The 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) is one of the five active-duty Special Forces Groups (1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 10th) in the U.S. Army. The 3rd SFG is stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., and its area of responsibility includes the area of operations of AFRICOM as well as the Caribbean Basin.
All Special Forces groups have a plethora of mission sets. Some of these include but are not limited to Direct Action, Special Reconnaissance, Counter-terrorism, Counter-insurgency, Foreign Internal Defense, Unconventional Warfare, Security Force Assistance, Information Operations, and Peace Operations.
Special Forces Soldiers are renowned for their ability to deploy in small teams, operate independently, and conduct their mission in austere environments.
The First Period of the 3rd Special Forces Group
Like many special operations forces, the Special Forces trace their lineage back to WWII. Several units laid the framework for Special Forces, among them the Alamo Scouts, Philippine Guerrillas, 1st Special Service Force, and the Operational Group’s Jedburgh Teams within the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
The Special Forces, otherwise known as Green Berets, came into existence in June 1952. At first, they consisted of only the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne). Soon after, a portion of the 10th split and became the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne).
The Special Forces training school was known as the Psychological Warfare School, later becoming the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.
The 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) was first activated on December 5, 1963, at Fort Bragg, NC, and designated as a Special Action Force with the Middle East and Africa as an area orientation.
The members of the original 3rd SFG(A) were drawn from the existing Special Forces Groups with the exception of the 10th SFG (A).
In an acknowledgment of its origins, the beret flash colors of the 3rd SFG are yellow (1st SFG (A)), red (7th SFG (A)), black (5th SFG (A)), and white (Special Forces Training Group (A)). Likewise, the unit’s original motto was “From the Rest Comes the Best.”
The unit trained the armed forces of Mali, Iraq, Ethiopia, the Congo, and Jordan, in addition to supporting the Gemini 6 and 7 space launches in 1965.
During the war in Vietnam, the 3rd SFG also worked with and augmented the 5th SFG(A). During the early years of the war, SF A-Teams would deploy from all of the groups to Vietnam on TDY status. Afterward, the Army changed that and made it a permanent change of station and centralized all of the SF efforts under the 5th SFG.
In 1966, 3rd Group transferred assumed control of the 403rd Army Security Agency Special Operations Detachment and the 19th PSYOP Company over to 5th Group.
With the “Vietnamization” of the conflict, the 3rd SFG(A) was inactivated on December 10, 1969, and its members were transferred back to the other Special Forces Groups. One 3rd group officer who stayed in South Vietnam — Major George W. Petrie — was the first man on the ground in the Son Tay Raid on November 21, 1970, and later helped plan the Saigon evacuation on April 30, 1975, becoming the last SF soldier to leave the country.
The 3rd Special Forces Group Is Reborn
After nearly 21 years, the 3rd SFG (A) was re-activated at Ft. Bragg on July 1, 1990, with the majority of the troops comprising the group coming from the 5th SFG. The 2nd Battalion and the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd SFG were reactivated in 1991 and 1992, respectively.
3rd SFG’s new area of operation and responsibility initially consisted of the Caribbean and West Africa.
At the outbreak of the First Gulf War, the 3rd Group’s 1st Battalion was deployed to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, for three months. Its A-Teams carried out reconnaissance and sabotage missions into denied areas of Iraq and Kuwait.
In February 1991, the 3rd Group was tasked with securing and occupying the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City. The group also took part in the restoration of democracy in Haiti in 1994. During the late ’90s, the 3rd Group helped train forces in Senegal, Uganda, Malawi, Mali, Ethiopia, and Trinidad and Tobago, among others.
Global War on Terror
After the events of 9/11, like all other Special Forces groups, the 3rd SFG became heavily involved in combat operations in Afghanistan. The heroism of the 3rd SFG’s soldiers was exemplary.
In the single largest awarding of troops since Vietnam, Lieutenant General John Mullholland, who led the 5th SFG’s initial deployment into Afghanistan in 2001 and was the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), said of the troops,
“As we have listened to these incredible tales, I am truly at a loss for words to do justice to what we have heard here, where do we get such men? … There is no finer fighting man on the face of the earth than the American soldier. And there is no finer American soldier than our Green Berets. If you saw what you heard today in a movie, you would shake your head and say, ‘That didn’t happen.’ But it does, every day.”
Staff Sergeant Robert Miller – Medal of Honor
On January 24, 2008, ODA-3312 was tasked with a combat reconnaissance mission designed to root out insurgent safe havens located in the ridges of the Chen Khar Valley in Afghanistan.
After finding an insurgent base empty, the SF team learned that a large group of insurgents was massing on a slope beyond the nearby river and preparing to ambush the combined SF and Afghan troops.
Miller fired on the insurgents with an Mk-19 grenade launcher until it broke down. Miller then grabbed a machine gun and immediately put down suppressive fire. When the firing ceased, Miller’s team leader, Major Robert Cusick, ordered Miller to take the point of a patrol up to do a battle damage assessment. Miller, Cusick, six other Green Berets, and a team of 15 Afghan soldiers crossed the river and climbed up the valley.
Miller moved forward with an M249 SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon) when an insurgent, breaking free from some rocks rushed Miller. It was at this point that the valley came alive with over 200 insurgents pouring fire down on the exposed team. Major Cusick later compared it to being in the middle of a July 4 fireworks display. Miller killed the insurgent with his SAW and immediately laid down suppressive fire for the remainder of the team.
Cusick was seriously wounded with a gunshot to the collarbone area. Miller was hit in the torso but was able to spin around and kill another insurgent. But then he did what no one, American or insurgent, expected. He attacked.
Moving forward, he singlehandedly took on the enemy force with his SAW, which was highly visible due to the flash of the muzzle. Thus, it attracted an enormous amount of insurgent fire, so heavy, that the Americans reported that although he was close, Miller was impossible to reach.
Miller kept up the fire and moved on insurgent positions, eliminating them one at a time with a mixture of SAW fire and hand grenades. It wasn’t until his ammunition and grenades were expended that he was killed by rifle fire.
In October 2010, President Obama presented the Medal of Honor to Miller’s parents.
Staff Sergeant Ronald Shurer – Medal of Honor
Shurer was assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group and ODA 3336. In 2008, the unit was tasked with capturing a high-value target who was a part of the Hezebela Islami Gulbadin insurgent group. The mission took place in the remote Shok Valley in the Nuristan province of Afghanistan.
The team of Green Berets and Afghan commandos was whisked to the snow-covered ground along a frozen river next to a nearly vertical 60-foot cliff that they would have to climb. Then, through their imagery, the number of enemy troops in the area suddenly became much clearer.
In an interview with the media, LTC Kyle Walton, who was in command of the ODA, said the troops saw that “There were hundreds and hundreds of more compounds than we were able to see from our imagery.”
His unit came under machine gun, sniper, and rocket-propelled grenade fire as they made their way through the valley. Another element of the team, trying to maneuver toward the target from a different location, also came under fire and was pinned down. Several of the troops were critically wounded.
Shurer, disregarding his own safety, charged up the mountain while under heavy fire. It took him an hour to reach the element of four critically wounded Americans and 10 wounded Afghan commandos. He returned fire killing several insurgents along the way.
Once he arrived at the wounded troops’ position, he stabilized four of them while being wounded in the arm and taking a bullet in his helmet.
“It felt like I’d been hit in the head with a baseball bat,” Shurer said later in an interview.
Shurer then aided a man who had lost a leg and continued to treat the wounded, while still fighting off the insurgents for several hours. He then aided in lowering three wounded men down a near-vertical 60-foot cliff while under fire.
Shurer’s actions saved the lives of every man who was wounded on that day.
For his actions, Shurer was initially awarded the Silver Star. However, in 2016, the Pentagon conducted a review of all medals awarded for valor since the 9/11 terror attacks. Shurer’s award was then upgraded to the Medal of Honor. He received the award from President Donald Trump on October 1, 2018, in a ceremony at the White House.
“For more than six hours, Ron bravely faced down the enemy,” President Trump said at the award ceremony. “Not a single American died in that brutal battle, thanks in great measure to Ron’s heroic actions.”
Shurer left the Army in 2009. He joined the Phoenix office of the U.S. Secret Service. He was selected for the agency’s Counter Assault Team and assigned to its Special Operations Division in Washington, DC. Sadly, Shurer died of lung cancer in 2020, leaving behind a wife and two young sons.
Sergeant Matthew O. Williams – Medal of Honor
Williams was a Special Forces Weapons Sergeant (18B) with ODA-3336, Special Operations Task Force 11, Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan. On April 6, 2008, the ODA was on a mission to capture or kill high-value targets of the Hezeb Islami al Gulbadin in Shok Valley, Nuristan Province, Afghanistan.
Williams was part of an assault element consisting of several American SF and a larger Afghan commando force. The element was inserted by helicopter into a location in Nuristan Province. As they were moving up a mountain toward their objective, they were engaged by intense enemy machine gun, sniper, and rocket-propelled grenade fire.
The lead portion of the assault element, which included the ground commander, sustained several casualties and was pinned down on the mountainside. Meanwhile, Williams and the trailing portion of the assault element were forced to take cover as they began to also receive intense enemy fire. Insurgent fighters had the entire assault element pinned down.
“It was kind of quiet, then all of a sudden everything exploded all at once – machine gun fire, some RPGs started going off. [The insurgents] had some pretty good shooters and a lot of people up there waiting for us,” Williams said.
The Army’s narrative of the operation highlights Williams’s bravery on that day.
“After learning that the command element had received numerous casualties, he gathered the Afghan commandos around him while braving intense enemy fire and led a counterattack across a 100-meter long valley of ice-covered boulders and a fast-moving, ice-cold, waist-deep river.
After leading his commandos up the mountainside to the besieged element, Williams arrayed his Afghan commandos to provide suppressive fire to keep the insurgents from overrunning the position.
As Williams worked to defend his position, his team sergeant, Master Sgt. Scott Ford, was hit by a sniper round. Once again, Williams braved intense enemy fire to provide Ford first aid and moved him down the sheer mountainside to the casualty collection point.
Then, knowing the commandos and his fellow Soldiers were still in danger, Williams fought and climbed his way back up the mountainside, under enemy fire, to help defend the lead assault element, which still had several serious casualties to evacuate.
Upon reaching the lead element, he provided suppressing fire, killing several insurgents, before once again exposing himself to enemy fire in order to move to the element’s satellite radio and re-establish their communications capability. Williams then continued to expose himself to enemy fire as he assisted in moving the wounded down the mountainside to the casualty collection point.
After Williams reached the casualty collection point with three wounded Soldiers, enemy fighters began maneuvering to overrun their position, putting the lives of the wounded and those caring for them at risk.
Realizing the danger to the wounded, Williams again led the Afghan commandos in a counterattack and fought for several hours against the insurgents, keeping them at bay until helicopters arrived to evacuate the wounded.
Again and again, as the wounded were being evacuated, Williams exposed himself to enemy fire while carrying and loading casualties onto the helicopters. He then continued to suppress numerous insurgent positions by directing commando fires, which allowed the patrol to evacuate the wounded and the dead without further casualties.”
“That day was one of the worst predicaments of my life at that point, the experience from that has helped me through my whole entire career. Remain level-headed and focus on what needs to happen as opposed to what is happening,” Williams said.
Williams’s Silver Star was upgraded to the Medal of Honor and on October 30, 2019. It was presented to him in the White House by President Trump.
In addition to the awards listed above, CW2 Jason Myers and SSG Corey Calkins of the 3rd SFG were awarded the Distinguished Cross, the nation’s second-highest honor for valor.
During the Global War on Terror (GWOT), 3rd Special Forces Group troops have been awarded 56 Silver Stars, 183 Bronze Stars with Valor Device, and 239 Army Commendations with Valor Device.
In October 2017, a combined Special Forces A-Team (ODA-3212) from the 3rd Special Forces Group and Nigerien forces were ambushed by a numerically vastly superior insurgent force outside of Tongo Tongo, Niger. The ambush resulted in the deaths of four American Special Forces troops.
The Army, AFRICOM, and senior leadership tried to paint the picture that the ODA had “gone rogue” by submitting a false Concept of Operation (CONOP) to headquarters.
Nothing was further from the truth as the A-Team leader had several times requested that the mission be canceled as the team had no support element and was working on intelligence that had a two-hour window while the mission would be conducted over two days. But he was ordered to continue.
It wasn’t until Michelle Black, the widow of SSG Bryan Black, one of the four men killed in the ambush, conducted an investigation of her own that the entire story was uncovered. Her book Sacrifice, A Gold Star Widow’s Fight for the Truth recounts her pursuit of truth and closure.