Part two of a six part series.
It was a couple of years before Howard was allowed to go to the actual SF courses. First he had to gain his actual Army commission in 1988, which he did, and in the meanwhile he was placed in charge of the unit admin section, then Intel, and finally he lead the training team, a sub-unit that specialized in getting soldiers ready to attend the SF course. Also, he had to complete Infantry school for officers (IOBC) at FT Benning, Georgia.
Then the fine day arrived that he was allowed to attend Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS)– three weeks of hell. It was in this period that a lot of changes were occurring within the SF community, both administrative and in terms of training. Howard received the benefit of the refinements- a grueling “gut check” of a course designed to weed out the stupid, the rash, and the weak.
The selection course that SF finally settled upon “drew heavily upon the British SAS, who had their own Selection, or with the Ranger Training Brigade, to see what Rangers did… we needed to find out the basic things, to see if soldiers had it, or not.” Originally the selection course was called Special Forces Orientation Training, or SFOT, and the original classes were “bedlam,” before “it all shook out.”
The questions the school wanted answered were “Do they have the mind, the grit, the stick-to-itiveness… can they prepare themselves, can they put up with misery?”
Howard reflected that by the time he got there, SFAS was a well-oiled machine. As far as he knows, it hasn’t changed much since the late eighties. “Sore Feet And Shoulders” is still the same, and Lieutenant Pearce was not successful on his first try. However, he was allowed to re-attend the school, and he did.
I asked what percentage of candidates were washed out. “It’s not like the song, “one-hundred men, they’ll test today,” that’s a song.” (NOTE: That song is “The Ballad of the Green Beret” by SSG Barry Sadler. JL) “I will tell you that the highest pass and selection rate (at SFAS- JL) is somewhere around fifty percent… if you look at the entire course, the number is significant, a significant emotional event.
There are some basic requirements for attending the school- time in grade, and a basic physical fitness score (based upon the 17-21 range, regardless of age).
“What struck me when I showed up, I’d been through a number of Army courses… there’s always that ‘we’re going to get off the bus and here we go.’ Get yourself ready for the barking, the yelling, and all the stupidity, reindeer games.” He rolled his eyes, paused, and continued. “There was none of that…there were five hundred people there, all of them in uniform with their decorations…I saw a big dude, I thought “he’s going to walk through this course,” I saw a little dude, wondered how he would do…Just about every person I saw, I was wrong.” “The big dude? He quit halfway through the first week…that little dude? He was the first one in on the last ruck march.” He paused. “I learned a lesson from that; you don’t know what’s on the inside, you see what people can give you.”
Howard was surprised the most at the lack of yelling. A student was tasked with holding a formation and getting a count. He did it once, the cadre told him the count was wrong. So the poor guy did it again, once again the count was wrong. Finally, the cadre showed mercy. “Did you count yourself, Sergeant?” The whole time, the trainer spoke in a quiet, level fashion, and finally only corrected the soldier after several tries. That incident set the tone for the school. The only facial expression the cadre member showed was a slight smirk.
Then the students had to do some basic Army physical tests. They did the Army Water Survival Test, then they did the PT test- a series of calisthenics capped off by a two-mile run.
“When you had to do the push ups, they would say “Your time has begun.” They wouldn’t count, they wouldn’t tell you how you were doing, they stood there and watched you and at the end of the two minutes, they’d say “You’re done.” He’d write something down on his clipboard, and that ended up being the mode for that course.” Howard continued. “The Army usually gives you task, condition, and standards…the whole thing with the SFAS course was that you would get the task, the condition, and no standard. And sometimes the condition would be a little fuzzy, too.”
He told an example of how everyone was told to be at a trail in the woods at 0445, wearing uniform pants, a t-shirt, and they had to have a canteen. The instructor spoke. “You will run down this trail as fast as you can… Does anyone want to quit? Your time has begun.”
Howard furrowed his brow at the memory. “You had no idea if it was a two-mile run, a five mile run, an eight mile run. You had no idea. Your job was to go run, and run that course…One thing that I felt proved to be a challenge for some folk…was that there was no reinforcement, positive or negative…I just remember them (the cadre, JL) standing there, “Do you have any questions? Your time has begun.” And they would stand there and watch you. They want to see what you do, they want to see what you do when there is no-one backing you up.”
As an aside, he told a story from later in his career- it serves to illustrate a typical SFAS event. A trainee was sent out on a ruck march to a given point. At the point were several water jugs of varying weights, the trainee had the task of bringing back a jug, he could choose among them. Well, the trainee lifted each jug in turn, and chose the heaviest one. The cadre were watching, unseen. Later they asked the soldier why he had chosen the heaviest jug. He said that he grabbed the heavy one to help out other guys on his team who weren’t as strong or fast. That type of thinking is EXACTLY what SF is looking for in their candidates. “That’s an example of a guy you want to have on the team.”
“You have to remember that the intent behind this is not to see if he’s a dumb grunt who can get by anything we put in front of him, we want to see what he’s gonna do when there’s no one watching him…there was a certain degree of trimming that happened…anyone who looked a little heavy was given a tape test (where they measure the circumference of your gut JL)…glasses? Eye check…You feel bad about it, but it is what it is.”
“You get out to Camp Mackall, and you do your first week which is called “military orienteering.” It is not land nav; you are basically doing mounted navigation on foot… you had your ruck, your weapon… but you never knew how many points you had to hit.”
“One time I came up to a point, and guys were in the woods with their boots off, eating… “Roster 199, give me your score sheet.” Howard handed over his score sheet, with points from the land navigation exercise recorded on it.
The cadre member handed Howard his score sheet back with a new grid coordinate for Howard to find. Howard looked down the road; he had fifteen minutes left before time ran out. He knew he wouldn’t make it- there was no way. The point was kilometers away. The cadre asked, “Do you have any questions?” Howard shook his head and said, “No, Sergeant.” He started to haul ass down the road in an attempt to make it. Howard hadn’t made it fifty feet when he heard a truck horn. He looked back and the cadre waved him back. Howard hurried back. “Give me your score sheet, go over to the others and follow instructions from roster number 323.” Howard went over to student 323 (Note: no-one in SFAS wears a name tape, everyone has a roster number instead. JL). 323 said, “You’re done.”
It was a devilishly effective mind-fuck. The next guy who arrived had the same thing happen to him. That student, unlike Howard, quit on the spot. The instructor gave the guy kudos for attempting the course, the fellow sat down and he was promptly whisked away, never to be seen again.
At this point Howard came back to the school’s attrition rate. “This wasn’t like any other course in the Army where if you appropriately train and select your soldiers you’ll get a 70, 80 or 90 percent pass rate. This is not PLDC (Note: NCO School, JL), we had to make this clear to the state of Ohio, who thought our unit was all screwed up with a fifty-percent pass rate.”
“In the general Army, the preparation was awful… there was a kid who was a cook from Germany… members of his unit made a bet which day he’d be washed out… turned out to be day three.” Howard recalled that he said to the kid “Do you have any idea what we’re about to go through?” The cook didn’t, and it showed.
Howard said the instructors provided multiple opportunities to drop out with the quietly stated question, over and over, “Do you want to quit?” Another thing that really struck him was that they did not cajole or motivate, they would simply watch. It was nerve-wracking. “It filtered out the people who physically couldn’t make it, or didn’t have the mindset that would allow them to continue.”
“And once you made it past that (SFAS, JL), that’s when you made it into your qualification course.”
The fun had hardly started.