The Special Forces Selection and Assessment course puts a lot of science into identifying and promoting courage. Throughout the Special Forces Qualification Course and Robin Sage, courage, both physical and moral, is developed and tested. When a Green Beret deploys, the tests continue in the real world with lives at stake. Green Berets have a highly developed moral compass. They are internally validated and can be quite inflexible on matters of honor and the health of their teammates. This does not always bring them praise.
The Army loves courage. When they compiled the list of Army values, it made the top seven, along with loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, and integrity.
Personal courage: Face fear, danger or adversity (physical or moral). Personal courage has long been associated with our Army. With physical courage, it is a matter of enduring physical duress and at times risking personal safety. Facing moral fear or adversity may be a long, slow process of continuing forward on the right path, especially if taking those actions is not popular with others. You can build your personal courage by daily standing up for and acting upon the things that you know are honorable.”—U.S. Army core values
While the Army highly rewards physical courage, it is rather ambivalent about moral courage. In fact, unless your entire chain of command shares the same perspective, a brilliant display of moral courage is indistinguishable from insubordination. That is where Ron got into hot water.
In 2003, Ron Fry and his ODA were sent into the Pesh Valley in Afghanistan to build an A camp. The Pesh was considered hostile. The company commander, Kimbal Hewitt, didn’t want a hostile area in his sector. Every time the 10th Mountain Division went into the Pesh, there was a fight and a withdrawal. Green Berets, left to their own devices, don’t withdraw. Kimbal decided to convert the Pesh into a friendly area using America’s most powerful unconventional weapon—an ODA building an A camp.
This hadn’t been done since Vietnam, and the conventional chain of command probably wouldn’t have approved the concept if they had understood it. The commander of the 10th Mountain Division was a brand new one-star in a two-star command. To make matters worse, he was in command of Combined Joint Task Force-180, which put him in command of every American in-country, including the Special Forces. The general was a smart guy and politically connected, but he was more concerned with avoiding problems than winning victories. Risk aversion ran high.
Ron and his A-team (ODA) carefully selected a prime location and moved in amid little fanfare. They met with local leaders and invited each tribe to send men to form a security force that would be trained to protect the villages from outsiders. The leaders were also told that they had to vouch for the behavior of their men and would be held accountable for problems.
Initially, security was provided by the ODA and an attached platoon of Marine infantry. After a few weeks, the local security force was trained and assumed outer security. It was now impossible for anyone living within 20 miles to shoot at the camp and not risk hitting a cousin or nephew.
Using captured weapons and scrounged engineer equipment, an exterior wall of HESCO barricades and concertina went up. There were random probes and rockets, but the locals didn’t put any effort into hurting the camp. When there was a rocket launched, the free medical clinic the Green Berets ran for the locals was shut down. This put tremendous social pressure on anyone launching even the most ineffective attacks. The possibility of hitting the mosque across the street was another big deterrent. Security was not what got Ron in trouble.
The battalion chaplain was brought in to provide support. Inventing a completely new field of chaplain ministry, Eric Eliason visited every mosque in the area and offered assistance with repairs if the villagers did the work. Eric respectfully presented himself as a man of the book and imam to the Americans. He was key in recruiting the defense force imam who conducted prayer services in the A camp. Religion wasn’t what caused Ron problems.
One sunny spring day, Ron, his ODA, and a dozen local security men convoyed out to a nearby village for a meeting with the shura there. The meeting went well, but on the way back, an IED destroyed an armored M-114 HMMWV in the middle of the convoy. This is where things got sticky. Ron and the guys were okay except for some minor injuries, but they were stuck. They had functional vehicles on either side of the destroyed HMMWV, but the road had a cliff face above it and below it; there was no way to bypass the destroyed vehicle. There was not an option to separate into two groups and move out, because the only man in Afghanistan who could authorize the abandonment or destruction of a vehicle was the commander of Combined Joint Task Force-180.
The danger of this situation is not hypothetical. An IED-damaged vehicle started the chain of events which led to the death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman. Any time you are immobilized by enemy activity, it is reasonable to expect that they are watching and will continue to try to kill you with renewed energy.
There were hours of radio calls. Ron communicated indirectly with the commander of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF), who was powerless. He was a frocked lieutenant colonel who was afraid he would never see full colonel if mistakes were made under his watch. Amazing that in an Army with thousands of colonels and hundreds of generals, they couldn’t find a real two-star or a real colonel to run the war in Afghanistan.
While staff officers discussed the matter and calmly explained that the general had not yet made a decision, Ron was holding a perimeter and assessing his situation. His locals told him that the guys who planted the IED were watching, and it was certain that somebody was planning a night attack over tea. They were ready to fight, but suggested the time-honored method of avoiding an assault: Move off of the target before it occurs.
So, here we have the classic moral dilemma: Should one follow an administrative rule about equipment accountability for no gain (as the vehicle was already destroyed), or continue the mission and protect the men? Seems like a no-brainer that any new squad leader could figure out. While staff officers read their standard operating procedures and attempted to organize a CH-47 mission to salvage the hulk, Ron had to make a decision.
Ron had a couple of things going for him. First, his commanders had given him the authority to make decisions and told Ron that they would stand behind any decision made in good faith. Second, Ron was a National Guard officer and his team was a National Guard team. He had a life and a career outside the Army. The chain of command couldn’t hold him hostage with threats of bad efficiency ratings. All Ron had to worry about was the mission and the men. Army property accountability would take care of itself.
Ron knew something that would later become clear to the staff officers. There were actually two people in Afghanistan who could order a HMMWV destroyed: the commander of Combined Joint Task Force-180 and Ron Fry.
As darkness fell, Ron radioed in that he was moving. The demo man had blown the HMMWV into sections that the men handled over the cliff. This in itself was a mighty feat of engineering considering the small amount of C-4 available and the close proximity of all involved. Everyone was home safe before midnight.
When the commander of Combined Joint Task Force-180 was finally located and spoken to about the vehicle, he apparently expressed some mild displeasure that he had not been allowed to concur with the decision before the fact. To be fair to the general, he was probably in a teleconference with the president and the joint chief and was never made aware of the situation by his staff. The frocked CJSOTF commander, leaping to defend the general’s honor, announced the he would convene a courts marshal for Ron Fry, charging him with disobedience of a direct order.
The radio traffic was analyzed carefully for any hint of confusion about command guidance. There was none. The battalion and company commanders were absolved of responsibility and the outrage was focused on Ron. That’s when the CJSOTF got another lesson in moral courage. The battalion chain of command insisted upon inclusion in the courts martial due to a command environment which authorized and encouraged such decisions, valuing lives and mission above property accountability. Strangely, the courts martial idea died, but not the outrage.
The CJSOTF commander had another idea. If he couldn’t use the military justice system, he would use the property accountability system. Even though the regulations specifically forbid the punitive use of a report of survey, the CJSOTF decided to charge Ron for the cost of the destroyed vehicle. The staff went through the costs of the parts which could have been salvaged and came up with a $150,000 bill.
You can imagine the stress which came down on Ron and his family. The battalion was organizing fundraising to make sure Ron didn’t have to pay a dime. A few weeks later, Lara Logan and 60 Minutes dropped in and did a great story detailing the work Ron’s team was doing. The whole report of survey scheme fell apart and the CJSOTF commander had to look for other ways to punish Ron and the battalion. That is a story for another day.
It is easy to be brave when the sun is shining and your boss supports you. Moral courage is severely tested when you know the right thing to do, and you are ordered not to do it. Because of the principled leadership of men like Ron, the battalion completed a nine-month tour in Afghanistan without a single loss in combat. Eastern Afghanistan was a better place because of their efforts. Be courageous like Ron. When you know you are right, don’t hesitate to do the right thing. Even if you are punished, it will be glorious.
Featured image courtesy of staticflickr.com