View Full Version : Marines are signing up for another special role

01-12-06, 06:53 AM
Marines are signing up for another special role
Corps becomes part of militarywide team
By Steve Liewer

January 12, 2006

A Camp Pendleton veteran is ready to lead the Marine Corps' inaugural band of "snake eaters."

Fresh from a tour there as deputy commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Brig. Gen. Dennis Hejlik is forming the Marine Corps' first-ever special forces command.

Hejlik was at the San Diego Convention Center yesterday to speak at the Naval Institute's West 2006 conference, which was expected to draw at least 10,000 visitors.

The Marines, who consider all in the Corps to be elite, long have resisted joining forces with commando teams such as the Navy SEALs and the Army's Green Berets.

But today, special forces get the first call in the fight against terrorists. They toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan and struck the first blows against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

"We're very much in the spotlight, and sexy," said retired Navy Capt. Roger Crossland, a 35-year SEAL veteran who joined Hejlik on yesterday's panel. "We're a hot item."

Without its own special operations teams – known throughout the military as snake eaters because of the tough conditions they encounter – the Marine Corps risked missing out on the Pentagon's Next Big Thing.

"We are a very conservative organization," said retired Gen. Joe Hoar of Del Mar, who served in the Marines from 1957 to 1994. "We're not prepared to make changes just because it's fashionable. But I think the time has come."

When the Marine Corps Special Operations Command unfurls its flag next month at Camp Lejeune, N.C., only Hejlik and a few staff members will wear the unit's patch. Hejlik expects to have two companies ready for combat by year's end.

"We're being pretty aggressive, pretty ambitious," he said of the command, which organizers plan to call MarSOC.

Within five years, Hejlik said, about 2,600 Marines will make up the special unit. About one-fourth of them will be based at Camp Pendleton.

MarSOC will include a special operations combat regiment, an intelligence and support unit, and a team to train foreign troops.

Unlike traditional units, which deploy en masse and rely on brute strength, special forces are small and stealthy. They typically work in teams of about 12, often behind enemy lines. They typically speak the local language.

The Marine Corps has begun recruiting throughout its ranks for the special command. Hejlik said the command will draw most of its enlisted troops from the ranks of sergeants, staff sergeants and gunnery sergeants and its officers from he ranks of captains and majors.

A 400-man unit for training foreign troops is on an even faster track. It was formed in October under the 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade at Camp Lejeune.

Its first members will complete training next week and transfer to Hejlik's command sometime this year, said MarSOC spokesman Maj. Cliff Gilmore.

Hoar said the Marines almost jumped into special forces ahead of the other services. Marine Gen. Victor Krulak pioneered the concept in the early 1960s, Hoar said, and wanted the Corps to take on the Pentagon's entire special operations mission.

Many people opposed it, fearing any change would fray the Marines' traditional ties to the Navy and cost them their elite status, Hoar said. When the Pentagon created the U.S. Special Operations Command in 1986, only the Marines stayed out.

Since becoming defense secretary in 2001, Donald Rumsfeld has made special forces a centerpiece of his crusade to transform the military. Rumsfeld insisted on their central role in the early stages of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In five years, the combined special forces have grown from 46,000 to 53,000 troops, and their budget has increased from $3.8 billion to $8 billion.

Rumsfeld's Nov. 1 announcement of MarSOC's creation followed long negotiations with the Marine Corps, which had been experimenting with small-scale special operations.

For example, it created a small special forces detachment at Camp Pendleton in 2003 that trained with Navy SEALS and deployed to Iraq the following year.

Hejlik doesn't believe the Marine Corps will be harmed by the change.

"This is a five-year stand-up," he said. "There should be no impact on our existing skill sets."

Hoar said there will be some pain, however, because special forces typically recruit some of the brightest officers and savviest sergeants.

"They're going to have to come from some place," he said. "The effects are not only the numbers, it's the kinds of people who will be pulled."

But that, he said, is worth the price to bring the Marine Corps into the modern age of warfare.

"We're going to add another dimension to the Special Operations force," Hoar said.

Steve Liewer: (619) 498-6632; steve.liewer@uniontrib.com