While high-profile units like SEAL Team Six and Delta Force get most of the media attention, the number of specialized troops in the U.S. Army National Guard is quietly growing. As budgets tighten, these reserve commandos play an increasingly important role abroad and at home.
In October 2014, the Pentagon added its newest unit, Special Operations Detachment-X or SOD-X, to the roster. SOD-X is part of the North Carolina Army National Guard.
We also learned the unit is attached to the Pentagon's super-secret Joint Special Operations Command, according to documents we received through the Freedom of Information Act. JSOC is generally understood to carry out the riskiest missions — often in cooperation with the Central Intelligence Agency.
But SOD-X is just a tiny part of America's total commando force. Today, the Army National Guard owns two Special Forces groups, more than 10 separate detachments, and a specialized aviation battalion spread across more than a dozen states
"There is considerable demand on Special Operations Forces and you need to have increased capacity," says Rick Nelson, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Guard soldiers train to the same high standards as "active" members in other Special Forces units. But state governments help pay for training and equipment, taking some of the burden off the federal budget.
The Army Special Operations Command oversees the more than 20,000 Green Berets assigned to its seven total Special Forces groups.
"It is critically important that there isn't a line between regular and reserve Special Operations Forces," Nelson says. "I like to categorize them as always important."
The Pentagon seems to agree. The Guard's contributions help the military maintain its massive total roster of almost 70,000 special operators.
These forces now account for almost 2 percent of Washington's entire defense budget, Army Special Forces chief Gen. Joseph Votel said at a conference on Jan. 27. But the real number is likely much higher.
The huge demand is what helped drive the creation of SOD-X in October.
The official orders don't outline any specific mission for the North Carolina National Guard unit. But the 40-man element is also known as "SOD-JSOC," according to the detachment's organization chart.
The acronym refers to the Joint Special Operations Command, essentially confirming the unit is part of this secretive organization.
Navy SEALs underneath JSOC stormed Osama Bin Laden's compound in Pakistan in 2011. Four months later, the CIA together with JSOC killed radical cleric and American citizen Anwar Al Awlaki in Yemen.
The Guard's commando detachments are all paired with active-duty headquarters. SOD-X could help plan specific operations or provide extra manpower during a crisis.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, these elite state troops traveled to war zones and potential hot spots in central Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and the Pacific.
Members of the Guard's 19th and 20th Special Forces Groups trained soldiers and police in Iraq and Afghanistan. Smaller units like Rhode Island's Special Operations Detachment-Global helped troops in Djibouti, Kenya, and Yemen with their day-to-day affairs.
In 2011, the Taliban shot down a Chinook helicopter from the Colorado Army National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 135th Aviation Regiment as it carried dozens of commandos. The deadly incident highlighted that unit's official — but little-known — mission supporting specialized forces.
"Over the past 12 to 13 years … we've continued to prove that Guard teams are on par with our active-component counterparts," Army Maj. Joseph Bauldry, deputy chief of the National Guard Bureau's Special Operations Branch recently told a military reporter.
Besides soldiers, they might be doctors, lawyers, police officers, or other professionals with training the Army might not offer. "Guard soldiers are often more experienced than our active-component counterparts," Bauldry added.
It goes without saying that state governors are more than happy to call upon the Green Berets during natural disasters. The soldiers' medical and language training — as well as their ability to operate in remote areas — makes them highly valued.
Three years ago, the Guard's elite troops helped rescue civilians and distribute aid after Hurricane Isaac struck the southern United States. In 2008, commandos from West Virginia battled floods in Indiana.
"We had some guys who had some boat experience and we had a medic," Lt. Col. H.B. Gilliam — commander of the 2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group — told Army reporters.
But really, it's because Special Forces spend a lot of time training for this kind of work. These troops tend to move around in relatively small groups, and their job puts a lot of emphasis on planning and coordinating with the larger units around them.
In war zones, these are often indigenous troops who might throw down their weapons and flee if forced to fight on their own. But commandos make good leaders, and boost the morale of everyone else around them. They're "force multipliers," in military terms.
Back home during a natural disaster, these soldiers are adept at working around local law enforcement, aid agencies and volunteer organizations — without stepping on their toes.
Expect to see more of them the next time a nasty hurricane blows through.
From drones to AKs, high technology to low politics, War is Boring explores how and why we fight above, on, and below an angry world. Sign up for its daily email update here or subscribe to its RSS Feed here.