Blue Light had been disbanded, and Delta Force continued to train to respond to terrorist threats around the globe. They would soon get their chance at real action. In November of 1979, Iranian students broke into the American embassy in Tehran and seized the Americans working there, kicking off a hostage crisis that lasted for 444 days. For Delta, the hostage situation would culminate in Operation Eagle Claw, another devastating growing pain for America’s counterterrorism efforts.
Back in 5th Special Forces Group, the members of Blue Light were a bit disappointed. Looking back on his experience in Blue Light, the unit’s sergeant major said, “It was fun, but frustrating to be told ‘we don’t need you anymore.'” However, Special Forces was not bowing out of counterterrorism completely. Out at Mott Lake, a new course run by 5th Special Forces Group was established—Special Operations Training (SOT)—which was not really a counterterrorism course, but an advanced weapons course. For a long time it was run by 5th Group, but it was later absorbed by the Special Forces school house, the JFK Special Warfare Center. Colonel Mountel “was trying to capture the application of precision force developed by Blue Light,” Roger said, which was based on lessons learned from the Son Tay raid.
Regional commanders expressed a desire for an in-extremis force that would be forward-deployed to respond to emergency situations. Det-A, a 10th Special Forces Group element, forward-deployed to Germany and was given a counterterrorism mission on top of their normal responsibilities: to conduct unconventional warfare behind enemy lines in the event that the Soviets came charging through the Fulda Gap and into Western Europe. Later, Charlie Company, 1st battalion, 7th Group, stationed in Panama, and 1st Group, stationed in Okinawa, also received the in-extremis mission. Today, each Special Forces Group has a company assigned to a direct-action mission called the Commanders In-extremis Force (CIF), which can conduct counterterrorism missions.
Colonel Charlie Beckwith and Colonel Bob Mountel might have been rivals while they were in the military, but both officers left a powerful legacy for today’s special operations soldiers, and gave America the beginnings of a very robust counterterrorism capability.
Over the years, terrorism has changed, and counterterrorism units have had to adapt. “Today, aircraft hostage situations are almost passe,” Roger said. “The West has gotten much better at countering them, and like any good guerrilla, as you and I are trained to be, you will change your tactics,” he said, referring to our Special Forces training. Marxism was beginning to fail in the 1980s, and by the early 1990s, the Marxist terrorist organizations eventually gave way to Islamists groups such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Jim, a former Delta Force squadron commander, has reservations:
The Western world had a thing about predicting future terrorist acts, a field where we seldom have success. The enemies have the advantage of time, many potential targets, and methods of attack. Some groups copy others, so past actions may reoccur in similar guises. For example, on one occasion, the Delta and 22 SAS commander said we should quit training for aircraft hijackings, as they did not expect any more—such techniques had gone by the wayside. Terrorists use terror as political theater and different terrorist groups are at different levels of maturity. However, terror organizations did not all emerge at the same time or under the same conditions. Different groups have different audiences, different goals, and are not at the same level of organizational maturity. Emerging groups may copy others and put their own twist to similar actions. Some recent aircraft hijackings were in Asia and were less sophisticated than those conducted in the Middle East in the ’70s. After a day of training, we used to sit around and have open discussion of techniques, equipment, and related matters. We also had a cold beer and surmised what the bad guys might do next. We developed tactics that might meet those threats and developed some plans that have never seen the light of day, matters of which we don’t discuss.”
Delta Force continued to evolve, developing not as an offshoot of British special operations, but as a distinctly American unit that had more in common with the OSS than the SAS. The British influence has always been there, though, largely due to Beckwith.
Beckwith believed in big-boy rules and individual self-discipline, something he picked up from his time with the SAS. “He learned a lot over there,” Jim said. “In the stockade, we trained a lot with live fire. Operators would go about their business in and out of the main building, walking around with loaded guns in their holsters all the time, in condition one. If you had an accidental discharge, you were out of the unit before the sun went down. You were gone.”
“We went by internal nicknames and call signs, not rank. However, even with the apparent lack of formal rank titles and common first names used between seniors and juniors in the operational elements, I never saw a breakdown in the internal discipline, because in Delta, it was there. Everyone had the freedom to offer opinions and bring up solutions to problems. Some major improvements came from the most junior personnel. They were hardcore professionals. They went through selection and this whole process to weed out those without the right stuff. We recruited from almost the entire Army with a few exceptions, so these volunteers brought in a lot of non-Special Forces skills. As far as I knew, in Blue Light, they all came from Special Forces,” Jim said, believing that the good-old-boy network is not a good enough selection process for that type of unit.
This was true and it wasn’t. A board is held at the end of Delta selection to make a final decision as to whether the candidate should be accepted into the unit. During Delta’s first few selection courses, Beckwith was known to blow off the recommendations of others, including the unit psychologist, Doc Turner, and take anyone who made it through and who was a Vietnam veteran. Beckwith had better methodology, but Mountel commanded the respect and loyalty of his men in a very different way.
Perhaps this was the biggest difference between the two, and why the issue remains an emotional one for many retired Green Berets to this day. Beckwith was a polarizing figure, but it took a hard charger to push the proposal and create a dedicated counterterrorism unit through the bureaucracy of a highly skeptical Pentagon. They called him Chargin’ Charlie for a reason. Drive and motivation were two traits that he was not lacking. “It took a person like Colonel Beckwith to get the unit off the ground,” Sergeant Major Vining said. “Of course he also made enemies.”
On October 22nd, 2015, Delta Force conducted a hostage-rescue mission in Hawija, Iraq, working alongside their host-nation counterparts, the Kurdish STG. The American and Kurdish soldiers assaulted an ISIS prison and recovered 70 Kurdish Peshmerga and civilian prisoners “who were soon to be summarily executed.” Tragically, a Delta operator named Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler was killed during the mission. This operation saw Delta performing exactly the the type of mission that Charlie Beckwith had envisioned, a surgical raid to rescue prisoners of war.
In 2016, 5th Special Forces Group reverted back to the same flash symbol worn on their green berets that their predecessors had worn during the Vietnam War. In the 1980s, when the Army wanted to distance itself from the Vietnam conflict, the flash was changed from a black field with yellow and red stripes, symbolizing the flag of the Republic of Vietnam, to a solid black flash. The yellow and red stripes signify the contribution to the war effort by 1st and 7th Groups, while the black field represents 5th Group, the colors arranged in a way to resemble the Vietnamese flag. Resurrecting the old flash shows that 5th Group has not forgotten its roots, and that today’s Special Forces soldiers stand on the shoulders of so many good men who served in Vietnam, especially the ones who gave it all.
Today, Blue Light lives on as a fond memory held by those who served in the unit, but its contribution to today’s counterterrorism forces has largely been forgotten and unrecorded aside from a few sentences in obscure books. America owes a debt of gratitude to the men of Blue Light; they were our first counterterrorism unit, and at the time, it was the only force trained, equipped, and on call to deal with terrorist threats to U.S. national interests and citizens. Blue Light showed us the way forward, a way to strike back against terrorism, and developed innovative tactics, techniques, and procedures that would prove vital to U.S. national security in the events that transpired after September 11th, 2001.
“You know what the worst-case scenario is?” Roger asked rhetorically. “It isn’t mission failure, as bad as that is. The worst thing would be if we were too chicken to even try.” Thanks to the foresight of Colonel Mountel and Colonel Beckwith, American citizens today know that their military stands behind them in their darkest hours, and that as a country, we won’t take any guff sitting down.
Beckwith, Charles. “Delta Force”
Burruss, L.H. “Mike Force”
Carpenter, Stephen. “Boots on the Ground”
King, John. “The Breeding of Contempt”
Lenahan, Rod. “Crippled Eagle”
Livingstone, Neil. “Inside the PLO”