The helicopter crash in the Gulf of Mexico presumed to have killed 11 servicemembers marks another dark chapter for a Marine special operations forces unit that is only nine years old.
Seven of those on board belonged to the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, or MARSOC, based at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina. MARSOC is the Marine component of U.S. Special Forces Command, which was created to bring together the highly specialized capabilities of each branch of the military.
Charles Neimeyer, director of Marine Corps history at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, said the nature of special operations means it's impossible for the public to know what its members do on a regular basis or to chronicle the successful missions they carry out. He said one thing is certain about the men and women serving there:
"In order to get into (MARSOC), you have to be at a high level of skill," he said. "It's a very competitive command."
MARSOC, which has more than 2,700 members, got off to a difficult start after opening in February 2006.Marines are used to running their own operations around the world, so being part of a larger organization and finding a consistent mission proved difficult at first.
"There was definitely some resistance to acceptance early on in the genesis of MARSOC," Maj. Gen. Joseph Osterman, MARSOC's commander, told the Marine Corps Times in January.
The unit quickly deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and almost immediately, MARSOC found itself in the middle of an international crisis.
On March 4, 2007, 30 members of MARSOC were traveling in a six-vehicle convoy along a crowded roadway in the eastern province of Nangarhar in Afghanistan. An explosives-rigged minivan crashed into the convoy, setting off a firefight that left 19 Afghan civilians dead and 50 wounded, an Army investigation reported.
The unit was soon pulled out of Afghanistan, starting a long legal battle for the men involved. Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission concluded that the Marines fired indiscriminately at pedestrians and people in cars, buses and taxis at six locations along a 10-mile stretch of road.
Retired Marine major Fred Galvin, who led the MARSOC unit, defended his men, telling a newspaper recently that they carefully targeted people attacking them.
"We did not kill people who were not shooting at us," Galvin told the Army Times. "It is critically important that people understand we used precision fires, restraint. We were aiming at, and we killed, individuals who were directly shooting at us. There was no fog of war. Marines did not snap. These Marines were highly trained ... and did their job exactly how it was supposed to be performed."
Back home, the Marine Corps convened a court of inquiry that spent more than three weeks investigating the shooting. The tribunal decided not to pursue charges against two men in the unit, finding that they "acted appropriately and in accordance with the rules of engagement and tactics, techniques and procedures in place at the time in response to a complex attack."
Despite having their names cleared, Galvin said the stigma remained.
"When I would move from one command to the next, I'd have Marines ask questions, which I couldn't believe they still had. 'How many civilians did you guys actually kill?' " Galvin said.
Even one of the court members lamented the treatment those Marines still face.
"The big injury to Fred and his men is moral," Steve Morgan, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and combat veteran who served as one of the three officers appointed to the court of inquiry, told the Army Times. "It's an injury to their souls."
The command recovered and has continued operating around the world. MARSOC has teams in Guam, Africa and the Middle East, helping to train local forces to carry out their own operations. Even though everybody assigned to MARSOC understands the risks associated with special operations, Tuesday's helicopter crash will still hurt.
"They understand what the risks are and what they train for," said Neimeyer of the Marine Corps University. "But obviously, it's a great amount of shock whenever anybody meets these unfortunate accidents."