Created in 1971, the US Marshals Service Special Operations Group (USMS SOG) is the nation’s oldest federal tactical unit. The Marshals Service created the Special Operations Group (SOG) as a response to the increasing number of hostile situations Marshals Service personnel faced on an almost daily basis.
Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Deputy US Marshals found themselves dealing with an increasingly violent populace. Deputy Marshals were routinely being called on to respond to large-scale and sometimes extremely violent, anti-government protests, apprehend heavily armed criminals and terrorists, and provide additional protection at vulnerable federal facilities.
To help combat some of these new challenges, Wayne Colburn, the Director of the Marshals Service, conceived forming a specially trained unit of Deputy Marshals and presented it to Attorney General John Mitchell. Mitchell reviewed Colburn’s proposal and approved it. Authorization was granted, and the Marshals were ordered to form the new unit in January 1971. The new unit, known as the Special Operations Group or SOG, was tasked with handling situations that local law enforcement agencies could not take on their own due to a lack of resources, training, or manpower.
Colburn began to recruit volunteers from within the ranks of the Marshals, hand-picking the recruits with a unique eye for the “maturity” provided by military combat experience. With his first 114 men, the Special Operations Group began to prepare for the May Day demonstrations of 1971.
In April of 1971, the USMS SOG completed its initial training at the former Border Patrol Training Academy in Los Fresno, Texas. Training primarily covered techniques for dealing with civil unrest. SOG’s first operational deployment took place during the 1971 May Day demonstration in Washington DC. The demonstration turned into a riot, and the SOG was deployed to help regain control of the situation. The SOG was used to secure the area aroundFederal Courts in the Washington DC area.
May Day riots
After the May Day riots, SOG was used to evicted Indians from the deserted Twin Cities Naval Air Station in Minneapolis; the next month, they expelled another group of Indians from the deserted Alcatraz Island prison; the following October, they went to the federal prison in Danbury, Conn., to protect it from groups demonstrating over the Attica prison riot. In 1972, SOG was sent to the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in Miami Beach to protect the convention facility.
1970s and 1980s
Its next major deployment occurred in February 1973. Members of a militant group known as the American Indian Movement had taken control of the Wounded Knee area of the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. The Federal Government responded by ordering the deployment of a large number of federal agents to the site. Included within the group were over 100 heavily armed Deputy Marshals, including members of the USMS SOG.
As negotiations began to drag on, both sides dug in for an extended siege, with gunfire being exchanged on an almost daily basis. After 71 days, the protesters finally surrendered to Federal authorities, but not before two of the protesters were killed. A Deputy Marshal was paralyzed after he was struck in the spine by a bullet.
In 1975 USMS SOG Marshals were deployed to the island of Guam to help provide security for Vietnamese refugees being relocated to the island.
In 1981 USMS SOG deputies had the unfortunate task of searching for possible survivors from the James Town Massacre in Guyana.
In 1983 the Marshal’s Service established the SOG Training Center at Camp Beauregard, Louisiana. The center became the SOG operating base and conducted both Basic and Advanced training courses for SOG operators and other law enforcement personnel.
Largest and longest hostage situation in United States history
In 1987 the USMS SOG became involved in the largest, and longest, hostage situation in US history. Cuban inmates at three US prisons rioted after the US Department of State announced that it had reached a deal with the Cuban Government to deport several thousand of them back to Cuba. The situation began when inmates rioted at the OakdaleCorrectional Facility (OCF), taking over sixty employees hostage. Two days later, Cuban inmates at the US Penitentiary Atlanta, Georgia (USPA) rioted, taking 75 employees hostage.
With the FBI Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) tied up dealing with the OCF situation, the Department of Justice turned to the local FBI field office SWAT teams, the US Border Patrol, and the Marshal’s Service for tactical muscle. The Marshals deployed the SOG. SOG deputies executed many contingency operations throughout the crisis, including securing several potential escape routes, entering the facility on several occasions to conduct intelligence-gathering missions, and supporting other federal tactical units.
In 1989 Hurricane Hugo tore through the Caribbean, causing massive devastation along its path, with the US Virgin Islands being one of the hardest-hit areas. During the hurricane, some 200 prisoners escaped custody and were known to roam the islands free. The local Marshal’s office, trying to deal with multiple crises, was utterly overwhelmed by the situation and requested additional assistance. Upon receiving the request, the US Attorney General ordered SOG’s immediate deployment SOG to the islands.
Operation Just Cause
In December of 1989, the US launched Operation Just Cause, the US invasion of Panama. A US Federal District Court had issued an arrest warrant for Panamanian military strongman General Manuel Antonio Noriega. The warrant charged Gen. Noriega with money laundering and drug trafficking. A USMS SOG team was dispatched to Panama aboard a USAF special operations transport aircraft, so as to be on hand once Gen. Noriega was taken into US custody. The SOG team would then transport Noriega back to the US for trial.
Ruby Ridge incident
In 1991, SOG initially became involved in one of the most controversial and unfortunate incidents in US Federal law enforcement history. White supremacist Randall “Randy” Weaver missed a federal court date, where he was to stand trial for supposedly trying to sell a sawn-off shotgun to an undercover BATF agent. When Weaver failed to appear before the Federal judge as ordered, a Federal warrant was issued for his arrest. Deputy Marshals were ordered to serve the warrant on Weaver, who was believed to be staying at his family home in Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
At this time the Weaver home contained Randy Weaver, his wife Vicki, Weaver’s children, and Weaver’s family friend, Kevin Harris. Fearing a long and possibly violent standoff with Weaver and his family, the Marshals Service chose not to engage in a confrontation with Weaver. Instead, they decided to limit their initial activities to surveillance of the Weaver household before any arrest attempt. The local Marshal’s office requested input from SOG in case a tactical operation had to be undertaken.
During one such surveillance operation, a three-man team of Marshals encountered Randy Weaver, Kevin Harris, Weaver’s son Sammy, and the family dog “Striker.” During the encounter, a firefight erupted, Sammy Weaver and Deputy Marshall William F. Degan were killed. At the time, Degan was serving as a member of the SOG and was on the mission at the specific request of the local Marshal’s office.
After the death of Marshal Degan, the FBI assumed responsibility for the operation and deployed its Hostage Rescue Team (HRT). The Government, assisted by former Army Special Forces officer “Bo” Gritz, was finally able to negotiate an end to the standoff, but only after Weaver’s wife, Vicki, was killed by a shot from HRT sniper Lon Horiuchi.
Rodney King riots
When the verdict for the 1992 Rodney King beating trial was announced, the city of Los Angeles found itself turned into a virtual war zone. Thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed, and hundreds of people were injured by rampaging mobs seeking “justice” for what they believed to be an unjust verdict. Los Angeles rapidly found itself overwhelmed by the situation and requested additional assistance from both the state and Federal governments. The Marshals Service activated the USMS SOG, and it deployed to Los Angeles, along with hundreds of other Federal officers.
Operation Gun Smoke
USMS SOG also provided tactical backup to local Marshals’ field offices during Operation Gun Smoke. Operation Gun Smoke was a ten-week, multi-agency operation launched to capture some of the nation’s most hard-to-find and violent fugitives.
During the Summer of 1993, the Federal Government and dozens of state and local law enforcement agencies launched Operation Trident, a massive sweep for some of the country’s most wanted fugitives. The operation was so successful that 5,700 suspects were arrested in just nine weeks.
World Trade Center bombers trial
1994 saw the accused mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing go to trial. SOG personnel provided security to both witnesses and Judicial personnel prosecuting the case. SOG personnel also operated as a CAT during the movement of the accused bombers, the jury, and anyone else involved with the case.
In October of 1995, blind Egyptian Muslim cleric Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman was convicted and nine other defendants of conspiring to wage a “holy war” against the United States. SOG Deputies provided additional court security throughout the trial, protecting federal prosecutors and attorneys from possible revenge attacks. USMS SOG deployed plain-clothed deputies throughout the building complex and maintained a Counter Assault Team (CAT) on standby in case of an attack on the courthouse itself. That same month SOG deputies deployed to the US Virgin Islands in the aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn.
The late 1990s
In 1996 SOG teams, along with a number of special military operations and federal tactical units, deployed to Atlanta, Georgia, as part of the massive buildup of security forces prior to the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.
In 1997 SOG provided security to US Drug Czar Gen. (Ret.) Barry McCaffery, during a domestic and foreign fact, finding a mission.
In 2000 SOG was deployed to assist with security for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) meetings in Washington, DC. A few months later SOG, along with FBI SWAT teams, and US Navy SEAls, participated in “Operation Eastern Access”. SOG and the FBI SWAT teams were used to remove protesters from the US Navy bombing range located on Vieques Island in Puerto Rico. The protesters, who were upset about the death of a local citizen who was accidentally killed by a stray bomb, had been blocking the US Navy from using the range for more than a year.
USMS SOG is currently based at the William F. Degan Tactical Operations Center, which is located on the grounds of Camp Beauregard near Alexandria, Louisiana. The training center and a separate 40-acre tactical training area are located in a secluded section of the base. The site contains several ranges; a warehouse with movable wall’s that allows them to vary its internal configuration; a helicopter landing pad, rappel towers; a classroom; several storage buildings and the SOG’s Urban Center. Over the years, many of the site structures have been constructed by the SOG to allow them to improve the training they provide.<
USMS SOG’s mission statement describes the unit as follows:
“The Special Operations Group is a specially trained and highly disciplined tactical unit, a self-supporting response team capable of responding to emergencies anywhere in the US or its territories.”
Organizational chart and mission
The SOG is had recently undergone an expansion and is currently composed of 62 Deputy Marshals, plus a separate full-time training cadre; approximately 10% of the group is composed of females. SOG is currently divided into four separate teams, with the four primary teams being subdivided into twelve-man assault teams. Now, twelve SOG members are also qualified as snipers. SOG’s official mandate states that the unit is responsible for handling the following:
- Service of High Threat Arrest and Search Warrants
- Top Fifteen Arrests
- High Threat Extradition
Court Security/Judicial Protection
- Court Facility Perimeter Security
- Perimeter Security of Judicial Residences
- On-site Tactical Operations Team
- Counter Assault team for High Threat Vehicle Movement of Judges And Juries
- On-site Perimeter Security
- Initial Security Search of Operational
- Site Security for High Valued Seized Assets
- Safe Site Perimeter Security
- Counter Assault Team for High Threat Vehicle Movement
- Tactical Support for Crowd Control Situations
- Counter Assault Team for High Threat Vehicle Movement
- Perimeter Security at Aircraft/Vehicle Loading and/or unloading Facilities
Training and selection
Any qualified Marshal may volunteer for duty with USMS SOG. A numerical scoring system is used to create the initial selection list. Those who make the initial cut are then invited to one interview with the training cadre. The ones who have what the team is looking for must then validate any skills they claim to have. Anyone who still manages to survive up to this point must then complete a rigorous 27-day training course conducted by the training center’s personnel.
The course is designed to see how well candidates function under pressure and if they can operate well within a team. Training is conducted for 15-17 hours a day throughout the course. Students are also tested on their academic skills, so additional time is consumed studying, thus allowing very little time for sleep.
During the course, students conduct training on a 12 station obstacle course; and a leaders reaction course, which is designed to test their problem-solving teamwork, and leadership skills. Students also receive training in helicopter insertions, rappelling, precision shooting techniques, diversionary/distraction devices, close-quarters battle (CQB) techniques, tactical field training, tactical movement, and other skills.
After a candidate completes the training course, he will be assigned to one of the SOG teams and return to his regular duties. If the team is called to deploy, they will first assemble the Tactical Operations Center if time allows. They will conduct practice runs for the upcoming deployment and fine-tune their shooting skills.
Standard routine training sessions are conducted at least every six months. The sessions last for three weeks, during which the team practices its shooting and assault skills. They also usually perform several helicopter insertions and a tactical field exercise. The field exercise is conducted over several days and allows the team to practice its tracking, tactical movement, assault skills.
Equipment and weaponry
The SOG is equipped with a variety of weapons, including Colt 9mm SMGs and possibly the Knight Armaments Corporation (KAC) suppressed Colt 9mm SMG; the HK MP5 series of 9mm SMGs; Remington 870 and Ithaca DS 12- gauge shotguns; .357 magnum revolvers, Smith & Wesson .45 cal. Model 654, and Barreta 9mm pistols; Remington 700 .308 cal sniper rifles, M-16A2s, with some equipped with scopes, and CAR-15 rifles.