In late August, Command Sergeant Major Lyle H. Marsh, the senior enlisted leader of Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA), retired from the Army after 35 years in service. His career offers the opportunity to reflect on some key moments in Special Operations history but also to appraise the current situation in Africa.
CSM Marsh began his Special Forces career in the 5th Special Forces Group, also known as the “Legion.” The 5th SFG has been one of the most active Special Forces units in the past 30 years, mainly because of its area of operations, which is the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and Central Asia.
While serving at the “Legion,” CSM Marsh deployed to Somalia around the timeframe of the Battle of Mogadishu, then to Afghanistan during the initial unconventional campaign that overthrew the Taliban, and also to Iraq during the invasion in 2003. He went on to complete numerous rotations to Afghanistan and Iraq in the following years.
CSM Marsh’s career is motivating and could serve as a guide to all young troops. When he first enlisted in the Army, he wasn’t planning to spend half a lifetime in uniform. Indeed, neither did his superiors predict it. His first company commander thought he wouldn’t even last his first enlistment, mainly because of two company grade Article 15s that the young CSM Marsh had managed to acquire. And yet, people believed in him.
“I was really not a good soldier in everyone’s eyes but one guy, Robert Randolph, my squad leader, that guy continued to show me the good in me,” said CSM Marsh in his retirement speech. “I can still show you the first counseling statement from him. Three quarters of it is the positive side. Only a quarter of it is ‘hey, would you stay out of the beer garden?’”
That’s a fine leadership lesson. Investing in people will almost always benefit the team. This concept is also reflected in the first Special Operations Truth, “Humans are more important than hardware.”
His final assignment as the senior enlisted leader of SOCAFRICA came at a difficult time for both the command and the Green Beret community. He assumed his post shortly after the deadly Tongo Tongo ambush that left three Green Berets and one support soldier dead in Niger in 2017. The Niger ambush, as the incident came to be known, send waves of shock through American society. Only a few Americans knew that American commandos are operating in Africa. Consequently, the death of four operators came as a big surprise for many.
Speaking about SOCAFRICA, CSM Marsh added that “working here has been truly satisfying. After 35 years working in the military, I’ve come to see that this organization operates in a time of adversity and challenge better than I think any organization I’ve ever been in. With limited resources, we continue to get after our nation’s top-tier targets. That’s impressive considering the small amount of resources we use.”
Recently, the administration ordered a reduced U.S. military presence in Africa. As great power competition with near-peer rivals like China and Russia is back on the menu, the Pentagon is looking to reduce its footprint to what it perceives as less important regions. And yet Africa could very well prove a place of contest between America and its rivals. China, which is playing the long game, has invested billions in economic, infrastructural, political, and military schemes in the African continent. Russia is similarly, albeit to a lesser degree, engaged in the region. A strong American presence is thus necessary to counter near-peer influence in a region that is becoming more important by the year.