Is the level of training for Green Beret recruits being undermined by a complacent command?

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Is the level of training for Green Beret recruits being undermined by a complacent command?

This is all manner of not good, but since it is already out there, it is worth looking at what the debate is actually about.  Now, for context, I have no idea what is happening there other than what I have read on SOFREP, which if you didn’t know, is the premier website for special operators.

To set the stage for the dueling narratives you are about to see, I’ll use the Army Times:

The Army has launched an investigation into allegations of lowered training standards and “moral cowardice” among Army leaders in charge of the school that trains soldiers into Green Berets.

The accusations were lodged in an anonymous email. It was sent by a writer purporting to be speaking on behalf of an undisclosed number of trainers at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

In the letter, the author says that over the past two years, a drive to increase the number of Special Forces soldiers has resulted in fundamental standards being removed, and the training cadre fear it could threaten the future of the force.

That’s enough to understand the general debate here.   Basically both sides agree that the product of Green Berets being sent back to the teams should be the same.  A group of anonymous cadre insist that the product is not as good.  The JFKSWCS command says that the standard has not been lowered, it has simply been adjusted.  For instance, they say that testing the physical fitness of Special Forces recruits at the end of training is a better time than at the beginning of training. 

But, the charges are also that some of the standards are being ignored all together, which the command again refutes.  Again, I have no idea, I’m not there, and know absolutely no one involved. 

But, you should read both the genesis letter of this donnybrook, and the command’s response. 

The letter is unambiguously titled “Careerism, cronyism, and malfeasance in the Special Warfare Center” and we’ll start with some of the claims.

This paragraph in particular (again, via SOFREP) is particularly damning and straightforward:

We consistently and concretely identify dozens of graduates every year who are incapable of ever being ‘value-added’ to ODA’s yet are pushed forward to you. THAT NUMBER IS SET TO RISE DRAMATICALLY in the very near future. To clarify, we instructors recognize that none of us graduating the Q-Course were fully competent Green Berets when we first arrived to our teams. We are also acutely aware that senior generations derisively judging their juniors is a tradition as old as humanity. So this address is not being written because ‘cherries are so much more cherry than we were when we were cherries’. We do not expect them to be assets yet, we only expect that they possess the basic qualities necessary to become assets. I am asking for 20 minutes of your time because many students graduating the Q-course now do not possess those qualities and, from this moment forward, determining if ANY students possess them is not possible. The actions of SWCS leadership have created a new era of Special Forces that are; increasingly incapable of actualizing SOF attributes; markedly and demonstrably weaker; and quantifiably projecting measurable risk and liability onto the teammates with which they serve. Before this paradigm shift, cadre due diligence was capable of some risk mitigation in these aspects. We could, did, and often still do reach back to teams and prepare them for those [inevitable] outliers that slip through the course unimpeded due to cronysim, nepotism, or malfeasance. But the recent systematic dismissal of course standards and continous violation of regulations at the Training Group and SWCS echelons makes student failure nigh impossible. Assessing, Identifying, and mitigating prolonged individual performance has historically been a cornerstone of the pipleline. That has been provably replaced with willful mediocrity. This climate has been empowered by a feckless, selfish, and recreant command ideology…..   [commanders and NCO names omitted.]

It’s hard to start an argument calling a command “feckless, selfish, and recreant” and then come to some understanding.  Those are a pretty high bar to cross over to find common ground on.

The letter cites to some specifics as well, after recounting some of the changes it continues:

This is the state of the entire SFQC as it stands today. Students do not need to be able to pass a 2-mile run at an 80% standard. They do not need to pass a 5-mile run in under 40 minutes. They do not need to be able to pass a 12-mile ruck march in under 3 hours. They are not required to find ANY points during their land nav training and assessment. They do not need to be able to perform 8 pull-ups. They do not need to be able to perform 57 push-ups, or 66 sit-ups. They no longer need to be able to climb a 15 foot rope with weight on. Students are no longer administered any form of physical or administrative punishment. After passing a 19-ish day selection process, there are no physical barriers to earning the coveted Green Beret. These all were standards for EVERY Green Beret in modern history prior to this month. To say that standards have not been eliminated would be laughable, were it not so tragic.

It also notes one possible causation, but does so I think by correctly noting that standards must be the same:

I hesitate to begin on this axis, but it warrants the most illumination. To be clear, this is in no way a commentary on the debate concerning the efficacy of women serving in Special Forces. The Regiment’s attitude is clear, the debate is a heated one, and both sides of the aisle have documented numerous credible arguments. That is a separate discussion entirely. Regardless of one’s opinion on the topic, a universally accepted truth recognized by all parties is that if women yearn to join the force, they should meet the same standards achieved by those men they wish to serve with. This is where no reasonable person disagrees. No one has said “If they want to join, give them a lower standard so they can join.” Yet this is exactly where the current leadership has taken it upon themselves to inject an end state no one wants, to achieve personal endeavors that benefit no one. They have stated through continuous action and policy implementation that they do not want women to meet the standard. What they want, is to markedly lower the standards enough to ensure that any woman attempting this path will have absolutely no issue achieving it. They have said time and again that they want to maintain the standards, but have continuously lowered, and now eliminated them.

So that is the letter from November 27th, or that was the day it at least hit SOFREP.  I don’t know if it was floating around before that, or if it was that day.  Either way, a response came in yesterday from the command, which while not complete, at least started the discussion of where they were.  Again, the original letter appears to have been written extensively, perhaps over a long period of time, I don’t know, but the response was at least quick, if not fully satisfying.

It comes from  Major General Kurt Sonntag, Commander of the Special Warfare Center (once again, via SOFREP):

Many of you have seen the anonymous letter calling into question the integrity of our training standards and the quality of the Soldiers being produced. Let me be clear, I would be proud to serve with each and every one of our Special Forces Qualification Course graduates, and I stand behind the quality of every Soldier we are sending to the operational force.  […]

The SFAS process ensures candidates successfully demonstrate the qualities of the Army Special Operations Force Attributes under dynamic and stressful conditions. To join the Special Forces Regiment, each candidate must demonstrate they possess the required strength, cognitive flexibility, and willpower to thrive in challenging and uncertain Special Operations environments. Students are evaluated using a holistic and multidiscipline approach, supported by a range of military and scientific experts to include psychologists, physiological experts and experienced combat veterans who select candidates who are physically strong, mentally tough and possess the character necessary to serve in the regiment.

If SFAS is correct, and we believe it is, the SFQC is not a place where high attrition rates should occur. Instead, the mission of the SFQC cadre is to train to standard. Without a doubt, if you were to take five Green Berets who attended the course at different periods of time, none of them would have had to meet the same standard as those Soldiers who are now in the course. Since 9/11, the SFQC has had at least eight significant modifications, each resulting in new or modified Tasks, Conditions, & Standards throughout the respective programs of instruction. These modifications are made to keep training relevant, efficient and effective, with the needs of the operational force driving each one. Today, the SFQC consists of six distinct phases (Orientation, Small Unit Tactics/Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE), Military Occupational Specialty, Unconventional Warfare, language and graduation; followed by Military Free Fall training), which takes a minimum of 62 weeks in length if a candidate is not recycled.

And then, in a bullet form, he identifies some things from the letter which MG Sonntag says are demonstrably false:

– No fundamental SF standard has been removed.

– No academic or character performance standards have been adjusted.

– Previously, the Special Forces Physical Fitness Assessment (instituted as a ‘must-pass’ standard in 2012), rope climb, and ruck march were evaluated in the first phase of SFQC. Cadre will continue to administer diagnostic evaluations of these events throughout the SFQC with the final evaluation occurring in the last phase of the course. This shift gives the Cadre more time to prepare the students for these events. Students must meet these standards prior joining the operational force.

– Training in the SFQC remains among the most difficult in the Department of Defense. In 2017, more than 2,000 Soldiers attempted SFAS and 541 graduated the SFQC.

– I value our Cadre’s input and have not, and will not, issue a gag order. The CSM and I have visited each unit and conducted more than 10 town hall meetings with each subordinate unit within this command. We will continue to solicit feedback from each and every individual. My open door policy remains in effect.

– Language and cultural awareness training remain an essential part of the qualification course. All students must achieve a 1+/1+ rating in their assigned language before entering the operational force; which is above the operational force minimum standard of 1/1. Up until 2006, students earned their Green Beret after successful completion of Robin Sage.

– As an institution, SWCS has moved language instruction several times to optimize the flow of course instruction. I’ve recently adjusted the phasing of the SFQC, by moving graduation ahead of language training. By doing this, Soldiers who are already language qualified go directly to the Operational Groups after attending the Military Free Fall School; while those who are not qualified will attend language school and MFF before going to their Group assignment.

Again, I don’t know anything more about this situation than any of you will after reading the letters.  All I know is that it has been a tough couple of months for Special Operations commands.  Just recently we had the news of the two Navy SEALs who are alleged to have strangled a Green Beret and then falsified documents to try to hide some malfeasance involving their money used for informants.  Coming closely on the heels of that is this letter, when that previous investigation is still on-going.

There are, of course, two ways to look at this.  One is that the anonymous cadre are doing this to honor other Green Berets and keep the standard the same.  They are obviously aware of the earlier issue as well, but felt it couldn’t wait, and something needed to be done.  But on the other side, it’s just the optics of the Special Operations Command as a whole having issues, be it with rogue SEALs in DEVGRU or training standards at JFKSWCS.

I’m certainly not picking a side here, and I would hope no one else who isn’t intimately involved in this will either.  This is truly one of those “you had to be there” type moments.  Likewise, I can’t think of anyone who wants to see the value of the Green Berets diminished as a whole.  Sure, the accusation is there that some are slipping through because of cronyism, which you will always find, but I don't doubt that even those helping their not-completely-qualified projects get through still want the Green Berets to be the elite fighting force they’ve always been.

In all, it’s just tough to see a path through this.  Again, “feckless, selfish, and recreant” is a fairly specific and damning statement to smooth over.

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I feel it is a mistake having men and women serving side by side in a combat zone. Both sexes have enough to be concerned about without the problem of having the age old problem of the nearness of you. The problem is we were created male and female, and with the innate sexuality. If the ladies are physically capable to enter into combat, let them have their own brigades.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.