Elite Md. National Guard unit teams up with NATO commandos

Special operations leaders with the Maryland Army National Guard are taking on a new mission: Helping to train and lead NATO commandos.

The 40 soldiers of the Towson-based Special Operations Detachment were assigned to work with NATO last year. The unit is composed of Guardsmen like Master Sgt. Ernest Wright, who has been in the Army for more than 25 years and earned a Bronze Star for battling the Taliban alongside Afghan militiamen.


"We understand what they do and how they do it," Wright said. "In many cases, we've done it firsthand."

Special operations encompasses a broad range of activities: targeted strikes on suspected terrorists in remote locations, calling in airstrikes, intelligence gathering, and training the armed forces of foreign countries.


At any time, U.S. special operations troops are deployed to dozens of countries around the world, often in secret. A few hundred are working with militias deep inside Syria to battle the self-declared Islamic State.

NATO, the 28-member military alliance of European and North American nations created after World War II to counter the Soviet Union, established a special operations headquarters in Brussels in 2010. Its use of the units is growing.

Austin Long, a professor at Columbia University who has studied NATO's special operations forces, says the understanding has grown since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that "special operations forces were just an increasingly important part of the military tool kit."

The war in Afghanistan drew commandos from across the alliance to fight the Taliban. Dakota Wood, a former Marine officer and special operations strategist, described the early days of the campaign as a kind of Olympic Games for NATO special operations forces, with troops from Britain, Germany and the United States conducting missions.

"You just had the best of the best," said Wood, now a researcher at the Heritage Foundation.

NATO's commandos could also be called on to counter Russian special operations troops — sometimes called Little Green Men — making incursions into Eastern Europe.

In some ways, Long said, that would be a return to the alliance's role during the Cold War, when commanders were concerned that Soviet forces would carry out raids in Europe.

"It was kind of envisioned then, and then went away," Long said. "But with growing Russian aggression, some of those old concerns are coming back to the fore."


Most NATO members have only small special operations teams. According to Wright, NATO leaders thought a unit such as the Maryland detachment could help fill gaps at the headquarters level.

Chief Warrant Officer John Olsh, a member of the Maryland detachment, said the unit is not like the commando teams of TV shows and movies, charging around the world with guns blazing.

"We're more the individuals who are doing the planning, the behind-the-scenes, making sure they have everything the need," he said.

The Maryland unit is one of 10 National Guard Special Operations Detachments, or SODs, around the country. Each is assigned to focus on a different region of the world.

The Maryland unit is known as SOD-O, for OTAN, the French acronym for NATO. (SOD-N was already taken, by the detachment that works with Northern Command, covering North America.)

The Maryland detachment has a mix of 20 officers and 20 noncommissioned officers. Half come from the Army Special Forces, the commando units also known as Green Berets. Members can operate as a whole, forming a ready-to-go headquarters to help plan and run operations, or individually, slotting into another organization.


The unit went to Afghanistan in 2013 to work with the Afghan military. It has not yet deployed with NATO.

SOD-O is now seeking new members. Olsh, who works in personnel, said the unit wants the best soldiers in their field and those who are able to take on leadership roles.

He said the culture of special operations differs from that of most Army units.

In other units, he said, rank wins the day. A sergeant wouldn't question a decision made by a lieutenant colonel.

"Here you'd have it, and [you would] be calling him by his first name, and it would be totally acceptable," he said.

As National Guardsmen, the soldiers bring expertise from full-time careers at the National Security Agency, the FBI and defense contractors. Olsh said officials at NATO have been particularly interested in that civilian experience.


"They weren't really interested in what our people did ... on the Army side because they can get that from the Army," he said. "They wanted to know what their civilian background was."

The process of assembling the detachment is a bit like the opening act of a heist movie — but instead of looking for a disguise whiz, a safecracker and a getaway driver, commanders want highly skilled intelligence officers, logistical planners and communications experts.

Wright said the detachment's soldiers are more flexible than on-screen crooks.

"Hollywood likes to boil things down to pigeonhole people to have these very tight specialties," he said. "We have people that are more broad.

"In my case, for 28 years I've been working toward this, so I've got a lot of experience. We can do a lot of different things."