Memorial Day: Even 10th Special Forces elite must deal with loss, grief
Author: Tony Peck, The Gazette - May 27, 2018 - Updated: May 28, 2018
COLORADO SPRINGS — They call themselves “quiet professionals.”
Soldiers with the Army’s Special Forces — known as Green Berets — are secretive and rarely give interviews. Those with Fort Carson’s 10th Special Forces Group are no different.
But when discussing the deaths of one of their own, their understated words turn more assertive. These are soldiers who understand Memorial Day, and the necessity of honoring those who died in service, better than most.
“Guys that have laid down everything, the public needs to know what that guy has done for their country,” said Deryk, a weapons sergeant in the group’s 2nd Battalion, which returned to Colorado Springs from Afghanistan in mid-April at the end of a difficult tour that left two dead.
“The way I view it now, we signed up to do this so you can live that American life. We do this so that you can live the life you want to over here. That’s what we are fighting for.”
Deryk was on the same team as Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Cribben, from Simi Valley, Calif., who died in combat on Nov. 4, 2017, in Logar Province. Cribben was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.
Sgt. 1st Class Mihail Golin, from Riga, Latvia, died New Year’s Day in Nangarhar Province. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star.
The soft-spoken Green Berets, using only their first names, ranks and team positions, agreed to interviews as a way to honor the memories of their fallen friends.
“This group of guys is over there doing a job that nobody else wants to do, and I don’t think anybody else can do. The Green Berets are holding it down out there,” said Pat, Cribben’s team sergeant.
The fighting often takes the teams to remote regions where the closest help might be hours away. They deploy in teams of a dozen and each member performs multiple jobs. When a member of the team dies, those left behind must assume his responsibilities even as they grieve.
The missions are often classified and can require years of specialized training. Behind that discipline, however, the Green Berets still suffer the rigors of combat.
“You feel pain like everybody else does, and you get tired like everybody else does and you get scared just like everybody else does,” said Pat. “The difference is you see it and you do it anyway.”
The unit released few details as to what happened on the days Cribben and Golin died. All that is publicly known is both men were killed during firefights with the enemy. Aside from the province and date, the military rarely releases the circumstances surrounding a Green Beret’s death due to the classified nature of their overseas missions.
Building a team
Soldiers complete 18 months of Special Forces training before becoming a Green Beret. For some, that is the first 18 months of their military career, while others have spent years in the Army.
Before Cribben joined 10th Group, he was a military policeman with multiple deployments, which included Afghanistan and Iraq.
Golin was equally experienced before becoming a Green Beret, serving as an infantryman in one tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan.
But, once with a team, even tested soldiers are rookies again.
“When a new guy shows up, he is still an outsider,” Deryk said. “It takes closer to a year before that guy actually becomes part of the family. It’s not by choice, it’s just how it is.”
The men often used the words family and team interchangeably – to them there is no difference.
“You are with these guys day in, day out, you get to know their family, you get to know their kids,” said Mike, an engineer on Golin’s team. “You have these guys as families. You get to see the hardships they are going through.”
Eventually the new member is accepted and begins to exert his own influence on the team.
“Each team will have a completely different personality, it is a combination of everyone that is involved,” said Chris, a medic on Cribben’s team.
It falls to the team sergeant to manage that personality, “bump-steering the team left or right to where they need to be to be successful,” said Pat. And eventually, the team sergeant must select soldiers to help him lead.
“It’s going to be that alpha type dude. It would be easier if you had a bunch of followers and one leader,” Pat said. “But when you have a room full of leaders, you will notice those who have sway over the others.”
One individual who held sway on Pat’s team was Stephen Cribben.
“He could get an entire room to perform better just because (of who) he was. He was one of those people you build a team around,” Pat said.
Deployed to assist
The battalion deployed in late 2017, spreading its teams across Afghanistan. Their mission was to train, advise and assist Afghan commandos.
During this time, the Green Berets and their Afghan partners are credited with killing several high-level insurgents, including members of the Taliban’s “Red Units,” their most elite fighters.
“It was just us 12 and our partner force. They pretty much took us and put us in the middle of nowhere. It took all of us coming together and building that place up,” said Mike. “You are with these guys, only these 12 guys for months on end. You get irritated with each other, you squabble with each other, but you make it work, you are pretty much surviving.”
Cribben was killed just weeks into the deployment.
His teammates call him Steve.
“He lost his life being selfless,” said Deryk. “But he was just being himself. He didn’t go above and beyond or anything, that was just Steve being Steve.”
Cribben’s actions on the day he died earned him the Silver Star. The medal citation has not been publicly released but earning the nation’s third-highest decoration for combat valor demonstrates that Cribben’s actions were nothing short of heroic.
But his teammates did not have time to think about medals and heroism during that day in November.
Minds were still racing as Cribben’s team returned from the firefight. After sweeping spent brass from their trucks, the team carried Cribben’s remains to an aircraft preparing to ferry him home.
“When we carried him to the bird, that was rough. No one had thought about it yet, everybody was still amped. Until we walked into that room and we saw that flag over him. Now your guard is down, and you face the situation,” Pat said.
“We load him in the airplane, the airplane takes off, does a loop back around,” said Lucas, a medic on Cribben’s team. “It was coming over the mountains in Logar, and the sun was setting right there, and the airplane just flew right where the sunset was.
“Some people are pretty religious,” Lucas said. “Some aren’t.”
“Right after the airplane leaves the valley, a V of geese flies right over us. Man, it was the craziest feeling.”
‘I have a job to do’
Two months later, Golin was killed.
His teammates call him Misha.
“I got a knock on the door, ‘Hey, Misha got killed last night.’ How do you deal with that? Well I went on a 12-mile ruck, listened to some music, tried to get myself together,” said Willie, a weapons sergeant on Golin’s team.
Keeping themselves busy was essential in dealing with their grief. For some it was exercise, for others is was obsessing over their kit – cleaning magazines, moving a smoke grenade or exchanging the contents of a pouch. The men preferred action even when leadership sympathetically offered rest.
“They tried to keep me off some operations for a week or two,” said Mike. “At that time we were extremely busy, going out every single day. I pulled our team sergeant aside and said I understand what you are trying to do, but I am good. I have a job to do, we have a job to do. I would just feel better if you would let me go do it.”
It is difficult for team leadership to watch their men struggle with loss after spending months training and preparing them, watching the team become a family, explained Pat.
But after Cribben’s death, Pat watched his team galvanize around the loss.
“It’s an inner strength that I’ve witnessed in every one of my guys. Especially when guys started getting hurt and we lost Steve. Faced with that reality, the things that I asked them to do after that, you could see it, it’s there,” he said.
“Every one of my guys, I saw their faces when they we were getting on the helicopter. You can tell when someone is praying in their nods right before the helicopter touches down. They were all making their peace,” Pat said, struggling suddenly with his emotions. “It is amazing to watch. These guys had that kind of courage to give it everything they had every mission, even though it might be their last. They did it anyway.”
In mid-April, the Green Berets returned to Colorado Springs. Just weeks later, the teams are back to work – exercising and training for their next trip overseas.
But some Green Berets returned from the combat tour earlier than the rest.
“I got wounded three weeks into the deployment,” said Alex, a weapons sergeant on Golin’s team. He was at a bar in Chicago on New Year’s Eve when he received a text saying that someone from the unit had been killed. “Everyone I knew, I had to prepare for all of them to be dead. It was Misha. I was taken out of the fight really fast and had almost too much time to think about that.”
Golin is survived by his parents, former-wife Katerina and their 5-year-old daughter Vladia.
“It is hard, because I was here when it happened. I had to meet his dad and his mom. I can’t really be a strong shoulder, when I cry myself,” said Dimitri, an engineer on Golin’s team. “I know Misha really well. I know that he died doing what he wanted to do most. He died, but he died loving his job.”
Golin was buried in Arlington National Cemetery Jan. 22, surrounded by several other Green Berets who died in Afghanistan in recent years.
“When I actually saw his grave at Arlington, I didn’t know what to expect but that helped a lot for me,” said Dan, a communications sergeant on Golin’s team. Somehow, Golin’s remains resting among other fellow Special Forces soldiers eases the burden of loss for those who fought alongside him.
Attending memorial services and visiting gravesites is all part of coming home after a deadly deployment. While private graveside moments can be cathartic, unit-held ceremonies can put a strain on the soldiers.
“It is not necessarily something you want the fanfare for, the big ceremonies, that stuff gets kind of old,” said one of Cribben’s teammates. “Steve wasn’t that kind of guy. Everybody’s iteration of having a memorial – who is this for?”
Even so, team members showed up this past Thursday to memorialize Cribben and Golin. The two Green Berets were remembered at Fort Carson’s 15th annual Mountain Post Warrior Memorial ceremony – their names etched into stone, joining a list naming the 399 Fort Carson soldiers to die since 2003.
Cribben is survived by his parents, wife Shelly and two sons, Connor, 5, and Wyatt, 3.
The homecoming has been a challenge for the teams. The soldiers echo complaints muttered by innumerable soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who’ve spent time in a combat zone – bills, laundry and groceries make life complicated.
“Combat is easier, it’s a lot simpler. We eat chow together, we work-out together, we go on missions, repeat, repeat, repeat,” said Ross, the intelligence sergeant on Cribben’s team. “It’s not like we don’t love being home, (but) I have always had a hard time coming home. Because if you are home someone else is fighting. And that sucks. You got to bite it off in chunks.”
As the Green Berets rejoin family routines at home, they still find themselves struck by small bolts of grief.
“One moment where a lot hit me at once, actually, (was) at my house,” Deryk said. “Shelly, Steve’s wife, was over. And I have the little pamphlet from Steve’s memorial, with his picture on it.
“I got it up on my whiskey bar, and the way I was sitting I could see Steve, his picture there, and Shelly was sitting right here. I could see him, I am sitting here with my family, and there is Steve.”