Looking back, I didn’t have a clue what being Special Operations actually meant. I started my career in the Canadian Forces as a combat engineer. Out of all the careers I could have chosen, I chose to enlist as a human mine detector. Frankly, I settled for this trade because infantry seemed too hardcore at the time and, supposedly, I could be eligible for faster promotion in the engineers if I showed an aptitude in mathematics. Of course, neither of these hold much truth, but I’m nonetheless happy with my initial career choice.
Believe it or not, it was at basic training that I first heard about the existence of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM), which includes Joint Task Force 2, CSOR, CJIRU, and 427 Tactical Helicopter Squadron. One of my coursemates aspired to go that route and had a CANSOFCOM recruiting poster in his room for motivation. I didn’t ask him much about it at the time. But the very next day, while sitting in the mess hall during one of our “five-minute” lunches, I watched a news broadcaster announce the formation of a new Special Forces unit: the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR — pronounced “see-soar” in the community). I still didn’t know what being “Special Forces” really meant, but my curiosity had been peaked.
It wouldn’t be until two years later that I would have the opportunity to apply to CSOR (which falls under CANSOF Command). I was serving my first tour in Afghanistan with the Canadian Battle Group in Kandahar province, taking part in the great game of “tactical-whack-a-mole”. With limited resources, we had a wide area of responsibility to cover. As soon as we had suppressed the insurgents in one area, they would pop up in another. I am sure you know the drill.
I found out that several of my fellow soldiers were planning to apply to CSOR while on tour. The selection phase was set to occur shortly after we arrived back in Canada. It would give us just enough time to enjoy some post-tour leave before selection began. At first, I thought I would wait until the next year to allow myself some more time to train, but after talking to some of the guys, this seemed like an opportunity I shouldn’t wait a year for. Luckily for me, we were fortunate enough to have a company 2I/C in charge of us who was planning to apply as well; and he went out of his way to have our applications processed before we returned home.
Around the time that selection was about to begin, I remember a friend asking me what it meant to be Special Forces. The question stunned me a little bit, not because I was incredulous at the fact that he would ask such an obvious question, but because it was the first time I had really thought about it. I reflected on it briefly and tried to answer it the best I could. I pieced together something about night raids, and not doing peacekeeping missions, and doing “the business,” which isn’t untrue but, as I would later discover, only paints a very small part of what it means to be Special Forces.
The first time I really started to understand that, it was at the beginning of the course. “Being Special Forces is about mastering the basics,” an instructor told me. I didn’t understand it immediately, but after the instructor explained it some more, I got it. Being Special Forces isn’t about cool shades or sweet kit. It’s not about “looking the part” or being better than everyone else. It’s about getting really, really good at the basics of soldiering. It’s about always having your gear squared away and ready to go. It’s about knowing your job so well, that you can easily perform even your boss’s job if called upon to do so in an emergency.
It’s about being the quiet and consummate professional at work and at home. It’s about the constant pursuit of a more effective way of doing business, whether that’s improving your presentation skills, placing your gear more effectively on your chest rig, or learning your fireteam partner’s job. It’s about doing all of the above, not because you were asked to, but because you know it’s the right thing to do and because you know it will make the team stronger as a whole.
But what sets us apart from other combat arms branches such as the combat engineers or the infantry? Surely they do all of the above? Some people think it’s the equipment we use. Could they do our job if they had the same equipment? Maybe. Maybe they could perform at a higher level if they had our equipment. But it’s unlikely, as it’s not the equipment that makes us Special Forces.
What makes us Special Forces is our high level of physical fitness, combined with higher-order thinking and cognitive abilities. It’s our unwavering dedication to an unshakeable personal ethos that resounds in our very core. And it’s a relentless pursuit of excellence in any and all environmental conditions. Then, it is enhanced by high-quality equipment.
That is truly what sets us apart from the rest of the combat arms. This isn’t to imply that the SF operator is better than all the rest. There are many combat arms soldiers that have all of the prerequisites to become Special Forces but don’t attempt it due to family reasons, a lack of interest, a good career in their current line of work, etc. There are some that try out for Special Forces and don’t make it, whether because of a lack of cognitive ability, a lack of physical preparedness, or other reasons. They have their job to do, and we have ours. It’s that simple.
I was fortunate to make it through selection and onto the course and spent the next five years of my life working with the fiercest warriors I’ll ever have the pleasure of working with.
Why did we all get selected? I can’t adequately answer that, but I believe it was in part due to our ability to follow the type of leader present in the SOF community, which I will discuss in part 2/5 of this series.
Editor’s note: This article was written by Wes Kennedy, a Canadian SOF operator.