Posing after the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan, members of Army Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha 555 were among the first American boots on the ground Oct. 19, 2001 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
I’m proud to present to SOFREP readers this special interview with Scott Zastrow about his experiences with ODA 555 during the initial invasion of Afghanistan. Scott was an 18D, Special Forces Medic, on his Special Forces team and was among the first boots on the ground in country on Oct. 19, 2001.
This will be the first of a two-part interview, and maybe I can twist Scott’s arm into having him come back again to tell us more of this incredible history of Green Beret’s waging Unconventional Warfare during the opening salvo of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Tell us about what prompted you to join the Army in the first place, and Special Forces in particular?
I was raised in the Midwest where there is a lot of Patriotism and American pride. My father and brother had both been in the Army, so it was an easy choice for me to make.
I went to Germany as a medic right out of basic and Advanced Individual Training, and luckily landed in a unit with a handful of guys I trained with. Like most young soldiers, we took to drinking, fighting and trying to find love in the local pubs.
We had this asshole platoon sergeant who was your standard E-6 with 24 years in, three ex-wives and a couple DUIs. He lived in the barracks with us and made our lives hell daily, but it turns out that’s exactly what we needed. I owe that crew a lot to the man I am now.
The first month I was there, I was supposed to cover a road march for one of the Scout Platoons and was told to link up with the PSG the day before. I asked him what they were carrying and where to meet and he said they were running 65lb rucks and were starting at 0500 at the motor pool.
There’s a book way and then there’s what works, and when Don Alexander or Terry Peters told you to do something because it worked, you did just that.So the next morning I showed up with my 65-pound ruck at the motor pool and jumped in with the platoon.
Halfway through the ruck, the platoon leader came up to me and asked me where my weapon was, and I told him I didn’t have one, that no one told me to get it.
Well, he flipped, he started screaming at me for being such a dumbass, and I felt like one.
Who doesn’t bring a weapon on a road march? I knew he was going to tell my PSG and I was going to get killed, great way to start my Army career. The platoon sergeant came over to help him scuff me up and he noticed who I was. “Sir, that’s our medic,” while I’m in the front leaning rest; under-ruck.
“Oh, sorry, Doc. Get up. Thought you were one of our guys. Normally the medic follows behind us in the ambulance, good for you for walking. Catch back up with the boys.”
As I ran back up to the platoon, all I could think about was why no one told me I could be driving behind them instead of walking with this ridiculous weight on my back for 12 miles.
Then the word got out there was this new high-speed medic in the unit and anytime someone went out dismounted, they requested me by name, not knowing I was just stupid, not hard.
We had an old 18D as our physician assistant in that unit and after hearing his stories and watching him do his job, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. He held us to a higher standard and that became our minimum standard, which was a great thing to learn at that young age.
A couple years into my career, I had this squad leader who had gone to SFAS and came back early. He was kind of an ass and belittled us all the time for being ‘cherry’ even though we could out PT him every morning. He was the spit and polish type but never did any work, whereas we were the rag-tag wash-and wear guys who were always doing the things that needed to get done ‘right now’ because they were important. But those guys got all the accolades for our work because they were the ones that looked good in a uniform, obviously because they were never in a situation they would get dirty. I found the whole thing completely ridiculous.
Seeing Sarajevo go from an Olympic city a few years before to this war-torn, almost post-apocalyptic wasteland was surreal, but very cool for a young SF guy.
One day while he was tearing into me, I responded with the only ammunition I had: I made fun of him for failing Selection. He took me right to the SF Recruiter the next day and I went to SFAS in the next class.
My whole goal was to make it one day longer than him just to prove a point. I really felt out of place because there were all these guys from the 82nd, 101st and Ranger battalions that were senior guys who had been around, and here I was this 21-year-old wise-ass who was there on a dare.
Of course, the hazing by the older guys only drove me to keep going every day, even though it was kicking my ass in. I knew nothing about tactics or patrolling and had a much more difficult time than I should have, but once again, was just too stupid to know any better.
I made it through selection and went off to the qualification, or “Q,” course a few months later. I went to the old 300 F-1 course at Fort Sam Houston, Texas and when I showed up, I was definitely not in Kansas anymore.
There were SF guys changing their MOS, Navy SEALs, RECON guys, and a bunch of Army guys that looked like giants to me. I again felt really out of place and to be honest, was just kind of biding my time waiting for them to tell me to leave because I was so young. But I passed all the tests, and went on to Fort Bragg, N.C.
It took about two years back then to finish the 18D program and language school and all I remember was I just wanted it to end. Graduating and ‘donning’ the Green Beret was more of a relief than a celebration, you felt like those old ladies falling over the finish line at the Iron Man; exhausted and waiting for someone to carry you away. It’s funny how there are these points in all our lives where the smallest decisions we made have affected our entire life outcome.
When I was in 5th Special Forces Group some of the older NCO’s told me about how before the Sept. 11 Attacks the Special Forces was basically fighting to prove their relevancy and right to exist. What was in like in 5th Group before the war began?
Well, you have to understand that if you ask this question to 10 different guys, you’ll get 10 different answers, all I can do is give my own personal perspective which I am sure will be different than other men who were working in 5th Group at the time. There is no real answer to this as it is directly proportional to how you felt about your life/job/team at the time.
There was kind of a hiatus in active roles for SF after Desert Storm, but there were still plenty of other trips besides combat ops to go around. Remember, SFs main job is training; We are the World’s teachers, so there will always be a demand for that skill set, even without an active war. There was a pretty good time lapse between Vietnam and Desert Storm, but all active groups were very busy, so much so they started third, so there was never a need to justify our existence.
I had friends on other teams that had horrible dynamics, and there would be in-fighting, nasty rumors, and just a negative vibe when you walked by their team rooms.
I looked at SF a lot differently than most people back then because of how young I was. When I went to selection, you had to be an E-5 to go, but for some reason, they opened it up to E-4 promotables for that year.
When the guy at the recruiter’s office asked me if I was promotable, I thought it meant was there anything making me non-promotable, like an Article 15, so I said of course I’m promotable, I’m an E-4. It was halfway through the Q course when they asked me when I went to the Board so they could pin E-5 on me and they freaked out when they found out I hadn’t even been to Primary Leadership Development Course yet.
So they sent me during the Q-Course and had a special E-5 board for me. I graduated PLDC and was in Basic Noncommissioned Officers Course the next Monday with the rest of my class. They could have booted me right there but I guess if they did that they would have to tell everyone they screwed up in the first place. They already had a lot invested in me so they just kind of brushed me under the rug.
So when I got to Group, I was a 23-year-old E-6 and the next youngest guy was 31. I was a ‘Cherry’ for seven years. I always felt like I had to prove myself at everything we did; every range, every PT session, every trip. I was in a state of constant competition for acceptance. Even after being there several years, I always had this fear in the back of my head they were going to come to me and say, “Look man, we made a mistake” and I would have just went “damn, they caught me.” And I would have left with no hard feelings.
But I ended up on the exact right Operational Detachment-Alpha with the exact right leadership for who I was. I was lucky enough to have been mentored by some of the great names in our community. They had just gotten back from Desert Storm and there were books written about the guys still walking the halls. I felt like the ball boy for the New York Yankees seeing these guys every day. And to have them teach you how to shoot, move and communicate was akin to having Brett Favre show you how to throw a football.
There’s a book way and then there’s what works, and when Don Alexander or Terry Peters told you to do something because it worked, you did just that.
But like I said, I was lucky. I had friends on other Teams that had horrible dynamics, and there would be in-fighting, nasty rumors, and just a negative vibe when you walked by their Team rooms. I saw whole Teams just split up/implode because of it; guys went to SWC, flight school, OCS, PA school, or just ETS because they didn’t like who they were working with/for or what they were doing. I thanked God every day that I got sent to that Team with those guys.
There was a lot of training missions going in the 90′s; FID, JTF-6 and JCETs, so I got my feet wet and did a lot of assisting and observing the first few years because I was so young. Then in late 1995, I got called in on a weekend and was told I was going on a real mission to Bosnia.
It was a 10th Group deal, but they had some Pakistani troops with the UN and wanted a couple 5th Group teams there and ours was chosen along with two others. I’m sure because of who our team sergeant and team leader were; I’d have picked us too.
The UN Peacekeepers were getting manhandled by the Serbs, Croats and Muslims in country and they wanted our help before Implemention Force took over and it became out of control.
We only went with a split Team; team sergent, warrant officer, and one of each MOS; 18B/18C/18D/18E. That was a great trip and was my first exposure to Air Force Combat Control Teams as we had one join us on the trip. He was about my age, so we kind of hung out and bunked together, I learned a lot from him about combat air space, shooting, commo stuff and most importantly, how to look cool doing it.
Seeing Sarajevo go from an Olympic city a few years before to this war-torn, almost post-apocalyptic wasteland was surreal, but very cool for a young SF guy. Lots of good stories were made on that trip as well, and each one added to my growth and maturity/confidence in my abilities. When we returned from that trip we were kind of looked at differently, or at least I felt like we were, because we had done something other than just training lately.
When you are doing so many different things, the time just shoots by you. Do a trip, come back, refit, prep for the next one. All of a sudden it’s eight years later and you have 25-plus trips under your belt and you’re just now starting to see some kind of pattern to how to do things the right way. Because each trip is something new, something different, somewhere different, you never have the chance to get complacent. You get more and more responsibility and take lead on different things and learn something new on each one. It is such an accelerated life-lesson lifestyle, you travel so much and meet so many people around the world, it gives you such great perspective on things. Having to replace a garbage disposal just doesn’t have the gravity anymore when you just came from a place that five-year-olds carry jugs of water on their backs for three miles every morning. There were also several humanitarian trips mixed in there, and it’s such an awesome sight to witness when you have the giants of your Team doing in essence charity Red Cross type stuff. So humbling.
Sorry for rambling there, I guess there is no right answer to that question, “what was it like back then?” I think I’ll go with the standard Noodles answer of “it was like warm apple pie.” Fun, really fucking fun.
Scott Zastrow with Nothern Alliance freedom fighter
ODA 555 is perhaps the most well known team in the SF community, why do you think this is?
OK, I don’t know why you would ask me that, and I’m pretty sure I just heard the ‘eye-roll’ of every SF guy reading this right now across the country. Thanks for setting me up there. [Sorry, had to ask. Everyone knows about you guys in Group! -Jack]
First, there is no ‘Triple Nickel’ anymore as most Groups have gone to a 4th Battalion and renamed the teams to accommodate. But having a name like ‘Triple Nickel’ just sounded a lot cooler than ‘Double Nickel Penny,’ ODA 551, my previous team.
The big thing is all the publicity we received upon our return from that particular Trip. The Air Force CCT guy that was with us became the poster child for Air Force SOF. He received a Silver Star and went on kind of a media tour. They did a story about him in the Air Force Times and put a picture on the cover of us standing on the steps of the American Embassy in Kabul. He also did interviews for other magazines like Soldier of Fortune, Time magazine, and a bunch of newspapers around the country.
We didn’t even know about them until someone said they saw a story about us on the History channel and Military Channel. Then a reporter named Dana Priest wrote some articles about us in the Washington Post that was turned into a book called “The Mission.”
Soon, there were a handful of different book that came out about the beginnings of the War that we were mentioned in like “Hunt for Bin Laden,” “Masters of Chaos,” “First In,” “Jawbreaker,” “Imperial Grunts,” among others. They were all interviews with other people and were somewhat accurate.
But you have to remember whenever things like that are written, it only shows the perspective of the writer and who they interviewed and it is human nature to say nice things about yourself. We read a few of them but would just shake our heads mostly on what was printed.
Then one morning I walked into the Team Room and there were a couple extra guys in there and we were told that we were going into isolation…To this day whenever someone cites an article in like the Times, I just shake my head.
Since when does a reporter saying something make it doctrine?
Its only just a perspective, and seeing how things get printed about something you did makes you realize what a feaux world the media really is, mostly speculative. Then Group started coming to us with media engagements. A couple guys did PBS Frontline, I did the MSNBC thing, they had a crew from CBS follow us around for a week, etc. We actually felt it was kind of an inconvenience because we had trips coming up that we were planning for and we were running a pre-scuba for the new members of the Team and really wanted to just be left alone at that point.
I think another one of the big reasons that mission became so well known, outside of the publicity, was the fact that three of us went on to be instructors at U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, or the USAJFKSWCS, either in the Q-course or SCUBA School. Because it was so soon after combat operations began in Afghanistan, very few SWCS instructors had combat experience at the time. So when I got there, they used me as a recruiting tool and had me brief the students on what we did on that mission. A few years of briefing several hundred students per class just made them more aware of who we were I guess.
It was funny to hear some stories about us get passed around as they got more elaborate the farther down the line they got. People would come up to me and ask me if I was on that team and if BLANK really happened and I would start laughing at the sheer ridiculous nature of it. But I didn’t want to dispel the myth either, let’s not be crazy.
What was it like for you on Sept. 11? What happened that day for you and what was the atmosphere like in the Team Room that day?
Well, I don’t want to give away the beginning of the book but again, all I can tell you is my personal perspective on it. I remember just feeling helpless, like I knew we were supposed to be doing something, but had no idea what. We were running a pre-scuba at the time and I remember coming in the next morning to run PT at 0500 and seeing all these units on post had concertina wire surrounding their parking lots blocking us from using the ropes and pull up bars. So of course we would run around it and use them anyway. They actually had privates with M-4s guarding empty parking lots because they just felt like that’s what they were supposed to do I guess. They would yell ‘halt’ and want to see our ID cards while we were yelling at the pre-scuba students. It didn’t go over so well when you have 25 SF guys getting smoked and then some private starts hassling them for an ID card while they’re in PT clothes. We couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. I guess every unit in the Army thought they should be doing something too, so everyone was on ‘High Alert’ and we are out doing PT and smoking guys in the pool like nothing happened. Fort Campbell, Ky., was already a closed post, so nothing really changed except it got a little slower coming through the gates.
We were on the schedule to go to Iris Gold in Kuwait that December, so we were told to continue to prep for that like nothing had happened. But we became very proactive about getting our crap together in case we got the call; we just used the Kuwait trip to defend our sense of urgency as we did inventories and packed tough boxes. We knew 5th Group would be involved but we had no idea how. We all knew that before anything happened, you need to know the Who, the Where, and you need money. Then one morning I walked into the Team Room and there were a couple extra guys in there and we were told that we were going into isolation. It was like being told your wife was pregnant: excitement, anxiety, a little fear. For me it was awesome, I think Steve got a hard on.
As you began the planning process to insert into Afghanistan, what was your understanding of your mission? What were you told about the enemy situation at this point?
It was all so very vague at first. We went into isolation and they gave us these JOG maps of the whole country. Everything was speculation at that point. There were rumors we were going to be at 15,000 feet in the middle of winter and they started giving us briefs on high altitude sickness and bringing us all this winter warfare stuff like snow shoes, North Face jackets, gloves, whites, and ski poles. I couldn’t help but laugh. We had been watching the Discovery channel stuff on Afghanistan and saw these Taliban and Northern Alliance guys with flip flops on their feet in the Shalwar Kameez outfits that looked like thin pajamas. No way are these guys operating at 15,000 feet in the snow. But hey, we’ll take the free stuff right?
We did know we were going to do Unconventional Warfare so there were certain things you can do to prepare even without specifics. But everything we were being given was so generalized to the country itself it was almost immaterial.
It would be like someone telling you that you were going to the United States to do UW. Where? Arizona? Oregon? New York City? South Florida? Rocky Mountains? Without specifics, you’re limited in your preparation, but only by certain gear. The fundamentals of training and fighting never changed, so we prepped for that knowing the rest would come eventually.
Then we received an actual mission statement and location which helped us focus our back brief but was pretty spot on to what we were already planning. It also gave us the ability to point and laugh at the weenies who were really off the mark with their speculation, which is always nice.
Believe it or not, the History Channel stuff on Afghanistan was very good and surprisingly accurate when we arrived in country. Having watched that stuff over and over was a tremendous asset to me personally; as far as medical preparation, knowing the terrain and what to expect culturally.
Part two of this interview can be read at SOFREP.com
Scott’s website is The Deguello, where you can learn more about ODA 555 and the novel he wrote based on his wartime experiences in OEF I.