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Send In The Weathermen

Send In The Weathermen

On a moonless night in October 2001, an American helicopter lifted off from an airbase in Uzbekistan, banking south on a covert mission into Afghanistan. Inside was one of America’s most elite and unknown special operators, hand-selected for a job so important that the wider war on terror hinged on its success.

In New York and Washington, D.C., the funerals continued. Families gave up hope of a miracle rescue in the rubble of the World Trade Center and Pentagon. But if this soldier succeeded he would never shoot his gun and no one outside the military would know his work.

He was a weatherman.

More precisely, he was a special operations weather technician, known as a SOWT (pronounced sow-tee). As the Department of Defense’s only commando forecasters, SOWTs gather mission-impossible environmental data from some of the most hostile places on Earth.

They embed with Navy SEALs, Delta Force and Army Rangers. Ahead of major operations they also head in first for a go/no-go forecast. America’s parachutes don’t pop until a SOWT gives the all-clear.

That was Brady Armistead’s job as his helicopter rumbled toward a strip of desert 80 miles south of Kandahar, the capital of the Taliban government. He had a satellite forecast calling for clear skies. But satellite forecasts depend on ground data, too, and there was nothing from Afghanistan.

Five years earlier, when the Taliban seized power, it granted sanctuary to Al Qaeda and ruled by a strict interpretation of the Koran. No television or movies, mandatory burkas for women and long beards for men — plus no weather reports.

The Taliban considered forecasting to be sorcery. They fired the country’s 600 or so professional meteorologists, shelled the Afghan Meteorological Authority, and burned the country’s vast climatological archives.

That created a blind spot in global weather data, which is typically pooled and shared between the world’s governments. The Pentagon felt it had a fix in SOWTs like Armistead, jump-ready scientists with the God-given guts to do the weather behind enemy lines.

The dropzone approached and Armistead watched through night-vision goggles as a sandstorm melted the ground and blurred the horizon. The pilot pulled the aircraft into a hover, letting Armistead fast-rope 60 feet down into the void below. The weatherman was accompanied by a small team of Air Force combat controllers, commandos trained at seizing airfields and managing traffic in the sky.

By dawn they had traversed several kilometers of desert, scaled a mountain and dug into a ledge, where Armistead started to work. In the days that followed, he used laser rangefinders for cloud height, night-launched weather balloons for upper atmospheric data, and a pocket meteorological wand for everything else.

The result was a daily “nowcast,” which he compared against the computer predictions. He adjusted the forecasts, tweaking the estimate to match the reality and running the calculations again. He wanted to be as close as possible to clear skies, moderate temperatures, calm winds, good visibility and air dense enough to support flight, which was no guarantee in a high-altitude, hot environment.

I’ve done plenty of missions where it’s like, ‘No kidding, don’t step off the porch, bad guys, because you’re going to step on me.’

Brady Armistead

By day three Armistead felt ready. A thousand miles away, General Dell Dailey, the head of Joint Special Operations Command, felt ready, too. On a tarmac in Uzbekistan, 199 Army Rangers double-knotted their boots and pilots fired the engines on four MC-130 Talons. As night fell on October 19, Dailey asked for final word from the front.

“Conditions favorable,” Armistead wrote in a secure text message.

“Roger,” replied Dailey, adding his initials. “Force will launch.”

So began the ground war in Afghanistan. The Army Rangers seized an airfield and created Camp Rhino, the first American base in the country. Their mission also marked the start of a dangerous new era for meteorologists like Armistead, guardians of unmanned aircraft and commandos in low-flying helicopters. Both assets are extremely weather-sensitive. A satellite can fly overhead, but combat meteorologists liken the quality of such data to shaking a box to guess what’s inside.

Video: Reading the sky

“We get the ground truth,” said Armistead, speaking publicly for the first time about his work. “I’ve done plenty of missions where it’s like, ‘No kidding, don’t step off the porch, bad guys, because you’re going to step on me.’”

The Grey Berets, as they’re called — in recognition of their storm-colored headgear — have been around in some capacity since World War II. Over the years, however, their mission has been stymied by a tangled chain of command, inconsistent training and a requirement that all SOWTs begin as desk meteorologists.

That’s all changed.

In 2008, in response to demand for SOWTs and a rash of weather-related accidents, the Air Force quietly created career field 1WXOS, the first official class of commando weathermen. The field has allowed Air Force Special Operations Command to expand recruiting, signing kids as young as 17 and then sending them through a new two-year training pipeline, the longest in the Department of Defense.

SOWTs were on the ground ahead of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, according to military sources, and their work has helped nail pirates, free hostages and respond to humanitarian disasters. Overall, their ranks have tripled in recent years, with more growth expected. No position in the Air Force is a higher priority for recruiters.

But the work of SOWTs is still invisible to the general public; it’s often overshadowed by members of the military’s rougher quarters, who rarely seem to tire of mocking their colleagues with the weather balloons. That’s why so many SOWTs — among more than two dozen operators and forecasters, from teenage recruits to proudly broken-down old guys — opened up to NBC News.

“In special operations most of the failures have weather as a causal effect,” said Rip Coleman, a former director of environmental services for Joint Special Operations Command. “The weather is going to make or break a mission before it even takes off,” added Dusty Lee, a recruiting, accessions and selection superintendent for Air Force Special Tactics, the branch equivalent of the Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces. “There are never enough of us.”

Video: Weather & warfare

This is the story of the combat weatherman’s long road from desk jockey to war hero. But it is also a view of conflict from the inside in an age of environmental change. A time when some of the most important commandos in the military don’t kick down doors and when the greatest threat to human security may not even be human.

“We’re Human Sensors

Morning comes early for clandestine weathermen.

Long before the sun bobs up over the Gulf of Mexico, SOWT pickup trucks and muscle cars are lined at the main gate of Hurlburt Field, the home of Air Force Special Operations Command on the Florida Panhandle.

Their first official workouts start at 7 a.m. But even at this hour, SOWTs are taught to be reading the skies. Forgot to roll up your windows on a rainy day? You owe the team a thousand push-ups. Blow an outlook for chilly weather? You aren’t allowed to go home for your coat.

SOWTs don’t just do the weather. They leverage it. They use the morning dew to erase a platoon’s tracks or the wind to muffle a helicopter or the shadow of a mountain to shelter the wounded. They also watch for obstacles and opportunities, cataloging where the soil is soft, the rivers are swift, the snow is loose, the fog is dense or the apples are juicy. They make America a home-turf warrior no matter the country.

“We live out our forecasts,” said Jonathan Sawtelle, an angular young officer who, after serving as the SOWT’s director of operations last year, is set to start a more senior forecasting job at Joint Special Operations Command. “We’re sensors, human sensors, and that’s the magic of the SOWTs.”

Video: Being a SOWT

But let’s be honest.

There’s a joke here, something comical about sending a meteorologist to war. It has to do with our image of the ordinary forecaster: that second-rate scientist who spends his life indoors, predicting the outdoors, and getting it wrong.

“Meteorologists everywhere are weenies in the extreme,” the author and aviator William Langewiesche wrote in 2008. “They are twerps. Dweebs. Instrument tappers. Professional virgins.”

Before the new career code, many SOWTs fit this description. They were drawn from the Air Force’s conventional weather centers, which tended to make them meteorologists first, warriors second. The new SOWTs — and the best of the old ones — are a different breed. They are warriors first, meteorologists second.

“They’re stronger, faster and brighter than we ever were,” said Tony Carson, a SOWT officer who came in under the old system. “The challenge now is pulling these guys back, not pushing them forward.”

There are about 120 SOWTs spread across three newly created Special Tactics teams, with two more planned by 2020. These teams comprise combat controllers, weathermen and medics, among other Special Tactics airmen. If the Air Force is right, these men — there are no women allowed — represent a widening component of U.S. special operations.

They are essential in combat, dealing death from above, but they can also save lives, coordinating rescues and re-supply drops — all while keeping an eye on the unfriendly skies. Climate change is expanding the need for such work, according to the Pentagon, which anticipates a greater number of humanitarian relief and disaster response missions.

“Can you attribute any given weather event to climate change? No,” said Sawtelle. “But is Special Tactics there and ready to take action? Absolutely. We’re a fast-reacting force, standing ready to respond to climate disasters.”

SOWTs are a tiny slice of the special operations machine but a unique one, a rare blend of brawn and brains. Their careers start with a standard military intelligence test. To qualify for the pipeline, SOWTs need a minimum score that’s 20 points higher than what is required by anyone else in Air Force Special Tactics — higher, in fact, than almost every job in the military other than code breaker.

Gallery: SOWTs in the field

They need that extra intellectual firepower to survive forecasting school at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi: 30 weeks of advanced meteorology, interspersed with workouts and trips to the mess hall.

The SOWTs have to unlearn as much as they learn. The “thin air” around us is in fact thick, for example, dense enough to support flight. An object that’s “light as air” is actually, as a matter of science, exerting a ton of atmospheric pressure per square foot.

They learn that trying to predict the weather is as hard as following a wave across the open seas or predicting the first bubble in a slowly boiling pot of water. But good forecasts shape history. One Air Force academic traces the relationship between weather and war to the first caveman who scored his club handles for skull-bashing in the rain.

America itself was founded on the exploitation of fog, snow and favorable tides. The Continental Army used a shroud of low clouds to hide from the British bayonets on Long Island. General George Washington then crossed the Delaware in a blizzard, surprising the enemy and turning the war.

The lore is endless, which is why the military has always been one of meteorology’s biggest patrons. Between 1870 and 1955 it launched the forerunner of the National Weather Service, opened the first graduate school of meteorology, and funded the first computer-generated forecasts. These days, the military is working to loop the world’s data together, flow it through an ensemble of models, and forecast the Earth as a single entity. Here’s the outlook, it’ll say: from three days to three decades.

But even then there are likely to be SOWTs. During training, they get a glimpse of their essential value. They’re shown a nighttime picture of the Earth. The cities glow but the land is largely dark and desolate, “data sparse.” What’s the weather like there? No one can be sure.

This may come as a surprise to Americans, the world’s most wired people for weather. We have about 10,000 professionally run surface weather reporting stations, the same amount as the rest of the world combined. We also have about 150 radar centers; some regions of Africa have none. Asked to name what parts of the globe lacked for surface weather data, one researcher said, “The whole southern hemisphere, really.”

The key to a perfect forecast is a perfect picture of the atmosphere, from the edge of space down to the tip of a farmer’s wet finger. It’s an image scientists can’t get from a climate-controlled room. They know the physics that govern the sky. Their supercomputers can stay ahead of the clouds. They just can’t get the numbers right in the first place.

Insufficient or faulty ground data is a major reason why forecasts curdle within a week, and go totally rancid after 10 days. Even a same-day satellite forecast is a spaghetti plot of best guesses and city-sized generalities. That won’t do in war, where the weather is never neutral.

As SOWTs master the language of the sky, they also learn to survive under it. The physical side of the SOWT pipeline may be an even greater test than the intellectual side. It starts with a 500-meter surface swim, two 25-meter underwater swims, a 1.5-mile run and timed bursts of pull-ups, sit-ups and push-ups.

Pass that and you qualify for a “selection course,” a two-week cycle of spittle and sweat at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. Here SOWTs get their ribs kicked by drill instructors while the anguish of muscle failure eats at their minds. They jump off cliffs, run through rivers, drag truck tires and perform everyday calisthenics made more torturous by a spray of water to the face, anything to trigger a fear of drowning.

“We’re here to push them, to show them that their bodies and minds are capable of handling much more than they think,” said one instructor featured in a SOWT recruiting video released online. “We’re looking for that alpha male drive,” said another instructor.

If the SOWTs survive this hell, there are others waiting, including five kinds of survival school and a disaster-movie sequence of severe weather observations, tactical training and demolition. Throughout this regime prospective SOWTs are constantly being evaluated. Most candidates never get accepted into the pipeline. Of those who do, fewer than one in five get their grey beret, according to Lee, the senior recruiter.

Recent recruits include wrestlers, water polo players, surfers, runners and a lineman pulled off an NFL practice squad. The common denominator is a knack for tamping down the body’s instinct to scream. “I’m leaving with a grey beret or a body bag,” said one new recruit, entering the pipeline this fall. He’s 17.

“These guys are certified mental and physical studs,” said Sawtelle.

They’re stronger, faster and brighter. The challenge now is pulling these guys back, not pushing them forward.

Tony Carson

They’re also deadly operators. Before they deploy, all SOWTs get a coat of battle paint at Hurlburt Field, home of the Air Force’s advanced combat training school. It’s a sprawling gym, pool and classroom complex, and on a recent visit the facility felt like a stroll through the pages of a spy novel.

Cell phones get locked up in little boxes. The cinder blocks above the urinals are covered with one-pagers on countries in West Africa and Southeast Asia. Everywhere the walls are talking, reminding young airmen about the need for strict operational security.

“Loose pieces of talk are put together by our enemies for victory,” warns one poster.

“This is a 100 percent shred zone,” notes another.

In a warehouse across the street, the SOWTs keep their personal “cages”: wire mesh closets packed like Hollywood costume trailers and piled high with beef jerky and books.

“A lot of guys read a lot of books,” said Sawtelle, walking down the aisles. He pointed out a particular favorite in one locker: “The Art of War,” an ancient Chinese military treatise attributed to Sun Tzu.

“Know the weather,” Sun Tzu advised around 320 B.C. “Your victory will then be total.”

Air Force special operators support Army, Navy and Marine special operations detachments, which means SOWTs have the guns, radios and battle dress to join any team at any time.

Sawtelle stopped at a red door with a security keypad and another little locker for phones.

“We’re behind every SOF (special operations forces) mission,” he said, before saying goodbye. “Weather is always the first slide.”

But not everyone in the military seems to care. The most celebrated soldiers are the ones who most directly take enemy lives and most often lose their own in the process. In Air Force Special Tactics those soldiers are the combat controllers, the ones who call in bombs in a firefight.

Inside the main doors of the Special Tactics Training Complex there is a wall of framed photos, almost all of them fallen combat controllers. In the auditorium two combat controllers recently addressed visitors (and potential recruits) from the Ultimate Fighting circuit. “I know how it sounds,” one of the men said, as he neared the end of a bloody anecdote about his time in Afghanistan, “but just before a firefight, I start to smile.”

This kind of machismo may be necessary, given the work of special operations, but it also means that soldiers sometimes don’t respect the weather. A couple of months after the auditorium speeches a team of Special Tactics airmen huddled in tents on Alaska’s Manatuska Glacier. They were on a training mission, an effort to find a body in one of the area’s seemingly bottomless crevasses.

They were supposed to have SOWTs with them, testing the ice and snowpack, gauging the depth and swiftness of a nearby river. If the team found a body — an actual dummy hidden in the terrain — the SOWTs would forecast for an incoming helicopter. But the SOWTs were called away, sent on a real-world mission at the last moment, according to the Air Force.

The combat controllers and medics didn’t mind. Some used a smartphone app, which failed to predict an afternoon of high winds and rain that might have flipped tents if they had not been angled correctly by a local guide. Others planned to ford the river — until another guide warned them of a dangerous drop in the middle.

Even when the SOWTs are around, the rougher soldiers don’t necessarily see their value. Some prank the SOWTs, stuffing their bags or lockers with balloons. Others ignore the SOWTs entirely — too tough to worry about the weather, too young or inexperienced to realize they should.

One day last spring, dozens of combat controllers filed into a room ahead of a parachute exercise. They were joined by a smaller number of combat medics and an even smaller number of SOWTs. The room darkened as soundproof hatches closed over the windows and a projector turned on.

The young combat controller in charge of the briefing said, “Here’s the weather report.”

He added, “If anyone cares.”

The First SOWT

To understand the new special operations weathermen, it helps to look back to their origins.

The number of military weather observers surged during World War I, when the appearance of long-range artillery and chemical warfare meant that a busted forecast took on dire consequences. A bad wind sock could turn a chemical weapon into a chemical threat. A broken air pressure gauge could make it impossible to determine the distance of incoming fire and get return fire on target.

But World War II was the weatherman’s golden hour. It was the first war with the widespread use of air power, and the United States prepared by training more than 30,000 conventional weather personnel to help guide America’s new flyboys. On D-Day an Allied forecaster first delayed the invasion of France, then sent Commander Eisenhower’s “great crusade” through a clear patch the Germans didn’t see and never expected.

That invasion included the earliest known airborne weathermen, forerunners to today’s SOWTs. One of them stepped out into the clouds over Normandy, popping silk with the 82nd Airborne Division. Another followed in a glider. Both were stitched by gunfire before taking an observation.

The modern SOWT mission was reborn in 1963.

The Johnson administration began to prepare for a secret war in Laos, where the North Vietnamese were cutting tracks through the jungle, creating a supply route known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Pentagon wanted to stop them with bombs, but the flight conditions were dicey. When tropical air hits a mountain range it cools rapidly, forming thunderstorms that could knock back a jet in already difficult skies.

Back at Hurlburt Field, two brigadier generals had an idea for managing this problem. They created an experimental five-man team, a squad of weathermen who could operate like Army Special Forces. They called it the Commando Combat Weather Team and tapped an Air Force captain named Keith Grimes to run it, according to a copy of Grimes’ 1974 “oral autobiography,” prepared by the Air Force (and still partially redacted by the CIA).

Grimes held three degrees, spoke four languages and went on to become one of the most important commandos in Air Force history. He became the first true SOWT, and implemented the broader vision of warriors first, weathermen second.

Grimes came from the regular Air Weather Service, a group of people who, as he described it, “don’t talk to strong men without sort of quivering.” By contrast he was “a wonderful maverick,” in the words of a two-star general whose note introduces the Grimes story, “a credit to mankind — as well as the military.”

Official portrait of then-Captain Keith Grimes.

Official portrait of then-Captain Keith Grimes.

In June 1965 Grimes deployed to an air base in Udorn, Thailand, dressed in civilian clothes and posing as a scientist. The war had started but it wasn’t going well. For the past year American-backed bomber pilots had been following a finger of the Annamite Mountains and, just as the Pentagon had feared, they were getting “socked in” by storms. As many as half their missions were aborted because of weather.

So, to get these sorties on target, Grimes hiked into the Annamites himself, accompanied by a band of Laotian guerillas. From a mountaintop, he could see for 50 miles around, and he would monitor the sky. When he saw a storm collapse, he would call in a strike by code word, coaching the pilots through this hole in the clouds or that sun-drenched valley.

He watched the bombs fall.

“We’d be waiting, hiding in the grass, or the jungle, or up on top of some rocks, or in some cave,” he later recalled, “and before the North Vietnamese could regain their composure and get organized in any fashion we’d overrun the position. Then we’d do it somewhere else two or three days later.”

It worked.

The weather-related abort rate tumbled and the enemy death toll soared. Grimes himself got credit for facilitating 1,200 confirmed kills. He also studded the mountains with three dozen permanent weather stations, and trained a team of indigenous local observers, a “net” he could “crank up” to keep future bombs on target.

What Grimes did in Laos flashed the benefits of a hyper-local, eyes-on combat weather forecast. But like SOWTs today, Grimes still struggled for proper recognition. When he tried to get new rounds for his M-16, for example, the equipment manager at Udorn denied him.

“You’re a weatherman,” he said.

Grimes left his M-16 on the counter and walked out to find an AK-47.

“All we needed to do to get ammunition for the AK-47 was to kill some North Vietnamese,” he said. “That was a devil of a lot easier.”

Gallery: Keith Grimes

In 1970 Grimes again demonstrated the value of SOWTs. He was asked to help execute Operation Kingpin, a lionhearted mission to rescue American POWs from Son Tay, a prison camp near Hanoi. The plan called for six helicopters and two dozen Green Berets and involved an issue of front-page national concern.

To prepare, Grimes called the Air Force’s climatology department and, based on the historical averages, selected October or November as the ideal time for the raid. He wanted the conditions just so: less than five knots of surface wind, an east moon, no more than 45 degrees above the horizon, scattered cirrus clouds, nothing to silhouette the helos.

After a summer of mock-ups, the team flew to Vietnam to wait on the right conditions. But a typhoon formed off the coast and by all appearances it was going to make landfall on November 21, the very day Grimes was targeting for the launch.

From a classified bunker on Monkey Mountain, an American base about 800 miles south of the target, he searched for another option. He reviewed satellite photos and surface observations from his commandos in Laos and China. He saw a cold trough coming down out of the north, a low-pressure system that might be strong enough to delay the typhoon and create a “tongue” of clear weather over Son Tay.

“What’s your conclusion?” the general said.

“If we don’t do it tonight, we’ll never do it,” Grimes said.

They did it.

Six helicopters flew the nape of the Earth, and the night was perfect. The force got in and got out in 26 minutes flat.

The mission still failed.

The POWs had all been moved, the camp deserted. But that was a failure of intelligence, not weather, and Grimes won the Legion of Merit for his work.

What is the price to be paid by military commanders for not knowing the weather? Mission failure? Damage to national prestige? The blood of American servicemen?

Joseph T. Benson

Today Grimes is a relative unknown even within the Air Force, where his accomplishments have been left out of books and buried in the Vietnam archive at Texas Tech University. The reasons help explain why the specialty of combat weather itself has struggled over the years, and may continue to struggle.

Through the 1970s and beyond, the SOWT career field still had a major problem: There was no career field, nothing distinct from the traditional Air Force meteorologists. The Commando Combat Weather Team was a revolving door of volunteers, many with no training beyond jump school. One Grey Beret would be a top-tier special operator. The next wouldn’t even know how to load his gun.

It was almost impossible to get the military’s elite commandos to allow a desk-bred man with a thermometer to take the place of a battle-hardened colleague with a gun. By the time Grimes died in a plane crash in 1977, the field seemed to die with him, setting the stage for the lowest moment in the history of special operations.

Operation Eagle Claw began in November 1979 when Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans captive. Five months later President Jimmy Carter launched a rescue mission, this one involving eight helicopters.

They were to take off from an aircraft carrier in the Red Sea and rendezvous at a secret location in the Iranian desert. Combat controller John T. Carney, who had gone in first to scout the landing site, returned with his teammates to marshal the aircraft, including three large fuel transports. The weather, forecast by desk meteorologists from thousands of miles away in Nebraska, was supposed to be favorable.

The rotor blades of a burned-out U.S. helicopter create a stark silhouette against the desert skies of eastern Iran, where the American commando mission to rescue the hostages proved impossible after equipment failure, seen April 27, 1980. In background is a U.S. helicopter that was also left behind when the mission was aborted.

The rotor blades of a burned-out U.S. helicopter create a stark silhouette against the desert skies of eastern Iran, where the American commando mission to rescue the hostages proved impossible after equipment failure, seen April 27, 1980. In background is a U.S. helicopter that was also left behind when the mission was aborted.

The actual weather was not. The helicopters flew through shrouds of chalk-white dust, invisible to the satellites above, billowing for hundreds of miles near the surface. One of the aircraft crashed. Another turned back in desperation. A third malfunctioned. Carter decided to abort, but one of the remaining choppers flew into a transport plane, erupting in an explosion that left eight servicemen dead.

Carter’s presidency never recovered, and for a while it seemed the Air Force’s forecasters wouldn’t either. Many assumed that they had delivered a busted outlook. The truth was even worse, according to several after-action reports. The desk meteorologists had done the best they could do. The problem was the SOWTs.

They were never on the scene.

No one had called them.

In February 2007, Joseph T. Benson, the SOWTs’ director of operations at Hurlburt Field, attacked this lapse in a blistering essay for Air & Space Power, the Air Force’s professional journal.

“What is the price to be paid by military commanders for not knowing the weather? Is it paid in lost equipment? Mission failure? Damage to national prestige? The blood of American servicemen?” he wrote. “On April 24, 1980, at a remote location in central Iran code-named Desert One, the United States paid on all counts.”

Grey Berets Rise Again

Before special operations weathermen emerged as modern war heroes, they spent decades on the fringes of military life. By the early 1980s, the commando weather team that had been formed for secret work in Vietnam and Laos had, in the words of one former officer, been “allowed to atrophy to the point of being almost nonfunctional.” That’s when people started dying.

In 1982, five Army paratroopers were dragged to their deaths in unforeseen high winds near Fort Irwin, California. A year later, four Navy SEALs dropped into unexpectedly rough surf and died during the invasion of Grenada. In these cases and others, the SOWTs were uncalled or unheeded.

The first Gulf War made matters worse. One SOWT built the largest clandestine weather net since Keith Grimes hiked into Laos. But there was another SOWT on the ground, a drinker. To consummate the invasion he held “a sexual orgy in the middle of the desert,” Wayne Golding, the SOWTs’ commanding officer, later told an Air Force historian.

Golding wasn’t smiling. A major reason why U.S. special operators — from the SEALs to the Rangers to the Green Berets — were turning down SOWTs at the time was the fear that the weather guy would somehow compromise a mission. They didn’t trust the SOWTs’ training, nor their professionalism, and this libidinous forecaster had just given them proof that those suspicions were justified.

It got even worse. In the early 1990s, General Merrill McPeak, the new Air Force chief of staff, decided to deflate the Air Weather Service, a byzantine, bloated organization that grew out of World War II. He closed wings, shuttered squadrons and reassigned hundreds of forecasters.

A “Right Stuff”-style fighter jock from the Vietnam era, McPeak thought the Air Weather Service was, as he suggested in an email to NBC, as outdated as the Polish cavalry. He nearly succeeded in making its forecasters just as ceremonial.

“It killed our career field,” said Rip Coleman, who at the time was the director of meteorology for Air Force Special Operations.

Rip Coleman, former member of the special operations weather team, in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.

Rip Coleman, former member of the special operations weather team, in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.

Coleman and others succeeded in getting a new unit created: the 10th Combat Weather Squadron at Hurlburt Field. Brady Armistead was already there, a proud young forecaster who, like Grimes before him, was a human test case.

He was among the first weathermen assigned to an experimental Special Tactics Team. Such teams are now the official future of Air Force Special Operations. In the beginning, however, Armistead’s arrival was met with bewilderment.

The guard stopped him at the front gates. There must be some mistake, the guard told him: “We don’t have a combat weather team at Hurlburt Field.”

Armistead demanded that the guard station call the base commander: “We don’t have a weatherman,” the base commander confirmed.

It took three more calls to get Armistead a bunk for the night. It was right about then — as he lay awake and little worms of anger spread in his chest — that Armistead decided to change the way special operations thinks about weathermen.

“You can beat me down. You can talk crap. But at the end of the day, I’m going to show you my value,” he remembers thinking.

By the time he dropped into Afghanistan, poised to start the war on terror, Armistead had won his own battle, according to several former colleagues. He had earned a spot on the 24th Special Tactics Squadron, the Air Force’s version of SEAL Team 6 and Delta Force. (The Pentagon doesn’t officially acknowledge any of these teams and neither does Armistead, but other senior military personnel confirmed STS 24’s existence to NBC News.)

“Those guys were s**t-hot,” remembers a member of Delta Force, who deployed with SOWTs and combat controllers during the fierce early months of the war in Afghanistan. “They could swing like Tarzan, think like Einstein and climb like Spider-Man.”

The military started to trust SOWTs again, using them two years later when the United States invaded Iraq, according to records compiled by the Air Weather Association, a society of military forecasters.

At least three SOWTs infiltrated early. One landed in the northeast, near Iran, where he watched the winds for signs of chemical warfare. Another entered in the south, surviving incoming missiles and a sandstorm strong enough to bury his sleeping bag.

A third worked the center of the country, and forecast clear skies for a thousand paratroopers making the first major insertion of the war. A half hour before the paratroopers reached their jump point, the SOWT thought he had blown his call. The clouds above him were low and thick — then he saw his first star.

In a role that remains classified, SOWTs also deployed in support of Operation Neptune’s Spear, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, according to people familiar with that and similar SOWT missions.

“I guarantee you there were guys out there,” said one senior official, who requested anonymity because he isn’t authorized to discuss the bin Laden mission. Special Operations Command declined to comment directly, as did Sawtelle, the officer then in charge of the SOWTs at Hurlburt Field.

But the need for data was obvious. Pakistan’s ground weather stations are spotty and far-flung, producing forecasts too vague for military use. To compensate, at least one environmental observer was on the flight path into Pakistan, while a second dug into the mountains surrounding Abbottabad, providing environmental “overwatch” on the compound, according to military sources.

It’s unclear how they landed in those positions. SOWTs are trained to jump from tens of thousands of feet, glide through the night and hit an X anywhere on the map. But they’re equally adept at flying commercial with an Osprey backpack, North Face boots and a cover story.

Those guys were s**t-hot. They could swing like Tarzan, think like Einstein and climb like Spider-Man.

Delta Force member

For all the SOWT successes, it was yet another failure that perhaps did the most to secure their future.

The date was July 7, 2007, a bloody day for American soldiers in Mali, but of course the men zipped into their tents in the Kidal region didn’t know that yet. They were waiting out a storm, worrying, if at all, about a strike by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The average summer storm in Mali drops less than a quarter inch of rain. This was not the average summer storm. It was most likely a mesoscale convective complex, a violent kind of disturbance that climatologists expect to multiply as the planet warms.

It had grown overnight, the power undetected by satellites, hundreds of miles from the nearest radar station. Warm air soared upward, pulling in moisture from the Atlantic coast, and by noon what had begun as a few gray clouds on the horizon had blossomed into an ambush, according to Bruce Perkins, an Air Force meteorologist who helped investigate the incident for U.S. Special Operations Command.

The storm collapsed directly over the unsuspecting soldiers of the 10th Special Forces Group. Rain cut grooves in the earth and lightning lit the sky with sudden, eerie flashes. When the wind gusted, it sheared away a layer of mud.

One gust loosened the tent pegs.

The next gust blew the tents over.

Two soldiers toppled out uninjured. Two others rolled, and the tent turned into a grinder of heavy people and heavier gear. They suffered brain damage and were flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for long-term care. The fifth soldier — a decorated veteran and new father from Monterey, California — died at the scene.

A SOWT, Perkins made clear to his seniors, could have made all the difference. A SOWT, he said, “would have been able to forecast some pretty heavy stuff coming, and tell the guys to find a harder place to site their tents.”

The right people in the Pentagon agreed. Less than a year later, on May 5, 2008, the Air Force decided to create its new career field for special operations weather.

Video: Building a special ops weatherman

No more need to teach desk meteorologists how to fight. SOWTs now recruit at football games and college wrestling tournaments, sometimes drawing people in with a chin-up bar and a challenge. SOWTs have resources now, too, and they get to train alongside the best commandos in the military.

“Sixty seconds to touchdown!” the crew chief yelled during one such training mission.

The interior of a grounded CH-47 helicopter came alive with the wet rumble of motorcycle engines. The commandos balanced on dirt bikes, eight per team: 24 soldiers to protect the lives of several thousand refugees. They adjusted their M4 carbines and flipped on night-vision goggles.

Then the ramp fell and they sped into a war zone.

They were actually on a parcel of forest near Pensacola, Florida, conducting a simulated response to environmental trauma. The people of one country had pushed into the people of another, and Special Tactics had been deployed to secure the perimeter of the refugee camp, help the injured and keep the peace.

That, and don’t get themselves killed. One of the instructors was tossing mortars. They were blanks, but the sounds and shakes were real. One rookie was blown off his bike and into the mud. Another sped up, riding the tailpipe of the bike in front of him.

Afterward the team debriefed in a small clearing near a lake. It was full dark, so everyone kept their night-vision goggles on.

“Why don’t you want to bunch on those turns?” asked the mortar-tossing instructor.

He put a pinch of tobacco in his lip and didn’t wait long for an answer.

“Ambush, IED,” he said. “You’re all smoked in a second flat.”

Observing this session was lead instructor Sergeant Travis Sanford, a 27-year-old SOWT in the new mold. He looks like G.I. Joe: a V-bodied six-footer, snapped together with symmetry and blessed with a kung-fu grip. In 2010 he grabbed a wounded Marine by his ankle and pulled him to safety in Afghanistan, earning a Bronze Star for valor.

Today he’s a model the Air Force would like to replicate by the dozen. But he also gets it. There’s still a joke here, still something slightly off about forecasting the weather while someone is trying to kill you. That will probably always be true.

The new SOWTs don’t take the slights too personally anymore, Sanford said. When a smirking officer asks for a weather balloon, as one always does, one of Sanford’s colleagues likes to pull out a kid’s party balloon and shape it into a giraffe.

Sanford understands the military in terms of a giant high school social scene. The special operators are like starting quarterbacks and homecoming kids, but not the SOWTs.

“We’re kind of like the valedictorians,” he said. “We’ve got the 4.0 grade point average, but we can play a little, too.”

Multimedia produced by John Brecher and Win Rosenfeld