Part four of a six part series.
After the blast furnace of SFAS, soldiers moved onto the Q-Course, or the Special Forces Qualification Course. “What we found was that after the course (SFAS) we didn’t have people who were dropping because they were physically incapable. They attrited because they couldn’t do the classwork… they would be victims of self-inflicted wounds, they couldn’t get their shit together. A guy who had too much of an alcohol problem. The idea that SF was made up of ingrates, miscreants and troublemakers, yeah, there was a certain amount of that, but not anymore.” He continued. “They’re not looking for screw ups, they are at the point now that they have enlisted guys with Master’s degrees, they have some really smart people who want to be part of the force, who want to do the mission.”
“Selection finds out who can’t physically do it, and then you get in the Course, and you find you have a very steep learning curve.”
“Remember that in Selection there is no rank… at the Q-Course you’re back at Bragg, back in uniform… you are a SWCster, a member of the JFK Special Warfare Center, or Swick. You get to bow down before Bronze Bruce… you get back to Bragg, and you are broken into different classes. When I went through it, the Q-Course was broken into three phases… Tactical phase, your MOS phase, and a final field phase. It has since transitioned into a six phase system, where Selection is part of it, language is part of it, SERE (Note: Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, JL) is part of it, and then your field phase, your MOS phase and your tactical phase.
“The killer thing, at least for officers, in the Q-Course, is land navigation. Land navigation… they did a Star exam, some long-ass movements. You started in the middle of the night… and that, too was a fifty-percent first-time GO. I mean, the number of people who had to go back and do that again, but you’re in the Q-Course now, they would recycle, retrain you, give you an opportunity to learn new skills.”
Howard passed first time. As an aside, I know what it’s like to fail a land-navigation course. At one of my schools, I had my glasses yanked off my face by a branch in the dark. Couldn’t find them. Did my best to find my points with compass and map, but I ended up in washout lane… not cool. Quadruple so for a school like the Q-Course. Alright, back to Howard.
“It was a killer, it got a lot of folk. Some people can’t do it (ie navigate with a map and compass, JL). Officers got to do it early in the Q-Course, while enlisted guys got to do it much later… It is absolutely critical that officers have this crap down.”
He launched into a brief description of the various Special Forces MOS’s. An SF officer is an 18A. He mentioned that he was a bit of an oddball as an 18 series; he was a lieutenant in the Q-Course, usually officers would be captains. The Army preferred experienced soldiers in the SF courses. He never said so, but it was pretty easy for me to infer his uncommon ability in the fact that he qualified for SF as an LT.
One exception to the experienced soldiers rule were the 18X’s, these were usually prior service from other branches who were trying for SF. One Navy guy only passed his land navigation exercise because of a dog- he was totally lost and a dog walked by. He followed the dog, and viola, he came across a group of guys eating rations by his last point. Well, it was pure luck and that’ll only get you so far. He washed out a few days later.
There were the 18B’s, weapons specialists. Then there are the 18C’s, engineers. According to Howard, the hardest training of all was for the 18D’s, the medics. “They have the highest attrition rate. They spend years learning to be a medic to the point where they are qualified to do surgery… to this day, when I have a medical question, I call up my old Team Sergeant, an 18D.” Finally, there were the 18E’s, communications troops. Howard somewhat dated himself by mentioning that when “I went through, guys were still learning Morse Code.”
All these specialties combined into an SF Detachment Alpha, or an ODA, or an “A-Team.” They have a composition of 12 soldiers under ideal conditions, but as Howard explained later, conditions are rarely ideal.
There would be an officer (18A), a warrant officer (180) (who would command a team when the original ODA would be split), a team sergeant (18Z), an intel dude (18F), then there would be two of each of the basic SF Military Occupational Specialites- for a total of twelve.
“It was really odd to show up with a team of twelve.”
“So back to the Q-Course. After SERE, I did months and months of classroom training, and some stuff out at Camp Mackall…at the end of the officer’s training there was a thing called Troy Trek, it was probably the most fun I had at the qualification course…it was a culminating exercise… as officers we went through isolations a lot. Isolation is a process whereby a Special Forces team prepares… a commander says “isolate this team,” the team is segregated and stuck somewhere. You’re pretty much in a prison. And then you get your mission. Once you have that mission… the Team begins to tear that mission apart, to the nth degree, everything we can possibly think of. As officers, we are going to plan that…they would take us and place us in an ISOFAC, an isolation facility. Basically, a little prison camp… at the culmination of the isolation was a thing called a briefback. Your commander and his staff comes in, and you brief back every aspect of the entire mission.”
“At this point the commander has the opportunity to say, “this team gets it, and they are ready to execute.” Of course, the reverse could also be true. Howard adds that it’s not uncommon for commanders to isolate various teams, give them all the same mission and pick the one he likes best.
“The execution could be that you give your briefback, your rucksacks are packed and you get on an airplane and go… or it could be a trigger mission, meaning you go when the trigger is pulled.”
Howard went on to say that a lot of these procedures were written by the Son Tay raiders in Vietnam; where the mission was carried out flawlessly but failed because of rapidly changing circumstances on the ground.
He also elaborated upon the origins of Special Operations Command, how that structure arose from the failings of the Desert One operation.
Then he returned to the final isolation and briefback. “We would talk about our infil (infiltration, JL), our alternate infil, our contingency infil… PACE” (Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency. JL). Howard laughed. “You’ve heard me say that a lot.” I laughed too, thinking back.
“When we went out on our unconventional warfare assignment…the most dangerous thing is contact with the guerrillas. You had to establish bona fides, who you were going to talk to… how am I going to get there, and when things go to shit, what are we going to do…and you had to memorize all this crap.”
Howard went on to say that the officer had to be intimately familiar with each aspect of not only his mission, but the exact role of each of his soldiers and what they would be doing at any given minute. It was an exercise in attention to detail, squared.
“Look, the plan is going to go to shit, whether it’s on the first step or the third step of the mission.” I silently wondered if he had drifted off the subject of the Q-Course at this point, and was perhaps reliving various moments in his life.
“We need to know, because more often than not, and I mean, the ‘Nam vets taught me this… you need to be sharing with your team everything that’s going on. They need to know your thought processes… you’re the team commander, but they need to understand how you think. Where there’s going to be a benefit is when you don’t have time to tell them what’s going on… where they get out of the truck and go up that hill because the team needs it… this is what I’ve got to do.”
So back to Troy Trek, the final exercise, after the teams have been isolated. Everyone got dropped off in Uwharrie National Forest with a grid coordinate they had to reach. A major difference with Selection and regular Land Nav? There were teams out looking for the aspiring Green Berets. “Oh, they weren’t looking very hard, but they were looking. If you got caught, they were going to kick you back to your last point; whether that point was two kilometers or twenty-four kilometers away.”
As seems to be the norm for SF training, the students were given no clear instructions or an endpoint. It was also up to them when they slept or rested. The silent voice that drove them were their own inner doubts, fed by the lack of clear guidance. “You were on your own.”
Howard never got caught by the search teams, and he never used the roads like some guys.
At this point I must mention that Howard was doing this exercise with a bullet hole in his leg. That’s right, readers; a bullet hole. It seems LT Pearce had been partying with some friends during a brief break in the training and got himself shot. Somehow he pushed through and ran through Troy Trek with a mild-grade fever and a whole lot of pain.
“So you would get to a point and there would be a point setter. He’d hand you a letter, and there would be a test with a question such as “what are the bona fides of your second infil point, how are you going to make contact with the guerrillas?” “What are your long range versus close range bona fides?” And you would have to fill it out using the info from the isolation that you had just been through. Or he would hand you a radio and tell you to come up on your primary freq; you would have to put the radio together and make an Angus report.” I asked Howard what an Angus report is, he said it is the initial call an ODA needs to make once they are on the ground. That was a new one on me.
“On a normal mission we would have a commo window that was every couple of weeks, maybe once a month… in order to come up on a freq, you were setting yourself up to be found, it was a very dangerous thing to do. Our commo guys would bang it out in code, after we had manually encrypted it… using the same coding system Benjamin Franklin used, same type of stuff… versus nowadays where you have an O-6 (a full colonel, JL) yammering in your ear because there’s a Pred up there and he’s telling you turn left, turn right, which isn’t all that helpful. The teams were out on their own, really on their own.”
“And at the end, you found out who didn’t survive. A significant number of people didn’t make it past Troy Trek.” Howard sang a funny little song about the experience, set to the lion’s song on Wizard of Oz. “After that, you had a couple of down days, because there was significant physical carnage. You just were fried at the end of it. That was the end of the MOS phase for the officers.”
“We then moved into the final phase, where they assembled actual operational detachments. So you have a couple of officers, and a whole bunch of NCOs…and then you begin work on Robin Sage, the culmination exercise, or as we called it, Sobbing Rage. It was putting everything together in an unconventional warfare mission… Everyone believes that Special Ops… we’re all door kickers. And yeah, that’s direct action. A Special Operations unit is supposed to do some of that.”
“The thing that made SF unique… is that we have two missions. Foreign Internal Defense, or FID, which means we go to foreign countries and mentor and coach their militaries. That was one thing that I did throughout my career, and unconventional warfare. Unconventional warfare is one thing that SF is trained in that no other Special Ops are trained to do… going in behind enemy lines and working with the G’s, guerillas, and training them, mentoring them, coaching them and fighting along side them, behind enemy lines. That’s why language is important, cross-cultural communications, that’s why self-sufficiency is a huge part of what SF does, and the other Special Ops don’t do.”
I made the comment that you could clearly see the roots of SF in organizations such as the OSS in WW2.
“Exactly. And look at where SF grew up, in Vietnam, working with the Montagnards… we were fighting a counterinsurgency, but Special Forces are also pretty good at insurgency… when it’s a US backed insurgency, we are the force behind that.”
Howard pointed out that insurgencies are different from civil wars in that insurgencies are rebellions backed by outside forces, whereas in a civil war that might not be the case.
“We went into our final isolation, and we prepared to go out and work with the guerillas in a war in Pineland, somewhere in North Carolina…it was the first time the enlisted guys had been in isolation, we officers had done it three or four times…we loaded our rucksacks; in Special Forces you gauge your rucksack by what your Robin Sage rucksack was. Your Robin Sage rucksack was over one hundred pounds, and you have to hump that damn thing…things will break. They will make sure they break. They will throw all sorts of things in your path, just to see how you react.”
It still could go wrong, however. The trials weren’t over, and sometimes guys got booted from the course for UCMJ offenses, such as adultery. It’s more common than you think.
“Everything is a test.” That phrase seems to sum up Special Forces training rather nicely. “Soldiers need to be good both in the field and garrison.”
Finally, Howard and his team loaded up in a DC-3, of all things. Even thirty years ago, those aircraft were antiquated. “It was really neat to be up in that aircraft, and looking down through the door. A DA (Department of the Army) civilian was the jumpmaster, just kind of sitting in the door. I was glad he was our jumpmaster… when we jumped out there were already rotating red lights from emergency crews because they had lost two whole passes with guys in the trees. It was an itty-bitty, postage stamp DZ. And we all made the drop zone…” Thanks to that mysterious DA civilian jumpmaster.
Once they were on the ground, the team had the “worst night of your life” trying to make it to the link-up point, to meet up with the G’s. “Of course, that went wrong.” All points of the team’s infil plan was tested, from exchanging bona fides to locating many alternate link up sites. Finally, the team got to the G camp, “and the exercise began in earnest.”
“You have to deal with the G-chief, or the guerilla chief. The G-chief is this old, grizzled guy; you automatically know this is an old SF guy who is playing the G-chief…then there are a bunch of kids. I found out later that they were from the XVIII ABN Corps mailroom, they know nothing about all this tactical stuff we were supposed to do. All they knew is that they had been promised a four-day pass if they gave three weeks to the SF dudes.”
It was a recipe for chaos. “The kids were there as props, the G-chief was challenging everyone on the team…it was taking place in this compressed time zone, in which you’re saying a few days counts as a month… you’re supposed to be making a certain amount of progress with your G’s.”
“They throw as many dilemmas at you as you may face in the real world. You’re dealing with guerillas, and the G-chief is in charge of all of these people…including discipline. There was one kid with the G’s, everyone wanted to kill him. He was one of these annoying, fat, whiny ass bitches…we found out it wasn’t an act. He was that annoying. He wasn’t stupid, he was just a punk (Don’t sugar coat it, Howard. JL).
At one point, the G-Chief decided to teach the punk kid a lesson. He had all the mailroom kids gather to have the punk run the gauntlet. It was fake, of course, but the punk thought it was real. “They blindfolded the kid, and they started to run him through the gauntlet. The kid is screaming his head off…no one actually hits the kid.” But it certainly left an impression on him. The G-chief took the scared punk off into the woodline for a talk, and the mock-beating was over.
“So what do you do with the biggest fuck-up?” Howard asked. He was referring to the punk kid. “You put him in charge. It was the culminating exercise to the whole thing. An ambush leading into the blowing up of a bridge on an infantry company…we had to get all the teams together to mount this major attack. We put him (the punk mailroom kid, JL) in charge; this kid turns into Rambo. I mean, he was amazing! …He came up with this really ambitious plan, we’re going to do this, and we’re going to do that. We weren’t in the mode where we were leading them, we were trying to coach them.”
“There was an eight or nine hour movement to get us where we needed to be…the kid wants us to wade through a river. We said, you know, there’s a rope bridge 100m down the river, and we’re going to be out for three or four days, and within two minutes of starting this, you want everybody soaked?” The kid eventually saw things the advisor’s way. “Oh, OK.”
“But the kid ended up leading what I thought was a textbook attack…we had guys creeping up to place explosives under the bridge…and some people were standing on the bridge, they had an infant with them.” The infant spotted the team, but no-one else did.
“We ended up executing the attack. It went flawlessly, we brought everybody back. At the end of this (Robin Sage, JL) you don’t know if you passed. You’ve spent all this time out in the woods. I was the lieutenant on the team…I was known as “little sir,” the team commander, who was six foot four, was known as “big sir.” Luck played a role. One day, Howard got bored and started to put up tanglefoot, an obstacle made of barbed wire or something (in this case vines). Cadre just happened to be passing by and noticed. They were impressed. They were also impressed when one day Howard noticed that “Big Sir” was burned out; Howard sent his team commander off on a pointless recon in order to get some sleep while Lieutenant Pearce assumed temporary command of the operation.
Finally, the candidates were doing some clean-up when it was all said and done. Howard said they were “clearing brush or something.” The chief grader sat under a tree on his “ubiquitous folding chair” and was calling over students one by one and telling them pass or fail. This was the moment of truth- Howard’s roommate had been graded a non-select at this phase, so the threat of not passing was real. “I’d seen it happen. You wanna talk about a lightning bolt to the nuts.”
So when Howard was called over to speak with the grader, there was a definite fear factor. The grader spoke.
“I have to tell you that when I saw a lieutenant on this team, I thought a lieutenant doesn’t have any business…leading a team of Special Forces soldiers.” The grader paused. “You’ll do.”
Howard said that those words from the grader were “high praise.”
He went on to explain team dynamics. “At some point, everyone on the team is going to want to kill someone else.” It was true; I had seen that first hand from being on a team in Afghanistan. “The question is, how do we handle that?”
And just like that, the Q-Course was over. Howard returned to his Army Reserve unit and was informed the next day that the unit was being inactivated and he was being moved to 19thGroup, Army National Guard.
“Thus began my true adventure… you learn a lot in the Q-Course, but the teams train you. The team I left was the team I returned to.” A team sergeant said upon his return, “There are going to be some dark nights. You’re going to walk down a dark road, and you’re going to look down and see boot prints. Those are mine. Follow them! And when you can’t go another five steps, just go one more. Just keep going. Because they can kill ya, but they can’t eat ya.”
Howard mentioned that while he had completed the training and was “tabbed and flashed,” he was still “the lieutenant,” and not “Sir.”
I asked him when the moment was that he became “Sir.”
He proceeded to tell me.