“You are ALWAYS being assessed!”
No other words sum up SFAS (Special Forces Assessment and Selection) more for me, and I’m sure many others would agree. I found out what these words meant and just how important they would become.
The day we left the relative comfort of SOPC (Special Operations Preparation and Conditioning) for SFAS was uneventful, but I still remember it distinctly. It was an early January day that still seems distinct to North Carolina: cold, damp, rainy, and full of sandy pine trees.
There were rumors that the December Selection class was outside during a major ice storm (which we all slept through, since it was on a weekend). The rumor was that a few guys almost died from trees falling on them, or just generally getting lost and frozen in the woods. Inspiring. (This actually turned out to be true. It was a miracle there were no deaths in the December 2002 SFAS, based on stories I heard.)
I don’t think we were looking forward to the weather. We were looking forward to getting this shit over with. No one wanted to go home, or to the 82nd Airborne for that matter. No offense against the 82nd Airborne. They have some great people over there. But it isn’t Group and it wasn’t why we were going to Selection.
I honestly don’t remember arriving. I remember downloading our gear and being told to go into the tin huts that were set up amidst a field of gravel that would be our ‘home’ for the next few weeks. I don’t remember much else the first day, other than guys streaming in throughout the night. By the final count, I think our class was around 400+ guys ready to be ground into dirt.
SOPC definitely prepared us. We knew roughly what was coming. We had a chance to try out Nasty Nick. We all did the swim test (25m in boots and uniform). We knew land navigation pretty damn well. We knew that rucking sucked the life out of you. But you can never truly prepare for something like SFAS. It’s just not something that humans typically endure or experience.
The general idea was that each day was a new event, or a new test. The cadre found it very important to remind us whenever they interacted with us (which wasn’t often, surprisingly) that we were always being assessed.
We were all assigned numbers, based on where our last names fell in the rosters. I was roster number 161. This meant that everywhere we went, we either needed to be wearing our fluorescent road guard vest with our number showing, or wearing our fatigues with white engineer tape sewn to the legs and jacket with the number written big and bold so the cadre could take notes on our every movement.
The cadre was always watching. I don’t really remember seeing the eyes of any cadre during the daytime since they always had on sunglasses. You could never know what they saw or took note of. Always being assessed.
We were told explicitly that we were not to sleep outside of lights-out time. Instructions would be on the whiteboard near the cadre hut. Someone from each hut had to be checking every 5 minutes to make sure instructions weren’t missed. Most instructions only gave 15 minutes to prepare, sometimes much less.
The first day came. Mostly in-processing. Much of my memory is a blur, with bits and pieces that are distinct. I remember sitting for what seemed like hours in the large classrooms out at Camp Mackall, filling out the psychological evaluations and other paperwork. Candidates who fell asleep weren’t woken by the cadre. But you could see them writing on their clipboards whenever someone did fall asleep before their buddy could wake them. I assume their neighbors numbers were noted too, for a lack of situational awareness.
I must’ve been moderately delirious by the time I did the psychological evaluation. I know it was very late and we had all been up for around 18 hours at the time it was completed. A few questions I didn’t take seriously. For anyone who has taken this test, you should know quickly that this would bite me in the ass later.
As I said, each day was a new event and a new test. First was the PT test. Early morning winter run in fatigues and tennis shoes through the sands of North Carolina will wake someone up. The push-ups and sit-ups were so programmed at this point for me and the rest of the ‘SOPC kids’, as we were often referred to (sometimes disparagingly). But just as we were told for weeks, the PT test would eliminate more people than you could imagine. Failure to surpass the 90th percentile in each event was rewarded with a 21-day detail of helping out the Selection Cadre. This did not sound enjoyable.
The runs and rucks were similar. There were two separate runs and two separate rucks. Each was randomly thrown at us on different days. You are not told the distance. You are not told a standard. You are only told to be in formation in a certain uniform (with or without a rucksack and the required weight), marched to a random point, and told to keep the cones marked with directional arrows. Line up. Begin.
Watches aren’t allowed, so you can’t pace yourself. Even if you could know what time you’re running, you wouldn’t know the distance. All mental games. Without diving too deep into the theory, we were explained the purpose during SOPC and through SOPC graduates who were selected: consistency. Weak times one day and stellar times another day shows inconsistency. The cadre would wonder why. The answer would generally never be a good one.
During one ruck march in the early morning, I remember finishing as the sun was coming up. I had never seen a pack of humans generate steam before. It was a hell of a sight to behold a bunch of huddled guys sweating their asses off, creating a giant cloud above them as they simultaneously tried to cool down and stay warm.
The best part of that morning was finishing to find icicles had formed from my sweat as it dripped off the brim of my patrol cap. That doesn’t happen often, but it ranks pretty high on the cool-chart, right next to having your beard or mustache freeze.
Another day was Nasty Nick. For those who aren’t in the know, Nasty Nick is regarded as one of the tougher obstacle courses in the United States Military. There have been more than a few pissing contests over whether the Ranger’s Darby Queen is more difficult, but I’m all out of piss at the moment.
The rough flow of Nasty Nick goes sort of like this: rope climb, rope climb, rope climb, run, crawl through tunnel, rope climb, freeze in terror before walking down monkey bars, barbed wire crawl, rope climb, Tarzan rope swing, monkey bars, break through ice and swim through a giant puddle, cargo net, sprint.
It was much easier to type the process than to actually run through it. Plus, you don’t feel the oxygen pulled out of your lungs when you enter the giant puddle that is roughly 34 degrees. Or the icicles that form on the cargo net as a result of dripping wet candidates crawling up it.
The worst day for me during the first “half” of SFAS was the rifle-and-log PT day. I got straight up broken. I don’t know how many hours it was, to be honest. Probably three or four. I mentally blocked much of that day. I remember the locations of the events and roughly what happened, so I know I was there. Anything else added would just be pure bullshit at this point. It only got more difficult from here on out, though not always physically.
Thus began the next ‘phase,’ if you could call it that: land navigation and the Team Events. Hate to keep you all in suspense, but you’ll have to wait until next time to see how my SFAS experience concluded.