Author’s note: This is our third and final interview with CSM Mike Hall, and I hope our readers really appreciate the look into an often misunderstood tiny percentage of the U.S. military. If you have ever served in a special operations unit, you know how difficult and often frustrating it can be to try to explain to people what you did in the military; hopefully this sheds some light on that experience. Thank you, guys, and please continue to follow SOFREP for upcoming articles and interviews.
One of the strengths of special operations units is the ability to see what is needed and make a change, or react to a need quickly. One such change seemed to be the move to RASP from RIP; RASP seems to be not just a selection program, but a training program. What are your thoughts on the change, and how did it happen?
I think that was all internal to the Regiment and it was what they felt they needed to do. The selection processes for all the SOF units are getting small changes all the time, and those changes are based on what the units feel they need. USASOC is the approving authority within the SOF world, and the Department of the Army let us handle much of that. The specifics of it, though, are left up to the various internal commands. USASOC has to approve things like how the various SOF units get rid of soldiers, what the qualifications are to get into a SOF unit, and things like that.
Do you agree that as far as getting prepared for Regiment, RASP at least prepares a young Ranger to be more useful, sooner? The one thing that I really remember after graduating RIP was that, although I felt like I was capable of handling the physical side of the Regiment, being useful on missions other than just carrying stuff was something that took time. There were so many different missions that, until you cycled through all them, you often felt like you were drinking through a fire hose.
Absolutely. I think that all the special operations units realized this. As the War on Terror continued without end and units progressed into the wartime model of deploy and recover, the pre-deployment training cycle commanders realized the peacetime model was not sufficient for what was being asked of their units. There was no longer a grace period where you had a chance to get soldiers in special operations units up to speed.
I think everyone realized they had to change their model in order to get a more finished product sooner. This allowed commanders to have more trained assets at their disposal. Soldiers had to show up to their units knowing the basics and fundamentals. I am sure that a fair amount of training and leadership also fell on the first-line leaders as well, because at the end of the day, that squad leader and team leader had to be able to count on the new soldier to accomplish the mission.
What are some of the challenges senior leaders face when trying to implement change, especially in an organization like the Army that has so many layers of bureaucracy?
One thing I learned—actually learned it from now-retired General Yellen—if you want to change things, it is not so much the bureaucracy as it is about resources. If you can convince people or show them where the resources will come from, then you don’t get as much pushback. Resources are really one of the main things you get pushback on. Answering the question of where the resources will come from is really the key to success; even if everyone agrees the change or idea is positive, the resources still need to come from somewhere. So you can get everyone in a room to say, “Let’s do this,” but then you have to go and get other people to give up something. That is always much harder. Resources are what I think a bureaucracy is in a lot of ways.
I know you didn’t have a bunch of time on the conventional side, but did you find that getting things done was easier on the special operations side of the house rather than the conventional side?
It was easier on the USASOC side of the house, maybe because we had more available resources and definitely less layers. Then again, in USASOC the organizations are very different and to justify taking resources from one organization to give to another is tough because there is not a lot of overlap. Once the wars started, things changed a little. If you looked at the Army on Sept. 12, 2001 versus Sept. 11, 2001 the Army did not look any different and at first. The mindset was, “Well, the wars will be over soon, so let’s not change too much.”
Not to be sarcastic, but you also had the “smart people” way up the chain saying we want to do this, but is it really sustainable? Sustaining things may be the most important factor because if you start a program or concept and then you just stop it, you really burn a lot of resources and don’t get the end state you wanted, or in many cases, the one the military needed. It is a balancing act managing resources, money, and all the things that go into making solid and positive change.
How did you end up being chosen for the JSOC CSM position?
I am not really sure. I got a phone call and I think it was Thanksgiving weekend. General Brown called me and said, “I want you to come up and be the JSOC CSM.” My answer was something along the lines of, “Oh, okay.” I remember back then there was still not a formal way of putting senior NCOs into a position; a lot of times it was what the commander wanted. I think there was an command/officer formal board, but nothing really for the NCOs.
You had been the regimental CSM for a while at that point? Was that a typical amount of time?
Yeah, for four years. It was really up to the regimental commander. USASOC had some say in it as well; they could say, “We want a guy with these qualifications,” but it really boiled down to the commander.
You went from JSOC CSM to USASOC CSM?
Yeah, I think I was only the JSOC CSM for about two years or so. I would have to sit down and look at a calendar. I think originally, a guy named Mike Bishop was scheduled to be the CSM and I think he told General Brown that he had some physical things going on. He told General Brown that he was really honored, but if he couldn’t do the things that were physically required, he wouldn’t take the job, which is really the mark of a good NCO.
So General Brown called me while I was deployed and said, “I want you to be the USASOC CSM.” My initial answer was, “Well, that sounds good. When I get back from this deployment we can talk about that.” Of course, when the general calls you, it’s not really a request. He told me there was a plane waiting for me, so I said, “Yes, sir,” and got on the plane. I am pretty sure that General Brown and General Daley had already talked since they had worked together at TF 160, and I think there were a lot of things going on with the wars and personnel issues.
So no matter how high up you get, you still have a boss, and if he asks for something the answer is usually a yes?
Yep, I mean I could have played hardball or tried to fight it, but if they really felt I was needed at USASOC then that was where I knew I should be. General Brown had been in JSOC and knew what was going on there, and he was in USASOC so he obviously knew what was needed there. At the end of the day you go where you are needed.
Were there any big differences in being the senior leader in a unit like JSOC versus USASOC?
There is. It’s really a matter of focus. USASOC is a resource provider to the Army or the combatant commanders, and JSOC deploys people and does not have a lot of the administrative hurdles that USASOC does. When I was at USASOC, I really tried to look at our mission from the perspective of the units we supported, and I think that helped a lot. There are so many things going on and they move quickly—especially in a war—so you need to have the ability to think about what those other commands need. Helping them was really the best way to look at our mission in USASOC.
Did your interest in history have an impact on your leadership style or how you managed training?
I think it did. Coming up from the Rangers, I had a very good perspective on what other organizations’ strengths and weaknesses were because we had worked with most of the other organizations in SOF. Being in the Rangers for so many years and seeing how they and the other organizations had changed over the years was a big help. As an example, if someone came to you with an idea for changing something, you could recall how it worked out if it had been tried out in the past and maybe offer guidance on how it could be done in order for it to work out better this time.
You were in JSOC at the start of the war, and then went onto USASOC. Any significant changes that you were a part of or proud of during your time as the senior NCO leader of these organizations?
A couple things. All the organizations are really good at what they do; they have their own cultures and tribalism. What I tried to do was reinforce the notion that there were ways we could benefit each other. I really wanted transparency and openness; we might never understand the challenges of each unit or organization, but it is easier on all of us if we shared things that were working or not working.
I think we did a pretty good job of that. We would share TTPs, we would exchange manuals, we started actual personnel exchanges, looked at each other’s policies and procedures, and we opened up our selection and assessment processes to see how we were getting the kind of final product we each wanted. Each SOF unit had a goal to get the right kind of person that fit what they were doing; it was not always about getting the most qualified person, but the right person for their organization. I really wanted to open up communications and kind of take away that fear of, “Well, if we show you what we are doing, then we might lose resources.” We improved a lot on that, which I was proud of.
Another thing we started or continued (I really think it was started by Mel Wick) was a NCO command billet or slotting process. You know, the officers had a selection process for command and probably a more defined career progression path, and we tried to bring some of that to the NCO side of the house. What would happen previously was if the commander wanted someone, then they pretty much asked for and got them. One of the problems with that is if you have a commander and SGM that have grown up together and think alike as the command team, then it can be really hard for the organization to get better—which is especially true in special operations since the NCO is such a key figure in SOF. So if you think about it, when you have the two top dogs who think alike, making change can be really hard, and change is almost always a good thing. One of the keys that has not just made special operations but the Army as a whole so good is our ability to change.
So we tried to take the “good ole boy network” out of things and really get the right NCO in the right situation. The funny thing was, we truly did not have the authority to do that since you as the NCO get your authority from the commander. We went to the commanders and laid out where we thought senior NCOs would best fit and kind of gave guidance. Sometimes they would disagree and we would have to explain why we thought what we thought was best for the organization. Now merit and performance also played a part in this as well, but a lot of times you assigned people into these senior positions based on potential. You were sometimes looking ahead to what other positions someone would be good for and making decisions based on that, and at the end of the day your goal was to improve organizations.
I think the other big thing we really made a strong push on was retention, because at the end of the day, especially in JSOC, it is all about retention. If you think about what value a 10-year SOF soldier brings to an organization, it is really immeasurable. In JSOC, we started a lot of initiatives to try to keep the people we wanted in our organization. It was about money and bonuses, but there are a ton of other things that go into that. We did a ton of work with the Department of the Army on special pays and promotion systems.
One of the things I am most proud of is helping the Army understand that, in a lot of cases our guys were different, and some of the standard Army models didn’t work for us based on what our guys did and our structure. The more SGMs you have, the more MSGs you have and so on down the line. We knew that guys didn’t join the Army thinking that they wanted to be SGMs one day, but when you get further into your career, guys start looking at that. So we were able to upgrade a lot of the ranks and positions. While I am sure no one will get excited about UMRs, at the end of the day you have to have slots in order to get promoted and move up the chain.
I think those are a few of the things I am pretty proud of and had positive long-term effects. You know I was lucky, too, because Parry Baer and George Bequer who followed me did a great job of continuing those programs, improving upon them and making them sustainable.
How did the contracting work opportunities, especially at the height of the war, affect special operations retention?
A lot of that was talked about and you heard different things, but most guys didn’t leave just for the money—there were a lot of other factors. Most guys in special operations are pretty smart and they could look at the whole plan or package and realize that, yeah, the money was good, but there was a lot more to it. Quite frankly, sometimes it boiled down to a guy realizing that he was not going to the next level and maybe it was time for him to go for a number of other reasons, which had nothing to do with the job.
There were some really good people that we wished we retained, but overall I think we did a pretty good job of keeping the folks we wanted to. You can look at me: Why did I retire? Well I had done everything I wanted to do and I wanted to try something different. I think most special ops guys are like that. For most guys in SOF, it is about job satisfaction, and we came up with some pretty good incentives. Was it a million dollars? No, but sometimes it is just the act and a matter of, “Hey I got you what we could because we really want to keep you.”
Going back to the NCOES part of our discussion: So now there is a SOCOM portion of the SGM Academy?
Yeah. I think it was CSM Tom Smith, a Special Forces NCO, who really made the push for that and it is up and running now. I hear really great things about it. They have some common-core stuff and then a bunch of special operations-specific stuff.
The Asymmetrical Warfare Group. Did you have any input in spinning that up or was that just an outgrowth of the wars?
No not really. Not formally. I knew the guys that were setting it up. I knew they wanted SF and Ranger guys to go to that. I knew what the slots they were looking at setting up. There were some cuts and aces because AWG was not going to be under USASOC, and for a variety of reasons. I did get involved initially because I understood USASOC and the Army, and I knew the guys that were setting it up. If you think that you need this MOS or this skill set, then write your plan this way. Again, it goes back to resources. You can have the greatest plan, but you still need to come up with the resources to implement the plan.
So I was involved informally with some of the stuff they were doing, kind of along the lines of, “If you ask for something this way, you are not going to get it, so ask for it this way.” So I guess I helped out mainly with my experience in how you staffed something and made a plan that would work in the confines of the Army system. I think that was one of General Cody’s initiatives, and I had mixed opinions on it. I do think it has worked out pretty well, though. I guess the major piece of advice I may have given was, again going back to USASOC and the various selection programs, “You can get the right rank and MOS, but will you get the right kind of guys? You are going to get your slots and fill your ranks, but are you going to get the guys you want?” I guess that is probably what I tried to help the most with.
Tell us a little about Gallant Few—how the organization started and what the main focus is.
Karl Monger, who spent some time in 1st Ranger Battalion, really led that. It started out as helping Rangers, finding jobs, mental health, and those kinds of things. Now they are into so many things, all the services and Gallant Few really do some amazing things and continue to expand. Karl really has done an amazing job with that whole thing, and if you need help, Karl just finds a way to really step in and help out.
That is one thing I have really noticed over the last 5-7 years or so is that the Rangers have really gotten out there with various organizations to help out other Rangers.
The Rangers were originally formed for combat. After that they were disbanded, and then they were formed again for more combat. Historically, you served in the Rangers and then you were gone and no one knew where you were. The Marines kind of cornered the market on identity: A Marine is a Marine is a Marine. You could walk into an interview in Butte, Montana, and if the CEO was a Marine for two years and you were a Marine for two years, then you had a job. Special Forces kind of did that as well because they were very distinctive and they kept up with each other, but the Rangers never really got into that—until recently.
General Grange had something to do with that. To your point, let’s pull all these organizations together. If we pull all these organizations together instead of working against each other, then we can be much more powerful.
What advice would you give a young SSG/SFC that came into the Army during a time of fairly heavy combat rotations, but now will be in an Army much like the 1990s Army where budget cuts, draw-downs, and similar issues will be a real hurdle to readiness?
You know job satisfaction really comes from leadership and making life better for the soldiers or Rangers under your care. The guys that come in with that attitude and want to make a difference? They will do fine. You have to love what you do and decide where you want to have an impact as a leader. One thing about coming into the Rangers is you have a chance to really have an impact. You have to love being a Ranger and doing the things the Rangers do.
Do you ever think back to the impact you might have had on the NCOs within the various units you lead? I stay in touch with a number of guys from 1/75, and there are a lot of guys that went on to really successful military careers or did their time, left the Regiment, and went onto really successful civilian positions.
Yeah I do look at it like I was just doing my job, but I do take great pride in the people I touched and how successful they were in the military. Just as importantly, and absolutely as significant to me, are the guys that did their time as a CPL, buck SGT, or rifleman, and are now very successful in a number of career fields. There is one guy, Rick Welch, who was an RTO in A company—really smart guy—and now he is a partner in one of the largest law firms in Los Angeles.
I think that a lot of guys are like that: They go on to become successful in whatever it is they decide to do. It is just part of that Ranger culture. You know if you work hard, don’t care about yourself, and try and make an organization better, then you will be successful in whatever you do. I think that is part of the Ranger magic; it is not about you at all, but about making the organization better. It is not about being right, but making it right. That kind of attitude in the civilian world can really really make you successful.
Well that really exhausts my 30 or so questions. Is there anything you would like to add or mention that we didn’t cover?
I am sure there are a million things, but you really had some good questions and brought up some good things. I appreciate it.
You helped a ton, too. Especially when you asked me if I wanted to change any of my answers. It really helped me dig a little deeper and do some better research. I am really appreciative of all our time and I hope that our readers—both civilian and military—gain some insight into a very small part of armed forces.