It was with great nostalgia that I reread one of George Hand’s older posts about going through survival training in the SFQC. Geo is universally loved by us, here, and we’re proud to call him a friend. BTW, be sure to check out Geo’s upcoming book Brothers of the Cloth, which is bound to be entertaining.

His “bunny baseball” story also brought back memories of Camp Mackall involving Colonel Nick Rowe.

A Special Forces Legend

Colonel Nick Rowe was a Special Forces legend. He was one of the very few men in Vietnam who successfully escaped from a POW camp — and doing so while taken to be executed. 

Rowe used his experiences, lessons learned, and knowledge of being a POW into creating the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) course at Camp Mackall. All Special Forces personnel must go through the SERE course as part of the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC).

But his Communist captors did not forget him. In the morning of April 21, 1989, Rowe was on his way to work at the Joint United States Military Advisory Group headquarters in Quezon City, a suburb of Manila. Then, at least two hooded gunmen in a stolen car fired more than 20 bullets into his vehicle. The gunmen were Communist guerillas with reported ties to the Vietnamese Communist government. The Vietnamese did indeed have a long memory. 

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Colonel Rowe served as the Executive Officer of Detachment A-23, 5th Special Forces Group, South Vietnam, in 1963. (USASOC History Office)

Nasty Nick Is the Epitome of a Special Forces Obstacle Course

The Special Forces training compound at Camp Mackall, NC, as well as the Special Forces obstacle course, is named in Rowe’s honor. And part of the obstacle course is known as the “Nasty Nick.”

The Nasty Nick Obstacle Course is a name familiar to all SF candidates undergoing Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS). If you are an aspiring Special Operations soldier, you will become intimately familiar with this obstacle course. It is one of those rite-of-passage gated events. 

Colonel James ‘Nick’ Rowe assassinated on this day in 1989

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Part of the reason we stress upper-body preparation before SFAS and SFQC is that you’ll need that strength to make it through Selection and especially the obstacle course out at Camp Mackall. And in general, to be an “operator” what we used to call “team guys,” you will need a lot of upper body strength. 

The “Nasty Nick” is a smoker of the nth degree. Nearly every obstacle requires some kind of rope climb. Therefore, it will test a candidate’s will, especially if they have a fear of heights or small confined spaces. Besides the requisite rope climbs, there are rope ladders, tunnels, a cargo net, and assorted other wonderful ideas that someone thought up. It covers about a mile and a quarter and there are more than 20 obstacles to overcome. 

Not so coincidentally, the obstacles get harder as the course progresses…. You didn’t expect anything else, now, did you?

You Have to Overcome Nasty Nick As an Individual

One of the most underrated ones was (at least when I worked out there as a cadre member) was the one where a candidate had to walk across a thin ladder. Because there was nothing to hold onto, it used to freak out a lot of candidates, especially the acrophobics. Many don’t even realize this phobia until it hits them square in the face. And if you begin to linger too long on any particular obstacle, the Selection cadre will offer encouragement (sarcasm). “Navigate the apparatus and Move OUT candidate!” was the frequent sound heard over the pines in those days. 

Prospective Special Forces soldiers have to accomplish this as an individual. This poses a mental and very physical challenge that the candidate must overcome. It is just another in the many ways the candidates are constantly assessed. Other units in SOCOM will send their troops through Nasty Nick as a group to build esprit de corps and teamwork. But if you want to be SF, you do this alone, like many of the gated events. 

Don’t Be a Smart-ass

I haven’t been out to Camp Mackall in a bit and understand that they’ve changed a few of the obstacles. Nevertheless, the course remains overall the same. Back in the day (before electricity… J/K) the Selection would walk a class through the course in the morning before the candidates ran it in the afternoon. The cadre would explain how each obstacle had to be negotiated successfully. If a candidate asked for a demonstration, the cadre member assigned to each group would correctly demonstrate how each obstacle needed to be done. 

Of course, there were always a few wise guys in every class (like the author) that would ask the cadre to demonstrate each obstacle. When that happened when I was an instructor, my answer would be, “since there is some confusion here, each one of you will now attempt the obstacle on your own. If there aren’t any questions, we’ll move on to the next one.” It didn’t take long for the candidates to realize that it was more beneficial to them to save their energy for the course itself. 

Nasty Nick Challenges Special Forces Candidates
Students at the JFKSWC negotiate the “Nasty Nick” Special Forces obstacle course at Camp Mackall. (DVIDS)

Some of our cadre members were awesome rope climbers. Lee K., a stud from 10th SFG, would demonstrate by climbing the 30 ft. rope feet first in a head-down position. And do it faster than I ever dreamed of going the “normal” way. 

Nasty Nick: The Special Forces obstacle course from hell

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“Navigate the Obstacle and MOVE OUT!”

One of my good buddies in my cadre days, Doug P. had the wild idea of making the candidates do it with rucks. Go figure. So one evening to test out his idea, he ran Nasty Nick in the dark with a 45-lb. ruck. And he completed it. But the command element at the time decided (and wisely so) that it was best to leave the candidates running it as it was designed. 

The Nasty Nick will be run in just about any weather condition save for hurricane-force winds or lightning. Rain, snow, or shine. On those rainy days, some of the obstacles can get slick and muddy. There are no safety lines, ropes, or nets, at least there weren’t back then. I’ve seen that the schoolhouse now has the candidates negotiate the Nasty Nick wearing hockey safety helmets… something that we FOGs (look it up), didn’t do. Maybe that’s why we all have CTE now? 

Candidates fall and although the pits under the high obstacles have sawdust or mulch padding, guys get hurt. That adds to the stress level of the candidates. But, hey, at least now the candidates run Nasty Nick with those cool hockey helmets. I always found it a head-shaker when a candidate would fall off and smack his head onto the “soft” mulch below. The candidate would be somewhere in NSW Australia in his head, completely oblivious to where he was when one of the cadre members would immediately ask: “Candidate, are you refusing to train?” as if they had any idea where they were. That was followed by, “Get up, continue to train, navigate the obstacle and MOVE OUT!”

What Is the Best Way to Prepare for the Special Forces Obstacle Course?

We often get questions on our social media pages about Nasty Nick and the best way to prepare for it.

The answer is simple. 

Do a PT prep program that will get you ready for Selection. That means one with a ton of upper body exercises and rope climbing to get you ready. Then it is just a matter of approaching each obstacle one at a time, negotiating it correctly, and moving on to the next one. There’s no magic formula. 

It is simple: mind over matter. While hard, Nasty Nick has been successfully negotiated thousands of times.

Now, “navigate the apparatus and move out smartly candidate, or are you refusing to train?”