In part 1 of this series, I discussed my start in the military and my transition into the Special Forces, as well as the meaning of mastering the basics. In part 2, I’ll delve deeper into what being Special Operations is all about and how selection is, in part, used to select the right kind of follower — an individual capable of not only surviving but thriving in the SOF community. A community of warriors.
So what is Special Forces selection all about? To me, selection is about finding the soldiers that have the physical stamina to get the job done and the unwavering drive to win, no matter the cost to their selves. Selection is about finding the soldiers with the mental capacity and cognitive prowess to function at a high level in high stress and high-threat environments. Selection is about finding those that can work as part of a small, tightly knit, highly functioning and autonomous team. In a nutshell, selection is about finding soldiers who can follow the type of leader found in the SOF community.
The type of leader you will find in SOF, if you ever have the privilege of working with them, requires a specific type of follower. Without this very specific type of follower, the leader cannot lead, the team cannot function, and the mission is bound to fail. Without this very specific leader and follower, the SOF community would not exist as we have come to know it.
Initiative: A good SOF soldier knows how to take initiative, at the right time, and knows when to wait for orders, do as told, and play it by the book. The operations undertaken by these warriors require that they be able to do this naturally and consistently.
Interpretation of orders/reading between the lines: They also need to be able to effectively read between the lines. When orders come down from up on high, they are quickly redirected back up through bottom-up planning. The SOF soldier cannot be held by the hand. Most of the time, due to time constraints and operational tempo, orders, timing, and tasks need to be quick and to the point. It is up to the SOF soldier to read between the lines and determine what tasks, equipment, and readiness are required of them, to complete the orders, without having it all spelled out.
Attention to detail: The SOF soldier may be asked to conduct high-angle shooting, hostage rescue, rooftop fast-roping and/or rappelling, maritime counter-terrorism, beach assaults, sniper operations, explosive breaching, and strategic reconnaissance, among other tasks. Attention to detail is paramount. It is the not-so-sexy training, kit preparation, and rehearsal drills that make the oh-so-sexy Special Ops missions appear so seamless. Also, missions that do get derailed get back on track quickly because we are masters of the basics and regain control by following drilled-down standard operating procedures (SOPs).
Clear and concise communication: In high-threat environments, or when working with foreign government agencies, the SOF soldier cannot afford to communicate in kindas and maybes and muddied, mouth-breathing banter. The environment requires clear, concise, and confident communication between members. It is required from an operator’s fire team partner, their team leader, their subordinates, and is expected of them from all outside organizations that they come into contact with.
Aggressive physicality: A SOF soldier is first and foremost a warrior. Only a fit body can support a fit mind in this environment. The SOF soldier needs to portray a presence. They need to be physically able to handle anything the world can throw at them, from ruck marching and mountain climbing to swimming and fighting. They need to be able to exert their will upon the enemy, even if that means close hand-to-hand combat.
Willingness to step into the unknown: The SOF soldier is allowed to, and even encouraged to, have fears. But they are not allowed to let those fears keep them in any way from performing their tasks in an effective and timely manner. Quite the opposite, the fear should be used to heighten their senses and make them more situationally aware. Hesitation can result in mission failure, or worse yet, their death or the deaths of their teammates.
Willingness to take calculated risks: Stepping into the unknown does come with a caveat: calculated risk. The SOF soldier is a cognitive warrior who has mastered his emotions, equipment, and drills. In doing so, he is able to understand his limitations and accept the risk necessary to achieve mission success. He does not become motivated by adrenaline, fear, or expectations. The warrior analyzes the situation and assumes and bears the full consequence of his actions. Forget what you see in the movies, SOF soldiers really do think before they shoot. It is their ability to identify, orient, and act that makes them so lethal. By being a master of the basics, SOF SOPs become instinct with preparedness. This gives the SOF operator the ability to assess those risks more quickly, and react with more control.
Quick learner: Due to the nature of complex operations, the SOF soldier needs to be able to learn on a steep curve. They need to be quick learners — able to learn how to perform a variety of tasks and functions with minimal instruction. It is true that everyone works as a team, and no soldier is the natural-born superhero depicted in the movies. Their craft requires hours, days, months, and years of consistent and arduous training to perfect.
The quiet professional: In the end, the SOF soldier needs to be the consummate, quiet professional. Not boastful in their speech, nor immature in their action. They should maintain a humble and thoughtful mindset at all times, whether at work or at home.
These are what I believe to be the traits of a good SOF soldier. They not only allow them to follow the types of leaders we have in SOF but over time, allow them to become one. Although every SOF soldier is a leader in their own right. Only with the right training and experience can these warriors be groomed to foster the unique SOF culture, as I’ll discuss in part 3/5 of this series.
Editor’s note: This article was written by Wes Kennedy, a Canadian SOF operator, and published in 2015.