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Howard Altman: Army settles flap over who will wear the Green Beret

By Howard Altman
Former 5th Special Forces Group member Derek Gannon started an online petition protesting the use of green berets by a new Army unit. It quickly drew nearly 90,000 signatures and prompted a call from the Army's chief of staff. [Courtesy of Derek Gannon]

I have a hard time picturing Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, a no-nonsense guy with plenty on his plate, taking time out of his busy day sorting through color swatches.

But thanks to one of two recent victories in the battle for Army tradition, he’s doing just that.

The Army recently moved to reserve the Green Beret for Special Forces. And it’s brought back the once-controversial name of Psychological Operations, or PSYOPs, to designate units that use information to manipulate adversaries.

Milley’s date with cloth samples involves the former, thanks in no small measure to one of my ex-Green Beret buddies.

The beret dustup centers on a new unit, called the 1st Security Forces Assistance Brigade, one of six such brigades being created by the Army to help augment the role of Green Berets in advising and assisting foreign forces.

There is no flap over the unit itself, which everyone agrees is needed. But the matter of what they will wear on their heads exploded in controversy, according to military.com, after an image of an olive-greenish beret surfaced online indicating it would be worn by the 1st SFAB.

That image enraged the Green Beret community, because of the work it takes to become a member of Special Forces. And it led Gannon, a former member of the 5th Special Forces Group, to create a change.org petition that quickly drew nearly 90,000 signatures and prompted a phone call from Milley.

"I started it to bring to light the collective disapproval of what we clearly felt was a unit co-opting our heritage and lineage," Gannon told me. "I think the petition had a dramatic effect. It showed the command, active, and veteran community, what it is like to collectively meet in the middle and politically come together in a united front."

In the wake of Gannon’s petition, Milley reached out not just to him, but to the Army community writ large to explain that the Green Beret will be worn only by Special Forces.

Milley is awaiting swatches in varying shades of brown to consider for the SFAB beret, according to Military.com.

The other victory for tradition involves those who use information against adversaries.

In 2011, Adm. Eric Olson, then commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, directed that the term PSYOP be changed to military information-support operations, or MISO, according to the Army.

To the PSYOP community, MISO was soup at best, and a capitulation to critics at worst. But that recently changed back, sort of.

PSYOP now refers to the name of units and personnel while MISO refers to the function being performed, said Army Lt. Col. Robert Bockholt, an Army Special Operations Command spokesman. The name of the organizations are being changed to reflect the historical standard, Bockholt said.

That’s good news to retired Army Col. James Treadwell, 63, of Riverview, former commander of the 4th PSYOP Group and one of the Army’s leading practitioners of PSYOP, which uses leaflet drops, broadcasts and online communication, among other efforts, to present selected but truthful information to foreign audiences to bring about change.

"PSYOP is a more accurate description of the activity," he told me. "I fought the name change my last 10 years or so on active duty, primarily because I felt we would do more harm by changing the name than staying with one that some people felt threatening. Especially people in the Department of State. Military Information Support Operations is purposefully benign."

•••

The Pentagon last week announced today the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.

Sgt. First Class Stephen B. Cribben, 33, of Simi Valley, Calif., died Nov. 4 in Logar Province, Afghanistan, as a result of wounds sustained while engaged in combat operations. He was assigned to 2d Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, Fort Carson, Colorado. The incident is under investigation.

There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 45 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the followup, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan; 39 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the Islamic State; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism and four deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a name, officials will not divulge it.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.