Tom Satterly spent 20 years as a member of the elite special forces unit known as Delta Force. His very first combat mission turned out to be the Battle of Mogadishu, the longest sustained firefight in U.S. military history since the Vietnam War, an 18-hour assault in Somalia that left 18 American soldiers dead and was immortalized in the film Black Hawk Down. Tom went on to serve in every major U.S. conflict where the U.S. Special Forces were deployed from Somalia and Bosnia to Afghanistan and Iraq including being an integral part of Operation Red Dawn, the mission that led to the capture of Saddam Hussein. While in Iraq Tom also led a 10,000 person Task Force and was in charge of protection for President Bush while he was in-country. After retiring as a Command Sgt. Major. the highest rank an enlisted soldier can achieve, and being awarded 64 medals, including five Bronze Stars, two with Valor,Tom co-founded an elite military contracting firm to train the next generation of Special Operations warfighters. Tom’s book, “All Secure: A Special Operations Soldier’s Fight to Survive on the Battlefield and the Homefront” is an inside look at Delta Force and Tom’s battle to overcome PTS.
Jen Satterly was Director of Film and Photography for a top Special Ops training company where she was fully embedded with the Navy SEALs and Green Berets filming realistic military training exercises before dedicating herself full time to tackling the issue of PTS. She is currently writing a book entitled “Virago” about overcoming adversity and healing from the invisible wounds of PTS. Together Tom and Jen founded the All Secure Foundation which serves Special Operations veterans and their families in helping them heal from the psychological toll of war.
During the wanderlust of a hot summer in Columbus, on the way to experiencing the most rock n roll thing you could do in Indiana in the 1980s, barreling down Intestate 65 to see a John Cougar Mellencamp concert, the thrill of a friend’s decision to join the army, and tales of basic training and the adventure that being a soldier promised, led Tom Satterly to know in that moment what he wanted to do with his life. At an Army recruiting station Tom was sold on the idea of being a combat engineer and getting the opportunity to “blow stuff up, ” however while on deployment in Germany, Tom had the opportunity to attend French commando school. as well as compete with 1000 other soldiers and win the single slot offered by the Army to attend German Ranger School. Some of the training was organized by the US Army Special Forces There, Tom got a taste of what SF training might entail and that spark, along with the borrowed dream of a friend who sought to live up to his father’s status as a member of the legendary unconventional warriors known as the green berets, the fire was lit and Tom pursued his new dream of becoming a special operator with an intense passion.
While qualifying to become a Green Beret, Tom was approached by members of SFOD-D, otherwise known as Delta Force, or more colloquially within the military referred to as “The Unit.” While those in special operations were selected from amongst the best in the general armed forces, “The Unit” selected their members exclusively from the special operations community, only the best of the best SOF warriors, from the Navy SEALs and Green Beret’s to the Army Rangers had a chance of making it through Delta Force’s qualification. The Unit’s mission was exclusively geared towards taking down terrorists, drug lords and America’s highest value targets, they were a secretive group that did not wear uniforms and had an unlimited budget, an unheard-of extravagance in the military even among SOF.
After two years of training in close quarters combat, martial arts and hand-to-hand with knives and pistols, learning how to shoot sniper rifles and heavy weapons such as .50-caliber machine guns and rifle grenades, and how to operate foreign weapons, such as the AK-47, along with advanced driving and evasion techniques, along with trainng on how to use vehicles as weapons, how to how to make explosives, how to breach an enemy compound, and how to dress and act to blend into the local population, Tom felt invincible, “I literally felt like I could have done anything. I wasn’t afraid. I mean, now at that at that age, I don’t think I even considered fear. I don’t remember if I talked about considering fear in some way. I mean, I talk about a lot later in life. But as I think back to what I thought then I thought it was invincible. I thought were so good, I’m so confident my skills you asked me to go do something, whether in a foreign country or in a house, I felt I’d done it.
Tom’s first taste of combat turned out to be immortalized in the film Blackhawk Down as part of the small force of Delta operators, Army rangers, and Nightstalker’s that were sent to Somalia to hunt warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and his aides. While there, a mission gone wrong turned into the battle of Mogadishu, the longest sustained firefight in the US military history since the Vietnam War. An18-hour long firefight, being pinned down by thousands of Somali fighters and trapped in a war-ravaged urban environment after 5 black hawk helicopters were shot out of the sky with RPGs, and the fight to survive the night until the support of an armored division of US Peacekeepers could arrive, left Tom feeling as if there was no escape. The against the odds struggle of 400 special operators attempting to survive the night in the face of a never-ending stream of Somali combatants hopped up on the amphetamine-like effects of Khat and an endless torrent of AK 47s and RPGs left Tom ragged, yet at peace with his impending doom. The acceptance of death and the aftermath of seeing his brothers ripped to shreds in front of him, their hastily piled bodies and the stench of bleach, blood and sand changed him forever, it had flipped a switch.
In order to train to overcome the natural inclination of most soldiers to kill “The Unit” would practice the mechanics of destroying the enemy with precision and a relentless repetition, learning to shoot surgically as a reflex in CQB and OTC training such that you only saw targets, not human beings. However, even the transformation of Tom and many in the SpecOps community into terminator like manhunters was not enough to stem the psychological damage inflicted by the endless killing as well as the extremely violent deaths of fallen brothers. As the impact of incessant mayhem and destruction, pierced Tom’s psyche, he went from viewing his role as one of helping people and liberating the oppressed, to one of executing targets. In order to survive the psychological anguish of war, he would remove empathy from the equation altogether and focus on hate and extreme violence.
“I think the ideology is of helping people change to the ideology of punishing bad people. Right versus What’s your job? Why help people you know, I think it changed to. what’s your job, I killed people that need killing you know, it was I’m the guy you call when you want someone dead because they’re bad and that’s kind of a different look at your job right? It’s just what I focused on you know, I became ontological, (it went from) I’m gonna take down those bullies and help those people and help them uplift themselves, and I ended up being in a job where we don’t uplift anybody. We go in and (and) we remove threats. We remove evil dictators and terrorists, that want to cut your head off and slash your children up in front of you just because of who you are, just because of what they’ve been taught about you. And you have to be pretty, pretty evil and violent yourself to meet that. And I knew that if I let those emotions of losing all those friends overcome me that I would be worthless. that was my thinking back then. I needed to be, you see the military culture, the tattoos, the muscles, the guns, the beards and long hair, I’m going to kill things. It’s like man, that’s quite a Halloween mask you wear, forever.”
Years afterword, having been deployed to the most intense conflict zones from Bosnia to the hunting grounds of the GWoT (Global War on Terrorism), Afghanistan and Iraq, Tom and his team had fallen into a routine of endless hits, endlessly sent out to kill or capture targets, insurgency leaders, money managers, bomb makers, foreign fighters, and the smugglers bringing them in. Although Tom was now desensitized to the bloodshed, it now took up residence in the deepest recesses of his mind, the psychological tumult only finding an outlet in the relentless stream of fitful dreams and outbursts of violence and anger that saw Tom blow through 3 marriages. After myriad 90 day cycles of inflicting non-stop violence on the enemy and returning home to decompress, recuperate and train, Tom found little respite in being home, always seeking to get back to combat, the only time he truly felt in his natural element.
Tom, like many in the SpecOps community that are continually exposed to highly kinetic environments and the constant adrenaline dump of combat, had turned to alcohol, and pills to even out, Ambien to sleep, Prozac for the depression and anxiety, opioids to blunt the physical pain and alcohol to chase it all down. The daily cocktail of chemicals, the unrelenting spree of raids on the enemy, and the ritual of aggression, hate, caffeine, energy drinks, and death metal blaring over loudspeakers necessary to work the pipe-hitters of The Unit into the self-induced rage necessary to fuel the hostility resulted in minds that only worked in war, but were broken and depressed when navigating the rest of life, Worse, there was no one Tom felt he could talk to. He felt trapped by the elite nature of his work. The constant assessment of The Unit, left Tom feeling as though he could never let up, that his place could be taken in an instant by his younger colleagues. As such, the idea of unburdening himself to his superiors or expressing the trauma he was experiencing to The Unit psychologists was anathema to Tom, lest he was viewed as unable to deal with the stress of combat. Equally, there was no discussing his feelings with his brothers on the team, as no want wants to be perceived as a weak leader, nor could he open up to his wife for fear she wouldn’t want to hear the anguish inflicted by a job he freely chose to continuously go back to, and neither could he confide in his folks as he never wanted them to worry about his welfare.
It only worsened when Tom retired, thrust to live outside the familiarity of combat, Tom found reasons to remain in the special operations community as a private contractor starting a company he surrounded himself with special forces veterans, even hiring a few guys from his old unit and lived in Amman Jordan for a year and a half. The PTS was still masked behind a wall of alcohol, pills and partying but it hit like a tidal wave upon returning to the States, once home for good and the tether to his tribe separated he spiraled. The repressed psychological pain, the fevered dreams, the booze and pills, and the reality of having gone from being a tier-one operator, an elite instrument of America’s unmatched military power, to the day-to-day life of civilian life, from leading and training America’s best warfighters to teaching civilians how to shoot zombies with paintball guns for video shoots had worn Tom down to the bone. The fall from putting your life on the line and being entrusted with the lives of others, to the trivialities of civilian life mixed with the mental anxiety, depression and repressed anguish led to suicidal ideation and the moment of Tom’s likely end, sitting in his car with a pistol in his hand
While slipping into the abyss, there was one bright spot, he had met Jen a filmmaker and photographer shooting many of the training exercises Tom was running, (including the Zombie Apocalypse video), they were fast becoming friends, and they found themselves texting and calling each other away from work. Sharing moments of their personal lives, expressing his feelings discussing his failed marriages and the distance between him and his son, Tom was opening up in a way he hadn’t in years. However, the pills and alcohol, the depression and anxiety, and the stark realization he was falling for a girl whose life he felt he would only destroy, as he had his three prior relationships, he decided to finally act on his suicidal thoughts. Sitting in his car after a training shoot, with Jen and colleagues waiting for him at the bar, he contemplated how best to place the pistol against his head to and extinguish his pain once and for all, but just before he followed through Tom received a text from Jen asking where he was and if he was okay, the spell momentarily broken, he put the gun underneath the driver’s seat and left to spend the evening with Jen.
In that moment Jen not only saved Tom’s life, she also saved him from his demons, demanding he get help after spending two years together and a final blow out on the night of their marriage. Jen’s ultimatum that Tom get therapy set him on a path to healing, and she became so involved with Tom’s recovery that as he improved she felt a calling to help others in the special ops community. Given how many of Tom’s SF colleagues and friends were suffering in silence, Jen wanted to make a difference in their lives as well and she became a health coach. Jen put Tom on a nutrition plan in addition to his counseling and the new diet and supplements were working wonders, he felt clear, was able to sleep, and he lost weight. The response from Tom’s colleagues was overwhelming, everyone wanted to know what he was doing and Jen decided then and there they should start a foundation devoted to PTS and healing the psychological pain and suffering rampant in the special ops community.
Tom and Jen went on to found the All Secure Foundation, and after committing themselves to raise awareness, including speaking to Senators to the cause of treating PTS and congressional aides who were motivated to act, they have made All Secure their full-time mission. Listening to the stories of the violence that haunts many that have seen extensive combat, giving those who have no one to talk a place to discuss their issues, has turned the corner for many that had previously had nowhere to turn. Today Tom and Jen have taken their mission further, they have built programs for not just the operators but their families, those that face just as much stress and anguish in trying to keep their families together in the aftermath of war. Tom and Jen are also now embedded in the military’s training of the next generation of America’s elite warfighters, with the support of the DoD, they are working with new Green Berets and Air Force special ops and delivering PTS Resiliency training so that should they experience they symptoms of post-traumatic stress, that they have the tools to deal with it. With the help of the All Secure Foundation, and Tom and Jen’s dedication, future operators may never have to wear the mask that hides the horror Tom and many of his brothers in SF had to suppress and bury like so many of their fallen brothers.
All Secure: A Special Operations Soldier’s Fight to Survive on the Battlefield and the Homefront: https://amzn.to/2Z9iHa8