From Excellent H.S. French Horn Player to Exceptional Special Forces Warrior: Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen R. Bolton, United States Army

Lieutenant-Colonel Steve Bolton’s mother and father were career musicians and music teachers, with his dad eventually becoming a bandsman with the United States Army, posted then on an unaccompanied tour to Germany, leaving his pregnant mother in the D.C. area, which explains Steve’s birth at the Army’s hospital at Fort Belvoir in Northern Virginia.

Army service ran at least two generations deep. On his father’s side, his enlisted grandfather serving at the end of World War II, then attending, graduating, and was commissioned from, the University of Maryland, and went on to serve in both the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.  On his mother’s side, his other grandfather joined the Army Air Corps late in World War and, as a Lieutenant, had just completed training as a B-29 navigator destined for the Pacific, when America’s two atomic bombs brought the war with Japan to a close. Steve’s dad served four-years on active duty, and then in the Army Reserve for many years thereafter. Parental brothers also served. His father’s brother, Mike, served a full career as an Army artillery officer, while his mother’s brother served five-years in the Air Force as a Korean linguist.  Truly a distinguished military family.

Looking back at his high school years, Bolton recalled that he did very well academically.  He especially enjoyed math, that is “until I ran into college calculus as a junior in high school and decided that I never wanted anything to do with it again!”  He enjoyed sports, playing not on school teams, but recreationally.  His real love and accomplishment during those H.S. years was playing the French horn, following his parents’ lead and becoming “one of the top players in the state.” His career interest at that time, thus shifted “from becoming an aerospace engineer to an orchestral musician,” said Bolton.

In September of 1989, he began his college years at the University of Kansas, attending on a ‘full-ride’ music scholarship.  “I loved what I was doing there, was very enthusiastic about all my music classes, and never had any intention of ever joining the military,” he remembers.  But since he lacked the necessary enthusiasm for other classes that he didn’t enjoy,  by the Summer of 1990, he found himself “absent some scholarships!”

He wanted to continue with his collegiate studies, so he looked around and determined that service in the Army Reserve could provide the financial pathway he needed to remain in school.  So, in August of 1990, he signed his enlistment papers and went to basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, planning to be a French horn player in an Army band, conveniently located in Lawrence, Kansas, which would enable him to return to school.  “I did that for a couple of years, but at the same time, I started to have some interest in other academic fields, so I started taking several political science classes and things of that nature,” Bolton remembered. Perhaps surprisingly, “A long-term military career started to look more appealing to me, because I very much enjoyed the values that were     associated with military service.  It wasn’t just my family background.  It was an entirely new appreciation for what I observed and increasingly felt.”

LTC Steve Bolton discusses the beginning of his career.

And as his future career direction would have it, there also happened to be an Army Reserve Special Forces unit nearby.  “I transferred over to that unit, because I decided If I was going to be a career soldier, I wanted the best training that I could get,” he said. “I joined the Reserve Army Special Forces unit in 1993, and that prepared me for the Special Forces Assessment course, and then the subsequent Qualification course, that I attended in 1994.”  At that point, he had about 2 ½-years of college completed, and decided he’d take a break in order to go through about a year-and-a-half of Army training.  Then, with only about one year of that training completed, in January of 1995, he got his first deployment assignment, this one to Haiti!

Looking back for a moment at his initial Special Forces training, the first stop was jump school at Fort Benning. “The Special Forces assessment course was a twenty-day, very intense, assessing process, from which only about 30% are accepted for continued training to see if they’ll meet the qualifications to become a Green Beret,” said Bolton.  After earning his jump wings, he moved next to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he entered the communications sergeant course, preparing to become a radio operator.

“That time, from April to December of ’94, when I graduated from the SF Qualification course, was one of the best things that I had experienced in my life.  Not just the subject matter, the adventure, and the challenges associated with it, but it was the quality of the people I was around.  It was just a tremendously good experience,” he recalled.  At that time, a romantic relationship (led to marriage, but eventual divorce) kept him in North Carolina rather than returning to complete his college studies in Kansas.  He would, of necessity, deal with those missing credits later on.

Also in 2004, the Army moved Special Forces along with all of the combat arms units (infantry, armor, artillery) from the Reserve branch to the National Guard, which included Steve Bolton, since his Reserve unit went away as well.  That being the case, and in keeping with his developing Army career emphasis, he then changed his original Guard unit designation to one in Special Forces.

He actually continued to enjoy his Special Forces experiences so much that, recalled Bolton: “I just kept finding more reasons to go on active duty, attend more schools, and go on more deployments.” So, in 1996, as indicated, he changed his Army assignment from communications to medic, heading then next to the Special Forces Medical Sergeants Course (eleven-month duration).  As he described the outcome of that training: “Being an 18D, SF medic, is kind of like being a Physician’s Assistant (P.A.), with some extra expedient surgical skills included.  They start us off as paramedics, and then they build from there. For me, that was also a very enjoyable, very intense period of training.”  And it was during a medic training rotation at Fort Belvoir, when he would meet his second, and forever wife, Brooke, who was there on staff with her first duty station as an Army nurse. Serendipitous, since Fort Belvoir, you’ll recall, was his place of birth, and now, the site of a very happy ‘rebirth’ of sorts for Sergeant Bolton, who would go on the marry Brooke after about a year of dating.

At the conclusion of the SF medical course, he continued to enjoy all that he was doing so much so that he officially applied to transition to Army active duty.  Once that change process was completed, in May 1998, he became an active duty Army NCO and moved to Fort Bragg (NC) to join the Seventh Special Forces Group headquartered there.  By that summer, he “found himself on the ‘A’ Team, ODA 764, and I would be with that same team for the next six-years.” Wife Brooke had by then earned her qualification as an OB/GYN nurse, and applied successfully (for Army permission) to practice at Womack Army Hospital, enabling she and Steve to live and work there together at Fort Bragg.

While there, from 1998 to 2004, Sergeant Bolton did six deployments with his SF team. “We started off in Paraguay in 1999 (along with Bolivia).  In 2000, we did Argentina.  In 2001, Colombia.  In 2002, we went to El Salvador.  What we were doing in all of those places was partnering with a host-nation unit and training them; basically, improving their skill set. Which is our peacetime mission, also translating very well into our wartime one. Building partner capacity. All of those trips typically lasted two to three months,” recalled Bolton.

Then, in August 2002, he went to Afghanistan.  Stationed on the Pakistan border, at a place called Shkin, which would become his very first combat mission (2002-2003). His team would remain in Afghanistan, on that deployment, for about six-months. “That was the first time I had ever taken enemy fire,” said Bolton. “One night, the insurgents decided they were going to attack our high-walled compound (‘fort’) from about 500-meters away.  Firing RPG’s, which was ridiculous, and very ineffective, from that distance.  Looking above our high compound walls (20-30-feet high), you could see that the sky overhead was also  full of tracers.  It was kind of surreal.  So, we’re like, OK, let’s get up and get our vehicles ready.  We were out the door in a matter of minutes.  And, again, that was my first experience, in country, with enemy fire,” he recalled.

Interspersed between all of those deployment phases, there typically remained a month free at home station for Bolton and the other team members to attend desired individual training schools. That was the time when he trained for, and completed, his parachutist free-fall certification, along with several other specialty skills. During that training time, “my role as a medic was to make sure that everybody on my team, no matter what their individual job, could give each other IV’s, as well as handling some basic trauma management, things like that,” said Bolton.  Individual and collective training, always aimed at, and getting ready for, their next deployment.

And a note on his jumps required for free-fall certification. He recalled that the standard ‘HALO’ jump was from about 13,000-feet above sea level, with a chute opening at about 4,000 feet above ground level.  “The highest I ever jumped was from 25,000 feet (required wearing oxygen, due to the extreme altitude).  The highest I ever opened my chute was 17,000-feet, which was a nice long ride under the canopy, traveling several miles.  Once you do open at the more standard 4,000-feet, you’re on the ground in a minute or two,” he said.

When those despicable Islamic terrorists purposely flew their planes into New York City’s Twin Towers, sixty-years after Pearl Harbor, making it the infamous second ‘Attack on America’ (9-11-2001), Bolton was at free-fall jump master school in Yuma, Arizona.  That didn’t immediately impact his team because it wasn’t within his SF team’s geographic area. “It was determined that the U.S. would take action employing the assigned geographic territory of the Fifth Special Forces Group. But we knew that within about six-months, we’d be picking up that Fall, 2002 rotation to Afghanistan,” said Bolton.

During both home station time and on deployment, Bolton somehow (i.e., gritty determination) made the time to work toward completing his college degree so that he could move his career forward. “I was taking classes, essentially distance learning (!), in 2001 and 2002 while in Afghanistan. Back then, we had the floppy disks, and when one of my teammates was going home on leave or something, I would give him a disk containing all the papers I’d written.  I was taking a Constitutional law class and things like that. Sending papers back (by colleague courier) whenever I could, because email was not reliable in a remote location. So, I was actually able to complete my degree in 2003, and I earned it from Campbell University, because they had a special program for medics.  So, despite all the music and political science classes from before, I ended up, and proudly, with a Bachelor of Health Science as my undergrad major!” said a much relieved, remembering back those times, Sergeant Bolton.  Relieved, because that four-year degree was required to fulfill his now-next-step-dream and plan. “After I came back from Afghanistan, on that first deployment there, I put in my application for Office Candidate School!”

Readily accepted, Fort Benning was the site for Bolton’s OCS training, which he completed in April of 2004.  “I commissioned in armor because Special Forces doesn’t take lieutenants,” he said, “so I couldn’t go right back into that community.  I had to do some other job in the Army, so I decided to go armor.”  He then completed the armor basic course at Fort Knox, Kentucky.  From there, he took his family out to Fort Carson (Colorado Springs, CO) where he became a heavy scout platoon leader with the First Squadron, Third Armored Cavalry Regiment there. “So, I went from being this fighter SF guy who’d spent ten-years, you know, running around the jungles of South America, to now dealing with heavy armor tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles!  But the soldiers that I had in my platoon and my troop were just fantastic.  And even though that was only about a year and a half of my entire career, I still have as strong a relationship with many of those NCO’s, as I do with any of my SF teammates over the other 27-years,” remembered Bolton.

Serving (2004-2006) with the Third Armored Calvary Regiment (ACR) out of Fort Knox, Lieutenant Steve Bolton would spend that middle year (2005+) deployed to Iraq in that role as a heavy scout platoon leader.  Based out of Baghdad International Airport, his unit’s responsibility was patrolling the area to the west of the airport. “We’re in armored vehicles, but there are a lot of water canals here, the roads are all on high banks, meaning there aren’t places where you can get off the roads,“ recalled Bolton.  As a direct result, their armored-vehicle-troops were encountering IED’s there on almost a daily basis.  That particular one-year in Iraq was, in Bolton’s word, “intense.” What follows is the description of but one harrowing example of that, and sadly, a tragic one.

His team was patrolling 12-hours on/12-hours off throughout this first month in-country.  He remembered that about half his platoon had participated in America’s initial invasion of Iraq, and thus had some combat experience, but the other half of the platoon did not.  Bolton had been in Afghanistan, and other locations, so he was a combat veteran.  This “was a very high stress environment for my troops, so we continually worked on our battle drills, doing all of the things that would keep everyone’s mind, and reactions, sharp,” said Bolton. “We also did a lot of stuff in our off-time, when we weren’t sleeping and maintaining (armor) tracks, in order to keep our resilience up, since this was our first thirty-days there, and there was already a lot of (enemy) contact.  And so, it was curious to me what we were going to do to sustain that, over what was going to be a year-long deployment,” he remembered.

Then came a new mission: “Operation Restoring Rights.” His Third ACR squadron (“Tiger”) would now go up north to a city called Sinjar, which is just about the last big city in northwestern Iraq before the Syrian border. Apart from enemy encounters, there was a significant humanitarian crisis involving the Yazidi people residing there. Unlike the area west of the Baghdad Airport, the Sinjar region is “completely different terrain; it’s wide-open country,” recalled Bolton.  Additionally, due to the persistent enemy insurgency and the fact that the Third ACR was then headquartered near-by in Tall Afar, the majority of the residents of Sinjar had either left or were driven from the city. Their departure also hastened by the fact that most of the ACR Tiger Squadron would then be moved from Sinjar to join in the major fight in Tall Afar.

The American operation would actually require brigade-level planning and involvement. “We would seal-off the city, in order to then clear it, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by clock, and ultimately house by house,” said Bolton. Before kicking off the operation, Bolton’s team and others would go into the city to do some needed pre-mission familiarization patrols.  The enemy had already had some success destroying U.S. armored vehicles, so the danger now faced by  our troops was obvious.  As Bolton recalled: “It was perhaps a low order of probability, but probability existed, and we were losing a handful of vehicles and good people.” While this was to be predominantly vehicle patrols through the streets, there did exist places where they would actually have to dismount, and revert to foot patrols, requiring implementation of their repeatedly-trained battle drills to protect their lives out in the open. “We had developed our tactics, techniques, and procedures for how to cordon off a neighborhood, in order to make it ‘safe’ for us to dismount.  Then our troops would go in and do the house-to-house searching required,” remembered Bolton.

He paused in his accounting of this particular combat preparation to remember and review a key element within his on-going team training procedures. “For all of my NCO’s who went on to become First Sergeants and Sergeants-Major, I had trained them to become trainers themselves.  I brought with me all of the Special Forces methods, making NCO’s carry the full amount of responsibility that each was capable of effectively handling, to include planning missions and then leading them.  I, of course, maintained overall responsibility, but with individual development came the necessary trust in their abilities to execute along with me. So then, every time we went to a new place, a new location, a new area, a new type of mission, I was the first person to plan it and I was the first person on the ground. But these trained NCO’s were right there with me, ready to execute” said Bolton.

However, just a couple of days before the ACR’s full-scale operation in Tall Afar was set to begin, and in fact in the very location where his platoon was due to  dismount, to then enter and clear the first block of residences, Steve Bolton and his team would all too soon discover, that when it comes to dismounted searches in enemy territory, ‘safe,’ is a hauntingly relative term.

It was a known fact among the American forces there that there were snipers in that area. And one of the key downsides regarding snipers is that they have the distinct advantage and, given the loner nature of sniping, there aren’t enemy forces then around for the Americans to return fire. In fact, an ACR unit had just lost a soldier to sniper fire several days earlier!  Tragically, it was about to happen again.

Lieutenant Steve Bolton was riding in a patrolling tank that morning with his good friend, Lieutenant Charlie Rubado.  Even though Bolton was senior to Rubado by a few months, on that particular patrol, in that tank, Rubado was serving as commander, while Bolton rode in the near-by turret as loader. Both had a machine gun mounted near the rim of their respective hatches.  The two lieutenants and crew were, as mentioned, on a familiarization patrol, scoping out their upcoming areas of responsibility, prior to the start of the fill-scale area-clearing operation.  At one point, Robado came to realize that their Abrams tank had gotten hung up on something, and he was going to need to back it up to get clear of the obstruction.  As Bolton sat near-by with his hatch also opened, Charlie Robado poked his head up to see what the issue below might be.

Seemingly, in that instant, even over the noise of their tank idling, the sound of the sniper’s rifle shot could be heard.  Its bullet arriving at their tank turret in an instant. It flew perilously close to where Bolton was perched in his loader’s hatch. The shot narrowly missed him, as he was peering forward at that moment.  Still not sufficiently exposed, he wasn’t the enemy’s target.  Bolton’s tank commander and good friend, Charlie Rubado, was.

Unknowingly, Rubado had picked the wrong moment to stick his head fully up to look around and assess their situation below. At that instant, as Bolton still vividly remembers, the crack of that sniper’s rifle sent a bullet which would hit and grievously wound Charlie Rubado. As he slumped down through the hatch, his knees landing on the back of the tank driver below, without hesitation, Bolton, a combat medic in his enlisted days, sprang to assist his comrade.

“I grabbed Charlie and pulled him down the rest of the way inside. He’s lying across me and I’ve got his head in my lap.  I see there’s blood on the back of his helmet (exit wound).  I’m applying pressure there, but I can’t immediately find where the entry wound is,” remembered Bolton.  He’s livid with himself, at the time, since the well-stocked Special Forces medic bag he always kept close by was then, when he needed it the most, sitting back up in a rack outside the turret! Meanwhile, the assembled group’s troop commander had just announced the conclusion of their three-tank reconnaissance mission, and it was time for them all to pull away from the area and return to base.

Holding Charlie, but knowing he also needed to immediately get his tank and crew to safety, he told the gunner to be their eyes, to work with the driver, and get them withdrawing along with the other unit vehicles.  He then called the troop commander on the radio, requested they move to an alternate frequency, one which wasn’t openly monitored. He explained their situation and requested that the commander help get his tank to the designated evacuation zone as quickly as possible, so that Charlie could be flown out by helicopter to the nearest advanced emergency care facility. “All the while, I’m not putting my head up to guide us (turned that over to the gunner & driver), because I’m trying to save Charlie and keep him alive. I’m just trying to get control of the bleeding.”

Bolton’s tank arrived back within the U.S. zone, a definite boost to the crew’s safety and morale.  Medics there were already waiting. They carefully lifted Rubado out of the tank, as the evacuation helicopters were arriving. He seemed not to be breathing while in the tank, but began again when stretched out on the ground alongside the medical personnel. Bolton realized that they had to “protect his airway, so he could continue to breathe,” while airlifted to the medical facility. “There wasn’t an endotracheal tube immediately available, so I had one of the medics cut off the drinking tube from a camelback, and then I digitally intubated Charlie to sustain his breathing.  We had secured his airway, controlled the bleeding, and got him on the evac helicopter, which was all we could do for him at that point,” recalled Bolton.

With his survival prognosis in doubt, despite everyone’s best efforts, principally those of Steve Bolton, regrettably for all involved, and for Bolton especially,  Charlie Rubado died in the helicopter on the way to the field hospital. “I was pissed that I couldn’t have done more to save him.  Pissed because he was just such a great guy; just an absolutely great, great friend,” said Bolton, with fond memories, to this day, of their service together.

Normally, Bolton and Rubado would not have been in the same tank.  It just happened because they were conducting that special recon mission together, looking closely at the area that a much larger unit would return to the following week to carry out that full-scale clearing operation.  In fact, they would be going in with hundreds of soldiers and thousands of vehicles, fully expecting that they would be facing a large insurgent fight.  Those huge neighborhoods, now vacated by the former resident families, were believed to be sites where the insurgents were laying in wait. “That was their safe haven, and we were going to go in and clear out their assumed safety zone and push them back out of town.  Since, as team leader, I would be the first man off the ramp (Bradley Fighting Vehicle), out in the open for this entire operation, I knew I would be their first target.  So, no question, that first day, clearly stands out as the fastest I’ve ever run wearing 80-pounds of body armor and full kit!  And my team was right there on my heels as we began to hit those houses,” said Bolton.

“Those were sixteen-hour days. And the daytime temps ran about 110-115 degrees!,” he remembered, still feeling mighty fortunate that they encountered no real enemy resistance, aside from an occasional sniper with poor aim!  Block by block, they cleared all of the houses, picking the best one to secure each evening, then kept watch, while trying to get some sleep, and got up and did it again.  Did it again, that is, for seven days straight. The operation was finally, successfully completed, and, thankfully, that feared big insurgent fight never materialized.  (NOTE:  Steve Bolton was attached to the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment during this particular combat action, including the loss of his close friend, permitting full disclosure and discussion. As you might expect, by long established policy, Special Forces missions and encounters may neither be specifically identified nor discussed).

When Bolton returned to Fort Carson, after that “intense” year in Iraq, he knew that he would then be eligible to rejoin a Special Forces unit soon after.  Fortunately, there was an SF Group at Fort Carson.  He was anxious to begin “re-familiarizing” himself, and “re-integrating,” as he said, within the SF community.  Joining the SF Tenth Group there, in the summer of 2006, given his time as an armor officer, they made Bolton the XO of one of their SF companies.  Then in 2007, he and his teammates were off, yet again, to Iraq.  Stationed there near the City of Mosul, they would remain in the fight for about the next eight-months.

Promoted to Captain during that 2007 Iraq deployment meant that it was time for him to attend and complete the Army’s Captain’s Course, which took him back to Fort Benning, this time for five-months of study, and then it was back to Fort Bragg, where in August 2008, he once again entered Special Forces Q Course qualification.  SF re-qualification?  Yes, because as an officer now, versus his first time through, he had to prove his proficiency with a “different skill set.” That re-qual course successfully completed, by the Summer of 2009, “it was time to figure out where they were going to put me because of my origin with Seventh Group,” said Bolton.  ‘Because I had spent a year and a half with the Third Battalion Tenth Special Forces Group at (Fort) Carson, Tenth Group was able to pull me back, and I was fine with that.  I loved both organizations.  So, I’m back at Carson, now as a detachment commander.”

Bolton recalled that “our mission during that time was to Africa, so this was my first time deployed to that continent.  And what we were doing there was a lot of the same kind of training of local forces that I had done previously in South America, but also doing, as well, a lot of embassy liaison work. Interagency collaboration in Sub-Saharan Africa, where al Qaeda had a lot of destabilizing activities.”

For the first half of 2010, he was in Mali, but working, this time, in very small groups, just a few of them there, with other parts of his team in Mauritania.  “This was a bit of a unique mission set for us.  I only took half my team, so that when we came back in the fall of 2010, the other half went over to replace us.  We had to stretch out this mission for a certain amount of time while another unit was getting ready to pick it up,” remembered Bolton.

The next big mission for Captain Bolton didn’t happen until the Fall of 2011, when his Third Battalion got the assignment to go to the Horn of Africa to Djibouti.  Ironically, however, although involved with this specialized mission to Africa, his battalion was actually a mountain warfare team!!  So, said Bolton, “we still have a whole host of tactical skills to keep up with.  It’s not just the normal, you know, shooting, medical, demolition, and marksmanship stuff.  But on top of that, we have the responsibility to maintain mountaineering skills.  So, if we’re not deployed, then the team is going through a progressive training program to make sure that we’re still ready to deploy anywhere else we may have to,” he said.

With his company commander then deployed elsewhere, Bolton stepped up and served as the acting company commander for about six-months. From there, in 2011, Bolton moved up to the battalion to become the Assistant Operations Officer.  And during the first half of 2012, his battalion staff, minus any other tactical units, heads, again, to Djibouti, Africa to become a Special Operations Task Force for East Africa.  “We now have the responsibility for planning and resourcing all of the individual country training missions that our teams go on. We’re supporting that across the entire East Africa region, including all of the other special operations activities.  And that’s not just the Army Special Forces stuff.  We’re responsible for the Navy Seals and the Air Force activities as well,” recalled Bolton.  As he thought back about those times, “this was my first foray into the operational level, the regional level of war or operations.”

He returned home to continue serving as Assistant Operations Officer until the Summer of 2013.  During that year, Tenth Group’s area of operational responsibility was changed back to Europe. “So now we are re-educating our force on everything relevant for us about the European environment.  We are reconnecting with the special operations elements that already exist in the area, but now with new problem sets.  We are also starting to prepare ourselves for the possibility of Arctic warfare.  So, this whole year was really about transitioning us out of an Afghanization and Africa mindset and preparing ourselves to re-connect and cooperate with European forces….and the inevitable winter warfare environment!” remembered Bolton.

Having helped his battalion commander to put the team on that path, the Summer of 2013 brought two important, non-deployment opportunities.  First was Bolton’s promotion to Major!  And second, he had also earned the opportunity to, once again, step off the deployment treadmill and head for some additional schooling.  This time it would be the Command & General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  And while there, never letting an advancement opportunity slip by, Major Bolton would also be pursuing a tight one-year Master’s Degree at the University of Kansas, this one in Global and International Studies. Then, he earned selection to the “Sam’s” program of study (School of Advanced Military Studies), also at Leavenworth, meaning he could keep self and family in place for one additional year, enabling him, then, to earn two Master’s Degrees in just 22-months!  Wife Brooke brings that concentrated grind up every time her husband suggests studying for a Ph.D. (“Are you really sure you want to do all of that again?”).  Recalled Bolton: “Those were two incredibly rewarding and enriching years for me. I really enjoy the opportunity to get back into studies that make you think about professional matters.”  And he did come out of that intense academic exposure “thinking differently,” when, in 2015, he went back to the 10th Special Forces Group at Fort Carson, this time taking command of the Group’s Alpha Company, Third Battalion.

And within a week of his return, and taking command, he was off to Africa, this time to Chad. “I led a small Special Operations Task Force that was responsible for as variety of missions, both there and in neighboring countries (Nigeria).  I had SF Teams, Navy SEALS, psychological operations, and civil affairs units, all under the Task Force. I also had liaison with embassies, as well as with something called the Multinational Joint Task Force.  And the reason we were there was all about the infamous Boko Haram activities in Nigeria, and how that instability was threatening to spill over into Chad, Cameroon, and Niger,” remembered Bolton.  It was during this era that the initial discovery, spread, and eventual crisis from the COVID virus first became known there, and began impacting operations, resulting in reduced manpower, and other procedures aimed at preventative medicine.

In 2016, Bolton would return to Fort Carson to begin, in earnest, his SF Group’s transition from Africa-centric assignments to future work in Europe.  He was now the battalion’s Operations Officer, taking team members to perhaps a dozen countries, to include training & practicing winter warfare skills, and assigning forces to upcoming missions.  Then, in 2017, it was back to Fort Carson, this time with the Fourth Infantry Division as its special operations advisor to the commander and staff, as readiness training continued, to include preparation for a division rotation to Afghanistan.

Beginning In 2018, and for the next two years, Major Bolton was assigned to NATO Special Operations Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, as the Aide-du-Camp to a three-star Vice-Admiral.  The mission then was to re-orient thinking and training aimed at potential threats from Russia.  His role required considerable travel, forming relationships with allied military personnel throughout neighboring nations. His second year at headquarters had him steeped in plans and policies, during which time he became the lead author on a special operations study regarding the most effective way(s) for NATO countries to deploy their Special Forces should the Russian situation become active and threatening (which of course it would, and did, within four-years!).  By 2020, work was slowed measurably, there and virtually everywhere, as COVID lockdowns and other precautions took control of NATO HQ.  Belgium was in lock-down mode during much of that time, with outside movement permitted only for essentials.

It was during that period of health peril, both in Belgium and around the world, that Major Bolton was competing for a slot on the Command Select List (CSL), which would enable him to hopefully take a battalion command back in the states. That wish and desire would come true, when, along with his selection for promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel (July 2020), he was informed (April/May) that he had been selected to lead the Garrison at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia, which was supposed to occur in the Summer of 2021.  But serious family medical circumstances impacting the existing Hunter Garrison Commander’s wife (a LTC at Fort Stewart, GA) made it necessary, with very little advance notice, for LTC Bolton to pack up and head solo to Savannah, well ahead of the originally anticipated time, compelling him to leave his Army family back in Belgium for the next six months.  They would finally be able to rejoin him in December of 2020.  So, for Bolton: “In July, I got promoted.  Then I got my orders to Savannah.  And I got on a plane, all in the space of about 13-days, with next stop Hunter Army Airfield, USA!”  A blur of Army intercontinental transfer forms & procedures, and of course, buttoning up his family to keep them secure in Belgium for the next six-months, filled every waking moment of LTC Bolton’s last two-weeks at NATO.

Hunter Army Airfield Garrison (Savannah, Georgia): “As long as I’d been in the Army, I had no idea what a Garrison was, and that’s because it’s not something that most soldiers are assigned to, and certainly not Special Forces soldiers!  Well, come to find out, a fair number of SF guys had actually commanded the HAAF Garrison, in two-year assignments, before me!” said Bolton.  Given the uniqueness of this command, he set out to make certain that his largely-civilian Garrison team fully understood their role, and their impact on, and with, the multi-branch tenant units stationed there on the installation.  Chain of command wise, the Hunter commander answers to the Garrison commander (Colonel) down at Fort Stewart (Hinesville, Georgia), home station of the Army’s Third Infantry Division.

Bolton made it his focus to further educate, not only those serving around him, but importantly, those out in the community who may have little knowledge  about the Garrison role at Hunter, and Hunter’s Army role as home station to  aviation-based and other military units serving there, active-duty, guard & reserve.  Regarding the other tenant units and personnel on Hunter, along with their families, the commander’s role is much like that of a town mayor, dealing with infrastructure issues and needs, as well as medical, educational, recreational services, all wrapped up in the overall quality of life on Post needed and deserved by the military members, their families, and the civilian employees, all of whom  serve the Army and our nation.

LTC Bolton especially appreciated the peer relationships he formed working alongside his colleague unit commanders, especially “since we all not only work together, but also socialize together, living as we do, side by side, within the same Post neighborhood. I find it very fulfilling to serve in this command capacity dealing with both the internal on-Post community, as well as the Greater Savannah community outside the front gate,” he said.  He has made a genuine outreach effort to civilian leadership and groups, eagerly inviting them to tour Hunter, since so many really have no direct knowledge about the units and missions that call Hunter home.  And the more they know, the more likely they are to support Hunter when needs or issues, or even possibly emergencies, arise.

Reflecting on his time in Garrison command, as his tour at Hunter draws to a close (July 2022), Bolton was quick to value his outreach efforts: “I have enjoyed the interaction with the Savannah community immensely.  It’s really been a privilege to be part of both the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Rotary Club, and to have the opportunity to interact with civic leadership and with several civic organizations, because it’s helped me understand how communities work, and, importantly, how those who want to influence communities for the better can bring their collective vision to bear.  And most of all, I think I’ve enjoyed the opportunity for my family to experience Savannah, along with the always welcome opportunity to more broadly share the Hunter story, as well as also telling, and representing, the broader Army story,” said Bolton.  And with regard to the personal value and pleasure he’s felt being stationed here: “Throughout my three decades of military service, nowhere else have I seen a city that cares so much for its Army community,” he concluded, with sincere appreciation.

LTC Bolton’s next assignment will take him back to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he’ll be the Director of Special Operations Education for the Command & General Staff College there.  “My actual official title is Executive Officer of the Special Operations Cell at the Combined Arms Center. But that doesn’t really mean anything to most people who aren’t in the organization.  More to the point, I’ll be kind of a curriculum manager.  I’ll be making sure that we’re teaching the right things to the right audiences,” said Bolton.  Most of the “right audience” students that he will be dealing with, and instructing, will be majors, junior majors, and senior captains, all of whom will be at about the 10-year mark in their respective careers. “The purpose of this course of study is to broaden their understanding beyond their own branch, their own specialized knowledge, to give them enough cross-training awareness so that they can then become field grade officers (Major, Lieutenant-Colonel, Colonel).  Essentially, these are the soldiers that will go to work for General Officers or serve on General Staffs (at the Division or Corps levels),” he said.

LTC Steve Bolton US Army Special Forces

To round out this career discussion session, LTC Bolton was asked a couple more general questions regarding leadership, beginning with his thoughts on the key elements or qualities that make leaders most effective.  Without hesitation, he replied: “Trust, empathy, and compassion (but not ‘softness’, he emphasized).  Taking care of your people, and communication (both with clear delivery, and openness to response).”  Then, what did he feel are the main components of solid character, so very important for effective leadership?  Again, without any hesitation, he listed: “Integrity, respect, perseverance, and moral courage.”

Finally, given the qualities and the character components required for effective leadership, LTC Bolton was asked to think back to perhaps a stand-out example of such that he had personally observed in an officer throughout his own stellar three-decade Army career. The name that came immediately to mind was LTC Greg Riley.  Bolton remembered him specifically for an act of great leadership and courage that he had personally witnessed, performed during an Iraq War deployment.

One day, in order to get a better indication of where insurgent snipers might be hidden, two Iraqi soldiers decided to climb up a tall utility tower to get a better view.  And, yes, they did get a better view.  But so did the sniper(s)!  Those two Iraqis had mistakenly become convenient targets.  Seeing the issue and the rapidly developing emergency, on the ground, LTC Riley tried in vain to get Iraqi commanders to get their troops to rescue their own soldiers, but all refused!

Thinking innovatively, Riley thought immediately of a chemical detachment located very nearby.  One of that unit’s many combat responsibilities was to produce defensive smokescreens.  He quickly summoned them.  Their subsequent smokescreens resulted, as planned, in obscuring that tall tower from enemy view. Then, Squadron Commander LTC Greg Riley, himself, heroically climbed up that tower to rescue those two Iraqi soldiers, one or both of whom, by that time, had been wounded by enemy fire.  It was an instinctive act of great courage, recalling that those two soldiers, although allies, weren’t his!  There is an old, yet still very applicable and profound, saying, that applies to both military and civilian life.  It relates that, when faced with a needed decision or action, we will hopefully “choose the harder right rather than the easier wrong.”  In this vivid instance of personal courage, LTC Riley clearly showed all those around him, including the Iraqi commanders, exactly what choosing the ‘harder right’ looks like!

Lieutenant-Colonel Steve Bolton’s Change of Command ceremony at Hunter Army Airfield took place on July 29, 2022.  He and his family will then head directly for his next assignment at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.


Note:  It was LTC Bolton’s preference that no pictures of Special Forces operations or personnel would appear within this narrative.


(Copyright July 2022 / William L. Cathcart, Ph.D.)