By TARA McKELVEY
The special operators who travel the world are among the most elite, and well-trained, forces in the military, and their education begins in classrooms here in the United States at facilities such as the Kennedy Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, N.C. At the Schoolhouse, as the Kennedy Special Warfare Center is known, and at other military facilities across the country, special operators learn about doctrine, policy, and practical aspects of their work.
And whether they are studying to be Green Berets at the Kennedy Special Warfare Center, or Air Force Combat Divers at the Combat Divers School in Panama City, Florida, or Navy SEALs at the Naval Amphibious Base Coronado in Coronado, California, they are subjected to some of the most rigorous tests in the military in order to build their physical, mental, and psychological stamina that will prepare them for their missions abroad. And regardless of which branch of the military these special operators come from, they all learn how to act as independently, and with as little gear, as possible while they are deployed to trouble spots around the world.
Sharpest Knives in the Drawer
It was cool and damp on an August afternoon in a forest near Norman, North Carolina, where several dozen soldiers are participating in a Special Warfare Center training program known as Robin Sage, which is a 19-day counterinsurgency exercise that is conducted several times a year. Flies buzzed in the still air, and a clearing in the forest smelled like Sani-Wipes, rain and pine. One of the instructors, a burly Army officer in desert boots, showed a visitor a tripwire that was tied to two trees and acted as an early-warning system in case someone entered the area without permission. Several yards away, an AK-47 was lying on the ground.
The Army officers at the Center are steeped in military doctrine and are specially trained for this kind of work. The officer in desert boots has helped conduct counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan, for example, and he has read classics by Mao Zedong, the father of the Chinese revolution, and French counterinsurgency expert David Galula. (“He has his obvious flaws,” says the officer, in an understated manner, “advocating torture and stuff.”) The officer maintains that the most important lessons taught during the Robin Sage training exercise come not from texts, but from the men who have learned how to survive in the wilds of the Afghan mountains. “You got all the technology in the world, and it still comes down to the basics,” he says.
Graduates of the program excel at counterinsurgency, which is a slow and difficult undertaking based on creating alliances with local police and military and protecting civilians from harm. A core part of the counterinsurgency work is building bridges, schools, and roads and otherwise making local communities stronger so they can resist the pull of the insurgency. These are the kinds of activities that Kennedy Special Warfare Center graduates will undertake once they are deployed to countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Army special operators often travel in small groups of 12 and spend weeks at a time in some of the most treacherous parts of the world. “We’re like the Swiss Army knife of the army,” says another instructor in the Robin Sage program who asked not to be identified. “We’re compact and lightweight. We’re not low-impact; we’re high-impact. You’re talking about 12 guys that can shape a nation.”
Since 2000, the Kennedy Warfare School has increased the number of training programs from four to eight classes a year. On any given day, says Major David Butler, a public affairs officer at the Center, they are teaching about 2,200 special operations soldiers in their facilities in North Carolina. The demand for their work is high, and they have consequently stepped up their efforts in training and added instructors, and yet they are still falling short of their staffing goals. The problem, as officers and soldiers explain, is that the training of special operators is lengthy and expensive. “Special Operations soldiers cannot be mass produced,” as the authors of a military document, a September 2010 Fact Sheet issued by the Center, explained. As a result, says one of the instructors, “We are struggling to fill those slots.”
Choirboys Not Allowed
The training of special operators is time-consuming – and ruthless. Anyone who is in the Army, whether a decorated officer or a cook in a DFAC (as a military Dining Facility is known), can announce that they want to join one of the elite, special operator units such as the Green Berets. One of the appealing things about Special Operations, say former members of the unit, is that the groups are highly competitive and prestigious within the military, and yet everyone has a chance, even those with a dodgy past, to become part of the team.
“They’re not looking for a choirboy. They don’t want your first mistake to be in a foreign country,” says an ex-Delta troop commander. “Let’s say you had a DUI. That’s not necessarily a disqualifier. They want you to have faced adversity and that you shouldered it and put it behind you. Just because you had trouble in the past doesn’t mean you’re not going to get a fair shake.”
Aspiring special operators in the Army enter into a month-long tryout in which physical and psychological fitness is tested. The unit leaders are expansive in their definition of who can try out to be a special operator, but only the best among them will be chosen to enter into the training program. Several hundred people will audition for the Green Berets during one of their tryout periods, explains a former army officer who is familiar with the process, but only about one percent of these individuals will make it through the screening process.
Once they have made it through the screening, they embark on a training program. The length and type of training varies according to the branch of the military and the area of specialization. People who want to become part of Air Force Special Operations, for example, learn how to carry 100-pound backpacks while wearing body armor for several days in the mountains.
Meanwhile, those who want to become Navy Seals go through a program that is known, officially, as “Hell Week.” Participants train continually for 5 1/2 days, with only four hours of sleep. “Hell Week proves to those who make it that the human body can do 10 times the amount of work the average man thinks possible,” according to a Navy Seals fact sheet. “During Hell Week, you will learn the value of cool headedness, perseverance, and above all, TEAMWORK.”
Special operators learn teamwork – but they are expected to function in an insular environment. Rather than working within the hierarchical structure of the military, special operators operate miles from ground commanders and make decisions on their own. “They’re inserted into hostile environments without all the resources that a regular soldier has,” explains Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University professor who has written about U.S. efforts to fight Al Qaeda. “So that is part of their training.”
Special operators develop a grounding in counterinsurgency doctrine while they are studying at the Special Warfare Center and at other facilities in the United States, and they condition themselves to reach peak physical strength. When they arrive in a country in the midst of a crisis, they are prepared to evaluate the situation — often with little or no support from back home. Under these circumstances, the special operators are forced to grapple with some of the toughest decisions. As Georgetown University’s Bruce Hoffman explains, “It’s kind of the search for the truth, in essence.”