Many books have been written and several movies made about America’s Green Berets, the Special Forces, but it is incredible how many stories about these warriors are obscure if not lost to history entirely. The history of Special Forces is in many ways a living history, and the only way to learn it, is to talk to the men directly involved. One such example comes in the form of what is believed to be the only joint US Special Forces-Russian Spetsnaz combat mission in history.
It happened in the winter and into the spring of 2001, months prior to the the events of September 11th, which of course changed the trajectory of US Special Operations Forces forever. This was a time in which the Green Berets were not as widely known by the public and not so often reported on by the press. Special Forces members deployed around the world training foreign militaries, and sometimes on more quiet, classified operations. However, combat was very rare for these troops. Technically, it was peacetime. But in the 1990’s, war had again visited Europe in the Balkans, and Special Forces were deployed to Bosnia and Kosovo.
Mark Giaconia was a Special Forces Weapons Sergeant (18B) assigned to a team in 10th Special Forces Group assigned to provide a liaison element to Russian forces patrolling a sector of the Serbian/Kosovar border. In his book, “One Green Beret” he recounts his experiences working with Spetsnaz, the Russian equivalent of the Green Berets or Navy SEALs. Having served through the 1990’s, this was the first experience many of them had ever had with combat.
One day a Russian soldier came running into their team house asking for assistance after one their troops had been shot and killed by an Albanian sniper. The Americans went out and helped their Russian partners by setting up a landing zone for a helicopter to come and evacuate the body of the now deceased soldier. It was the first combat death that Giaconia had ever seen.
“The dead Russian had been shot in the upper face and the exit wound was on the back of his head; I could tell because I saw a hair covered skull fragment swinging by the skin under his head,” Giaconia writes. The Russians were emotional over the loss of their friend and teammate, sometimes shouting at one another, and several openly wept as their comrade was taken away by the helicopter. The enemy sniper had belonged to a militant group present in the demilitarized zone between Kosovo and Serbia which was called the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medveda, and Bujanovac (UCPMB), taking its name from several local villages.
The US Special Forces Captain, Giaconia’s Team Leader, was fluent in Russian and a graduate of the Defense Language Institute, which was a great help in allowing the Green Berets to build rapport with the Russians. The Special Forces and Spetsnaz men got along well and found that they had much in common. At one point, the Russians invited their American counterparts to participate in a banya, a scalding hot steam room in which they would drink vodka and see who could withstand the intense heat the longest. Giaconia also recounts a surreal conversation he had with a Spetsnaz trooper over whether or not he really believed that Russia would ever launch nuclear weapons at America. Giaconia never really took that as a seriously possibility, but the Russian soldier said that during the Cold War he really believed that an American nuclear first strike could be imminent at any moment.
“The magnitude of the rapport we built with the Russians was incredible, we had open conversations like this all the time,” Giaconia recalls fondly in his memoirs.
A few days after the Russian soldier was killed by the UCPMB sniper, the Green Berets and Spetsnaz soldiers were conducting another joint border patrol on what can be described as muddy back country roads near the DMZ. The Russians came across a 25 year old Albanian on the side of the road who was dirty and wearing a green military web belt, which seemed especially odd as the patrol was really in the middle of nowhere at this point. The Russians took him back to their base with them. “Within an hour, the Russians and my Captain learned the exact location of a UCPMB base camp that the man reported had anywhere between 40 and 80 fighters operating out of it,” Giaconia writes. “My adrenaline surged when my Captain said it was ‘go time.'”
The Russian-American Special Operations team immediately decided to act on this intelligence to roll up the enemy base camp. Giaconia manned a MK19 automatic grenade launcher in the turret of one of the US Special Forces vehicles while the Russians drove their BTRs on the joint patrol as they headed for an area called Velja Glava, where the UCPMB camp was suspected to be.
The patrol crested a hill on a narrow dirt pathway as they drove through the dense pine forest and came across a gate with a sign posted next to it, giant red letters reading “STOP, UCPMB!” A young UCPMB member wearing a red beret and carrying an AK-47 stood nearby, his jaw dropping as he saw the joint Special Forces-Spetsnaz patrol. Two Green Berets apprehended the guard and the Spetsnaz soldiers quickly dismounted their armored vehicle and moved off to the left side of the road and began their assault, creeping through the forest.
From behind the MK19, Giaconia heard shouts in Albanian, then the pop-pop-pop of gunfire. It was his first firefight. Taking some close, but ineffective fire, Giaconia writes, “my whole body tensed and I clenched my teeth so hard I felt to roots poke into my jaw. I braced by body in anticipation as the fear of being shot swept over me.” The Green Beret’s fear quickly turned to anger as he recalled the dead Russian soldier from the day before, thought of his wife back home, and considered the safety of his teammates on the ground. He was taking fire and had to get into the fight.
“In slow motion, I felt the weight of the weapon’s bolt slide forward once I depressed the trigger far enough to cause its release. I heard the cannon roar and watched it belch fire. I felt the bolt rhythmically rock back and forth as it pulled round after belted round into the chamber and hurled them unmercifully down range into the trees,” Giaconia recalled as he mowed down the forest in front of him with a fully automatic stream of 40mm grenades. Less than a minute later, the Captain called for a cease fire. “The forest in front of me was smoking and branches were still falling off trees,” Giaconia wrote of the incident.
The Russians had assaulted the base camp, moving through tunnels of vegetation that had been cleverly carved out through the forest by the UCPMB to serve as natural camouflage. Because of the dense foliage, Giaconia had been concerned that he may have hit their own men in a case of friendly fire, but the Russians reported that his suppressive fire had been a huge help to them as they carried out the assault.
Spetsnaz had taken several Albanians prisoner and frog marched them towards their vehicle. As they passed Giaconia’s humvee, he looked at one of them. “At that tiny instant when our eyes met, he silently begged me to explain to him what the hell just happened, and why.” The Green Beret suddenly felt a sense of guilt. It turned out to be the very beginning of Giaconia trying to make sense of the many complicated emotions he came to feel during his war time experiences.
After the raid, the Americans would host the Russian troops at the bar in the basement of their team house for drinks and just a few weeks later, the UCPMB laid down their arms and surrendered. It was the first, but certainly not the last time Giaconia tasted combat. No one knew it back then, but 9/11 was right around the corner and before long Giaconia would find himself participating in a unconventional warfare mission with the CIA, infiltrating into Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion to fight Ansar al-Islam alongside the Kurds in what became known as Operation Viking Hammer.
But that as they say, is another story.
Mark Giaconia’s memoir, “One Green Beret” is available now.