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Outgoing USSOCOM senior enlisted adviser: Some things will never change

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Joe McFadden
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
Recalling the first time he operated a 30-pound radio and generator in the field, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Smith realized the most vital component of the device actually weighed the least.

Before microchips and digital bytes enhanced communication into its current form, the outcome of a mission actually hinged on a military radio operator's precise placement of tiny diode crystals.

"If they had 10 frequencies projected to be used during that time, I had 10 different crystals representing each frequency," Smith said. "After learning the frequency, I'd find that crystal, pull it out of the box and stick it inside my radio."

Fast forward more than three decades later, service members use more sophisticated radios covering even more frequencies, but also weigh considerably less.

"When you look at what they've got today, you're just like 'you've got to be kidding me?'" he said. "I think what makes our force as awesome today is the technology that we've been able to put into their hands. I think sometimes, how would the war have been different had the soldiers of Vietnam had the tools that we have today? It would have been a whole different world back then. Technology, beyond the shadow of a doubt, has changed our culture more than anything else."

Now as the senior enlisted adviser to the U.S. Special Operations Command, MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., Smith has witnessed many technological changes since entering active-duty service March 1, 1977. How special operations forces fight the wars of today, as well as the challenges of maintaining such a force for the future, were just some of the topics he discussed during his visit to Hurlburt Field, Sept. 15.

"The biggest challenge our force faces today is dealing with the operations tempo and the demands we've placed on them," Smith said. "It is a demanding world out there with the wars going on and the other global challenges we're dealing with. The pressure on the force has been tremendous."

Smith pointed out how certain stresses of the process, in combination with the number and durations of deployments, can also affect a servicemember's family life.

"In many cases, the spouses are our unsung heroes," he said. "Their husbands or wives are doing exactly what their nation needs them to do, and we thank them for all of the support they give their spouses."

Since 9/11, USSOCOM's manpower has nearly doubled to almost 60,000 personnel, its yearly budget has nearly tripled to more than $10 billion, and its overseas deployments have quadrupled.

"I think SOF (Special Operations Forces) has always been quite relevant and the last 10 years have really shown its ability to provide a pretty big bang for a small buck," he said. "We get an awful lot done with a very small amount of resources. But as far as the future goes, I think the demand upon SOF will continue to grow."

As the command's top enlisted leader since Jan. 23, 2006, Smith has given direct feedback regarding the force to three USSOCOM commanders. His insight has been sought on several key issues facing the SOF community, including those deployments as well as cultural training, education and quality of life for more than the last five years.

Earlier this year, Navy Adm. Eric Olson, then-commander of USSOCOM, suggested a potential way to reduce those stresses on SOF would include getting them "more time at home," an idea of which Smith expressed agreement.

"A deployment's got to be a deployment-- we can't get away from the actual mission components of what we do overseas," he said. "Where we can try to help out is some of the self-induced time away, such as some schools that may not really be necessary. Some of the things that we're looking at are how to better train in certain locations or minimize the amount of time you have to be away from home in order to train. We're trying to reduce those sorts of things, to better manage time away from home."

While on the subject of time, Navy Adm.William McRaven, USSOCOM commander, said during his confirmation hearings that such deployment tempos had an impact on SOF personnel attending cultural and language training.

"For SOF forces, it's absolutely imperative that we continue to maintain and better ourselves in our cultural and language abilities," Smith said. "For many SOF qualification courses, cultural and language training is embedded into it. We are a force that works and operates by, through and with, our partner nations out there. It is extremely important to understand and respect other cultures and to at least attempt to speak the language."

Just as he and his fellow senior NCOs have had to operate in a world much different from the one they first trained in, Smith first saw the need for a separate SOF senior enlisted academy to focus on irregular warfare nearly five years ago.

Today, the Joint Special Operations Forces Senior Enlisted Academy at MacDill Air Force Base educates SOF and selected conventional force senior enlisted personnel in mission-oriented leadership and critical thinking skills to prepare them to effectively advise, lead and mentor in the future operation environment (joint, combined, interagency) at the operational and strategic levels, according to the Joint Special Operations University website.

"I would say of my entire career and what was my biggest contribution, I would hope that it was to better educate our fellow senior enlisted warrior diplomats and having implemented that plan," Smith said.

While expressions like "tip of the spear" and "quiet professionals" may designate Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors and Marines as being one of USSOCOM's ranks, Smith said such terminologies have never meant as much to him as the actual qualities they display.

"To be SOF means to be competent, wise and understanding of the environment you're operating in," he said. "It means understanding who the enemy is and who the friendlies are. It means understanding the difference and balance between kinetic operations and non-kinetic operations. It means understanding what tools to apply to a situation to achieve the desired outcome. That's what distinguishes SOF from all the other forces."

As he prepares for his retirement from the Army, Smith also shared how he developed his leadership vision and managerial philosophy throughout the years.

"I think deep down in every operator's heart and memory is the time that he spent on a team," he said. "Those were probably some of the best of times, but I had to start moving through the ranks and leave that world behind. Then you start looking forward to other challenges and how you can best serve in the role."

But even as he retires, Smith remarked how some core values of the SOF and conventional military forces have always remained constant, despite the speed-of-light advances in technology.

"A lot of people talk about how we have the greatest force that we've ever had," Smith said. "I don't necessarily agree with that. Our force today is just as good as the men who have served before them. One thing that has absolutely not changed is the willingness of each generation in our country to stand up and meet the demands of securing our freedom and protecting our interests."