed all informants I came across to the SEALs to develop as sources, as I was restricted as to how I could task these informants in the gathering of intelligence. The SEALs had the specially trained folks that could task and even pay sources for information.
“After that first day, after we seized COP Falcon, the SEALs and Bulldogs were joined at the hip. It was a team atmosphere. There was no rivalry—just how each group could support the other in killing AQI fighters. When those SEALs first came back into COP Falcon, some of them had been out there 72 hours on sniper overwatch. They were nearly heat casualties—hungry and dead tired. Still, they would join a line of Bulldog soldiers to carry endless supplies of sandbags to the rooftop fighting positions before eating and resting. That’s what really makes them special—they don’t act special. We worked with the SEALs of Charlie Platoon of SEAL Team Three in Ramadi for those first three terrible months, and they were always there for us. And we’d go anywhere in Ramadi to help them out if they got in trouble. They were our brothers.”
CHAINS OF COMMAND OPERATE SIDE BY SIDE
“Did you ever have any reservations about working with the SEALs?” I asked.
“My only reservation was on how the chain of command would work if the SEALs were operating in my battlespace. As the local battlefield commander and ‘landowner,’ it was my responsibility to command the activity in my area. The SEALs had a separate chain of command. Before we started to work together, I was concerned that the SEALs would be rogue operators. I thought that they might refuse to work within our parameters or just to leave me in the dark—go off on their own and do their own thing. After the first day on the battlefield, this concern was quickly erased. They always briefed me ahead of time, and they would send their after-action reports through their chain of command and keep my operations center in the loop. We did the same by including their TOC in our reporting. Basically, we traded all requests for clearance and all situation reports to fully sync our operations and theirs. This created one force out of two separate groups, and no one was confused by the other’s actions. And we could support each other if the need arose.
“I think what made us a big fan of the SEALs,” Bajema continued, “was the respect they showed us. Here we were a company of dogface Army soldiers, and here they were, these BTFs—big tough frogmen. I think they secretly liked it when we called them that. Right from the start, they treated us as equals, and they’d been in the battlespace longer than we had. They had tremendous intelligence assets and resources, and they went out of their way to share information with us.
THE KING OF IMAGERY
“They had this one officer fresh out of the Naval Academy—looked like he was a teenager, but he was really sharp. His name was Hedberg—Ensign Hedberg. Jack Williams always introduced him as the smartest ensign in the United States Navy. Lars Beamon called him the King of Imagery. He was a genius at downloading web-based imagery and could tap into any government or military database and find things. Whenever we were planning an operation, he or one of the SEALs would turn up with an armload of reconnaissance photos and satellite imagery—everything from MapQuest-type stuff to NSA data. The kid was incredible. It wasn’t long before he became the go-to guy for the other Army and Marine battalions for imagery. So it wasn’t just the SEALs; all the people in their support package were very helpful and willing to share information.”
Lieutenant Lars Beamon had equally good things to say about Mike Bajema and his Bulldog soldiers. “We felt a little more comfortable when we were operating near COP Falcon. If we needed a QRF [quick-reaction force] or a CASEVAC [casualty evacuation], we knew Mike and his guys would come for us. And they did. The Army patrols out of COP Falcon often operated under a SEAL sniper blanket. And a great many SEAL operations were conducted from COP Falcon. As the battle of Ramadi ground on, this relationship evolved on a personal and professional basis. A great deal of the SEAL success in Iraq has been credited to our ops–intel fusion. In Ramadi much of it was due to the SEAL–Army fusion.”
I asked Colonel MacFarland about the interface of the SEAL task unit and his requirements at the brigade level.
“I didn’t know what to expect—I had never worked with SEALs before. My most recent experience in Tall ‘Afar with Army Special Forces had not been very good. It seemed to me that they were intent on pursuing an independent agenda. I was hoping that it would be different in Ramadi. As it turned out, the SEALs were exactly what I had hoped for—and, in some ways, even more. They were very interested in working as a part of a team, as well as being incredibly good at what they do. I won’t say that their competence surprised me, but I wasn’t sure just how
adept Sailors with guns would be in a counterinsurgency fight. It quickly became evident to me that they were tremendously effective and versatile warriors who were highly motivated and thoroughly professional.”
I asked him about any reservations he may have had.
HIGH CALIBER WARRIORS
“Again, I was new to working with SEALs,” the colonel said, “but I can honestly say that with the exception of Delta operators, who are the crème de la crème of our Army SOF components, I had never worked with warriors of such high caliber. I think that opinion was shared at all echelons, from colonel to private. My Soldiers and junior leaders came to respect the big tough frogmen and would do anything for them. The losses that the SEALs suffered in Ramadi cemented that relationship in my mind. Anyone who shed blood, sweat, and tears in Ramadi with us will always be a part of our band of brothers. The names of those SEALs lost in action were inscribed on our [division] memorial plaque in Germany when we got home. We like to think that this respect was mutual.”
Since Jack Williams and his task unit specifically asked to be involved in the brigade battle plans to retake Ramadi, I asked Colonel MacFarland just what he asked of “his SEALs.”
“I gave them a wide range of missions, all of which they accepted without complaint and executed superbly. They helped us establish our COPs by sending in small kill teams to help seize the buildings we wanted; then they moved out to positions outside the perimeter in order to disrupt any enemy counterattack. At COP Falcon alone, they killed some two dozen enemy fighters in those first twenty-four hours as they attempted to disrupt our COP construction. We also employed SEALs as part of our counterfire fight—inserting them near historic enemy mortar points of origin. The enemy feared snipers above all else, and for good reason. Our sniper teams were incredibly lethal. Of all our sniper teams, the SEAL teams were the best. But all of our snipers benefited from their presence, because they were also great instructors. Operationally, I tried to put them in the seams of the battlespace—places where they could go because of the small size of their patrol elements and the places where we couldn’t go.
“Another function that they performed for me was training the Iraqi security forces. They worked with the Iraqi Army scout platoons. They also helped us to provide rudimentary training to tribesmen who ‘flipped’ to our side and established neighborhood watch positions to defend against AQI. They also helped us to train new Iraqi Army and Iraqi police recruits at Camp Ramadi after they returned from their basic training, raising the competence level of the soldiers and policemen in Ramadi to well above their peers elsewhere.
“Finally, the SEALs conducted targeted raids on individuals on whom they had developed target folders. They shared their intel with us at intel–fusion and targeting meetings, and were happy to pass over targets best suited to conventional forces.”
SEAL vs. SPECIAL FORCES MISSIONS
In light of Captain Bajema’s and Colonel MacFarland’s comments and praise for the Ramadi task unit, I’m going take a moment here for a brief editorial comment regarding the mission set of Navy SEALs as compared with Army Special Forces. Having spent a great deal of time with both SEALs and Special Forces, I think I understand the issues of both regarding their integration with conventional forces. First of all, high praise goes to SEAL leaders like Jack Williams who took the initiative to engage and work with the Army and the Marines. That kind of outreach and user-friendly approach is not that common with Special Forces units. Special Forces are primarily trainers, and while they have a broad range of talents, they seem to be most effective working with tribesmen and indigenous forces in remote areas. They do better when they’re operating independently, away from conventional forces, and can be a tremendous force multiplier when employed in this manner. Given their training and cross-cultural skills, they have the ability to live and work with the locals, and this kind of venue is usually found in more rural areas where theirs is the only presence on the battlefield. Not everyone can meld in and live with indigenous populations. Special Forces can and do.
SEALs, on the other hand, are direct-action animals. While they can be very capable trainers, their training and their historical preference are to engage the enemy in combat. Sean MacFarland gave them the opportunity to do just that, and they were all over it.
The comments of Colonel MacFarland and Captain Bajema also reflect the long-standing competition between conventional Army and Army SOF. The Special Forces, as a career Army branch, draw away a good number of promising and proven officers, and capable sergeants, from the conventional units. This has led to a natural rivalry and, inevitably, some resentment. The SEALs have no such issues with the blue-water Navy—the fleet. Since 9/11 the SEALs have done most of their work on deployment in Army and Marine battlespace. As a result they’ve become quite good at finding their niche in that battlespace, and developing good relations with those conventional commanders.
Sheriff of Ramadi is available from Naval Institute Press. 288 pages, $29.95