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How to Become a Special Forces Soldier

Want to be a member of Special Forces? Learn the process, know their duties and, for one fierce mission, step inside the boots—and the foxhole—of a Green Beret.
They don’t call it special for nothing. The toughness and teamwork of a Green Beret unit—like the one shown here—are second to none. Photo by Russell Klika
They don’t call it special for nothing. The toughness and teamwork of a Green Beret unit—like the one shown here—are second to none. Photo by Russell Klika
SFC “Mac” and his team on the lookout post-firefight at Hill 614. Photo from SFC "Mac"
SFC “Mac” and his team on the lookout post-firefight at Hill 614. Photo from SFC "Mac"
SFC “Mac” stayed on the lookout post-firefight at Hill 614. “You can’t let your guard down,” he says. Photo from SFC "Mac"
SFC “Mac” stayed on the lookout post-firefight at Hill 614. “You can’t let your guard down,” he says. Photo from SFC "Mac"
SFC “Mac” and his unit serve in Afghanistan. Photo from SFC "Mac"
SFC “Mac” and his unit serve in Afghanistan. Photo from SFC "Mac"
As an SF engineer, “Mac” carries a “boom stick”—an M4 rifle with an M203 grenade launcher attachment. Photo from SFC "Mac"
As an SF engineer, “Mac” carries a “boom stick”—an M4 rifle with an M203 grenade launcher attachment. Photo from SFC "Mac"

HOLDING HILL 614

Just before dawn, against the night sky, the Morghab Valley of Afghanistan was set ablaze. Peppered by machine-gun fire and grenades all around, Sergeant First Class “Mac” found himself pinned in a foxhole on “Hill 614,” surrounded by enemy fire. Pre-emptive tactical planning came in handy when he and his Norwegian counterparts, code-named Griffin 11, and members of the Afghan National Army (ANA) found themselves fighting against 50 or 60 members of the Taliban less than 24 hours after enemy forces had murdered International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) members and kidnapped 10 Soldiers from the ANA. What was supposed to be a standard assignment turned into a firefight for their lives.  

It was supposed to be a “milk run”—an easy gig. I was an 18C SF Engineer—the demolitions expert—on my Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) in Afghanistan in 2009 when we got an order to make contact with our ISAF counterparts in Ghormach, western Afghanistan. I linked up with a Norwegian Operational Military Liaison Team that went by the call sign Griffin 11 to establish a relationship and then begin construction on a new Forward Operating Base to establish a presence in the areas between Herat and Ghormach.

Within my first few days with Griffin 11, we received a mission to watch over a ceremony near Mazar-e Sharif commemorating the death of Ahmad Shah Massoud, an Afghan patriot killed in 2001. Rumor had it that members of the Taliban were planning attacks to coincide with the ceremony. I accompanied my new friends, thinking this would be an easy assignment. When I arrived, their commander told me our mission had changed; they were retasked to Morghab Valley, 20 kilometers west of Ghormach, to assume a blocking position in support of another ISAF unit working to the south. I loaded into an Iveco (defense vehicle) with three Norwegian Soldiers and one local national interpreter, and we left to link up with an ANA platoon. We never expected what happened next.

SIGNS OF TROUBLE

On a small hilltop designated as coordinate “.614” on our 1:50,000 military map, my Norwegian counterparts and I took a defensive position to deny access to Taliban reinforcements that could come from a village 5 kilometers down the valley. The Norwegian ground force commander (GFC) was a skilled infantryman and tactically proficient in all aspects of ground combat. I watched as he placed our element on point and the ANA platoon’s elements in support. He knew full well that half were likely to flee if the shooting started, and a battle’s momentum could drastically shift in the Taliban’s favor if this were to occur. Some would be angry at this fact, but good leaders accept and mitigate hard facts to give their Soldiers the best chance for success.

The first three or four days were uneventful. We stayed up on night watch eating MREs, crapping in a hole and discussing what to do if Jennifer Aniston would answer my request for a date. You know, Army stuff. That all changed when we received word from ISAF headquarters that the element tasked to be the main effort 15 kilometers down the valley was overrun by Taliban fighters the night prior. There had been multiple ISAF casualties, and ANA members had been kidnapped.

The reality of fighting in Afghanistan led us to assume the kidnapped nationals may have switched sides to fight with the Taliban to save their own lives. That meant we now had anywhere from 30 to 60 Taliban fighters just down the road from us.

Victories can embolden a band of fighters like a speech from General Patton. The enemy would be looking for another fight, and we knew it.

While watching the valley, the Norwegian GFC spotted something on the horizon. I quickly turned my Leupold spotting scope to the area in question. Sure enough, a Taliban commander and another fighter were there. They were well out of small-arms range. Yet still, somehow, the GFC had picked them out with his naked eye. I observed as they pointed to avenues of approach along the valley floor, motioning attack formations. Next, our local national interpreter noted that the cell tower nearby was turned off—a common tactic of the Taliban for early warning purposes. It was all reading like an intel report from our morning briefs. The tactics our enemies use will tell you all you need to know, as long as you listen. The sun was setting, and everybody knew the enemy would visit us before sunrise.

“GO TIME”

The Taliban knew our night vision equipment gave us an edge, and like a good commander, they accepted and mitigated any way they could. Dawn and dusk are the two times of day that night vision goggles are least effective, and they used that to their advantage.

The night watch was an adrenaline-fueled struggle to remain calm and conserve energy, knowing any minute it would be “go time.” Just as our earlier study of our adversaries’ tactics told us, they showed up right on time—just before dawn.

The dark sky ripped open with machine-gun fire wildly peppering our hilltop with 12.7 mm rounds. Our enemies had used the hills to conceal their movement and now were only 650 meters away with a Russian DShK (Dishka) heavy machine gun. We had an MG 30 machine gun mounted on our Iveco, and it quickly answered the Dishka with its own purr of lead returning the favor. The game was afoot!

The GFC was dug in off of the passenger side of our Iveco, and I was dug in 10 meters off the driver’s side, along with another Norwegian Soldier with a 7.62 SAW heavy. We had ranged all suitable fighting positions in the days leading up to the fight, and our enemies picked exactly where we would have selected—“fighting position 1.” As an 18C, I was carrying what we refer to as the “boom stick”—an M4 rifle with a 203 grenade launcher, which was not optimal at this distance. (I carry 221 rounds of 5.56 ball ammunition and 13 high explosive 40 mm grenades as my standard load, with M4 and 45 rounds of 9 mm for backup.) But I knew soon enough there would be closer targets.
 
The MG 30 on the Iveco and the SAW entertained the Dishka for now. Soon, the hill began rocking with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) coming from multiple angles. That was my cue. The RPGs were closing in from the hills in the 500-meter range and getting closer. I began bracketing 203 rounds on the hilltops and engaging targets. I couldn’t believe that they were advancing! Had they studied our tactics? Did they really think they could take our hill?

The enemy tried to flank and fire on us. Our saving grace was our preparation; they attacked from right where we wanted them. We set up accordingly. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a blur. They were close, really close! I spun to the side and brought up my rifle. In the blink of an eye and a split second longer, I could have shot our ANA machine-gun team. They were displacing and joining the fight—none too soon. As the two-man ANA machine-gun team dropped their bipod legs into the hard Afghan soil, the enemy opened up with another Dishka directly across from them—only 400 meters away.

Our ANA team immediately opened fire and suppressed the Russian machine gun. Had they not displaced when and where they did, I would have been flanked by the Dishka. Multiple Taliban fighters advanced across the foothills within 300 meters of us. Things were getting close. A Norwegian joint terminal attack controller called for air support. Since we didn’t have dedicated air, our contacts at the Bagram Air Field scrambled to send us an F-15 Eagle, but it was at least 35 minutes out.

LIGHT ’EM UP

As the fight unfolded, my NVG’s crapped out. I was now on a hill in a foxhole with no night vision and enemy combatants all around. Then, the SAW jammed. Our foxhole was getting peppered with RPGs. We returned fire with 5.56 ball ammunition, but it wouldn’t do. I lobbed 203 grenade rounds down on the foothills, covering long enough for the SAW to get back in the fight.

Then I called over the GFC and told him I wanted to drop a flare. I wanted to see these dirtbags firsthand.

I loaded a white star cluster and fired it low from my elevated position. As it popped, the enemy forces stopped for a minute. They looked stunned, like children who just got caught by their parents staying up past their bedtime. The enemy tried to take cover as the flare fell.

As the MG 30 rained down, the SAW purred from our foxhole, holding them back. I sent more high-explosive rounds into the foothills and then sent two more flares toward them. The valley floor began to burn in long lines of fire, and it silhouetted the enemy. It looked like a scene from a video game.

Then I heard: “Griffin 11, this is the U.S. Air Force.” … “Big Blue” was in the house.

The F-15 made two passes to identify our positions and de-conflict targets. Next came the worst thing a Soldier can hear. “Whoa. … You guys get small. They are on top of you there. I am coming in small with a five-hundred-pounder.”

We held a steady rate of fire until we heard the afterburners howl close, and then we ducked into our foxhole. The concussion shook the valley floor and my molars. My team and I popped back up and fired into the smoke and dust until the next pass—again the F-15 dropped a 500-pound bomb.

Our enemies scrambled up the burning hillside back to their original fighting position. We continued to engage them as they retreated, and “Big Blue” pounded them with two more 500-pounders, followed by a 1,000-pounder once they got far enough back from us.

As the sun began to rise, the valley burned for miles. The firefight lasted just over an hour, but seemed like four weeks in Southern Pines, NC (the SF training grounds), as we watched for any sign of a counterattack. As we called in our reports, a sense of elation and victory came over us. We smiled and laughed as if we had just won the first round of the playoffs.

For ground troops, this is our goal. This is what we train for. This is what we do. All Soldiers seek to prove themselves on the battlefield. This was not a turning point in the war, and it was not a critical battle for the war effort. It had started as a milk run, but it was our milk run, and we won it.

Similar battles happen every day in Afghanistan and Iraq (prior to 2012). We just never hear about them. Instead, the news we hear about is from "American Idol" and other nonsense. Well, my American “idols” are not on TV, nor are they all from America. They are on my left and my right, and they are the reason I continue to do what I do.

De Oppresso Liber!

 

 

MAKING THE CUT

Physically and mentally demanding, yet intensely rewarding, passing these major milestones will help get you on your way to becoming the best of the best: a member of the Special Forces (SF), or Green Berets.

SF Readiness Evaluation (SFRE)

After Advanced Individual Training (AIT)—if you’re not Army MOS-qualified—this intense weekend will challenge you with an onslaught of grueling drills meant to distinguish elite warriors. Past events have included 12-mile rucksack marches, combat swims and APFTs. Leave your comfort zone behind and start hydrating 72 hours before this brutal test.

SF Assessment and Selection (SFAS)

This three-week survival skills course will push you to the limit. Your best tools for the exercise? A high IQ, agility and the ability to think on (or off) your feet.

SF Qualification Course (SFQC)

After passing SFAS, “Q Course” consists of six phases, which will train you as an SF Soldier—one of the Army’s experts in unconventional warfare.

Phase I: Orientation and History
Phase II: Language and Culture
Phase III: Individual Skill Training: Learn tactical combat skills
Phase IV: MOS Training: Receive your specialty skill assignment based on your background, interest and aptitude
Phase V: Unconventional Warfare Culmination Exercise (Robin Sage): Show your expertise as a member of an Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) while on deployment
Phase VI: Graduation. Completing Q Course could take anywhere from 14 to 24 months, depending on your MOS skill and language. Congrats if you’ve made it this far!

HOW TO APPLY

There are two Special Forces groups in the National Guard. To become part of this elite group of Soldiers, call a Special Forces representative at 1-800-GO-GUARD or email special_forces@nationalguard.com. Plus, read about all the current requirements at SpecialForces.NationalGuard.com.

 

 

THE NINE SF MISSIONS

Whether playing the peacekeeper, the heavy hand of force, the sleuth or the ambassador, SF Soldiers excel at many different roles. Ready for anything, they are always on a real-world mission or training for one.

COUNTERTERRORISM (CT)
Stop the bad guys before they strike. One of the biggest ways to fight terrorism is to prevent it. SF Soldiers are deployed to deter or resolve terrorist incidents abroad by working with U.S. allies to fight the Global War on Terror. Further details of this mission are classified.

DIRECT ACTION (DA)
Use the element of surprise. Green Berets excel at quick-strike campaigns in hostile territory. This mission is considered close combat but can also include sniping or standoff attacks by fire.

FOREIGN INTERNAL DEFENSE (FID)
Train your allies to protect themselves. This defensive mission helps U.S. allies extinguish attacks by enemy nations. SF Soldiers train the military and national defense forces of a host nation’s government to protect its citizens from aggressors within its borders.

SPECIAL RECONNAISSANCE (SR)
Know your enemy. Without being detected, SF Soldiers are charged with sneaking behind enemy lines to gather intel. This reconnaissance mission provides invaluable details on an enemy’s movement, operations and weaponry, helping U.S. forces to best prepare for a strike.

UNCONVENTIONAL WARFARE (UW)
Relationships matter. This mission relies on forming deep roots in enemy-held or -controlled territory. While building relationships with local militia or natives, SF Soldiers teach them useful operational tactics that can be used in a resistance movement against the enemy.

SECURITY FORCE ASSISTANCE (SFA)
Support unified action. This mission aids the Department of Defense in unifying action to develop the capacity and capability of foreign security forces.

COUNTERINSURGENCY (COIN)
Defeat the insurgency and address grievances. SF provides teams that operate discreetly in local communities, with or without indigenous forces, to secure the general population and to legitimize the host nation’s government.

COUNTER-PROLIFERATION OF WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION (CP)
Take down WMDs. This classified mission focuses on defeating the threat and/or use of weapons of mass destruction against the U.S. and our allies.

INFORMATION OPERATIONS (IO)
Communication is key. This mission focuses on gaining an intel advantage over the enemy to influence, disrupt or corrupt their decision-making while protecting our own.

– Information from FM 3-18 (FM 3-05.20) March 2012

 

 

BUILDING A SPECIAL FORCES TEAM

A typical SF team, known as Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA), consists of 12 members, each with his own mission-specific Military Occupational Specialty.

DETACHMENT COMMANDER
This captain organizes the mission, outfits the team and debriefs members on the mission objective.

ASSISTANT DETACHMENT COMMANDER
This warrant officer is second in command and has been selected from within the SF’s enlisted ranks.

OPERATIONS (TEAM) SERGEANT
This master sergeant is the team’s senior member. The most experienced Green Beret, he is responsible for all operational aspects of the ODA.

ASSISTANT OPERATIONS AND INTELLIGENCE SERGEANT
This sergeant first class is trained in advanced special operations techniques, including intelligence collection and target analysis.

WEAPONS SERGEANT*
These weapons specialists operate and maintain a wide variety of U.S., allied and other foreign weaponry, from the most basic to the highly advanced.

ENGINEER SERGEANT*
Specializing in a wide range of disciplines, these sergeants are adept in everything from demolitions and constructions of field fortifications to topographic survey techniques.

MEDICAL SERGEANT*
These sergeants are among the finest first-response and trauma medical technicians in the world.

COMMUNICATIONS SERGEANT*
Tech-savvy communications sergeants can operate a wide range of gear, from encrypted satellite communications systems to old-style, high-frequency Morse key systems.

*Two per team.