Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Richard “Rick” Lamb is described by a colleague as “an NCO who looks like Sergeant ‘Rock,’ and he’s got a personality that’s a mile wide and at least a quarter-mile deep, and he’s just as fun as fun could be.” These are qualities that get you noticed, but it was Lamb’s leadership ability, professionalism and competence in Special Operations that earned him the 2015 Bull Simons Award.
The Bull Simons Award is a lifetime Special Operations Forces achievement award and USSOCOM’s highest honor. It was first awarded in 1990 and has since become an annual tradition. The award recognizes recipients who embody the true spirit, values, and skills of a Special Operations warrior. Col. Arthur “Bull” Simons, whom the award is named after, was the epitome of these attributes.
Lamb’s career spans more than three decades and multiple operations, from Eagle Claw to Iraqi Freedom, and he comes from a family steeped in military tradition.
The men in Lamb’s family have fought in conflicts since the Crimean War in the 1850s, the Civil War, World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam. Rick Lamb continued the family tradition by serving in nearly every major SOF-related combat operation until his military retirement in 2003 following his service in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“As a young kid, every male in my family that I loved and respected either wore herringbone twill or a police uniform, just about every male in my family starting with long lost relatives who fought in the Charge of the Light Brigade, my great-great grandfather who fought in the Civil War, my grandfather who was in the American Expeditionary Force (during World War I), and his three sons who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam,” Lamb said. “Our family military heritage spanned quite a bit of military action, so we were a military family. There was no doubt what I was going to be.”
Lamb initially joined the Army National Guard because his father and uncle were still serving.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do and in fact, my first platoon sergeant was my uncle,” said Lamb. “He sat me down and said, ‘Son you are good at this so you should consider doing this full time,’ and so I went ahead and went from the National Guard to active duty and signed up under the Airborne Ranger enlistment option. I reported to 1st Ranger Battalion. My first company commander was then, Captain Grange.”
Capt. David Grange would become Maj. Gen. Grange and commanded Lamb’s company during Operation Eagle Claw.
Operation Eagle Claw, April 1980
On Nov. 4, 1979, Iranian militant students stormed the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran, and captured more than 60 American hostages. Operation Eagle Claw was developed to rescue the hostages, and Cpl. Lamb took part in that mission.
“I met Rick Lamb in 1978. Tough guy, the best in the battalion. He was the epitome of a team leader,” Grange said.
Lamb’s company “Hard Rock Charlie” had the airfield seizure mission inside Iran.
“We were the extraction location for the raid ... the hostage rescue raid in Tehran,” said Grange. “Lamb was an integral part in the security of that airfield and extraction of both hostages and counter-terrorism forces out of the AO (area of operation).”
“We were up to that point, pretty much Rogers’ Rangers. We’d spend Monday through Friday out in the swamps of Fort Stewart. We were good at small unit tactics, raids, recon, and ambushes,” said Lamb. “But he (Grange) brought us into the dayroom one day and said, ‘Alright Rangers, I want to know who the best snipers are; I need to know who the best machine gunners are; I need to know who owns four-wheel drive vehicles, as a private vehicle, and drives them off road.’ He needed to know who has a motorcycle license, who owns dirt bikes and drives those off road; he needed to know who grew up on farms and who were capable of keeping things running with bubble gum and baling wire, and who was comfortable around machines.”
According to Lamb, Grange identified those unorthodox skill sets and used them to task organize his Rangers for the evolving tactics they would encounter during the Iranian raid.
“That was the first time I had seen that degree of flexible, unconventional thinking, and I liked it,” Lamb said. “Being part of Eagle Claw, because that was my first assignment as a young Ranger, I think I was all of a corporal, so to us it was exciting. I mean the train up to it was probably the best. We probably took down every air field west of the Mississippi training for that mission; we were breaking new ground.”
Unfortunately, the rescue mission was aborted, with tragedy following the forces’ evacuation. According to witnesses, a helicopter lifted off, kicked up a blinding dust cloud, and then banked toward a C-130 aircraft. Its rotor blades sliced through the main stabilizer of the plane. The chopper rolled over the top of the aircraft, gushing fuel and fire as it tumbled. The resulting explosion killed eight American servicemen and seriously injured several others.
“We were on our final rehearsal getting ready to board the planes, when they shut the planes down and said there had been issues on the desert strip. So they basically told us to sterilize the area; we didn’t want anybody to know we were there, and then we pulled out.” said Lamb. “It was gut-wrenching. I don’t know how many months we had prepared for that and everybody was on the razor’s edge. So, it was pretty depressing. But the tactics we developed, the lessons we learned, and the relationships we established during that mission survive to this day. Eagle Claw set a solid foundation for integrating vehicles, aircraft, C2, and SOF Service Components, and propelled us into this modern era of Special Operations.”
The Soviet Defector Incident, November 1984
Lamb was later stationed at the Joint Security Area on Camp Kitty Hawk as it was known at the time in Pan Mun Jom, on the border between North and South Korea. His company commander was Army Capt. Bert Mizusawa, now a major general.
“I was put in charge of a combat unit with a very unique mission, and I quickly learned whoever came to that unit because we had a high turnover given it was a hardship tour on the DMZ and, because we were face-to-face with the North Koreans, we had to work with a no-flaw mentality,” Mizusawa said. “What we call the Soviet Defector Incident occurred on Nov. 23,1984, and Vasily Matuzok apparently was planning the defection for a few years, and he was part of a tour group that day.”
Matuzok asked one of the North Korean border guards to take his picture. While the guard was taking his picture, he bolted across, ran through the U.S and South Korean guards and shouted he was defecting. To Matuzok’s surprise and everyone else’s, the North Korean guard ran after him.
“The North Korean kid is in big trouble because he has lost his charge, so he pulls his pistol and runs after him,” said Lamb. “Our guys shoot him in the street because now you have a North Korean soldier with a pistol drawn chasing a defector. After that, all hell breaks loose.”
Soon, a battle ensued and approximately 30 North Korean soldiers entered through the Sunken Garden firing their weapons.
“I told the quick reaction force to load trucks, which was our signal to get on board to start moving,” Mizusawa said.
“Everybody is looking at me because I’m the dude with the Ranger tab, and they asked me, ‘What do we do?’” Lamb said. “Reporting from our checkpoints let us know that there was a large group of KPA [Korean People’s Army] pinned down in the Sunken Garden. This changed the mission from secure the defector to secure the southern half of the Truce Village.”
“Lamb had us dismount, formed us on line, and then we crested the hill and you could hear the bullets passing by,” said Pfc. Mark DeVille. “Of course at that time I didn’t know they were bullets, all I knew was the leaves were moving, the trees were losing bark and I was hearing that little sonic pop.”
The firefight would last approximately 40 minutes. Five North Koreans were wounded and three killed, including the infamous captain the U.S. Army believes plotted the axe murders of two U.S. officers in 1976 during a tree-trimming operation at the DMZ. In addition, Cpl. Jang Myung-ki, a South Korean augmentee to the U.S. Army, was killed, and Pfc. Michael Burgoyne was wounded.
Matuzok would survive the firefight because of the actions of Lamb’s platoon and later move to the United States.
“When Lamb and his squad crashed into the North Korean flank and then moved around them, that bought Matuzok a few seconds so we had a chance to get him out of there,” said Mizusawa. “You always want to have the proper mix of competence and professionalism and he (Lamb) led the charge. He inspired the Soldiers to follow him into what can only be described as the most dangerous life and death situation and for all the right reasons, his aggressive maneuvering helped prevent the North Koreans, who initially had more people than we did, from continuing to pursue the defector.”
Lamb would be awarded the Silver Star for his actions in the DMZ that day.
Operation Just Cause, December 1989
Between Dec. 20, 1989, and Jan. 31, 1990, the United States invaded Panama to oust the country’s dictator General Manuel Noriega. Lamb was deeply involved in the invasion.
“On the night of D-Day of Just Cause, Lamb led a four-man assault team fast roping on top of a multi-story building that was eighteen to twenty stories,” said retired Col. David McCracken who was a major at the time and Lamb’s commander.
“We had just come back from knocking out a TV station, basically just knocking down the lines of communication and one of the guys turns on a little transistor radio and he’s flipping through the channels and he hears Noriega giving a speech,” Lamb said. “Someone asked for the radio station call numbers and we found a Panamanian phone book and looked up the address. We realized that the radio station was right down the street so the SOC (Special Operations Center) cranked helicopters and we flew over the building, identified it, and fast roped onto the roof.”
The team thought Noriega might be giving a live speech at the radio station and were intent on capturing him.
“Rick was one of the lead team leaders off the helicopters and took the fast ropes that had fallen down onto the roof and did a field expedient mechanism to take the fast rope and tie it off and then further fast rope down onto the balcony of a restaurant there at the top of the building because otherwise we really weren’t sure how we were going to get into the building,” McCracken said.
“It was like a nineteen-story building I think, and we lowered ourselves down to the eighteenth floor onto a balcony and then we were able to breach the glass sliding doors on the balcony and get into the office complex and then run back upstairs and let the boys in. I think we went down, I can’t remember the floor the radio station was on, but it was a tape (not Noriega) and we were successful in knocking the radio station out.”
As SOF missions began to expand outside the major cities, Lamb was instrumental in developing and coordinating the tactics for what would become known as “Ma Bell” capitulation operations. Working with Rangers from the 75th Ranger Regiment, Lamb designed, rehearsed and implemented the first major surrender operation outside Panama City, capturing 188 Panamanian Defense Force personnel which led to the surrender of an entire military zone. This template was subsequently used throughout the remainder of Operation Just Cause with great success and would later earn Lamb a Bronze Star.
Task Force Ranger, Mogadishu, Somalia October 1993
The Battle of Mogadishu was part of Operation Gothic Serpent and was fought Oct. 3 and 4, 1993, in Somalia. The battle put U.S. and international forces against Somali militiamen loyal to Mohamed Farrah Aideed.
“There were eight different warring factions in Mogadishu at the time we went there as part of the United Nations mission, but we weren’t there to provide security. Our mission was man-hunting. We were going after Mohamad Farrah Aideed and all of his lieutenants,” said 1st Lieutenant Tom DiTomasso, a Task Force Ranger platoon leader.
On Oct. 3, 1993, a mission to capture Aideed was generated, but the mission erupted into a furious battle with two Black Hawk helicopters crashing into the streets of Mogadishu. Task Force Ranger would rush to one of the Black Hawk crash sites.
“Three October was a Sunday, which was traditionally a down day for the task force,” said Maj. Gen. Austin “Scottie” Miller, then a captain and assault force commander. “The idea was a quick in, secure the target, then quick out.”
“We launched on the mission at 1533 in the afternoon. Within minutes of the air assault raid on the building, the two lieutenants we were going after were captured,” DiTomasso said. “As we were getting ready to leave, the first Black Hawk was shot down. There was a large crowd to our north and there was a lot of shooting going on outside of the building. All of the Ranger positions were under direct small-arms fire, hand grenades were being thrown over the walls ... everything was very, very close proximity as far as the fighting goes. Several of us raced the crowd to get to the crash site first and we were able to successfully defend the crash site throughout the afternoon and into the entire evening.”
“The convoy going back, as we listened to the debriefs afterward, was in a terrible firefight, convoys were riddled with RPGs and automatic weapons fire, they were losing individuals, KIAs, individuals wounded in action, and they were fighting their way back trying to get back to the airfield,” Miller said.
“Once the birds went down, we immediately scrambled a convoy, we tried to link up with 10th Mountain, they were coming from the north of the city and we were coming from the south, and each element got repulsed and had to turn around and go back,” Lamb said.
The convoys made it back to the safety of the home base, but they wouldn’t be there long.
“So, I don’t know if I could even paint the picture for you, but imagine five-ton trucks and Humvees coming out of the city, the sun is getting ready to do down, but they have been ambushed the entire way back from the objective area and back ... they have prisoners that are wounded, they have American Soldiers that are wounded and killed,” DiTomasso said. “The call then goes out by the commander to every able bodied Ranger that is at the airfield to include the headquarters, the administrative guys, and the clerks, ‘Everybody grab a rifle, we’re going to wash out the trucks and you’re going back in the city to try and reinforce the objective.’”
“This is the beauty of having someone like Rick Lamb in your formation, a senior non-commissioned officer, well experienced, been around a bit and not a stranger to firefights, and able to bring a steady, calming leadership to a very chaotic situation, dealing with young Soldiers who have not seen this type of fighting previously,” Miller said. “Seeing their friends wounded or killed, and we’re asking them to get back into the vehicles that didn’t protect them the first time, and we need you to move to effect a rescue operation. It’s tremendous leadership; having someone like Rick Lamb out there was exactly what you needed at the time.”
“You look into the eyes of the kids that just came back. You’re inside the perimeter, you’re safe, then you could see the blood drain out of their faces, they knew they had to go back out, but it goes back to that Ranger creed. You look at them and say, ‘you guys knew this was going to be tough when we signed up,’ you motivate them a little bit and you go out,” Lamb said.
Lt. Gen. Michael Ferriter, then a major from 3rd Ranger Battalion, described Lamb’s actions that day.
“The first Humvee was an up-gunned Humvee with a machine gun and they would go through the intersection and they would shoot the corners of the intersection and all the Somalis would duck down, and the second Humvee would come through and shoot and the Somalis would again get down, then Lamb’s Humvee would come through and all the Somalis would jump up and shoot and Lamb said, ‘It’s crazy, what am I doing in the third Humvee?’” said Ferriter.
“There was an RPG flash off to the right side. You could hear the guys in the back yelling RPG and everything slowed to where you could almost follow it with your eyes. It hit in the alleyway to my left,” Lamb said. “I can remember my head going back and watching a spurt of blood hit the running lights on the dashboard and I remember swearing under my breath and saying, ‘damn it, I just got killed,’ and everything went to a white pristine point of light, everything got quiet. I was almost feeling pretty good; you’re wet, you’re sweaty, it’s noisy, it’s stinky, and everything was feeling ‘nirvana-ish,’ (sic) then I remember focusing on that white spot of light then thinking about my kid, what about my wife? Then the guys in the back hit me in the back of my head and yelled, ‘don’t stop here, don’t stop here!’”
A piece of shrapnel had lodged in Lamb’s head causing him to be shipped back to the United States for treatment.
“When he got to the hospital they took a frontal X-ray and there was a thin, gray line where that dot had been. They took a side view and it was like a razor blade, a triangular razor blade had gone straight into his head and right between his lobes in his brain,” Ferriter said.
“The doctor told him, ‘I am good enough to get that out, but I wouldn’t have been good enough to put that in.’”
Lamb would receive the Joint Service Commendation Medal with Valor for his actions and the Purple Heart for his injuries.
Lamb continued to serve on active duty for 10 more years before retiring in 2003. He also participated in missions in Haiti, Bosnia, Djibouti, and, finally, in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“Each successive assignment in SOF seemed to build on the last,” Lamb said. “I remember during the rehearsals for the invasion of Haiti, I looked at the assembled Task Force and thought about how far we had come as a force. On the Tarmac was a razor sharp, truly Joint Force that could seize and hold just about any spot on the planet for as long as we cared to keep it. It was awesome to be a part of that maturation process.”
Looking back on his service in Special Operations Lamb reflected, “From the moment I joined SOF, I found myself surrounded by legendary men! They were Rangers and Recon men, men from the OSS, CIDG, and SOG. Men who jumped into Normandy, led bayonet charges in Korea, and kept small camps in El Salvador from being overrun. I met men of myth and character – men with unparalleled work ethic – men of improvisation. Men they write stories about and make into movies. Men that motivated me, trained me, showed patience, chewed my ass, saved me, protected me, led me, followed me, demanded a high standard, challenged me, and above all focused me. The fact that some of it rubbed off is more a testament to them than to me. I consider myself truly blessed to say I walked among them.”
Today, Lamb continues to serve as a Department of Defense civilian at U.S. Special Operations Command in the J3-International directorate, where he was instrumental in designing a state-of-the-art collaborative work space that exists nowhere else in the United States government and integrates international Special Operations officers from more than 15 partner nations into USSOCOM.
Lamb has been praised by very senior officers in the Army and the Department of Defense, but perhaps his highest compliment came from Mark DeVille, who, as a 19-year-old private, served in Lamb’s squad during the Soviet Defector Incident in Korea in 1984.
“What I saw him do during that firefight, and how he influenced me to stand by him and do the same thing, expose ourselves as we did, you tell me how good a leader he was. I followed him,” DeVille said.