DRAPER HEADQUARTERS, Utah –
Friday, December 15, 1989: Panama names Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega the “maximum leader of the struggle for national liberation,” and declares the country “to be in a state of war.” A thousand miles away, in the Dominican Republic, a terrorist group sent a threat to the United States Embassy, stating “if the U.S. invades Panama, we will kill an American.”
Nine-thousand U.S. military forces invaded Panama in the early morning of Wednesday, December 20, under the codename Operation Just Cause. Bolstering the ranks of some 12,000 U.S. troops already in place, they launched a coordinated attack on dozens of targets, overwhelming Panamanian Defense Forces.
The next day in the Dominican Republic, two American missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were riding their bikes home from a church event. It was late, and the road was dark. They rode in single-file behind a motorcycle, using the glow of the taillight as a guide in the darkness.
It was quiet, except for the two-stroke whine of the motorcycle’s engine. The more senior of the two missionaries was just 19 years old and had been in the country for only a few months. They were both still struggling to learn Spanish. As they came to an intersection, one of the two passengers on the motorcycle leveled a gun on the missionaries and opened fire. Bullets ripped through the air, hitting one of the boys and knocking him off his bike. As the motorcycle accelerated into the night, the senior companion rushed to his fallen friend.
“He’s on the road, and can’t speak to me,” the senior missionary later recalled. “He’s injured, but it’s too dark to see where he’s injured. He’s going into shock.”
U.S. Army Col. Joseph Green, commander of the Utah Army National Guard 300th Military Intelligence Brigade, remembers this life-changing event in shocking detail. “I’m a nineteen-year-old kid, alone in a foreign country, unable to speak the language, and I didn’t know what to do.”
This was his first experience as a leader in a crisis.
“I ended up carrying him across the street to some houses and started knocking on every door, trying to find someone who could take us to the hospital.”
Everyone had heard the gunshots, so no one would answer. At last, the fourth door opened and Green struggled to explain what had happened. The man drove them to a local clinic in a pickup truck. The Embassy was notified, and an American doctor was sent to perform emergency surgery.
Miraculously, Green had been unscathed. His companion, David Hadley Read, from San Francisco, was also fortunate. He had been grazed by two bullets, leaving holes in his shirt and the cuff of his trousers, but a third bullet had struck him in the knee, fragmenting into shards. He lived, and in later years, would go on to get a law degree at the University of California, Berkeley.
Green would also go to school, earning a degree in Spanish Translation and Interpretation with a minor in Jazz Guitar, but his life was headed in an altogether different direction. He had learned something about himself that night in the Dominican Republic which would ultimately inspire him to join the U.S. military.
“People usually have experiences that push them towards military intelligence,” he said.
The military intelligence field was about to change forever, and unknown to Green at the time, his childhood experiences uniquely qualified him to play a leading role in this transition.
Green’s father earned his P.h.D at the University of California, Los Angeles, in Middle Eastern history. A few months after Green was born, his father moved the family to the Middle East.
“I didn’t leave for the next sixteen years.”
They moved to a small mountain village near Taiz, which was then part of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, colloquially referred to as “North Yemen.” At the time, South Yemen, or the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, was a communist state supported by the Soviet Union.
“I have strong memories of Taiz,” Green recalled. “I was the kid who was not like everyone else. I was a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy in a school of Arabs.”
He began each day learning the Arabic alphabet, a second language that would prove invaluable later in life.
In October 1972, war erupted between the two countries, with southern Yemenis forces pushing as far north as Taiz. Westerners were being targeted in the conflict.
A member of the British consulate showed up on the doorstep of Green’s childhood home with a dire warning: “Go to the airport right now. Don’t take anything with you. Don’t stop to pack. Just get there right now. If planes are still leaving, get on the first plane out.”
The British government had already evacuated their people from the area. Green and his family were among the last Americans in the country. The family of five—Joseph Green, with his two older sisters and parents—piled onto a Honda motorcycle and raced to the airport. They were able to secure an emergency flight to Egypt on an unpressurized Douglas DC-6 piston-powered transport plane. Green vividly recalled the chaos of that flight—the wooden benches, the turbulence, the Yemenis farmers, fleeing the country with their livestock of molting chickens and bleating goats.
Once the plane landed, his father went to the American University in Cairo to use a phone. He was essentially a war refugee and hoped to call family in the United States for help. Instead, he found an opening for a professorship at the university and they lived in Cairo for the next 12 years. Green attended school at American Cairo College, which taught pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The school had a 12-acre campus with a large open playground, brand new gymnasium, and 15 Egyptian-styled buildings enclosed by sparse vegetation and a low decorative wall. Green joined the basketball team and played on the new court with his friend, Steve Kerr.
The boys had a lot in common. They were both American, both raised in the Middle East, and they both had ties to Los Angeles. Their fathers were also best friends and professors of Middle Eastern studies. Steve’s father, Malcolm Kerr, served as a “visiting distinguished professor” at the American University in Cairo until 1982, when he was appointed president of the American University of Beirut. Malcolm and his wife arrived in Lebanon in the midst of a civil war, leaving their children in the care of their eldest son back in Egypt.
On the morning of January 18, 1984, Malcolm was walking through the main building of the American University of Beirut toward his office when a man shot him twice in the back of the head with a revolver.
At the time, the Green family was one of the few households in Cairo with a working telephone. When it rang that day, Malcolm’s wife, Ann Zwicker Kerr, was on the other end of the line. It had fallen to Green’s father to break the news to her children. Their father had been assassinated by Islamic Jihadists, known today as Hezbollah.
“I still remember that,” Green says, voice momentarily breaking. “That was a pretty big moment in my life.”
With the Beirut Marine Barracks Bombing and the assassination of Malcolm Kerr, Green’s father decided it was time to leave the Middle East. He took a position at Brigham Young University and moved the family to Utah. Green went from an extremely diverse international K-12 school of no more than 350 students, to Mountain View High School in Orem, Utah, with 1,200 kids in his graduating class alone.
“It was overwhelming,” he said, simply.
While in high school, he was actively pursued by the military recruiters. “I didn’t want anything to do with them. The military’s mission did not appeal to me.”
But all that was about to change.
After graduation, Green accepted a call to serve a mission in the Dominican Republic, where he would learn a third language, and experience his second brush with war. As he walked the same blood-soaked road where his companion had been shot, now with embassy security personnel, he had a moment of profound reflection.
“It kind of made me think, what am I doing here? And is this something I really want?”
The answer surprised him. “I liked the fact that I was learning to live outside of my comfort zone and serving something larger than myself. I was learning leadership skills and how to serve others.”
But more importantly, he had discovered something profound about his inherent character.
“No matter the danger I was in, I was still fully committed.”
After his mission, he studied music at BYU, minoring in several languages such as Arabic, Spanish, German, and Biblical Hebrew. He met a girl and realized that he needed a way to support a family. He began to reassess his life by asking, “Is music the right track?”
Realizing what it would take to provide for a family with a career in music alone, he considered a different path, exploring what he could do with his languages and his love for culture.
“Suddenly, I was interested in the military, where before I didn’t want anything to do with them.”
It was the experiences of his mission—the discipline, leadership, speaking a different language and being part of something larger than himself—combined with his childhood introduction to different cultures and languages that ultimately pushed him in the direction of military intelligence.
“I grew up overseas in a different culture, speaking a different language. I knew how different cultures work, and I wanted to use that skillset in a larger context.”
Green happened to be living in a hotbed for military intelligence. Not only does Utah boast the highest foreign-language speakers per capita in the nation, it’s also home to the 300th Military Intelligence Brigade, which is the only organization of its kind in the world. Today, the brigade has more than a thousand linguists fluent in 50 different languages. Many of these linguists are returned missionaries like Green, recruited right out of BYU. He joined the Utah National Guard in 1993 through the Simultaneous
Membership Program which allowed him to train each month with the 300th MI while also completing his university studies. He received his commission in 1996, majoring in language and minoring in music and military science.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Green had just stepped out of a meeting at the National Security Agency in Washington D.C., when someone announced that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. The news was playing live on a small TV outside the meeting room.
“All of us were gathered around, watching footage of the smoke coming out of the tower. Then we saw the second plane hit.”
Green described it as “chaos.”
“We were under attack.”
A lot changed for the military in that moment. Up until then, the focus of the intelligence field was largely on tanks, recognizing the order of battle, and the tactics of a near-peer enemy. It was a Cold War strategy. The focus shifted that day to counter insurgency, which was a completely different fight. The military intelligence field suddenly needed soldiers who could understand different cultures to a degree that they could peel back the various layers of a population and identify potential threats acting within the population. Green’s background and leadership would prove vital in this new fight.
The 300th MI followed the initial invasion into Iraq in 2003. On his first deployment, Green worked out of a small resort villa on the shores of a manmade lake southeast of the airport formerly known as Saddam International Airport, in Baghdad. For the next seven years, the airport and surrounding villas would serve as a central command post for American intelligence in Iraq. Inside these extravagant marble structures, military intelligence specialists had set up card tables and folding chairs for work stations, divided into cubicles using hanging bedsheets. It had fallen to Green and the other intelligence soldiers on the ground to use their knowledge of the Arabic language and culture to find "High Value Target Number One" Saddam Hussein. The leaders of the deposed regime had disappeared during the invasion of Iraq. Their faces were printed on a deck of military playing cards, with Hussein representing the coveted “Ace of Spades.”
The three basic disciplines of the 300th MI evolved during this time.
Signals intelligence, or “SigInt” is a way of using knowledge of language and culture to understand intercepted enemy communications. To do this effectively, a military intelligence soldier must know when the enemy is using sarcasm, satire, or even code words. When the Taliban talk about transporting mortar tubes up a mountain, they won’t call them mortar tubes, but “logs.” And when the Taliban targets a convoy of Humvees, they won’t call them Humvees, instead using a code words like “spiked pigs.” With Green’s cultural background, he excelled at deciphering these kinds of messages.
“I know when they are joking, I know when they are serious, I know when they are using code words, and I can figure out what they’re doing,” he said.
Human Intelligence or “HumInt,” is all about interacting with people to gather intelligence. Sometimes this involves interrogating captured prisoners, but most of the time it means developing sources or spies by talking to people in a crowded marketplace, for example.
“If there’s extremist activities in a neighborhood of Kabul, you want eyes and ears everywhere. So, you find someone local to recruit as a credible source of information, who can report back to you on what’s happening in the neighborhood.”
In Iraq, two Utah soldiers with the 141st Military Intelligence Battalion, 300th MI, were gathering clues and developing sources that led U.S. forces to a farm on the rural outskirts of the city of Tikrit, north of Baghdad. They thought they were on the trail of a man named Izat Ibrahim Al-Duri, the “King of Clubs.” The farm had a small shack with a bed and table inside. On the table, there was a pair of black leather boots. Next to the shack, under a slab of concrete, soldiers found a camouflaged spider hole. The shoulder-width entrance led to the 3-foot-by-6-foot underground hideout of Hussein.
Early on the morning of December 14, 2003, cheers broke out in the villas near the airport where Green worked.
“The source that divulged the location of Saddam Hussein was developed by our guys,” he said.
As a reward for their efforts, the 300th MI was allowed to keep Hussein’s black leather boots, recovered from the scene of the spider hole. Today, Hussein’s boots are on display in a glass case at the Utah National Guard headquarters building in Draper.
“My drive to use language and culture was immensely satisfied in the military intelligence field,” Green said of his experiences.
In 2008, he deployed again, this time to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Within the intelligence community, he has served as a platoon leader, executive officer, operations officer, company commander, battalion commander, and now brigade commander. It’s been Green’s legacy to adapt the framework of the 300th MI from the Cold War-mentality of a near-peer—or decisive action fight—to a counterinsurgency fight. The focus has since shifted back to a hybrid of both warfighting tactics.
As commander of the 300th MI, Green now turns his attention to the future, where a new battlefield has reared its head: the cyber war.
Green painted a picture of the future, where Humvees and aircrafts are remotely piloted drones, and each one will have cameras and sensors picking up video and communications, operating deep in urban sprawls populated by millions of people. This future warfare will generate immense amount of data for military intelligence soldiers to rapidly comb through, to provide commanders with accurate and timely information to make split-second decisions.
“That’s the way military intelligence is evolving now. As we develop the intel-warfighting function, we’ve had to come up with tactics, techniques, and procedures with automation,” he explained.
No matter the danger, no matter the challenges ahead, he remains “fully committed.”