By Henry Cuningham

Deep in dangerous territory, small teams of highly skilled, rigorously selected U.S. warrior-diplomats work with local fighters in the indigenous language.

Special Forces, right? The Green Berets?

Not necessarily.

They might be critical skills operators from the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC).

When it comes to irregular warfare—the murky, messy small-scale skirmishing where the enemy often doesn’t wear uniforms or linger for large-scale battles—the soldiers in berets are being joined by Marines in the eight-pointed caps.

Since 9/11, with little fanfare, the Marine Corps has been building its own Special Operations Command with headquarters at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune at Jacksonville, North Carolina. Since 2006, the two-star command has gone from a fledgling outfit to a full-fledged organization.

So far, Marines account for only 5 percent of the military’s special operations pie, but they have died and been decorated for valor on par with the more established forces.

Though the new kid on the block, Marine special operations has powerful supporters, including Commandant General James Amos, who told the Corps to “embrace” its special operations forces. Admiral William H. McRaven, the Navy SEAL in charge of all U.S. military special operations forces—Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine and “joint,” the secretive multiservice strikers who hunt and kill the world’s toughest terrorists—is another.

“I consider myself your No.1 fan who isn’t wearing a globe and anchor,” the admiral said last August at Camp Lejeune as MARSOC changed commanders. “History aside, we SEALs have never been far from our brothers in the Corps, and that is the way we like it.”

Since 2006, the Marines have grown their special operations force to about 2,600 people. That’s about a tenth the size of Army special operations. The Marines go on missions worldwide, but in not as many places as the Army. The Army says it has more backed-up demand for its special operations forces than it can meet.

The Green Berets, known as the “quiet professionals,” have the 12-man A-team that works in austere environments, often far from normal military support systems, sometimes on top-secret missions. Their emerging maritime counterpart, known as the “silent warriors,” is the 14-man Marine Special Operations Team.

The list of capabilities that MARSOC advertises might have come straight off an Army Special Forces briefing slide: Helping friendly governments fight guerrillas, helping friendly guerrillas fight governments, conducting raids and strikes, chasing terrorists, speaking foreign languages, stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction and persuading foreigners to act, think and behave in accordance with U.S. objectives.

The Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command’s gleaming new two-star headquarters is on a remote corner of Camp Lejeune, the hub of the East Coast Marine force. It’s about a two-hour drive east of Fort Bragg, hub of Army and joint special operations forces.

Despite their proximity and similar missions, the Army and Marine special operations do not always come to the top of each other’s minds. More than one Army special ops general at Fort Bragg has said publicly that Special Forces are the U.S. military’s only experts on unconventional warfare—activities to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to fight a government or occupying power.

That’s not to say there is not cross-walking and mutual respect throughout special operations. The former MARSOC commander, Marine Major General Paul Lefebvre, has served with the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) at Fort Bragg. Lefebvre gave retired Army Major General Eldon Bargewell, a former Delta Force commander, the ultimate Devil Dog compliment by calling him the equivalent of Lieutenant General Chesty Puller, perhaps the Corps’ most legendary Marine.

The current MARSOC commander, Major General Mark A. “Droopy” Clark, a CH-53E helicopter pilot, worked with Air Force special operations. In his last job, he was McRaven’s chief of staff. He even did a stint in an air and naval gunfire liaison company with the 82nd Airborne Division.

Photo credit Marine Corps photo by Corporal Kyle McNally

A member of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command provides security at a landing zone in March 2012 in Nahr-e-Sarag district in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

Looking backward

When it comes to “small wars,” the Marines argue that they wrote the book. In fact, the Corps published a manual based on its experiences from the Philippines to the Caribbean.

“Irregular warfare is not a new concept to the United States Marine Corps,” a history paper says. Marines have been tangling with terrorists since President Thomas Jefferson sent them to Tripoli to face the Barbary Pirates.

When it comes to sorting out “firsts,” there’s probably enough work to keep platoons of military historians researching and arguing for years.

Army Special Forces trace their lineage to the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II clandestine service that spawned the CIA. Colonel Aaron Bank, an OSS veteran, is widely considered the father of Special Forces.

Not so fast, say the Marines. They point to Marines in the OSS such as Colonel William Alfred Eddy, who helped organize subversive fighters against the Germans during World War II in Spanish Morocco and played a role in founding the CIA. Colonel Peter J. Ortiz was dropped by parachute into occupied France during World War II and wore his Marine uniform on raids with the French Maquis.

In fact, Marines say Major General Merritt A. Edson’s 1st Marine Raider Battalion and Carlson’s 2nd Raider Battalion were the “first U.S. special operations forces to form and see combat in World War II.”

Sailing forward

In 1987, after considerable nudging by Congress, the military activated a four-star command to oversee special operations. General James J. Lindsay, former 18th Airborne Corps commander, was U.S. Special Operations Command’s first leader in Tampa, Florida. He was followed by four Army generals who commanded either 18th Airborne Corps or U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg.

In recent years, the sea services have surged. McRaven is the second consecutive Navy admiral in SOCOM’s top job. He was at Fort Bragg’s JSOC when he oversaw the raid to kill Osama bin Laden. The operation was code-named Neptune Spear, a reference to the trident worn by the SEALs.

Now the Marines are stepping into the fray in the “ungoverned spaces” and attempting to light the candle of governance, Lefebvre said.

“We operate in the heart of darkness,” said Lefebvre, the past commander of MARSOC. “We go to places that are very hard to get to, where the enemy feels safe, but they are not.”

Clark outlined his challenges in August as he was taking command of MARSOC. There’s the current fight to finish, global missions to be manned, families to be taken care of and resources to be used wisely.

“There’s going to be challenges ahead,” Clark said.

–Henry Cuningham is military editor of The Fayetteville Observer and contributing editor to Elite.

–This story reprinted with permission from Elite, North Carolina’s military lifestyle magazine. Find Elite online at

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