The “Double Nickel” — Special Forces in El Salvador

By Greg Walker (ret), USA Special Forces

SF soldiers assigned or attached to the U.S. MilGrp -El Salvador were awarded the JMUA early on in the campaign.

SF soldiers assigned or attached to the U.S. MilGrp -El Salvador were awarded the JMUA early on in the campaign.

“Operating under the potential and real dangers of both political and physical fire, U.S. Armed Forces personnel designed and carried out a program to help build the Salvadoran Armed Forces from a small, ill-equipped and poorly led force to the point where it is now well on the road to becoming one of the finest fighting forces in Latin America.”
~ Mr. David Passage, charge d’ affaires, U.S. Embassy San Salvador, Memorandum to U.S. Southern Command CinC

Passage, whose duty station was the embassy in San Salvador, goes on to point out that U.S. Military Group (MilGrp) personnel “have been shot at” and “that they are high priority targets for enemy attacks.” According to the memorandum, then-ambassador Thomas Pickering “specifically requested to be associated” with the recommendation that a Joint Meritorious Unit Award (JMUA) be authorized to those members of the MilGrp assigned and attached and who served for over sixty days in any capacity between January 1, 1981, and June 7, 1985. “The Military Group has been paid the ultimate compliment,” wrote Passage. “The Communist-backed guerrillas have publicly ascribed to them the fact that the guerrillas are losing their war. No commendation can be written that is so credible a testament to their effectiveness.”

The “Double Nickel” 

“Congress and the administration had agreed to this limit with little discussion or rancor. This was something like a handshake deal. When some members attempted to write it into law, they failed. This seems like the way policy and politics ought to work. Honorable individuals of two branches of government and two parties decide what the issue is — we want to avoid creeping from training and advice to full-scale involvement à la Vietnam. How do you do it? You keep the numbers too small to get into real trouble. What size is that? The 55-man limit, in which so many put so much stock (and many thought was the law of the land) was arbitrary and had been reached in offhand fashion.” (El Salvador in the 1980s: War by Other Means by Donald R. Hamilton, 2015)

In 1981, fifteen Green Berets were deployed to El Salvador. They were selected for their linguistic abilities and training expertise. The composite team under the command of then Captain David Morris was stationed in the Republic of Panama with the then forward deployed 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Gulick. Their mission? Train the struggling Salvadoran Army’s first immediate reaction battalion, the Atlacatl, at Sitio del Nino just twenty miles from San Salvador.

However, this was not the first time U.S. Special Forces had interfaced with the Salvadoran military. American advisers began working alongside Salvadoran military units in 1962 when the first mobile training team (MTT) was deployed to conduct a counterinsurgency/civic action/psychological operations survey. On June 30, 1972, the 8th Special Forces Group, preceding the 3/7th in Panama, was deactivated. It then became the 3/7th which would carry out the bulk of upcoming MTTs to El Salvador, specifically from January 1, 1981, until the United Nations brokered Peace Accord in February 1992.

Dr. Todd Greentree was a junior political officer with the U.S. Department stationed at the embassy in San Salvador during this period. In May 2021, Greentree shared his assessment of the political/military situation in El Salvador during his tenure there. “Saigon had fallen just a few years earlier,” he points out. “But after Nicaragua, the U.S. was not going to lose another country to the Soviet Union and Cuba in Central America. President [Jimmy] Carter found aiding the Salvadoran government extremely distasteful, and his ambassador, Robert White, was an emotional human rights crusader, especially after the four churchwomen were raped and murdered [by Salvadoran troops] on his watch.

“Yet it was Carter who authorized lethal assistance to the Salvadoran military in one of his last decisions before leaving office in January 1981. Reagan inherited El Salvador as [his] first foreign policy crisis. He eventually embraced counter-insurgency but was initially more concerned to reassure Americans that El Salvador was not going to become another Vietnam.”

Forced to appease public opinion at home, the Pentagon devised a plan to establish a limit on Special Forces advisers to serve in El Salvador. As fifty-five advisers were already stationed and working in El Salvador the decision was made to preserve the funding already in place. The Pentagon told both the President and Congress, when asked, that fifty-five in-country advisers/trainers was a satisfactory number. After that the manpower ceiling was “etched in stone,” according to a former MILGRP commander. In 1979, funding for the growing civil war in El Salvador stood at $12 million dollars. By 1982, this amount had increased to $80 million. Mission requirements (i.e., a military victory over the communist insurgents) increased, as well. The guerrilla forces fighting under the banner of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) were proving to be far more organized, better funded, and trained by Cuban, Nicaraguan, North Vietnamese, and East German advisers than originally anticipated. “No one wanted to take the chance of seeing the increased aid cancelled,” offers a former MILGRP member. “It was obvious more advisers were required to carry out the additional taskings, yet the limit of fifty-five would not be challenged.”  It was believed that requesting additional advisers would invite disaster. Political and social push-back was growing in the United States, fueled by the negativity of the Vietnam war still fresh in the minds of many Americans and the 5th Column of Marxist organizations and social activists groups in the United States.

The peace movement ramped back up to mount protests against U.S. aid to El Salvador

“The War Powers Act and the Reagan administration’s careful avoidance of its triggers guided military action in El Salvador in two critical ways. First, it created the 55-man limit on the size of the MILGRP. Although this limit never had the force of law, it became an informal but honored deal between the administration and Congress: Keep it at 55 and we the leadership will not seek a confrontation over the War Powers Act. The second was the administration’s pledge to Congress that U.S. military personnel “will not act as combat advisors, and will not accompany Salvadoran forces in combat, on operational patrols, or in any other situation where combat is likely.” This second pledge defined the operational boundaries for U.S. personnel.” (El Salvador in the 1980s: War by Other Means Donald R. Hamilton, 2015)

The “Double Nickle,” as the Green Berets serving in El Salvador self-described themselves, became a tripwire limit for the Congress to demand adherence to. Fortunately, there was a way around the “55” and the Pentagon used it almost immediately.

"No American invader will leave El Salvador alive". Leaflets like these were commonplace during the war and American Special Forces advisers were at the top of the guerrilla hit list." (Author collection)

“No American invader will leave El Salvador alive”. Leaflets like these were commonplace during the war and American Special Forces advisers were at the top of the guerrilla hit list.” (Author collection)

“Don’t get caught”

Policy loopholes existed which allowed for additional Special Forces qualified soldiers to be assigned legally in-country. The positions allotted to the MILGRP were filled with Green Berets who would not be counted under the “55” line in the sand. In this manner, the number of uniformed advisers/trainers assisting the Salvadoran military was between 85 and 100 “snake eaters” at any one time. The advisers were complimented with an additional 50 to 75 CIA paramilitary advisers/trainers, many of these Vietnam veterans of the MACV-SOG special projects during the Vietnam war, a fair number who had remained in Special Forces reserve units after leaving active duty.

And Congress did its part on both sides of the aisle. “The six-man permanent party in the MILGRP was insufficient to support all the movement of all the supplies and MTTs flowing into the country. Congress was notified, did not object, and the staff was increased to twelve. After about 18 months, it became obvious that Salvadoran soldiers injured on the battlefield were dying or becoming permanently disabled because Salvadoran battlefield medics were insufficient in numbers and deficient in training. The U.S. had the capacity to train them but did not have a means to do so within the 55-man limit. Eventually Congress informally agreed to exclude members of a medical MTT from the count.” (El Salvador in the 1980s: War by Other Means, Donald R. Hamilton, 2015)

Special Forces advisers received imminent danger, or combat pay, the appropriate documentation provided by the MILGRP commander stating the adviser had been/was exposed to hostile fire.

In a 1986, Army legal decision regarding the increasing submission for combat awards and decorations for those who were either taken under enemy fire or in the field with their Salvadoran units conducting operations, the JAG advised the Pentagon there was no legal reason such awards should not be authorized. The Army, in specific, was quick to ignore the decision for purely political reasons, whereas the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force continued to approve such awards and decorations for their service members in El Salvador.

“We were in a war. Everyone knew it was a war,” recalls one Army adviser/trainer. For the Green Berets in specific the unwritten warning was not to get caught by the international media in the field or carrying anything more than a handgun.

“You could expect to be put on the First Thing Smok’in back to Panama if you were photographed or filmed with an M16 rifle,” recalls a retired El Sal veteran. “We were authorized to draw and carry M16s, MP5 submachine guns, grenades, and shotguns once on the ground. Sometimes we drew the weapons from the Salvadoran units we were working with. Other times we drew them from the embassy armory. It was a cat-and-mouse game with a mild reprimand if you got caught.”

And from a former embassy public affairs officer. “Most of the international media stationed in El Salvador understood that our guys carried something other than a pistol. I (and many others) told journalists and anyone else who would listen that the policy and congressional understanding was that the trainers were forbidden to be “equipped for combat” and that a long gun did not meet that standard. I think politicos in Washington panicked and demanded the guys [be] sent home after being photographed with M-16. Most of the serious journalists understood that the guys sent home were not guilty of anything substantive.”

In the meantime, Purple Hearts were already being approved, albeit very quietly, for 3/7th Green Berets wounded in-country like SSG Jay Stanley in February 1983 while traveling by helicopter in what was described as an “operational flight”. Stanley was returned to Panama to recover from his wound. He received a Purple Heart. Two warrant officers and a master sergeant were deemed responsible for his being on the flight and were put on “the next thing smok’in” back to their unit at Fort Gulick.