As MARSOC enters its tenth year, the command has many reasons to celebrate.
Activated Feb. 24, 2006, Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command had modest origins, populated with two cannibalized Marine force reconnaissance companies and ambitions to grow to an end strength of 2,500, with 850 critical skills operators.
Today, the command stands at 2,742 strong, with a population of roughly 960 critical skills operators and special operations officers. It continued to grow as the larger Marine Corps shrank to meet post-war drawdown criteria and budget constraints.
And as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wound down, MARSOC found new mission sets that span the globe. With its three Marine special operations battalions aligned with key geographic combatant commands, MARSOC now has small teams scattered across the African continent training indigenous military forces, a permanent company-sized rotational presence in Guam, and a company that recently deployed to the Middle East for counterinsurgency training and other missions.
Perhaps most significant is the sense of acceptance and support for MARSOC and its role among its Marine Corps and U.S. Special Operations Command counterparts.
"There was definitely some resistance to acceptance early on in the genesis of MARSOC," said Maj. Gen. Joseph Osterman, MARSOC's commander, in a January interview with Marine Corps Times. "But I'll tell you right now, it is a credit to a lot of my predecessors that went through the growing phase, MARSOC is very well accepted by the Marine Corps and SOCOM."
MARSOC was created after years of planning and debate, some of it rooted in the Corps' deliberate decision to opt out of SOCOM when it was first created in 1986. The identity of Marines as an elite service unto itself ran deep, and the idea of a special operations command within the service met resistance from some. A request that MARSOC troops be allowed to call themselves Raiders in homage to the famed Marine Raiders of World War II was rebuffed for years because Marine officials believed their identity should be as Marines first and foremost. The name change was finally approved last year.
The first deployment of a MARSOC company into Afghanistan, in February 2007, would end in confusion and controversy, highlighting trust issues between MARSOC and its parent commands. A SOCOM Army two-star ordered the company out of theater a month later amid allegations that members of the unit had overreacted after their patrol was targeted by a suicide bomber. But claims the Marines were responsible for causing mass civilian casualties proved unfounded, and the two MARSOC officers whom the Marine Corps sought to hold accountable were ultimately cleared of wrongdoing. The episode would embitter some members of the company and haunt the command's early years.
"Our patrol encountered a coordinated, complex ambush initiated by a car bomb, combined with enemy direct fire from multiple positions," said retired Maj. Fred Galvin, who commanded that first MARSOC company. "We stopped, returned fire and killed all of the enemy personnel in the area. We did not at any time shoot any civilians. We immediately reported the full details to our entire chain of command. Commanders at the highest levels in SOCOM, MARSOC and Headquarters Marine Corps rapidly received, via the investigating officer and Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the unanimous testimonies from 100 percent of the Marine special operators, Navy corpsmen and the Afghan interpreter from our patrol confirming that no Afghan civilians were shot or killed during our counter-ambush assault."
Other developments that allowed MARSOC to retain personnel and build a career pipeline took a long time to arrive. The command didn't receive approval for the creation of a primary military occupational specialty for enlisted critical skills operators until 2011. A parallel MOS for special operations officers was approved in 2014.
"I'm glad to see that a lot of policies have now evolved and have settled down into being more aligned to how the rest of SOCOM behaves, but it could have been an easier journey and it wasn't," said Elliot Ackerman, a veteran MARSOC officer who joined the command in 2007 and deployed to Afghanistan as a team leader. "In the time that I was there, there were a lot of good guys who got out of the Marine Corps, left MARSOC, particularly officers ... I always said when they gave officers their own MOS, you would know that MARSOC had arrived."
The kinds of missions that MARSOC Marines were tasked with at the start – heavy on foreign internal defense, which included training Afghan National Army soldiers and commandos – became a key proving ground for the young command.
"We got stuck with the FID mission, which is basically the bottom of the totem pole [within SOCOM]," said Michael Golembesky, a former MARSOC joint terminal attack controller and author of the recently published memoir Level Zero Heroes. "MARSOC said, we'll take those, and we'll be stellar at them."
And excel they did. Osterman attributed the scores of combat valor medals troops at MARSOC have earned, including seven Navy Crosses and 19 Silver Stars, in part to the conditions under which they proved themselves.
"Working with the indigenous forces and low density of MARSOC personnel, it just naturally lends itself to some pretty extreme situations they have to contend with," he said. "Frankly, they're very professional folks. You put a talented person into a high-demand situation like that and the outcomes are pretty impressive. You get recognized like that."
Nick Koumalatsos, a prior reconnaissance Marine who served in MARSOC from 2007 to 2012, said it was the Marine ethos that helped MARSOC troops succeed in special operations.
"The Corps always said, 'you're a Marine first, you're a Marine first, but they took that to another level," he said. "Their ability to operate in a very dense environment and come out on top, to kind of be the new kid on the block and have all the cards stacked against them but come out triumphant. The young guys on the teams are the best out there."
A growing, changing force
MARSOC continues to grow, said Osterman, though he did not specify a new target end strength.
As missions become more diverse and specific to geographic regions, training is becoming more specialized and adaptable. Pre-deployment training can include collaboration with other SOF forces and with Marine Corps elements, particularly for aviation-based and heliborne exercises. Osterman said MARSOC has also partnered with local universities to enhance language training for regional missions.
"When we were very focused on Afghanistan, you had a very specific pre-deployment training program and a lot of it was force-fed. You kind of went through the pipe, came out the other end and you're ready to go," Osterman said. "Nowadays each [theater special operations commander] provides what they need for a mission set, what they see applying to MARSOC forces. And them basically battalions have to take that, translate that into a unit training plan for the six-month workup, and then deploy them forward."
MARSOC is also beginning to explore ways to act on the recommendation in Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford's planning guidance that Marines and SOF forces increase and enhance interoperability. Osterman said he expected MARSOC Marines to participate in more joint exercises this year, as they did in Bold Alligator in 2014. Plans to permanently attach SOF teams to Marine Expeditionary Units and the new Marine crisis response elements are also being weighed.
Ackerman, who recently published a novel about Afghanistan titled Green on Blue, said he saw increased interoperability between MARSOC and SOCOM, including opportunities for MARSOC troops to spend time in Joint Special Operations Command as a key to long-term success for the young unit.
"They need to encourage MARSOC operators to go up into the Tier 1 units for awhile, and maybe come back, and maybe not come back," he said. "But I think eventually you want MARSOC to be playing in that realm as well. And not as a supporting actor, but as a full partner."
As MARSOC develops and matures, Osterman said he saw the command remaining broadly capable, flexible and responsive to the needs of a relevant theater special operations commander, rather than finding a a narrow niche.
"Really it kind of falls in line with a little bit of an adage of, Marines are who we are, SOF is what we do. We never lose sight of the fact that we are Marines, we're part of the Marine Corps. And we bring a lot of the things that make Marines such great warriors into the SOF community, with the SOF mission sets that are associated with that," he said. " ... MARSOC gives [the TSOC] some very good options. It's not always the option of choice, but at least within the repertoire that he gets from all the services, we're not just providing another, same screwdriver, kind of thing."
Staff writer Andrew deGrandpre contributed to this report.