Monday, July 11, 2016
Lt. Gen. Sacolick, most recently the director for strategic operational planning at the National Counterterrorism Center, retired July 1, 2016. His last act in uniform was speaking to a Special Forces graduation in Fayetteville late last month. Now he and his wife, Joyce, have moved back to Fayetteville for a new chapter in their marriage. Sacolick plans to make up for more than two decades of constant deployments by staying in one place and working on the couple's dream home.
It's a marked change of pace for a man who, for the latter half of his career, has been focused on fighting terrorism across the globe. "I started as a private. I'm a three star general. I did something right. But I was a bad husband," Sacolick said.
Even before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Sacolick said he often was deployed nine months out of the year. After 9/11, he was gone for three of the first four years, serving in either Afghanistan or Iraq. "And she never wavered," he said of his wife. "She always adjusted so well. She's been through a lot. Now this is her time."
Passing the baton. In his speech to roughly 100 new Special Forces soldiers at the Crown Arena on June 23, Sacolick said the nation's counter-terrorism mission was now in their hands. He said they would be well-prepared and better positioned to make an impact in the fight than any other force in the world.
Sacolick would know. A Special Forces soldier for the last 30 years, Sacolick spent 15 years with 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, more commonly known as Delta Force, and that unit's higher headquarters, Joint Special Operations Command. He also served as deputy director for defense at the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center.
In his last assignment, at the National Counterterrorism Center, he helped craft the nation's strategy to combat the Islamic State and wrote several executive orders pertaining to terrorism on behalf of the president. Sacolick said the country is winning the fight against terrorism, but the retired general isn't without concern. He worries the nation - and specifically the military - could suffer from "special operations fatigue," and that the nation's elite forces could become the target in future budget cuts. The country can't accept that, he said. "I'm concerned that (the Department of Defense) doesn't embrace us like it should," Sacolick said. "I hope that's not the case."
The concern springs from a characterization of the threats facing the nation. To Sacolick, terrorism is the most significant threat. But military leaders more often place that threat below Russia, North Korea, China and Iran. "I look at the world through a counterterrorism lens," Sacolick said. And from that vantage point, he said he's less concerned about a North Korean nuclear attack and more worried about an "ISIL inspired knucklehead grabbing an AK-47 at Cross Creek Mall."
The FBI is "really good at keeping America safe at home," he said. But it's the role of special operations to combat terror where it grows, on every corner of the globe. "The threat is as complex and challenging as it's ever been," he said, citing a 10-fold increase in global terrorism in the last decade. "The sky is not falling, but I'm concerned," he said. "The world is more complex, more confrontational and more volatile than it's ever been. But that's the job of special operations - adapt and defeat."
'Accidental General'. Looking back on his career, Sacolick said he was proud of his efforts in helping the nation fight terrorism. But he said his most important responsibility in recent years has been building a new generation of leaders. "It's pretty rewarding," he said. "If there's a legacy, it's the people who worked for you, who you've influenced in some positive way."
Sacolick is quick to thank those who helped him, the former commanders, deputies and brothers in arms. But he'll also readily admit that luck helped propel him through the ranks. If he ever wrote a memoir, he said, it would likely be titled "The Accidental General." That's because there's one area of military service where Sacolick has a horrible record: getting the job he wanted. "Throughout my career, I never got the job I wanted," he said. "I always got a better job."
That luck began Dec. 8, 1980, the day a soaking wet Sacolick was sprinting from business to business in downtown San Francisco. Sacolick was in graduate school, studying to become an actuary. But the tall and lanky young man running through the downpour that day didn't feel good about that decision. "I was frustrated," he said. "I kind of kept waiting for something else."
He found that "something else'' as he ducked into buildings in a futile attempt to keep his suit from being soaked. In a recruiter's office, he came face-to-face with a poster of a soldier holding an alligator. "Go Ranger," the poster read. "I wasn't even sure what a Ranger was, but this San Francisco-based recruiter, whose annual quota was probably only one or two people a year, told me that the Rangers are stationed in Seattle, which sounded great," Sacolick said.
Until that point, Sacolick said he had never considered military service, but within a few months, he was a 25-year-old private in basic training. His first assignment came with the 2nd Ranger Battalion at Fort Lewis, Washington. There, he was selected to attend Officer Candidate School, and, once commissioned in 1982, moved to Italy to serve with the 509th Airborne Battalion Combat Team.
Sacolick's next assignment was the captain's career course, but the young officer was committed to leaving the service and returning to school. Instead, he met Fayetteville native Ed Reeder, another man destined to become an Army general. Sacolick may have been thinking of going back to school, but Reeder was dreaming of joining Special Forces.
Last year, Reeder retired as an Army major general, having most recently led NATO special operations in Afghanistan. But as a young officer, Reeder proved to be one of Special Forces' greatest recruiters as he convinced Sacolick to join him amid promises of language school, scuba school and action overseas. Soon, the two friends were serving together in South America with the 7th Special Forces Group.
Sacolick deployed with an Operational Detachment-Alpha, or A-team, to support counter narcotics missions in Peru, Colombia and El Salvador. But more importantly, he found what makes Special Forces so special. "There was not one special thing about us, but together as a 12-man team we did the most amazing things," Sacolick said.
Invasion changes plans. Sacolick was serving in Panama with 7th Group when his career was next shaped by happenstance. At the time, he wanted to join the Foreign Area Officer program, becoming a defense attache in Colombia and attending graduate school at UCLA en route.
In the days leading up to Operation Just Cause, he learned he was accepted into the program and mailed his acceptance letter and matriculation fee. But the American invasion of Panama would change those plans. "My battalion was already there," Sacolick said. "We weren't the invaders, we were kind of the invadees."
In the chaos, he said the Green Berets found themselves caught between opposing American forces, Army on one side and Marines on the other, who "fired up anything that moved." "It felt like all of Panama City was on fire - buildings were burning all over the place," he said.
Sacolick later realized that one of those buildings was the post office, which went up in smoke along with the paperwork for his new position. So instead of heading back to school, Sacolick moved back to Fort Bragg. He thought he would teach at the school where he would later command, the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. But that, too, wasn't meant to be.
Two nights after reporting to Fort Bragg, an officer Sacolick had never heard of called him with a job offer. The next day, Sacolick had a job interview in the officer's Fayetteville home. "I didn't know what I was interviewing for," he recalled. But within a week, Sacolick had joined what is arguably the most secretive organization in the Army.
Delta Force and Mogadishu. As assistant operations officer for Delta Force, Sacolick was the elite organization's most junior officer. But he wouldn't stay that way. Over 15 years, Sacolick rose through the ranks, eventually serving as the commanding officer and a task force commander leading the organization in Iraq.
In between, Sacolick deployed with the unit as part of Operation Desert Storm, where it was charged with hunting down Saddam Hussein's scud missiles, and to Somalia, where he helped plan the mission that led to the famed Battle of Mogadishu.
The events of that battle, depicted in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down," are now the stuff of Army legend. And on that Oct. 3, 1993, mission, Sacolick - who was promoted to major in Somalia - was to be the ground force commander. But days before the mission, Sacolick was called back to the United States. His father had died, Sacolick said. And it wouldn't be until days after the ill-fated mission that Sacolick would return to embrace his colleagues. "It was an exceptional group of people," Sacolick said. "I believe Delta enjoys such a great reputation because of its focus on character. It's not about shooting, it's all about building and maintaining good character."
In the 1990s, Delta Force underwent a transformation of sorts, Sacolick said, all aimed at preventing another "Black Hawk Down." The Battle of Mogadishu, "revolutionized how we did business," he said. Operators received better equipment, better body armor, and developed new tactics aimed at ensuring the force would never again be overwhelmed. "Something like that can destroy you," Sacolick said. "It made us better."
At the same time, the nation had an aversion to using the force after Somalia, he said. Leaders preferred to keep boots off the ground, relying instead on airstrikes. But if the Battle of Mogadishu helped propel special operations forward in the 1990s, it was the Sept. 11 attacks that has defined it ever since.
Sacolick was chief of current operations for Joint Special Operations Command when the attacks occurred. At the time, he was flying into Bosnia as part of a training exercise with other special operators. The men weren't sure at first if the news of the attack on the Twin Towers was part of the training scenario. The exercise was soon canceled, and Sacolick and his men waited for what would come next. "We all just sat there, kind of numb," he said. "We were all thinking worst case."
Afghanistan and terrorism. Like it did for many soldiers, Sept. 11 proved to be career defining for Sacolick. And it all started, Sacolick said, about a month after the attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington. "By mid-October, we were gone," Sacolick recalled. At first, the soldiers deployed to Qatar, he said. From there, they pushed into southern Afghanistan. At the time, no one was thinking the war in Afghanistan would become the nation's longest, or that special operations forces would carry so much of the load. "We had that mind-set that we'd go in, transition to conventional operations and pull out," Sacolick said.
That wasn't to be the case, but Sacolick did return home in January 2002, not of his own accord, but because of a battle with Hodgkin's disease. Before falling ill, he believed he would be the next Delta Force commander. The cancer could have derailed Sacolick's career. "I kind of thought that was it," he said. But instead of giving up, he fought. After surgery, Sacolick underwent seven months of chemotherapy.
Most of 2002 is a blur, he said, but by the end of it, Sacolick was again healthy and cleared by doctors to command a month before the Army was set to make its decision. In 2003, Sacolick was preparing to take command of Delta, but first had to report to the Army's War College. He planned to attend the year-long course before returning to Fort Bragg to assume command.
But as they often did in Sacolick's career, plans changed again. "It was a shock," he said. "I was there 10 days before I was called back to Fort Bragg." As Delta Force leaders were planning their part of the Iraq invasion, the then commander suffered an aneurysm, Sacolick said. Army leaders gave him 30 days to assume command and lead the organization into war. "It was like a whirlwind" he said. "I inherited an organization in combat. I moved back in and, a month later, I'm in Baghdad."
That was April 2003, Sacolick said. But it also would be the beginning of yet another transformation for the unit. Delta, and JSOC as a whole, perfected its mission in Iraq, Sacolick said, moving away from "tracking people by moving pins on a map," to using unmanned aerial vehicles, like the MQ-1 Predator, to help "find, fix and finish."
"I like to believe that the things (Joint Special Operations Command) does so well started right there," Sacolick said.
Article from The Fayetteville Observer