The Special Forces grew out of the Office of Strategic Services, a World War II era intelligence agency. The first Special Forces unit was officially activated on June 19th, 1952 during the Korean War, however the Special Forces as a whole did not participate in the war. Throughout the late 1950s and into the early 1960s, Special Forces units were deployed in Germany, Korea and Laos.
During the Vietnam War, Special Forces served in an advisory and training capacity, and were among the first American troops to be committed to the war effort. In 1961 the Special Forces were awarded the sole use of the Green Beret as their official symbol by John F Kennedy.
The Special Forces remained in Vietnam for fourteen years, during which they distinguished themselves for bravery and expertise. In 1969 they suffered a public relations blow in the form of the so-called "Green Beret Affair", during which several Special Forces officers were arrested for their alleged involvement in the murder of a South Vietnamese traitor. These charges were eventually dropped as both the Special Forces and the CIA refused to allow their employees to testify in the interest of national security.
After the Vietnam War, the Special Forces remained involved in nearly all of the campaigns waged by the US Army. In the 1980s Special Forces units were deployed to El Salvador to train the army who were fighting in a civil war at the time. Later in the 1980s they became involved in Colombia, specifically the drug cartels. They trained three Counter Narcotics Battalions that remain active in drug prevention into the present.
In the late 1980s the Special Forces were involved in the invasion of Panama, in the ultimately successful Operation Just Cause, which was the first mission to deploy a significant amount of Special Forces soldiers in the ground force. They were also involved in the Gulf War, especially Operation Desert Storm, in the early 1990s.
After the September 11th attacks, the Special Forces were the first military units on the ground in Afghanistan, and among those who made first contact the the Afghan Northern Alliance. They worked with the Northern Alliance for force multiplication, and also in the development of new tactics, specifically air tactics. After the invasion, the Special Forces remained involved in Operation Enduring Freedom. Like Afghanistan, the Special Forces were the first on the ground in Iraq, where they were central in both the invasion and in the later operations in Iraq.
After the majority of the fighting was over, the Special Forces were mainly involved in the rebuilding of the Iraqi army, eliminating extremist political parties, and locating the deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his sons. Currently Special Forces units are deployed worldwide in a number of different capacities, including humanitarian and training operations in addition to war-related operations.
Currently there are seven active Special Forces Groups. These are the 1st SFG, headquartered at Joint-Base Lewis McChord, Washington; 3rd SFG, headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; 5th SFG, headquartered at Fort Campbell, Kentucky; 7th SFG, headquartered at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; 10th SFG, headquartered at Fort Carlson, Colorado; 19th SFG, headquartered in Draper, Utah; and 20th SFG, headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama.
There are four inactive units, the 6th, 8th, 11th, and 12th. There are about 5,500 currently on active duty in the Special Forces. They are also known as the Green Berets, Quiet Professionals, Soldier-Diplomats and Snake Eaters.