American Grit had the opportunity to speak with Retired USMC Col. Andrew Milburn. The former head of the Marine Corps’ Special Operations Regiment talked to us about his soon-to-be released book “When the Tempest Gathers,” his 3 decades of service that took him from Mogadishu to the war against ISIS, and why Marines are so important in the fight against terror.
Col. Milburn, who insists on being called “Andy” now, has a background we don’t hear every day. An American who was raised in England (who to this day could easily be mistaken for a Brit), Andy was well on his way. At the age of 24, University degree in hand, he decided to cross the Atlantic and enlist in the United States Marine Corps. After earning the title Marine, and later completing infantry school, he would go on to serve Security Forces duty before being selected to attend Officer Candidates School (OCS).
Upon earning his commission as an officer of Marines, Andy began what would be 3 decades as an infantry and later, special operations officer. Prior to his final command of the Special Operations Regiment, Andy held command and staff billets with 5th Marines, 7th Marines, and 3rd Marines where he commanded 1st Bn 3rd Marines. He also has held key advisor posts in Iraq. His time under fire would include Mogadishu, Somalia, the “March Up” to Baghdad in 2003, Fallujah, Karma, Libya, and Mosul; leading Marine Raiders in the fight against ISIS.
“When the Tempest Gathers” is not only his story, but the story of the men who were with him throughout his career. It’s an in-depth journey through some of the most dangerous operations Marines have been involved with and a very unique chronicle of the heart and mind of a commander.
Here is how our interview went:
AG: Sir, Andy, thank you so much for taking time to talk with me. Your book and the excerpts you have shared with me are a wild ride for sure, I’d like to start with where your first operation was-Somalia.
Col. Milburn: Yes, I was a platoon commander with 2/9 (later designated 2/4) when we went into Somalia in 1992-1993.
AG: Somalia is arguably one of the most misunderstood places and the US involvement is equally misunderstood. The highly publicized tragedy faced by Task Force Ranger in October 1993 has to an extent overshadowed the history of Marines who were in place prior and incidentally after. What do you feel Marines brought of value that the Army may have fallen short of in Somalia?
Col. Milburn: For lack of a better term, there was an emotional intelligence that Marines showed, in addition to their operational readiness. A trust was established with the locals that we were truly there to help them. And with all due respect to the Rangers and 10th Mountain Division, they came in with a very “us vs them” mindset. And honestly, we saw this again in Fallujah 2004.
AG: I would like to come back to Fallujah later, but would you agree that what helped Marines on the ground in Somalia was that they, especially seasoned Marines, were used to multinational operations and were no stranger to being on foreign soil in a collaborative manner vs most Army units that only deployed in times of conflict?
Col. Milburn: Yes, I guess so, Marines had been on “West Pacs,” “Med floats,” etc…. used to working with and in other countries.
AG: Seems a lot of lessons were learned from Beirut that helped in Somalia?
Col. Milburn: Yes
AG: To wrap up about Somalia, you talk quite optimistic about where Somalia is going as you have had first hand involvement with Somalia’s new government and military.
Col. Milburn: Somalia wants to move forward, and this is the closest they have known to a legitimate government since the 1980s. They are still deep in civil war and under constant attack by Al- Shabab, but there is a great cadre of soldier that has emerged and has been developed by Marine Special Operators and SEALS.
AG: So, jumping ahead to Fallujah.
Col. Milburn: Yes, after the initial “March Up,” Marines had established a reasonable level of control in, not only Fallujah, but throughout Al Anbar province. When it was later handed over to the 82nd Airborne Division, that mindset I talked about in Somalia was present. Many don’t realize that a trigger of the chaos in Fallujah was the killing of over a dozen civilians. When Marines came back in, we had to not only fight a brutal insurgency but also somehow repair trust with the Iraqis.
AG: By this time, you were working as an advisor and truly understood the locals. You were back a few years later as a battalion commander as the fight against insurgency raged on and was spreading out of Iraq. Not long after that tour, you were deeply involved in coordinating special operations in several theaters, including Libya. In a recent podcast about “When the Tempest Gathers” you shared a very deep personal experience from your involvement in Libya. Could you share that with us?
Col Milburn: In March 2011, with the rebellion against Gaddafi in Libya in full swing, I was sent to Malta with a small team to coordinate the evacuation of US citizens from Tripoli. This required some delicate work, because no US aircraft were involved in the evacuation, and we were not sure how many US citizens were left in Tripoli. We set up a process with the state department NEO task force in Washington, whereby they would attempt to contact US citizens in Libya, telling them to head for the airport if they wanted to leave, and giving them my number for further coordination. I would then guide them to a link up point in the Tripoli airport terminal, where they would be met by an “expeditor” whose task it was to shepherd them through the cordon of Libyan customs and immigration officials to the tarmac where another guide would lead them to a waiting plane – which was usually a military aircraft of a European nation.
I sat around a table with officers from eight European militaries, all of whom were manning radios or phones that allowed them to talk directly to their participating aircrew. At one stage early on in the process, we were frustrated to hear that aircraft were taking off from Tripoli empty, even though we knew that there were hundreds of foreign nationals waiting at the airport. The problem, it appeared, was that the Libyans were no longer allowing the expeditors carte blanche to bring foreigners through to the tarmac. We needed to have someone with diplomatic muscle to walk into the terminal and escort evacuees out to the aircraft. The call went out to various embassies in Malta, and soon we had a pool of diplomats from various countries, flying into Tripoli aboard military aircraft to perform this essential task.
As conditions in Tripoli became more dangerous, a growing number of embassies removed their diplomats from the pool.
On the fourth day, I was in contact with two American families making their way to the airport in Tripoli, and watched with some concern, as the pool of diplomats was whittled down to a handful of Irish and British diplomats. An Italian C-130 aircraft had just taken off from Rome bound for Malta, where it would pick up two Irish diplomats before proceeding to Tripoli. As the aircraft touched down in Malta, the Irish diplomats received a call from their embassy barring them from participating.
The British colonel in charge of the evacuation effort looked around the room “Well, that’s it then unfortunately. I have one British diplomat available, but he can’t go in alone.” An hour later I was on the aircraft bound for Tripoli, wearing a vest labeled “British Embassy”– keenly aware that I was violating a direct order that no US personnel were to travel to Tripoli.
All went well at first. I found the US families and, after guiding them to the aircraft, returned to lead another group of foreign nationals. On my way back to the aircraft with my charges, I was cut off by a jeep full of Libyan security personnel. One of them had overheard me asking about an American family – and was now convinced that I was an American. The game was indeed up – and after refusing to be taken to the terminal for questioning – I ran to board the Italian aircraft, reaching the ramp just before the jeep could cut me off. There then followed a nerve-wracking standoff. Several jeeps full of Libyan soldiers surrounded the Italian aircraft, facing a squad of Italian special forces soldiers who stood in a protective line on the ramp.
Through loudhailers, the Libyans repeated their demand that the Italians turn me over and, in between doing so, heckled me with threats. The atmosphere on the aircraft was, to say the least, tense. It began to get dark, and one of the jeeps drove up to the base of the ramp, illuminating with its headlights the inside of the aircraft. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, the Maltese government reported to the US ambassador in Malta that there was a US citizen on the ground in Tripoli – in trouble.
After a period of some hours, the Libyans inexplicably relented and the aircraft was allowed to take off. As soon as we cleared Libyan airspace, I began to tremble uncontrollably – which was an unaccustomed reaction for me and not one that I had ever experienced in combat. Because of the delay, the aircraft would no longer be able to drop its charges (including me) in Malta as originally planned, but was bound instead for Rome. Although this undoubtedly meant the end of my career, this mattered little to me at the time.
In Rome, I was looked after by the British embassy, and caught a flight to Malta the following day. To my surprise and relief, there were no repercussions for me. I even received a thank you from the Ambassador, who had met that morning with one of the families that I had escorted to the plane.
The first line of the Marine Hymn ends with the words “To the Shores of Tripoli,” a reference to the exploits of Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon whose landing near that city in 1805 is part of Marine legend. Now whenever I hear those words sung, I think back to those long hours at the mercy of Gaddafi’s goons – a fate that I faced with considerably less resolve than O’Bannon showed against the Barbary pirates all those years ago.
AG: I now see what you mean about “When the Tempest Gathers” being as much about the emotion as well as the action.
AG: You went on to be the head of the entire Marine Corps Special Operations community and thus were heavily involved working alongside groups like the Peshmerga in the fight against ISIS. What is unique about Marine Special Operations units and why are they so important in this fight?
Col. Milburn: First, of course, is the foundation of the members of MARSOC aka “Raiders.” These are all Marines who have already met the challenge of being a Marine and demonstrated a high level of competency in their skill set. The vetting is so high, not just in terms of physical ability, but also intellectual strength. It is also the way they are organized, even at the company level, there is the ability to, what I call, “Find, Fix, and Finish.” There is a full integration of capabilities, for example intelligence/signals intelligence are integrated with the operators.
AG: So in your mind, Marine Special Operations is here to stay?
Col. Milburn: Absolutely. In addition to our unique organization and capabilities, we have developed Raiders to be every bit as good as other special forces units in areas never really given to Marines, such as working with Proxy forces.
AG: I’d like to wrap up with the Marine Corps as a whole. The current commandant, General David Berger, has given a clear vision of where he sees the Marine Corps. He, just as his British counterpart over the Royal Marines, sees the absolute necessity for Marines to not only return to, but expand its role as a maritime based expeditionary force in readiness. Do you agree with this?
Col. Milburn: Yes I do and I am very excited to see the Marine Corps evolve with this vision. We have not had a new guidance since 2010 and this is an exciting time for Marines.
AG: Well it is an honor to share the title Marine with you and have served with some of the same Marines as you have. Thank you for your time and Semper Fidelis.
Col. Milburn: Semper Fi!
“When the Tempest Gathers” is already available overseas and will be available on Amazon, here, in mid to late February 2020. Col. Milburn, although retired, continues to be involved in the professional development of special operations leaders.
Stay tuned to American Grit for more interviews and exclusive content!