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An inside perspective on U.S. strategy in Iraq

Is it a good idea to send Green Berets and other special operators into Iraq?

And if they are sent, is it a good idea to give the bad guys a heads up they’re coming?

Yes, and quite possibly, are the answers offered by Scott Neil, a guy who knows about such matters.

A retired Green Beret master sergeant who served as senior enlisted advisor to the director of U.S. Special Operation Command’s Interagency Task Force, Neil is now director of strategic development for the Green Beret Foundation. He served several tours in Iraq with the 5th Special Forces Group during the initial invasion in March 2003 and then again in 2004 and 2005.

In 2003, he was part of the Commander’s In-Extremis Force, performing special missions that included, among other things, searching for weapons of mass destruction.

A year later, Neil’s group started training the Iraqi Counterterror Force and the 36th Commando Battalion.

The mission then?

“Find the right partners and make them an effective fighting force,” says Neil, taking some time away from Tampa to attend an event at which the Green Beret Foundation and the Mixed Martial Arts are working together out in Las Vegas. The organization will be the feature charity at a July 5 fight.

The Iraqi special operations forces “were very loyal fighters,” says Neil. “They adapted quickly. We built them into one of the best Arab counterterrorism forces there is.”

So how did the Sunni al-Qaida splinter group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) capture so much territory so quickly?

In part it was because Iraqi special operations forces “weren’t positioned or used accordingly,” says Neil, adding that when U.S. forces left in 2011, there was “kind of a dismantling of Iraqi counterterrorism” as its leaders were purged by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite.

“The reason why ISIL moved very quickly is that, just like in maneuver warfare, you create chaos and confusion if you do not have strong leadership. What is going to make the average Joe stay and guard his post? You don’t see the ISIL break into the Kurdish area. They’d get their (butts) handed to them.”

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President Barack Obama on Thursday repeated his pledge that U.S. forces in Iraq will not be involved in combat missions. Aside from a small contingent left behind at the embassy, the U.S. pulled out of Iraq in 2011. Nearly 4,500 U.S. troops died in eight bloody years.

But up to 300 commandos will be added to the 275 troops already on hand protecting the embassy.

So what will they do?

Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on Friday that they “are to do some initial assessments and to eventually advise. That’s the mission. As you say, calling in airstrikes, that connotes a combat mission. This is not the mission that they have been assigned. They are not there on a combat mission. And I’m not going to speculate.”

But Neil did. Commandos, he says, will help “slow and stop momentum. Once you get it to stall, then sometimes the enemy has a hard time logistically supporting fighters, then they start pillaging on their own. And that creates a lot of civil discontent. Once you stop the momentum, then you can work behind their lines and start picking off the leadership inspiring the movement.”

U.S. commandos will also provide intelligence and information to Iraqi forces positioned and poised to take on the Sunni fighters.

“You have all these U.S. systems. How do you package and give that information to Iraqi counterparts?” says Neil. “There will be a bit of a fusion center.”

The commandos will also help re-establish, organize and task human intelligence networks, Neil says.

“The Iraqis snitch everyone out,” he says. “These guys are the best snitches. We don’t have as many people on the payroll now, but because of the Saddam era, the Iraqis love to tell on other Iraqis. Getting a human intelligence network going again will be pretty easy.”

And, despite what Kirby said, Neil says commandos may also be spending some of their time helping targeting of ISIL leadership and blocking positions so that aircraft, manned or unmanned, will A) have something specific to attack and B) be able to do so while reducing the risk of civilian casualties.

Commandos “have all the aspects you need in a 12-man team,” says Neil, referring to the Green Beret Operational Detachment Alpha groups. “There is an engineer, two medics, communications guys, human intelligence specialists — you have all of that in one 12-man package.”

Adm. William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, has repeatedly talked about the value of the “small-footprint” approach. Green Berets in Iraq, says Neil, would exemplify that.

“Why send in an infantry battalion when you can just send a few teams that operate independently and autonomously?” he asks rhetorically.

The president’s announcement that commandos are coming is somewhat of a mixed bag, says Neil.

“Here we go again, saying, ‘Red Rover, Red Rover, the Green Berets are coming over,’” says Neil. “That’s when you see all of this is political. We have to show people we are doing something, so let’s tell them what we are doing.”

But the result may be advantage commandos, he says.

“If we are smart enough, we will monitor their chatter and traffic,” says Neil. “We have introduced an anomaly on their battlefield. It behooves you to monitor and see the effect.”

Then there is the value of having the enemy know what they are up against, says Neil.

“Sometimes you want your reputation to proceed you,” he says.

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June 27 is National Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Day.

By some estimates, there may be more than a half-million men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer from PTSD. And there are many more from the nation’s previous conflicts. I recently spoke with a WWII veteran who survived a hellish campaign in the South Pacific and went through life thinking he was a coward because he had no concept of PTSD until relatively recently.

So if you are active-duty or a veteran and think you may have PTSD, don’t feel bad about seeking help.

But don’t take my word for it.

“Being a senior member of SOF I have always ‘powered thru,’” wrote one senior enlisted special operator on the Facebook page of the Elk Institute for Psychological Health & Performance, a Tampa nonprofit that provides counseling and education to service members and veterans at no cost to them. “I powered thru ... and deployed many times. In 2002 I experienced a traumatic event in combat and was never able to sleep or relax. I simply powered thru.

“After hearing Dr. (Carrie) Elk speak I realized I suffered from PTSD and even though I was very nervous I scheduled a session. After ONE session I slept soundly for the first time in over 10 years and continue to do so ever since. I highly recommend that anyone who feels that they suffer from PTSD speak with Dr. Elk and get the help you need. Don’t just “power thru.”

For more information about the institute or to donate, contact Elk at (813) 310-6686, email [email protected] or go to www.elkinstitute.org.

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One of the challenging things about covering the military is the constant churn as service members make their inevitable moves.

Such is the case with Air Force Col. Scott DeThomas, commander of MacDill Air Force Base and the 6th Air Mobility Wing.

During last week’s Marine Corps Forces Central Command change of command ceremony, DeThomas confirmed what I’ve known for a while, that he would be hitting the wild blue yonder in about seven weeks, which would place him right about at the two-year mark.

For where I don’t know yet, nor do I know his replacement. But stay tuned. I’ll be sitting down with him in the coming weeks.

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The Pentagon on June 14, after the deadline for last week’s column, announced the deaths of five soldiers.

Staff Sgt. Scott R. Studenmund, 24, of Pasadena, California.; Staff Sgt. Jason A. McDonald, 28, of Butler, Georgia; Spc. Justin R. Helton, 25, of Beaver, Ohio; Cpl. Justin R. Clouse, 22, of Sprague, Washington,; and Pvt. Aaron S. Toppen, 19, of Mokena, Illinois, died June 9 in Gaza Village, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered while engaged in a combat operation. The incident is under investigation.

Studenmund and McDonald were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, Fort Campbell, Ky.. Helton was assigned to the 18th Ordnance Company, 192nd Ordnance Battalion, 52nd Ordnance Group, Fort Bragg, N.C. Clouse and Toppen were assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colo.

There have now been 2,319 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.

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