Once upon a time you had to be a member of one of two units in US Special Operations to be considered an operator.  Those units were SEAL Team Six and Delta Force and only those who passed selection and training were entitled to call themselves that, not support personnel or those on the periphery.

Today everyone is an Operator.

When I was in Ranger Battalion, our Sergeant Major would send out memos for us to read, with pearls of wisdom.  One of them reminded us that we were not operators, we were Rangers and should be proud of that fact.  We were not Ju-jitsu experts, marathon runners, or body builders.  We were Rangers.

I was never an operator and have never claimed to be.  I was a Ranger, and then I went on to to be a Special Forces Weapons Sergeant, so you can take that into account as you read this and decide if you think I’m full of shit or not.

As time progressed, I saw the Army change.  Often times it was for the better.  SOF has evolved in leaps and bounds since 9/11.  In other ways, I think we’ve lost some of the professionalism we once had, as it was replaced with the false bravado of Mixed Martial Arts Tap-Out gear and the cool-guy attitude of a generation raised on shoot ’em up video games.  Back to the Sergeant Major’s memos…he also warned us not to throw a combat scroll on our shoulder after deployment and think we know everything there is to know about combat.  That is a huge mistake.


Slowly, I saw the term operator applied to larger and larger groups of people.  I heard myself referred to as a “Special Forces Operator” a few times, which never sat well with me.  Today, it is even worse.  It seems like everyone who does Crossfit is now an operator.  If you do a Spartan Race you practically get issued a Combat Infantry Badge.  There are t-shirts, websites, and video games dedicated to operator this-or-that.  I don’t get it.  To me it reeks of a desperate attempt to inflate your own ego by trying to associate yourself with something you are not.  It stinks of insecurity.

So other than being a member of Delta or SEAL Team Six, what is an operator exactly?  I have my opinion.  I think an operator is someone who has mastered the basics, who knows infantry tactics frontwards and back, but has polished their skills well beyond shooting, moving, and communicating.  An operator is more than possessing a certain skill set.  An operator is someone who carries with them the wisdom that comes with experience and maturity.  This is why the most senior operators are often assigned to Delta’s Recce troop for instance.

The operator is someone who can be deployed as a singleton and trusted to do his job with minimal or no supervision.  You can send him into denied areas to conduct low visibility operations and you can also trust that he will abort the mission rather than take unnecessary risks that could get that mission compromised.  He is not a 23-year-old wearing Multi-Cam with a bunch of high-tech toys strapped to the side of his rifle.

The operator is also a quiet professional.  He doesn’t feel the need to brag or compare himself to other soldiers.  He probably will never write about any of this stuff, as opposed to someone like me of course.  One person I know personally who fits this mold, and is known publicly, is my friend Keith Nell.  He is an old-school operator who served in the Rhodesian SAS.  In the late 1970’s he was recruited by Special Branch to conduct a sensitive off the books operation to hunt down a terrorist gang that had been shooting down passenger jets.

Keith waged an unconventional campaign.  After first quelling an uprising amongst the indigenous forces he was to work with, he then worked by, with, and through them on a wide variety of operations that ranged from safe guarding the civilian population to assassinations.  Keith often had to think on his feet and improvise on the fly.  He even had to procure ammunition for his guerrilla fighters by stealing it from local police stations.

I’ve been very fortunate to know operators from the SAS, Delta Force, and SEAL Team Six.  Despite what the video games, the movies, and the things you see posted on Facebook tell you, you’re not an operator and if someone is standing on a soap box talking about being one, neither are they.

Image courtesy of DoD