Retired Green Beret Brings Message of Courage to VMI

Retired U.S. Army Green Beret Lt. Col. Scott Mann shares his experiences with the U.S. war in Afghanistan, as part of the Center for Leadership and Ethic’s (CLE) Courageous Leadership speaker series in Gillis Theater at VMI. -VMI Photo by H. Lockwood

LEXINGTON, Va. March 5, 2023 — “We're definitely gonna get attacked tonight. I'm in a tiny village in Sarwalt, Afghanistan, in the spring of 2005. It's 107 degrees in the shade, and I can feel the beads of sweat dripping down my neck. We're here to build a strategic alliance with this community, but first we've got to make it through the night,” is how retired U.S. Army Green Beret Lt. Col. Scott Mann opened his speech to a riveted audience of cadets, alumni, and community members in Gillis Theater at Virginia Military Institute on March 1. Mann shared his experiences organizing the rescue of hundreds of Afghan citizens during the last days of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, as part of the Center for Leadership and Ethic’s (CLE) Courageous Leadership speaker series.  

He continued his story, “This village has been through 40 years of nonstop war. It has seen so much violence, that even the children have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The people of the village lack purpose, they don't trust each other, nor do they trust their government. And they sure as hell don't trust us.”  

Mann paused his account to talk about U.S. Army Special Forces, the Green Berets and their mission, which is working by, with, and through indigenous people, and to help them defend and protect themselves. Since World War II, there have been complex, ambiguous situations that require a handful of specially trained advisors who can parachute into location, and successfully connect with precisely the right person, who may be the village elder or tribal chief. The Green Berets then immerse themselves into the language, culture, and environment. They remain there until the time is right, and then they help the community stand up against their attacker.  

Mann explained that the Green Berets are relationship-based connectors, who happen to be lethal when necessary. He described the 18-month long process of becoming a Green Beret as difficult and grueling. Each Green Beret is assigned to a 12-person “A-Team,” cross-trained in weapons, communications, intelligence, medicine, and engineering. 

Mann picked up his story, “Back in Sarwalt Village there's 13 of us in a dilapidated old schoolhouse.  There are Taliban fighters in every direction within a kilometer. Two members of our team are meeting with elders from two rival tribes, trying to get them to put aside their differences so tonight when we get attacked, we won’t be overrun. Another member is inspecting all the old British Enfield rifles to make sure they will function tonight when the farmers squeeze the triggers, and our senior engineer is working to get the water well to function. Our senior medical officer and junior medic are in the clinic examining three young boys complaining of stomach pain. Their grandfather just happens to be the most senior elder in the entire province. Our senior communications officer is at the radio with a handset in each hand, managing all the frantic intel reports trying to paint the entire picture for tonight's impending attack. It's just another day in the life of a Green Beret team, but there's nothing casual about it. Every decision they make can mean life or death, and every move is purposeful. Tonight, when the attack comes and these teammates roll off their cots, they’ll don their heavy gear, grab their weapons, scurry up ladders to the rooftop, and will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with reluctant farmers who would much rather be down below with their families. The only reason those farmers are up on that rooftop, is because of the rapport and trust these Green Berets have built in the days, weeks and months leading up to the attack. Over the years, I have seen this scenario again and again. These teams move people in times of serious reluctance, upon that proverbial rooftop. They did it not because they had to, but because they chose to. I call it ‘rooftop leadership.’ In the morning after the attack has broken off, the rooster crows, and the teammates hobble down the road to the village center, where they will meet with the elders, inspect infrastructure damage, and start preparing for the next attack.”  

After retiring from Special Forces in 2013, Mann worked very hard to put Afghanistan and the war behind him, and move toward restoration and healing. But in August of 2021, he got sucked back in a way he never expected. His dear friend, Nezam, an Afghan special forces commando phoned Mann to tell him that he and his family were on the run, as the country fell to the Taliban. Nezam told Mann, “Sir, everybody's gone. The president's gone. My friends are gone. I'm really not afraid to die. I just don't want to die alone.”  

Mann responded to Nezam, “You are not going to die! What's going to happen is you're going to get across the city, we're going to get you through those checkpoints, you're going to get up in the crowd, go to the Marine side of the gate where they will pull you through to your airplane, and get you to the United States.” That set in motion a series of events by a team made up of volunteer veterans, active duty, and civilians who called themselves “Task Force Pineapple.” Nezam and his family successfully made it on the airplane, and were the first passengers on the “Pineapple Express.” Over the course of five or six days, using a single chat room and then individual rooms with all the Afghan partners, the task force was able to move between 750 to 1000 commandos, and other Afghans and their families off the airfield, and into the United States. “I'd like to tell you what a success it was, but it was a drop in the bucket compared to the number of Afghan partners that were left behind. Less than 1% of the eligible people got in the air, and there were 30,000 of them. It was a tough blow to our community,” Mann lamented. 

Mann offered some lessons to the audience that are applicable for all walks of life. “First, connect like your life depends on it. Make a human connection first, and build rapport. Be intentional and deliberate in the relationships you form. Build trust when the risk is low, and leverage it when the risk is high, because that’s the time you’ll need it. Think of a relationship as an asset. 

“Second,” he continued, “Get below the waterline. Imagine the modern world as an iceberg. Above the waterline are things like talent management, the economy, and supply chain issues. Below the waterline are where humans are primally, and where there are opportunities to lead. I offer the acronym, MESSS to remember these opportunities. M is for meaning. Below the waterline is where we seek meaning, and ask questions. E is for emotional. It’s where our emotions are in a constant state of arousal, and a good leader will bring that aroused state down. S is for social. It’s where we form human connections socially. S is for storytellers. It is the place where we make sense of the world by telling stories. S is for struggle. It’s where we struggle, and it is crucial that leaders share their struggles to be relatable.”  

The third lesson is “Generosity of scars.” Mann stated that ignoring one’s scars helps no one, but being generous in revealing one’s scars aids healing. He has learned to channel his own struggle with PTSD and share his scars through storytelling. He wrote his book, “Operation Pineapple Express,” and also wrote a play, “Last Out - Elegy of a Green Beret,” which tours the country, and can be viewed on Amazon Prime.  

The fourth lesson is “Leave tracks.” Mann shared that it is important to leave a legacy which has nothing to do with rank, money, or power, but everything to do with the people one loves and leaves behind. “This is the number one thing I learned through ‘Pineapple.’ The power of a relationship is everything.” he concluded. 

Mann is chief executive officer of Rooftop Leadership, a professional training and coaching company specializing in human connection skills, and the founder of The Heroes Journey, a 501(c)(3) committed to helping U.S. and Afghan veterans tell their stories and transition to civilian life. 

The next Courageous Leadership speaker is Amber Smith, 101st Airborne in Iraq and Afghanistan, Air Mission Commander of AN OH-58 Delta Kiowa Warrior, and author of the book, “Danger Close.” Her talk is scheduled for Wed. April 13 at 7:45 p.m. in Gillis Theater in Marshall Hall on VMI post. The event is free and open to the public. For more information visit the CLE’s website 

Marianne Hause
Communications & Marketing

VMI: Forging 21st Century Leaders