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Join Special Forces? The Road Starts Here
“Team six!” No. 73 shouts into darkness. “Circle up!”
73 (name withheld for security purposes), a former Marine now in the National Guard, is trying to round up his fellow Soldiers on his Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) team, a tough task considering the circumstances. More than 150 troops scurry about Camp Mackall, NC, just shy of 5:30 a.m., and in the dark, they all look the same.
Nameless and expressionless—their faces masks of exhaustion—the 17 other members of Team 6 gather around 73, and together they march out. Bleary-eyed after more than two weeks of physical, mental and psychological testing and little sleep with five more days to go, the men carry at least 45 pounds on their backs, MREs in their bellies and dreams of becoming Green Berets in their hearts.
Behind 73 and Team 6 walk the 18 members of Team 7, including two other Guard Soldiers. One is candidate No. 224, a staff sergeant who did a tour in Afghanistan. There’s also No. 99.
They have been cut off from the outside world, so they don’t know heavy rain is in the forecast. All they know is this: March. Follow the flares. Stop when they reach their destination.
SFAS is so intense that marching 5 kilometers while carrying nearly 50 pounds starting at 5:30 a.m. doesn’t count as part of the training. One of the toughest days of SFAS awaits them—12 miles of marching, all while carrying, pushing or pulling heavy equipment. But they don’t know about any of that. Their view of what lies ahead remains as dark as the sky above them.
Jupiter shines low in the sky to their right, but neither 73 nor 99 nor 224 notices. They keep their heads down, putting one foot in front of the other, their boots making new prints on top of old ones on this dirt road where dreams sometimes flourish, sometimes die.
Thousands of men have marched on this road.
Only the best have become Green Berets.
THREE PUNISHING WEEKS
The 21 days of SFAS—19 days of training through team and individual tests, plus two days of administrative work—constitute the best and worst days of a Soldier’s life. The process rips the Soldiers apart physically, emotionally and psychologically. The testing is crucial, because after SFAS, only the best Soldiers are selected to attend Special Forces Qualification Course (“Q Course”), the final step along the path to becoming a Green Beret.
Green Berets must be among the most well-trained and versatile warriors in the military. They use state-of-the-art gear and work with other expert comrades to complete nine types of missions, many of which are classified. They work in jungles, deserts, mountains and wherever else they are needed.
But before 73, 99 or 224 can attempt any such missions, they must first pass SFAS, where every day brings a new and seemingly impossible challenge, made all the more difficult by lack of sleep and exposure to the elements—on this day, it’s rain and cold. The course is designed to be excruciating physically to reveal who is strong mentally.
“Your mind has to be set that you’re not going to quit even if your body tells you you’re going to quit. You have to make the decision that you’re going to ignore your body,” says one of the cadre, a sergeant who’s a Guard Soldier and who completed the SFAS course in 1997, became a Green Beret and went on to do two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It might seem like it’s harder than it needs to be, but it’s designed to find people who have made that decision in their mind. Everybody will say they have made that decision. But some have not.”
Even the men who complete SFAS training are not automatically selected to advance to Q Course. To finish SFAS is to prove yourself among the toughest men in the Army. To be selected for Q Course is to confirm your status as the elite among the elite—and to guarantee yourself a bright future. But that bright future comes at an enormous, yet rewarding, cost. In addition to the three-week SFAS course, Soldiers spend months, if not years, getting their bodies ready.
“You really can’t prepare for this,” 99 says later. “All I really focused on was nutrition and my physical health, my well-being. I maintained a level of athleticism I felt comfortable with. I did a lot of running, a lot of rucking.”
73 and 224 prepared much the same way. All three spent more than one year training. Core strength and endurance appear to be the two most important physical attributes, especially in the team exercises. The individual portion of SFAS includes an obstacle course, which tests athleticism and agility, and a land navigation test, among others.
Soldiers are also tested for teamwork, intelligence, perseverance and many other attributes. If they make it through SFAS and then Q Course, 73, 99 and 224 will have been graded on 3,000 physical, mental and psychological data points.
WEIGHING THE OPTIONS
All throughout SFAS, the cadre keep watch. Occasionally, they pull out notebooks not much bigger than their hands, in which they have drawn charts. Candidates’ numbers go down the left side. Attributes go across the top. A check mark means good; a blank spot the opposite. The cadre assess not only whether candidates accomplish goals but how they accomplish them.
In these evaluations, there is far more gray than black and white, when cadre members are evaluating candidates. Ask a cadre member if a candidate did the right thing during a test, and the answer is almost always the same: “It depends.”
Take 99 and the land navigation test, arguably the toughest individual test of the course. Six candidates in this SFAS session quit at the beginning of it. A seventh wanders around for hours, mistaking the starting point on his map for his first mark. He looks for something that’s not there until a cadre member finally tells him to take a closer look at his map.
By 5 a.m., 99 has been up for five hours, having found one of the required points in the North Carolina wilderness. He locates the second one, but a creek stands between him and it. Running low on time, he decides to cross the creek instead of finding a way around it.
He wades in and falls completely underwater. He swims across, finding his mark, takes off his wet clothes, puts on dry ones and builds a fire to warm up. “Twenty degrees, soaking wet, five in the morning. It wasn’t fun,” he says.
Cadre members are impressed at the lengths 99 goes to, to get the point and that he built a fire. But they are also concerned because he put himself in position to get wet in extreme cold by falling behind on the task. He finishes without getting all of his possible points.
LOOKS ARE DECEIVING
As the “downed pilot” test starts, 99, 224 and the rest of Team 7 have a short allotment of time to come up with a plan and execute it. They have mere moments to figure out how to put together poles to carry several “pilots” (200-to-300-pound bags of sand, representing multiple “casualties”). Nobody notices when the time allotted to build the carrying devices elapses—nobody except the cadre member keeping watch. He orders half the team to do burpees while the other half finishes the build.
Once the build is done, Team 7 marches the wrong way. Offering the rare bit of grace in this tough training, the cadre catches up to 224 and suggests he double-check his map. This moment gets close scrutiny by the cadre. Will 224, who volunteered to be Team 7’s navigator, own his mistake? Deflect blame? How will his teammates react?
“It’s my fault, guys,” 224 says as he tells Team 7 to turn around. “I wasn’t paying attention.” If the gaffe creates any dissension, it stays hidden, and to 224’s credit, he brings up his mistake unprompted in an interview later.
Team 7 struggles throughout the rest of the test. A two-minute break lasts six minutes, and the team stops again 100 yards later for water. SFAS candidates routinely rank downed pilot as the toughest team test of SFAS.
“It kind of kicked our butt mentally, because we saw it was such a small package. We thought it would be lighter than the logs,” 99 says, in reference to a drill the day before in which Soldiers carried logs the size of telephone poles.
He smiles. He shakes his head.
A TOUGH POSITION
By 11 a.m., 73, 99 and 224 have hiked many miles. Rain pours down in sheets. A handful of Soldiers pull out rain gear.
Each team starts the next test with several downed pilots/sandbags, metal bars and small trailers. The teams must move it all a few kilometers. Each team assembles the material slightly differently. Some of the devices would make an engineer laugh. But some of them look functional, or at least as functional as such disparate objects can become in a short amount of time in the rain, with no tools, when put together by men fighting physical, emotional and psychological exhaustion.
Many SFAS tests have twists that make them even harder than they appear—in this case, one of the trailers is missing a wheel. “All those things are in there to create friction in the group, and see how they deal with it,” says the cadre sergeant. “There are some social things that are being assessed there as well.”
A few teams use counterweights to balance their devices, and they pick Soldiers to sit on metal poles to become those weights. It’s a terrible job. With the cadre always watching, always writing in that little notebook, nobody wants to just sit there.
As Team 6 pushes its device through a misty rain, the Soldiers holler for 73 to sit. He hops on and stays for about a minute before he jumps down and asks another Soldier, who looks to be approximately his size and weight, to take his spot. “I can’t sit still,” he tells his teammates as he runs to the back to push. “If it doesn’t work, I’ll get back on it.”
The Soldier next to him falls behind. “You all right, one-seven?” 73 asks.
17’s rain poncho has gotten wedged between his rucksack and his back. Like an itchy toe inside a skier’s boot, it’s annoying and he can’t fix it. 73 yanks on the poncho once, twice, three times, finally pulling it free. 17 nods “thank you.”
Team 6’s device stops rolling, and 73 is summoned to return as the counterweight. The device works great when he sits there but gets herky-jerky when anyone else does. 73 grudgingly accepts this.
“That’s the position I really didn’t want to be in. I tried so many times to get out of it. But my teammates said I had to sit on it,” he says later. “When your team decides that something is better for the team, it’s imperative that you go with that.”
The training has been long and difficult, and there is much more to come. But even after a day of incredible exertion, 73 refuses to acknowledge he is in any pain. He stands as straight and tall as the metal poles he already helped carry 10 kilometers today. “I’ve never felt so alive in my life,” he says.
It looks like a playground threw up. An assortment of materials lies on the ground. The task: Move it all several kilometers. Applying skills he learned in Ranger school, 99 takes charge of tying tires into pairs, using a variety of knots. He explains to others how to build a contraption for this exercise.
As he stands on the lashing that holds together one set of tires, another candidate tightens it. “Pull it behind me,” 99 says. “You should hear a pop.” A second later, the pop a knot makes is audible from 10 feet away.
Team 7 takes five steps before the contraption drops. The team starts again and travels only a few hundred feet. The 18 Soldiers disassemble the contraption and spend an hour building another one. A cadre member predicts the team has no chance to move the assigned distance in time. But a funny thing happens on the way to failure: The new contraption not only works but works well. The members of Team 7 pass two of the three teams that had passed them while they rebuilt their contraption. “It ain’t NASCAR, but it’s still pretty fast,” one Soldier says.
Looking at his map, 224 assesses the team’s chances to finish on time. “We have one hour to make it two and a half more clicks,” he says. The math does not look good. He shouts encouragement anyway.
99 rotates between rudder man and wheel man. As the rudder man, he pushes from the back, shouting steering instructions to Soldiers in the front wearing rope harnesses. As wheel man, he shuffles alongside the contraption, pushing the wheels on the right toward the center when they come close to falling off the axle.
With 14 minutes left, Team 7 turns a corner and sees the end. “It’s right up there, guys,” 99 says. “We got it. C’mon, c’mon, c’mon. Finish strong.”
Team 7 crosses the finish line with 10 minutes to spare, an incredible turnaround reflecting adaptability and perseverance—two keys of the team-building exercises. “That was trial and error,” 99 says. “It took a little while to figure it out.”
By the end of the December SFAS session, 73, 99 and 224 all successfully make it through SFAS and are selected to come back and attend Q Course.
With a smile, 224 says that when SFAS training gets tough, “I go to my happy place.” He says he thinks about his friends and family back home, how proud he’ll make them, and what a great story he’ll have to tell them about the three weeks of hell he just survived. And if all goes well, he’ll soon have a new green beret to show them, too.
RESULTS OF THIS SFAS COURSE
The SFAS winter course began on Nov. 29, 2013, and ended in late December.
318 candidates entered (302 Active Army and 16 Guard members)
117 candidates passed (35 percent Active Army, 56 percent Guard members—a 36 percent combined average)