Answer Man: Green Berets remain a force

News-DemocratNovember 5, 2013 

During the past few years, we've heard about the heroics of the Navy SEALs. But when I was younger, a lot of attention was paid to the Green Berets. Today, I never hear about the Green Berets, but I do hear of the Army Rangers. Can you sort out these three groups of Special Ops soldiers? -- W.N., of Edwardsville

In 1966, Americans were puffing out their chests and wiping away tears as Army Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler sang the words of the young Green Beret's widow:

"Put silver wings on my son's chest. Make him one of America's best. ... Have him win the Green Beret."

Just as the Vietnam War was starting to ignite one of the most divisive periods in recent times, Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets" was making an assault on record sales. Not only did it top the charts for five weeks, but it also wound up as Billboard's most popular single of the year.

They may no longer seem to grab the spotlight as often, but the Green Berets continue to fight to the death to defend the U.S. -- as even the metro-east is sometimes sadly reminded. In 2008, for example, Sgt. 1st Class Gary Vasquez, of Highland, was killed when the Green Beret's vehicle hit an IED during his third tour of duty in Afghanistan.

So, yes, the Berets are still an important component of the country's armed forces along with the Rangers, the SEALs and Delta Force. Here's a brief look at each:

Formally known as Army Special Forces, the Green Berets say they can trace a lineage through 200 years of history from Francis Marion (the Revolutionary War's Swamp Fox) right up to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Their official birth date, however, came in 1952. Organized into elite, 12-member commando units, they practice unconventional warfare, including stealth raids, ambushes, sabotage and subversion. They train, support and, in some cases, lead foreign forces -- just as they have in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. They also do "hearts-and-minds" missions, such as setting up medical clinics and overseeing engineering projects.

As you might guess, training -- the "Q course" -- can take up to a year and includes demanding physical tests as well as classes in tactics, intelligence, weaponry and a host of other subjects. It used to be you had to be in the Army for three years before even applying but, according to, a new program now may allow you to go straight to Special Forces after boot camp.

For the real granddaddy of special forces, however, look no further than the Army Rangers. The term "ranger" apparently dates to the early 1600s, and there have been American Rangers since colonial times. They have led the charge in Grenada, Panama, Iran and Mogadishu, to name a few.

Rangers are said to differ from Green Berets in that they are trained more in conventional than guerrilla warfare. They are tops at reconnaissance, including gathering intelligence, identifying targets and judging enemy strength and morale. But small groups of Rangers also can turn into elite light infantry troops that can capture vital, high-risk targets such as airfields and command centers.

The Ranger School, an intense, two-month combat leadership course covering small-unit tactics, opened in September 1950 at Fort Benning, Ga. Their motto, "Rangers lead the way!," was said to have been born on the beaches of D-Day. Their ranks have included Colin Powell and David Patraeus -- as well as singer Kris Kristofferson.

The SEALs (SEa, Air, Land Teams) grew out of World War II, when the Navy needed hush-hush reconnaissance of landing beaches and coastal defenses. When President John F. Kennedy lauded the Army Special Forces in 1961, the Navy decided to launch its own guerrilla units the next year with instruction in everything from high-altitude parachuting to underwater demolition.

Preparing SEALs for deployment can take upwards of three years, and the training is regarded as some of the toughest anywhere with a reported 90 percent dropout rate. But the grueling preparation paid off again when SEAL Team 6 led the successful raid on Osama bin Laden's hideaway in 2011.

You didn't ask, but after several terrorist attacks in the 1970s, the U.S. Army formed the elite and supersecret Delta Force as a counterterrorism unit. They apparently scoop off the creme de la creme from the Rangers and Green Berets for a force that is thought to number perhaps 1,200. They have been involved in Somalia and Tora Bora as well as flushing Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar out of hiding.

Today's trivia

What are the names of the locomotives that pull the Royal Train in Great Britain?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: Those attending the 1966 NCAA Division I championship basketball game witnessed a landmark event. Texas Western College coach Don Haskins started five African-American players and knocked off favorite Kentucky, 72-65. It marked the first time that a team had ever started five black players in the game, but Haskins said he wasn't trying to be a racial pioneer. "I just wanted to put my five best guys on the court," he said later. "I just wanted to win that game." His decision was immortalized in the 2006 movie "Glory Road" with Josh Lucas, Jon Voight and Derek Luke. Texas Western was renamed the University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) in 1967.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or or call 618-236-2465.

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