Behind the scenes with the commander of Special Ops

Inside U.S. Special Operations
Inside U.S. Special Operations

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Story highlights

  • SOCOM was formed after U.S. troops failed to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980
  • Special Ops employs up-to-the-minute technology from advanced drones to high-tech night-vision devices to stealthy helicopters

Fort Bragg, North Carolina (CNN)Some days Special Operations missions in international hotspots end in success and accolades, as when SEAL Team Six took out Osama bin Laden. These are the missions that tend to be memorialized by Hollywood scriptwriters and shape the image of Special Ops forces in the minds of Americans.

But some days end in tragedy and frustration.
"The toughest day that I ever had was when we lost a helicopter with a (Navy) SEAL troop on it and a number of our Afghan partners," said Gen. Joe Votel, the four-star head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, referred to as SOCOM. "Thirty-seven total souls, and we lost them in one night of operation."
    The helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan in August 2011 as it was closing in on a target, a Taliban leader believed to be behind several attacks on Americans.
    "That was pretty devastating. It was devastating for me. It was devastating for, obviously, the units that were involved. And I think it was pretty significant for the nation," Votel said.
    Votel recalled that event in an exclusive interview with CNN in September, weeks before another devastating moment -- the deadly U.S. airstrike on a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, Saturday that killed more than 20 civilians, many of them medical personnel with Doctors Without Borders.
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    The attack, which the Pentagon said Monday was accidental and a result of a request by Afghans on the ground for air support after coming under attack, once again thrust Special Operations actions into the spotlight. Special Operations forces were operating in the area, and the plane that carried out the strike is believed to have been an Air Force Special Operations AC-130 gunship.
    Over the years, Special Ops missions in Afghanistan have used some of the most controversial strategies in the war there and provoked the ire of the local population. Saturday's incident has been greeted with international outrage and charges by Doctors Without Borders that the U.S. committed war crimes.

    SOCOM's creation

    SOCOM was itself formed after U.S. troops failed to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980, when the aircraft crashed and derailed the mission before it reached the hostages.
    "That is the seminal event that caused us to really focus on developing the capabilities, developing the organizations, developing the command control structure and developing an organization that was focused on conducting missions of great importance to our nation," Votel said. "We recognized that we could not allow ourselves, allow our country, to fall into that situation again."
    In the case of the 2011 helicopter downing, Votel noted that the response of the military provided encouragement at a very dark time.
    "Even in that situation, the thing I'm perhaps most proud of was how the organization responded to that," Votel said, recounting that conventional forces immediately rushed into the "IED-infested area" to recover the casualties.
    "We were able to bring all of them back out and bring them back to their families," he noted. "So even in those great moments of tragedy, I think the organization had strength, and we learned from that and we took solace in that, and I think we became even more committed to what we're doing."
    Today, Votel's main responsibility is overseeing the training and equipping of 69,000 troops, including the Green Berets, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs and a number of aviation units. More than 7,000 of these troops are deployed at any time in 80-plus countries worldwide. There, they often work on training local military forces and gathering intelligence through local contacts. One language some now learn: Russian, in anticipation of working and training with forces in Eastern Europe.
    Special Ops also employs up-to-the-minute technology, ranging from advanced drones to high-tech night-vision devices to stealthy helicopters, and are on track to have "iron man" comprehensive body armor suits in the coming years. All Special Operations forces must also get battlefield medical training so they can step in and help if a buddy is wounded.
    "The reality is a lot of training and rehearsing that goes into these operations," Votel noted.

    Covert operations

    Of SOCOM's many components, it's the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), pronounced "jay-sock," that has captured the worlds' attention. JSOC likes to stay out of the limelight -- its missions are classified, its units operate covertly. But its specialties are conducting raids to capture or kill the most dangerous terrorists around the world and rescuing American hostages anywhere they can.
    It's a military capability President Barack Obama has relied on in Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, to name a few hotspots. With no appetite for widespread ground combat, it's these highly specialized units that in many places are the leading edge of the U.S. military presence.
    Sometimes even JSOC's training and technology is not enough.
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    One of the most difficult raids, a 2014 attempt to rescue Americans being held by ISIS in Syria, failed; when U.S. troops arrived on the scene, they found the hostages, including journalist James Foley, had been moved a short time earlier. Another raid, to rescue American Luke Somers in Yemen in 2014, failed when he was killed as the Americans approached his location.
    But JSOC has also scored some of the military's most resounding achievements.
    JSOC is home to SEAL Team Six, known as the unit that killed Osama Bin Laden. Its real name: Naval Special Warfare Development Group. Also part of JSOC is the Army's Delta Force, which led the mission earlier this year into Syria on the compound of Abu Sayyaf, a top ISIS operative, who was killed in the raid.
    In all of these missions, focus and preparation are key.
    "What we are always trying to do is to minimize the risk to our force and to accomplishment of the missions, so training and rehearsing for these things is extraordinarily important for us," Votel said. "After we've gone through all the processes of briefing our leadership and gaining the appropriate approvals, then it's about precise execution. And an expectation that our people are going to do what they've been trained to do."
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