In July of 2020, a female National Guard Soldier donned her Green Beret. A Special Forces Engineer Sergeant (18C), will be the first woman to have completed a Special Operations pipeline and join an operational team since all jobs within the military opened to women. She will be, moreover, the first female graduate of the modern Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC).
But she is not the first Green Beret.
Captain Katie Wilder graduated from the officer’s version of the SFQC in the early 1980s. But her graduation and right to wear the coveted Green Beret has been mired in controversy and rumors. For decades there wasn’t an authoritative, evidence-based piece to prove once and for all that Cpt. Wilder had indeed earned the honor of wearing the Green Beret (and the Special Forces tab once it was authorized).
S0, SOFREP reached out to Cpt. Wilder for an interview. She gladly accepted our request and I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful, long conversation with her. (She retired as Lieutenant Colonel but for the sake of consistency I’ll be referring to her with the rank she had during her Special Forces adventure.).
Cpt. Wilder was a Military Intelligence Officer who served two years at the Special Warfare Center with an assignment to the Think Tank as the Threat Manager — an office within S-2 (intelligence, security, and information operations). Her next job was with the 5th Special Forces Group, where she was personally asked for by name by the Group Commander, (then) at Fort Bragg, NC. She remembers being well-liked, working hard, and attending the Officers’ Club. She truly enjoyed that assignment.
Cpt. Wilder applied for Special Forces training. Her application was denied at every command because she was a woman. Yet, at the time, there was nothing in the regulations stating that a woman couldn’t apply for Special Forces training — it was just assumed. So her appeal was successful, and she was set to attend the SF Officers Course.
She was the first woman to graduate what is now known as the SFQC and become a Green Beret. Initially, she was denied qualification as a Special Forces officer and denied the award of the Additional Skill Identifier (ASI) 5G because Colonel Mize determined that she had failed Phase III, then Robin Sage. At the time, 18 series was not a MOS yet.
According to regulation, the SF Tab and Green Beret are awarded to all personnel who complete the SFQC course, dated June 1st, 1988, or its predecessors and who were subsequently awarded, SQI “S” or “3” in MOS 11B, 11C, 12B, 05B, 91B, or ASI “5G” or “3.” (At the time, the Special Forces 18 series Military Occupation Specialty didn’t exist.) Therefore, if Cpt. Wilder were active today, she would be wearing the SF Tab and Green Beret.
Cpt. Wilder had completed all three phases of the SF Officers Course. Her family was already in town; this was going to be a big day, making history for all women on her 29th birthday. The day before graduation, she recalls being called into Colonel Mize’s office. Colonel Mize read her the official AR 670-1 regarding headgear and women. At the time, women were not authorized to wear a beret. Furthermore, he stated that she had failed Robin Sage.
At the time, all students at the beginning of the course were given a pamphlet with the standards, etc. It was dated. In it, it was stated that if you had passed every phase, but failed Robin Sage, you would still graduate. Cpt. Wilder pointed this out to the Colonel. He then grinned, she recalled, and pulled out the new pamphlet. The rules had changed: you had to pass Robin Sage. The new was dated just one week prior. One can speculate that this new pamphlet was created just for her not to graduate. Colonel Mize contacted the public affairs officer, who informed local news: he wanted everyone to know she had failed. Colonel Mize was a highly decorated Green Beret and Medal of Honor awardee from the Korean War, thus carrying a lot of command weight.
Cpt. Wilder didn’t giver up. She lawyered up and took on the establishment with the help of JAG Attorney Dick Anderson.
She argued that she was improperly failed and improperly denied the ASI identifier because of discrimination. At the time, the case received national press attention. U.S. Army John F Kennedy Special Warfare Center (SWC) Commander Joe Lutz denied Cpt. Wilder’s initial appeal. She then appealed to the Commander of 18th Airborne Corps, General Donn Albert Starry.
Under article 138 UCMJ, Cecil Adams was assigned as the investigating officer. The investigating officer determined that a wrong had been done, and redress of the issue was appropriate. In this matter, it would then be presented to General Starry.
After an extensive review of the case, General Starry concluded that the investigating officer, who recommended redress, was correct: Eight out of nine allegations of discrimination were fully sustained and the ninth was partially sustained. General Starry “granted Cpt. Wilder’s appeal, directed that she be declared a graduate of SFOC 2-80 and awarded ASI 5G.”
So there you have it, folks, Captain Katie Wilder was officially a graduate of the SF Officer Course 02-80 in 1980 and was awarded the skill identifier 5G, making her the first official female Green Beret.
The investigation took four months, and a very quiet notice went out to the press. General Starry informed General Myer, the Chief of Staff. Colonel Mize was heavily reprimanded by the Chief of Staff. He was given two options: Yemen, or retirement. Colonel Mize opted to retire. Shortly after, SF was officially closed to women.
Cpt. Wilder was then assigned to Fort Huachuca and then Germany, where she met her husband. She left active duty shortly after that and joined the Reserves. She attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York until her sister was diagnosed with cancer. Katie went home to Virginia and worked in politics for more than 20 years, serving on many local and state campaigns. With the support of her longtime friend and former JAG attorney, Dick Anderson, she is now working on her book.
Wishing to bridge the gap between the two generations of female Green Berets, Katie says to our newest female graduate, “I wish you well. You accomplished my intentions [of] 40 years ago, to open all doors up for all women. I’m so happy you graduated, and I hope this is the first of many more to come.”
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This interview was originally published on July 9, 2020.