Up in the ranks: veteran of 26 years becomes top Special Forces enlisted
January 7, 2009
FORT BRAGG, N.C. (USASOC News Service, Jan. 6, 2009) - Some things will never change. Young boys watch as their older brothers march off to war. With admiration in their eyes, they want to be just like those Soldiers.
Such was the case in 1968, as then-four-year-old Mario Vigil saw his older brother leave for Vietnam with the 82nd Airborne Division. It was seeing his brother's act of service which guided him to enlist 14 years later, eventually leading him to become a command sergeant major in Special Forces.
Now Vigil, who serves as the command sergeant major for the U.S. Army Special Forces Command (Airborne), reflects back on the road which brought him to the pinnacle of the SF non-commissioned officer ladder.
Born in Morton, Texas, in 1964, Vigil was always interested in joining the Army. After hearing stories from his brother, who was the only member of his immediate family in the military, about jumping out of airplanes, he knew it was something he wanted to do.
So in June of 1982, at the age of 18 and only eight days after graduating high school, Vigil enlisted in the Army as a medical specialist. Following his brother's footsteps, he soon chose to join the airborne.
"When I went to AIT, I volunteered for airborne school, which I promised my mother I wouldn't do," Vigil said. "She said, 'Whatever you do, I don't want you jumping out of airplanes.'"
After completing airborne school, Vigil had hopes of going to Fort Bragg, N.C., and the 82nd Airborne, however, those plans didn't work out.
"I ended up going to Fort McClellan, Alabama," he said. "I was stationed at Noble Army Medical Center and worked there in the ambulance platoon."
Had he not been working at the hospital there, his life could have turned out quite differently, Vigil said.
"Actually, I did not intend to make the Army a career," he said. "My intent was to join for three years, get some money for college using the GI Bill and then go from there. As it turned out, once I was at my first duty station I came across some SF Soldiers coming through for training."
The Soldiers he met were doing on-the-job medical training while going through the Special Forces Qualification Course. Soon, Vigil would be in their shoes, training to become a Special Forces medical sergeant.
"That was the biggest influence on me, those guys taking a personal interest in seeing me go to the Q course," he said. "Honestly, I didn't think I had the right stuff to make it through the course, but I thought I would give it a shot."
Vigil put in his paperwork and arrived at Fort Bragg, N.C., in February 1984. When compared to today's course, he said the quality of Soldiers has only improved.
"I think we're a lot more professional now in the way we selection and train our Soldiers," he said. "Not that we weren't professional back then, but everything evolves."
One of the areas Vigil said his experience differed was in physical training.
"My experience was that from Day One until the end of the Q course you were always subject to a weeding-out process," he said. "When it came to PT it was pretty much up to the individual instructors to set their own standards."
As graduation day grew closer for Vigil, he learned he would be assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne).
"I'm a native Spanish speaker," Vigil said, "but I ended up in 5th Group. As a young specialist, that didn't make sense to me. But things work out for a reason."
After arriving at 5th SFG(A), he was sent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, Calif., to learn Arabic. He was also assigned to his first team, ODA 523, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion.
At only 21 years old, one of the youngest Soldiers in his unit, Vigil found a diverse mixture of experiences on his team. Several older, experienced NCOs, many of whom were Vietnam veterans, were teaching the younger guys on his team.
"I was one of four E-4s on the team, which you don't see now," he said. "We had a little more time to grow, plus we had those older, more experienced guys who took us under their wing."
Despite being a specialist on a team, Vigil said he did not feel it was a drawback. With more than three years in service at that point, and on his second enlistment, Vigil said the situation actually worked to his advantage.
"I don't think it put me at a disadvantage," he said. "There were not as many expectations. I'm not saying that in a bad way, but they just understood you were inexperienced. It let me mature, and not get thrown into things that were beyond my ability."
Being peacetime, overseas deployments were virtually non-existent for his team. However, he did participate in a training mission to Jordan once during his first couple of years with 5th SFG(A), he said.
"If you contrast that to what our guys are doing now, they are all over the world," he said. "It was a good time to come in. SF was just starting to take off again."
Vigil and his teammates finally had the opportunity to put their training to use when the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait in August 1990. By the end of the month, his team was loading up to head for Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield.
"We were working with the Saudi special forces doing border surveillance missions and making sure nothing was coming across from the Kuwait side," he said.
Vigil soon had his first real taste of combat during Operation Desert Storm.
"The actual mission we were tasked with during Desert Storm was a special reconnaissance mission where we infiltrated into Iraq," he said. "We watched a road network to determine if vehicles were moving down into or away from Kuwait. There were nine of us on the team, dismounted."
Compared to the amount of intelligence teams receive in the field today, Vigil said they received very little.
"We were given a grid coordinate on a map and some other vague intel, because we didn't have a lot of assets like we do now," he said. "Once we got on the ground, we found it was a lot different than what we expected."
While preparing for the mission, his team had planned to dig into hide sites once in Iraq.
"When we got in Iraq, the ground was too hard to dig in," he said. "We had to find a lay-up spot for the first night, so we found some irrigation ditches we could stretch camo nets over."
A huge lesson brought back from the mission was the difficultly of being dismounted in the desert.
"You can't move fast enough, and you can't carry enough water or food," he said. "We were supposed to be on the ground anywhere from seven to nine days, so we had to carry supplies for that amount of time."
Expecting a vast open desert with no people, Vigil said his biggest surprise was seeing so many Bedouin nomads. It was a group of those who would lead Vigil and his team into action.
"The second morning on the ground we were compromised by some Bedouins in the area," he said. "They stopped some Iraqi army vehicles that were now retreating out of Kuwait. They responded and we became involved in a fire fight for seven or eight hours before exfiltrating."
The team had intended to be picked up by elements of the 82nd Airborne Division coming into Iraq, though Vigil said the plan was a little shaky.
"We didn't know who's coming, what unit," he said. "I ended up taking an American flag with me. When American units were coming toward us, we were going to use it as a recognition signal. However, I didn't end up using that flag until later in Afghanistan."
After returning from their mission, Vigil and his team had expected to be sent out again, however, by that point the war was almost over.
"We went back into Kuwait City at the tail end just to do some security missions there, but it was very quick," he said. "I was surprised at the speed of how things happened."
After Desert Storm, 5th SFG(A) immediately began its mission in Kuwait. Over the next few years teams from his unit began missions all over the Middle East.
It was only a matter of time that Vigil found himself back in Saudi Arabia. He became team sergeant of ODA 535, which was tasked to teach light infantry tactics to the Saudi national guard.
After returning from Saudi Arabia, the officer-in-charge of the military training team put in a request specifically for Vigil to return for a year as an advisor.
"I resisted, to no avail," he said. "But, I ended up back over there in August of '97. I worked right outside of Medina, which is the second holiest city in Islam."
As a non-Muslim, Vigil wasn't allowed into the city. Instead, he lived on the outskirts of the city and advised a battalion stationed there. Since he was the only American advisor for the unit, Vigil said the opportunity allowed him to be immersed in the Arab culture unlike any other duty assignment.
"It was a good experience," he said. "I got to use my language capabilities again. Nobody likes leaving a team, but if you have to leave, that was a good duty to do."
After his time as an advisor, Vigil became a company sergeant major. His unit, Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, was scheduled to deploy to Kuwait for their 90-day rotation in October 2001.
"We were training up to do that mission when September 11th happened," he said. "A couple weeks later we found out we were deploying in support of Operation Enduring Freedom."
Heading into Uzbekistan, Vigil and his Soldiers became the spearhead for 5th SFG(A) in the region.
"It was an exciting time," he said. "You really felt like you were at the tip of the spear. Guys were going to go into Afghanistan doing unconventional warfare, things we only dreamed about a few years ago."
One of Vigil's first tasks was to set up an isolation facility, which would prepare to move teams into Afghanistan. Shortly afterward the decision was made to send in senior leadership to meet with Afghan warlords.
"I was there when the decision was made," he said. "They needed sergeants major to go in with the commanders. Since our battalion sergeant major was still back in the States, I was chosen to go in with our commander."
As one of the initial teams on the ground, Vigil arrived into Afghanistan early on the night of Nov. 2, 2001.
"We rode around on horseback and called in close air support in northern Afghanistan," he said. "I was there for the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, and for the big prisoner uprising in Qala-i-Jangi where Mike Spann was killed."
Vigil said he became a part of these events by being in the right place at the right time.
"I took the same flag into Afghanistan that I had in Iraq during the Gulf War," he said. "When Mike Spann was killed and we recovered his body, I had the only American flag there. So we used it to cover his remains. Almost two years later that flag made it back to me through some folks at the Central Intelligence Agency."
With seven deployments with 5th SFG(A) under his belt from Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom alone, Vigil said he considers himself lucky to have served with the unit.
"I was fortunate enough to be in 5th group at a time when it was pushed back into prominence," he said. "The group had done a lot during Vietnam and had a very rich legacy from that time."
Although he originally expected to be in 7th SFG(A), Vigil said he wouldn't trade the last 22 years for anything.
"I think my biggest accomplishment was just serving in 5th group, with a unit that has such a rich history," he said. "The group has really been able to do a lot of things in the fight. I got to serve with a lot of great folks. You look around now and a lot of our senior leaders all did 5th group time."
Vigil said moving from an operational unit to USASFC(A) has been a huge learning experience.
"It's a big change for me coming from a warfighting unit, but it's also educational," he said. "The Soldiers and civilians here do some much for the guys at the end of the spear, to resource our ODAs down there actually doing the fighting."
His position as the USASFC(A) command sergeant major has also given him more access to see what SF Soldiers do every day in more than 50 countries, he said.
"One-man elements, detachments, companies; they're getting the job done," he said. "We're the quiet professionals, but part of my job is getting the word out about our great Soldiers, and what they're doing for the fight and the stabilization of other countries. As you move up, you get a wider focus on what's going on across the regiment."
Vigil attributes much of the successful work ODAs are doing to the quality noncommissioned officers throughout the command.
"Contrast what we required them to do now to my experience as a young NCO and its worlds apart," he said.
The quality of SF Soldiers is directly related to the selection process, he said.
"We select the best, we train the best," he said. "[The Army] has the most professional NCO corps. That's one of the assets we have when we go to these other countries and help them stand up their armies. We hold our NCOs as role-models to what theirs should be."
Vigil said his best advice to continue building on the quality of SF Soldiers is for them to set goals.
"Ask yourself, 'Where do I want to be'' not just 20 years down the road, but a year from now, two years from now," he said. "Work towards that goal. If I didn't have people pushing me toward that goal, I may have not been able to achieve what I'm fortunate enough to have done."
Another piece of advice he had for younger Soldiers was to take advantage of educational opportunities.
"Take advantage of it because there's not a lot of time," he said. "With age comes experience. Sometimes it's your own personal experiences or seeing others do things. If I could do it all over again, I would take more advantage of the educational opportunities out there."
Vigil also said for SF Soldiers to prepare for continued increase in the force.
"No matter where the Army goes regarding force size, SF is going up," he said. "Our senior leaders realize the awesome force they have on the ground and what they can do with relatively small numbers. SF soldiers have proven their utility in the fight in the War on Terror."
With the increase in size of Special Forces, which will be adding a new battalion to each group over the next four years, will come an increase in demand, he said.
"Wherever you look, conventional commanders want more SF Soldiers," he said. "We will continue to professionalize the force even more. I don't see SF numbers or capabilities decreasing anytime soon. There's just too much demand for SF. If we sold stock, ours would be rising."
Not only will the Regiment see growth and increase in personnel, but also in the technology that is available to the Soldiers.
"What our guys operate with on the ground, from night vision to weaponry, are things I didn't even dream about," he said. "It was almost unheard of 20 years ago."
With SF stock on the rise, the only possible obstacle Vigil could see would be the availability of that equipment.
"I think that's where we lack, getting that equipment into the hands of the guys who need it," he said. "That's not an SF problem, but an industry problem, that is, building and producing in a large enough quantity for us."
That's not just for those wearing the green beret, he said.
"Our teams aren't doing it alone," he said. "You'll have a team on the ground with guys doing things they weren't MOS trained to do, like providing security. They're all operating together on the battlefield. We have to equip those Soldiers at the same level we're equipping our green berets."
Although keeping equipment flowing down to teams will be an issue for the whole command, Vigil said he had a responsibility which is more personal.
"My biggest challenge is portraying our force accurately; promoting our force," he said. "Our motto is the quiet professional, and it sometimes works against us. I need to get out there and tell the story about what our men and women are doing on the ground."
That currently proves to be one of his biggest challenges, he said.
"How do you roll up the accomplishments of all our folks into one story'" he said. "Every day our Soldiers are doing incredibly courageous things on the battlefield, and it's almost down-played because they're SF, just because that's what we expect of them."
One way Vigil plans to do this is by going out and meeting with Soldiers in each group.
"I look forward to settling into the job and getting out to see everybody," he said. "I haven't been able to travel much, but I want to see the groups. It will help me tell the story."