Green Berets: The Quiet Professionals
One of the president's most significant goals in Afghanistan is to train Afghan soldiers to take over the country's security, and the Army's Green Berets are leading that effort. Few people realize that the Green Berets traditional role is to train foreign armies - the only arm of the military designed especially for this purpose.
They're known as the "quiet professionals" because they work mostly in secret, unnoticed and unrecognized, among the best soldiers America has.
Right now across Afghanistan, Green Beret teams are trying to turn Afghan commandos into the country's best fighters so they can eventually do it on their own.
But they still have a long way to go. How far? "60 Minutes" traveled to Afghanistan to find out.
"60 Minutes" was given unprecedented access to a team of Green Berets, "ODA 7215." For two and a half months, our team lived with them, trained with them and went to battle with them.
For the most part, these "quiet professionals" are camera shy Joes who let their expertise do their talking.
""We're definitely not Rambo, you know? He was a Green Beret. That's not us at all," a Green Beret named Martin told us.
Martin is 6'1" and 220 pounds. He can bench-press almost twice his body weight. And there are eleven other guys just like him on this Special Forces team, tasked with tracking down enemy leaders all across southern Afghanistan.
To film them, we had to agree to only use first names and help conceal their identities with sunglasses.
"Soldiers often say, 'I'm doing my job.' Is that what this is to you, is it a job?" correspondent Lara Logan asked.
"There are miserable times where you kinda look at yourself and you're like, 'What?' You know. 'Why am I running towards the gunfire?' But then there are times where I just couldn't see myself doing anything else," Martin explained.
"Is it who you are?" she asked.
"I think so," Martin replied. "Just as much as people find their calling as artists or musicians or lawyers."
Unlike regular soldiers, these men are allowed to grow beards, a mark of respect amongst the locals. Their uniforms, without name tags or rank, tell you as little as possible about who they are. And they like it that way.
When they're not fighting, their focus is transforming foreign soldiers into a formidable fighting force.
The team's job is to leave Afghanistan with a corps of their own Special Operations Forces - the best of the best.
But the Green Berets are starting from zero: many of these Afghan soldiers can't even read or write. About 100 of them pass through the base every six weeks.
Much of their training comes not from drills but from the frontline. One such operation was an all-night raid into a village used as a base by Taliban fighters. And it went badly wrong - Martin has just been shot.
Two bullets from a machine gun ripped through his legs. But the worst part: he'd been hit by accident by one of the Afghan soldiers.
"I didn't realize at first. I thought we had stepped on a pressure plate," Martin told Logan.
A pressure plate is an IED. "I wasn't sure my leg was gonna be there when I looked down," he said.
Asked what happened, Martin explained "Well, you go to stand up, and it doesn't wanna move 'cause it's still in shock. Like it spasmed. And then you become aware of the burning sensations that's on the back of it."
"Is that burning sensation you described commonly known as pain?" Logan asked.
"Yeah. It's only pain when you acknowledge it. There's work that has to be done. You don't have the luxury of self pity," he replied.
Martin refused to take morphine so he could treat himself - he's a Special Forces medic, trained in advanced combat medicine.
He made it out and had surgery the next day. In less than 24 hours, Martin was back with his unit.
"Is it fair to say the last thing you expected was to get shot by one of your own guys, one of the Afghans that you'd been training?" Logan asked.
"That's fair, yeah," Martin said.
"We were very angry," another Green Beret named Bill added.
Bill is 29 years old and just became a father. He's one of the team's top snipers, and before enlisting, he managed a sales team at a marketing firm.
"You're angry at the individual because it's something that could've been prevented, you know. And then you're angry at yourself 'cause we're trainin' 'em. So, that means we failed at some point," Bill explained.
Asked if it's hard to go back with the same sense commitment and put that anger aside, Bill said, "At the end of the day our job is not to be angry at 'em. Our job's to make sure it never happens again and to get them ready to go back out in the fight."
But the very next time they went back into the fight it happened again. This time, another Afghan soldier shot himself in the foot.
Asked how he'd rate the Afghan commandos he's been working with, Martin told Logan, "On average, they're an organization that has a lot of potential."
"When I hear words like, 'potential' that's usually a giveaway. That's like they're a long way from where they need to be," Logan remarked.
"No. They train hard. They work well. There's large cultural differences that we struggle with, you know, in terms of developing training for the individuals." Martin said.
"They also shot you in the leg," Logan pointed out.
"Right," Martin replied with a chuckle. "Yeah."
After the two accidental shootings, the Green Berets had to go back to basics, retraining the Afghan soldiers on the fundamentals, like how to safely hold your gun and even how to load it.
When they struggled even with that, it was weapons down and back to boot camp.
These are supposed to be specialized soldiers. Formed from Afghanistan's regular army, they've already had three months of advanced training before arriving here.
The team is hard on the Afghans, and they have to be. The missions they go on are complicated and dangerous. The battles fought are mostly at night.
The commandos and Green Berets use beams of invisible light from lasers mounted on their rifles to pinpoint enemy positions in complete darkness.
That's an advantage on missions like one where they surprised a Taliban commander and his guards in the dead of night.
What you could hear in the darkness were American 40 mm rounds fired from AC-130 gunships flying overhead, slamming into Taliban targets as they tried to flee the attack.
When daylight came, they found Taliban casualties almost on top of their positions. One fighter was wounded, his loaded AK-47 assault rifle next to him. He died before he could be evacuated for treatment.
About an hour later, the Taliban who had fled their compound in the night, launched a counterattack.
"At that point, you're movin' all your security elements into positions where they can see and engage the enemy," Martin explained. "We become fighter/managers of personnel; of the Afghani commandos. We're making sure they're positively identifying targets."
In the exchange of fire, a rocket-propelled grenade almost hit Martin. And an Afghan soldier was shot.
"One of our commando machine gunners took a round through the throat, and he died instantly. I was pissed off. It's a really personal thing when another guy's tryin' to kill you," Bill said.
The Taliban continued their attack until U.S. F-16 jets were called in to silence them. We were later told nine Taliban fighters were killed, and the enemy commander had escaped.
The teams waited for darkness before moving out, the body of the Afghan soldier carried by his comrades.
The mission is so intense that even on down days, some soldiers train to relieve their stress. Brent, a soft spoken staff sergeant from Tennessee, took us with him to the shooting range.
Before he joined the military, Brent told Logan he was parking cars and looking for a job. With a laugh, he acknowledged his transition from parking attendant to Green Beret was "weird."
Brent makes it sound like it's easy to become a Green Beret, but the truth is there's nothing easy about it. It takes almost two years of intense training, where intellect counts as much as tactical skill and physical endurance. Brent is a serious soldier, who stresses restraint over force.
"It does take, you know, a mentally tough guy to be able to calm himself down and think within those split seconds, 'Do I shoot or not?' You shoot when you have a target in sight. You just don't pick up and shoot," he explained.
But it's not always that simple, as we found out when we were with Brent on a rare daylight operation to capture a senior Taliban commander.
To protect his team inside the village from attack, Brent's job was to stop anyone using the main road. He had just one Afghan soldier with him.
Brent was setting up a checkpoint when his demeanor suddenly changed. What you can't see is the truck of military-aged men fast approaching that Brent could see through the scope on his rifle.
"I grabbed my weapon and I lost the vehicle for, you know, probably another split second in the vegetation. By the time I saw it again, it was still movin' fast and it was about 50 meters from me," Brent recalled.
Brent fired two bullets that, he later told us, were warning shots. "There's a million things that were going through my head, you know just a million things. And each thought was, was it's a threat, it's a threat," he recalled.
He feared a Taliban attack or suicide bombing; then another problem: a motorcycle was coming up fast.
Here, motorbikes often carry enemy spotters and Brent was taking no chances.
From behind him, there was the sound of crying. Brent turned around, lowering his weapon as it dawned on him something terrible had happened.
In the back of the truck, two young boys sat moaning, blood seeping through their clothes. One, just 12 years old, was hit in the leg. The other, age 13, had taken a round to the chest.
Brent had hit the very people he was in Afghanistan to protect. He believes the shots ricocheted off the road.
"I really do not want to be involved with a kid's death. You can live with shooting guys that are shooting at you and them dying, but then there's a line where it's a kid you know, or it's an innocent person," Brent said.
The team's medics had to stop the 13-year-old's lungs collapsing from the air seeping into his chest cavity. The boys were quickly evacuated and even though both survived, the incident still weighed heavily on Brent.
"I never once aimed at those two kids. I wasn't even meaning to shoot anybody. I was meaning to stop the vehicle," he said.
This is exactly the kind of incident that wears out America's welcome in Afghanistan. But the Green Berets believe their Afghan partners are not yet ready to operate on their own, especially against an enemy that's stronger than ever.
"I absolutely believe we need to stay here and see it through," Bill said.
"What does seeing it through mean? I mean, what is the end state?" Logan asked.
"The end state is them saying, 'Ok, thanks. We don't need you anymore you know. We appreciate the help, but we've got it now," he replied.
Produced by Jeff Newton
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