3 legendary leaders who made US special operations units the elite forces they are today


  • Many longtime leaders have helped shape and refine the United States Army Special Operations Forces.
  • The three below are among the most decorated and accomplished, and their ideas and actions have had a lasting impact on the units they have led.
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An unconventional visionary: Colonel Charles “Chargin ‘Charlie” Beckwith

Charlie Beckwith joined the Army in 1952, volunteering for the Special Forces a few years later.

In 1960, he deployed to Laos as part of a covert special operations program to harass the North Vietnamese. After this tour, Beckwith was an exchange officer with the British Special Air Service (SAS).

He was given command of an SAS troop (around 15 operators) and deployed to Malaysia, where the British were fighting a Communist insurgency. This deployment had a profound impact on “Charlie Blister”, as the British called it.

Le colonel Charles Beckwith au Vietnam.
The American army

At the time, British commandos were the pioneers of special operations, unconventional warfare, and counterterrorism doctrine. They had recently taken an “individualistic” approach to selection and assessment, examining a soldier’s ability to function and excel on his own.

Beckwith drew on the lessons of the SAS during its redeployment to Vietnam in the late 1960s, but by the 1970s international terrorism was becoming widespread. Beckwith saw the need for a unit with counterterrorism and hostage rescue capabilities.

After years of coaxing senior officers and navigating the military bureaucracy, Beckwith created the 1st Operational Special Forces-Delta Detachment, better known as the Delta Force.

The unit was part of the attempt to rescue American hostages in Tehran in 1980. The failure of the operation, and Beckwith’s recommendations thereafter, led to the creation of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

Colonel Charles Beckwith, who launched Delta Force.
Bettmann via Getty Images

Beckwith’s greatest achievement was Delta Force. His vision, supported by his buzzing energy, achieved what others could not.

“He dug the foundation, but also opened up the future,” a former Delta Force operator told Insider. “He knew he wouldn’t be here forever, so he had to recruit the best guys – the best NCOs and officers – who would protect his baby. And they did. Look at where the unit is today. ”

During his career, Beckwith received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for bravery under fire, and two Silver Stars. He retired in 1981 and died in 1994, but in 2001 he received the Bull Simons Lifetime Achievement Award, the highest honor awarded by Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

A Soldier’s Hell: Major General Eldon Bargewell

Bargewell i (US Army)
Liver. Gene. Eldon Bargewell
The American army

Bargewell enlisted in the Army in 1967 and went straight to Special Forces, aiming to serve in Vietnam.

He was posted to Military Assistance Command – Vietnam Studies and Operations Group (MACV-SOG), a covert special operations unit that conducted highly classified operations in Laos, Cambodia and northern Vietnam.

Bargewell conducted cross-border missions which collected valuable intelligence and brought him into close contact with the enemy. During one of these operations, a North Vietnamese soldier shot Bargewell in the chest as he cleared an NVA camp, but the bullet got stuck on his chest platform.

On another mission a few years later, he was shot in the face but continued to fight, allowing his team to escape, and was the last man to come out before the NVA overwhelmed the perimeter. . His actions earned him the Distinguished Service Cross.

“Eldon has always strived to learn,” John Stryker “Tilt” Meyer, a Green Beret legend who served alongside Bargewell at SOG and wrote about the unit’s daring operations, told Insider.

“He always wanted to work better, and he was relentless that way. His desire to learn never left him, not even when he became a general. He never changed in all his years. He was a hell of a soldier, ”Meyer said.

Bargewell II (John Stryker Meyer)
The SOG Recon team from Meyer Idaho to Da Nang in April 1969 after returning from the range. Bargewell was assigned to the same SOG base.
John Stryker Meyer

Bargewell was appointed an officer after Vietnam, and in 1981 he passed Delta’s arduous selection process and became an operator in the new unit. Bargewell continued to command at all levels in Delta.

“He always pushed his men to practice the basics,” Meyer added. “If there was an operational lull, Eldon filled it with training. He knew it would be helpful in the future. ”

And it did. In 1989, Bargewell ordered Operation Acid Gambit, the daring rescue of Kurt Muse, a CIA agent held captive by Panamanian forces in a heavily defended prison.

During extraction, the MH-6 Little Bird carrying Muse and some operators crashed near the prison, injuring several of them. Bargewell, then a lieutenant colonel, exposed himself to enemy fire to cover himself with a machine gun as his troops exited the damaged helicopter.

The operation was one of the Delta Force’s first successful hostage rescues and firmly established it as the best hostage rescue team in the U.S. military.

Bargewell then commanded Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) and held key positions within JSOC and SOCOM. When he retired in 2006, after nearly 40 years in uniform, he was one of the most decorated soldiers in the military.

Bargewell has spent most of his career in the Army’s special operations units, including Special Forces and Rangers, but he left his mark with Delta Force. In 2010, he received the Bull Simons Prize. Bargewell died in 2019.

The Networker: General Stanley McChrystal

général stanley mcchrystal
McChrystal on a helicopter in 2009.
Paula Bronstein / Getty

Stanley McChrystal was commissioned in the Army in 1976 and served in airborne units, Rangers, and Special Forces over a 34-year career.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, McChrystal was a rising star. He assumed command of the JSOC, which includes Delta Force and SEAL Team 6, and tackled the growing Islamist insurgency in Iraq.

With the motto “it takes a network to defeat a network,” McChrystal established liaisons everywhere from the CIA to conventional military units, placing the JSOC at the center of a network of units and agencies that shared intelligence as never before and acted quickly.

For example, a Delta Force troop hit a target early in the night, gathered intelligence, and carried out another raid immediately after, sometimes hitting three targets all over Iraq on the same night.

“We really turned it on with him,” a Delta Force operator told Insider. “The tempo was crazy, but we made it. We would do two [or] three shots a night for weeks. ”

As a result, the JSOC dismantled the insurgency and killed the main al-Qaeda man in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Stanley McChrystal Kandahar Afghanistan
McChrystal, then commander of ISAF, with senior officers at Forward Operating Base Walton, outside Kandahar, Afghanistan, October 7, 2009.
Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Skillful and delicate enough to navigate the bureaucracy, McChrystal was still a warrior at heart.

At a counterterrorism meeting in an East African country, the CIA station chief in attendance took a cavalier attitude towards McChrystal, who let him finish before saying, “Hey. look, if you ever talk to me this way again, I’ll come back to that office and beat the s – out of you, ”according to reporter Sean Naylor.

In 2009, McChrystal took command in Afghanistan, where he devised the counterinsurgency strategy. Following the lead of General David Petraeus in Iraq, McChrystal pleaded for an influx of troops to defeat the Taliban. Ultimately, he persuaded President Barack Obama and the Pentagon despite the political cost of sending tens of thousands of additional troops into what many saw as a forgotten war.

But that command, and McChrystal’s career, ended in a blemish after he and his aides were accused of disparaging the Obama administration in a Rolling Stone article.

McChrystal retired with the defeat of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the renovation of the JSOC as his greatest achievements and with “his assured place as one of America’s greatest warriors,” according to the former secretary at Defense Robert Gates.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a Special Operations Defense Journalist, Hellenic Army Veteran (National Service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ) and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.



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