By: Peter Sessum
Recently, I was filling in as a production assistant for a few days and I think I impressed the boss with my work ethic and performance. I joked that they were going to miss me and told Jill, the boss, that in the future she should always hire a vet, specifically one that had been a Specialist in the Army. If you have a lot of tasks that need to be done that require someone to interact with a number of different people in a multitude of roles, it helps to have someone that used to be a member of the Spec-4 mafia. And when I was an E-4, I was a Don. The pop culture reference is Radar O’Riley from M.A.S.H. while he was a Corporal, that is still an E-4 and close enough. Although it works best when it isn’t an NCO.
I know that they must have a similar unofficial network in the AirForce and Navy. Not sure what it is called in the Marines, but there has to be something. In the Army it is called the Spec-4 Mafia. While not a real criminal organization, it is where E-4s (or Specialists) in the Army help each other out. At a certain level, Specialists run the Army. It is the perfect rank, you aren’t a dumb Private but have none of the responsibility of a Sergeant.
For example, the supply sergeant never wants to give anyone anything. He knows exactly how many of everything he has in the supply office. If he gives stuff away, he has to recount his inventory from time to time. Never giving anything away is his way to exert power over others while still being lazy. That is why you never go to the supply sergeant for your supply needs. You check in with the E-4 in the supply room. He or she knows what is expendable and what is accountable. Hook that E-4 up later and you are golden for the future.
I was a Don in the Spec-4 mafia because I got the impossible. It helps to know when to push and when to pull. There are times when you have to approach the other soldier like his best buddy and time when you have to let him think that he would have to be a super hero to hook you up. And then there are times when you have to piss someone off to get what you want. The perfect example of this was when I was PSYOP at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) at Fort Polk. As attachments, no one knew who we were and no one wanted to support us, even though on paper they were supposed to.
When we arrived, the chow hall was already closed. The chowhall is run by POGs and my guys had already been turned away. There is no way the mess sergeant is going to give us grub. I found a PFC (close enough) and fast talked him into taking care of us. This got to make him a hero for squaring us away. We got a loaf of bread, peanut butter, jelly, fresh fruit and a coffee cake T-Rat tin. We weren’t very hungry so snacks hit the spot.
As attachments, no one really gave a crap about us and the second day into the exercise, our senior enlisted guy just gave up. I could see it happening so I stepped up my efforts. I found the guys passing out ammo and got them to fill up the cargo pockets of two soldiers. I offered the rounds to the rest of the detachment but the Lieutenant said that we would get our official draw the next day. This did not break my heart because I think we all know that I love to have extra rounds on me at any given moment. Bullets are like a lot of things, better to have too many that you don’t need than run out when you do.
This is why the Spec-4 mafia is better than the regular Army system. The Sergeant First Class (E-7) got turned away from his scheduled ammo draw. There was blank ammunition that was assigned to us and he was turned away because they wanted to take care of their own soldiers first. It didn’t help that he didn’t care so he didn’t fight for his soldiers. I know that it was only simulated warfare, but this is sending us into combat without bullets. The worst part is that the Lt had to come to me, hat in hand, to ask if I could get more rounds for everyone else. (For the record, the Lt was former enlisted so of course I did my part, plus he knew how the Mafia worked)
There is an art to creative acquisition. The higher ups can’t know too much or it will seem like they gave the order to acquire the stuff. If they do not appear to be part of it, they can bail you out if you get in trouble. The first time I walked into the tent with an armload of stuff the Lt asked where I got it.
“If you ask, you lose all deniability sir,” I said. He soon stopped asking.
For the record, they were not ill gotten goods. I always follow a couple simple rules.
1. Never steal anything
2. Someone who has the item has to physically hand it to me
3. No one can get in trouble for giving me stuff
Overall, things were working out pretty well with us getting what we needed through unofficial means until we hit a snag. We needed the impossible, a fuel can. Normally not a difficult item to get, but the unit came from Hawaii to Louisiana and only brought enough water and fuel cans for their vehicles. No one was even remotely flexible on this.
The Spec-4 Mafia itself could not help me, because I would have to violate rules 1 and 3 to get a fuel can. I couldn’t outright steal one and any other Specialist would be in trouble for giving it to me. The best anyone could do was refer me up the chain of command. There was only one thing left to do; I had to piss somebody off.
When I got to the battalion supply officer I knew I had my man. Naturally he blew me off at first. I was an E-4, he was a major that was very busy. He didn’t just kick me out of the TOC, he just told me he would deal with me later. That means, “Fuck off so I can forget about you.”
I politely nodded and stepped a respectable distance away. I quietly stood there at parade rest (feet shoulder width apart, hands behind the back, staring forward for you civilians) and waited. He had already ignored and forgotten about me so this is where the genius comes out. When he moved on to talk to the next person I snapped to attention, followed him, stopped a comfortable distance away, did a facing movement so I wasn’t staring at him and went back to parade rest.
After a couple rounds of this he asked what I was doing. I politely answered that I was waiting for him to be done so he could talk to me about the fuel can as he promised. I think he actually questioned my resolve at first. But after shadowing him for 20 minutes it started to bother him. And it might have been a little creepy.
Finally he grabbed me by the uniform and led me to the makeshift supply office. He called a Captain over and told the Captain to give me a fuel can. The Captain started to protest, but the Major silenced him before he could get two words out. Then the Major looked at me very seriously and said, “I don’t want to see you again.”
I smiled and thanked him and he stormed off. That was the last time I ever saw him. The Captain took me to the supply sergeant and said, “Give him whatever he wants.” The Sergeant tried to say that they didn’t have any extra fuel cans but the Captain gave him one of those, “We have no choice” shrugs and walked away.
The Sergeant gave me a fuel and water can and said, “I don’t know how you got these.” It was better that he didn’t ask. Since I had free reign, that seemed like a good time to round out any last minute equipment shortages. When I walked back into the tent, our Lt practically ran the other way. He really, really didn’t want to know how I made that happen.
This was pretty much how things went for my Army career. I always made friends outside the unit and became an asset when we needed stuff. At one point an officer didn’t like the “If you ask you lose all deniability” line. I knew that he really needed it so it got changed to “It fell off a truck.” In Afghanistan I was actually ordered by a Captain in my chain of command to no longer follow trucks. Literally every vehicle on base was a truck (except the helicopters) so there was no way to do anything where I would not be behind a truck. He later rescinded the order so that I could go about my regular duties like running missions six days a week.
One evening I walked into the tent and asked a guy,” who’s the man?” He said he was. I agreed and walked away. I asked the next guy the same question. Of course he said he was, and of course I agreed and moved on. The third guy said, “You are.” I agreed with him and handed him extra pistol magazines, something we were in vast shortage of. Suddenly people wanted to change their answers.
I didn’t always use the Spec-4 mafia to get much needed gear. At times it was used for my own amusement or to work on projects that kept me sane. I was very close to actually having a pool in Kandahar when I assigned to another camp.
My time of creative acquisition sadly had to end when I got promoted. You can’t be part of the Spec-4 Mafia as a Sergeant. It just doesn’t work that way. Suddenly you go from “hook a brother up” to pulling rank. I tried to teach my guys, but none really had the knack. Those skills did come in handy as a civilian in a war zone. But I didn’t just take care of me and my guys; we helped support donations to a local orphanage.
As a civilian, the skills of creative acquisition translate over. Every job still has supply and logistical issues. There is always communication with other departments or organizations and having someone skilled in bridging those gaps comes in handy. Now, I don’t say that things fell off a truck or tell the person in charge that they need deniability. Now I say, “People like to give me things.” Which, in the end is more accurate.
You’ almost had a pool’ in Bagram, too, if I recall correctly. Expanded hot tub actually. You might have pulled it off if you hadn’t been so close to all us chicken officers…
It is true, we almost had some real estate on Bagram. We were working out the kinks to getting COB Village built. I don’t blame you guy, it was you that could help make it happen. I just left too soon. If it wasn’t for that one jackass, I might have stayed with the company longer and made some really cool things happen.
The Spec 4 Mafia was alive and well in the 82nd Airborne Division , Infantry Brigades in the late 80’s. All officers and most NCO’s were Rangers.
Great article. If you’re interested, below is the origin of the modern Spec 4 Mafia–so they say::
The Origin of the Modern Spec 4 Mafia
According to legend, U.S. Army Ranger specialists formed an unofficial, secretive organization in the 1970s. They called it the “Spec 4 Mafia,” and its purpose was to administer corrective action to deficient privates—making those privates better soldiers. It was created by Rangers, exclusively for Rangers. That was most likely the original Spec 4 Mafia, but during the 1990s, a new mafia was born.
This new organization did not exist only in Ranger battalions. It was, and still is, Army-wide. The modern Spec 4 Mafia (S4M) quickly became an underground network of proud U.S. Army specialists who, as rumor has it, provide quality assistance to fellow specialists before providing for privates, NCOs, or officers. These new mobsters will occasionally “motivate” young, under-performing privates, but their primary mission is to take care of their own in their own way.
Many of us are aware of this modern organization. However, it is next to impossible to find information about its beginning. Does anyone really know the true origin of the modern Spec 4 Mafia? I do.
It started in Bosnia (Operation Joint Endeavor) during the spring of 1996 with four Military Police specialists. They were known as “The Four Horsemen.” Without naming names, their initials were MKM, JPR, JLK, and LO. In fact, three of them have ETSed and the fourth is currently (as of this writing) a U.S. Army senior NCO.
After hearing one NCO jokingly tell another NCO about specialists’ power in numbers, two of the horsemen decided to run with the idea of numerous organized U.S. Army specialists being a force to reckon with. Of course, they weren’t serious. They were just entertaining active minds—playing a game, if you will. They brought the idea up to two of their squad members and viola, the modern, Army-wide S4M was born.
They assigned fictitious titles and responsibilities to each other such as “Director of Intelligence and Propaganda,” “Director of Recruitment,” etc. They named themselves “The Four Horsemen” because it sounded cool. They also justified the name because three of them were gunners, and one was a driver; their HMMWVs were their horses.
Many of the missions these specialists conducted involved convoy escort, route reconnaissance, and base-cluster defense. These duties allowed them to travel to all U.S. camps in theater. Recruitment was easy. Most other specialists they conversed with wanted to be a part of this game. Like I wrote earlier, this was just a game. It was a game that grew exponentially.
By mid-summer, it was not uncommon to see “Spec 4 Mafia,” or “Spec 4 Mob” written on latrine walls in some camps. Once, during a promotion ceremony, one of the horsemen directed [asked] a soon-to-be-promoted specialist to hold out four fingers for four seconds to show respect for S4M during the ceremony. He did it, and a loud and thunderous “HOOAH” echoed through the battalion. There were a lot more dedicated mobsters in the battalion than the horsemen had previously realized. Needless to say, they were proud. Of course, the one who instigated the ordeal was chewed out by his squad leader and platoon sergeant for “desecrating an NCO induction ceremony.”
The organization had NCO support. Sergeants, like the one mentioned above and others, wanted to remain in, or enter, this game. They were referred to as “supporters.” Their ranks precluded them from being full-fledged mobsters, but their loyalty granted them limited access to “the know.” I can only assume that NCO support of S4M still exists. After all, it’s difficult for most people to let go of something this cool, even after becoming a member of the NCO Corps.
These supporters would occasionally render the four-fingered salute to groups of S4M soldiers as a sign of support. In return, the specialists would acknowledge them with the same. This salute was just a quick four fingers (horizontal) on the chest—similar to a gang sign. I don’t know if modern mafia still use this salute, but it was motivational at the time. Also, it’s important to understand that the salute didn’t distinguish between senior and subordinate, like military salutes do. It was a sign of mutual respect within the organization, and outside respect from supporters.
During the winter of 1996, the horsemen, along with most soldiers of Operation Joint Endeavor (IFOR), redeployed to their home stations. These S4M soldiers took their organization with them and continued to operate as mobsters throughout Germany and CONUS.
Today, we can read recent online posts written by Spec 4 mafia members. We know the organization is still alive. S4M mobsters can exist in any U.S. Army unit with at least one specialist assigned to it. A very few non-Rangers may claim that their S4M ways derive from a source originating pre 1996. I write “may” because, like I mentioned earlier, it’s next to impossible to find a written history of this organization. Well, I am confident in saying that most modern S4M septs can trace their lineages to The Four Horsemen.
Those four MP specialists successfully organized, motivated, and deployed hordes of U.S. Army specialists with three things in common: they were soldiers; they were specialists; and they were proud Spec 4 mobsters.
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Marines have the Lance Corporal Underground.
I did not know that. I figured they would have something. Thanks for filling in the gap.
Army 1968/69 Vietnam: I don’t remember the SP4 Mafia (I was a SP4 for most of my tour but finished as Sgt) but do remember a kind of black mafia among the NCOs. We were a 4 member unit kind of attached to an Army helicopter base and had trouble getting anything. Our black SFC was a ranger and had been a LRRP until wounded and assigned to our rinkydink unit. He could get anything but did not stop at taking it even if it wasn’t trade or offered.
You may remember the scene in the MASH movie where Elliot Gould (or was it Donald Sutherland) arrives in Korea by plane and walks over to an unattended jeep and drives off, only, at the end of the film, to drive the same jeep back and leave it parked where he found it as he boards the freedom bird.
Well, our Sgt. N-son (a short but heavily muscled and imposing figure with true command authority) went off to Saigon one day and arrives back in Vinh Long a few days later on a C-129 with a brand new jeep. He claimed that he went over to a fenced area somewhere in the Saigon/Long Binh/Bien Hoa/Port area (exactly where escapes me after 45 years) with rows of brand new parked jeeps guarded by a few ARVNs or White Mice police. He had a clipboard on which he wrote the hood numbers from one of the jeeps that he could see. He went up to one of the guards and pointed to the line of jeeps and then pointed to the number he had on his clipboard and then just entered the area with the ARVN following him. He made a big show of stopping at each jeep, comparing its number to the one on his clipboard and then looking at the ARVN and nodding “NO”. The guard was happy to nod no back at him and this repeated itself right down the line of jeeps until Sgt N came to his target at which time he nodded “YES” and the ARVN happily nodded along with him. N jumped in the jeep, saluted and roared off to Tan Son Nhut or Bien Hoa where a USAF black mafia sgt fixed him up with the C-129 airlift.
That jeep stayed with him until a LtC who our little unit reported to in Can Tho got pissed at N and started making life difficult for him. N managed to get himself transferred and on the day he departed we got a call from the LtC not to let the jeep out of our sight. Too late, N and the jeep had already vanished. A transportation LtC was no match for a black combat NCO who entered the Army at 15 and new all the tricks (including how to enlist at 15).
Great story! It totally is true, having been part of said Mafia. What a club. Once I become one, less than a yr before I ETSd, it came in handy on a few occasions.
In the Navy it is the 2nd class petty officers (E-5) at least on the ships and MIUW units I was attached to over 23 yrs. KMM