Sometimes you read things in the news and are thoroughly amazed and awed by some of the fantastic things people think of and make happen. Other times you can read something and be thoroughly amazed and awed for the opposite reasons and wonder, “What the hell are they thinking?” Recently, the Pentagon has resolved to do a study on the women who are breaking down the barriers of traditionally male-only schools. They want to test the women who have been successful since the military lifted the ban on women attending these courses a few years ago.
The bean counters want to test these “hyper-fit” women who have passed the Army Ranger School (30 and counting); Special Forces Assessment and Selection, or SFAS (three thus far); and Marine Infantry Training (two as of 7/19). They’re sending them to the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Massachusetts, commonly known as Natick Labs, to see what makes them so “physically successful” and “competitive.”
They’re testing these women’s physical, mental, and psychological attributes to find the answers they’re looking for. In one test, the analysts are hooking these women up to a mask and breathing apparatus, which is linked to a computer to calculate each participant’s V02 max score while they’re running on a treadmill. While this will test the amount of oxygen a woman is using at her peak exercise rate, it isn’t going to answer their question about why these women were successful.
This isn’t intended to disparage the good folks at Natick Labs. They do marvelous work there. All of the gear—the good gear that is put in the hands of soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen—goes through testing there. They come up with ways of making those pieces of equipment better by improving upon the designs. They also do tremendous work in biomechanics, injury reduction, nutrition, medicine, and much more. But the Pentagon is looking in the wrong place.
Sure, the women being tested will be in much better physical condition than the average woman in the military. That isn’t earth-shattering news. Anyone who has been through Ranger School or SFAS will tell you that you must be in excellent physical condition or the chances of you making it through the course are slim to none. Otherwise, any doughy couch potato who spends his or her time eating ice cream and watching “The View” could show up on day one of Selection and zip right through without any problems.
You have to be very fit, but not to the point of being able to run with a Kenyan marathoner; be strong, but not be built like an NFL linebacker; and be smart, but you don’t have to have a patent on new rocket fuel.
Being fit is important; you must be able to do all of the tasks laid out before you and then be ready to do them again, and maybe—actually, frequently—even more. We all know that old cliche, that fatigue makes cowards of us all, is absolutely true. But ask anyone who made it through Ranger School, SFQC (Special Forces Qualification Course), the Air Force Commando or PJ training, Marine Corps Raider training, or BUD/S (Navy SEAL training), and they’ll almost to a man tell you about a guy (or girl) who was more than physically capable but fell by the wayside.
My own SFQC class had physical studs who were gone quite early in the process. Once I began working at Selection, it became a frequent sight. Guys who were in obviously better physical condition than some of their counterparts were doing the duffel bag drag back to Ft. Bragg. That’s because the secret of passing these courses can’t be measured with the trooper’s V02 max or anything else that can be quantified.
The answer is, as we used to tell our SFAS candidates, “so simple that it is hard to understand.” People are successful at what we do/did because of what’s inside of them.
There has to be a burning desire to succeed, an ability to think clearly when under stress or in a very stressful situation. And every successful SF soldier, without fail, responded to added stress by increasing their motivation to succeed. SF operators don’t look externally for solutions to problems, but internally. It is about perseverance.
A couple of years ago, I was able to sit down and talk with Brian Decker, who revamped the way Green Berets in the Army were trained. In the past, we weren’t identifying the correct traits to get successful SF operators through the course. Decker recognized what needed to change. You can read about this in a two-part piece published by NEWSREP (read it here and here).
Decker identified that most of the problems that the course was having were social in nature. He realized that the internal drive to succeed is the best indicator of success in SF operators. He learned that each successful candidate responded to stress in their lives with a heightened sense of motivation.”
Decker now has taken his talents to the NFL, where he is helping the Indianapolis Colts select the right people to succeed in the world of professional football. Although the talents needed to thrive in the NFL may be different than those required of a special operations trooper, the internal drive to succeed—the will to keep going when the going gets tough—is no different.
Decker told me this and it rings true—man or woman.
Look, the physical talent of an individual will only take them so far, but what ultimately makes an operator successful is their character, their makeup, their approach. So what would stop an SF soldier from reaching their full potential comes down to the way they approach their craft.
Having been in the Regiment and served in combat, I understood what constitutes a good Special Forces operator and that was invaluable because you have to know your own line of work. The most successful people in any profession all have the same attributes. They all have grit, they all have extremely good work habits. They all have the mental toughness, the confidence which comes from practice and preparation and the optimism and belief that they can achieve. They are extremely intelligent. What makes a good operator…there is a lot of similarities with other professions. A good SF operator, as with other professions, approaches their craft in the same way. Very much with a growth mindset, they’re more intrinsically motivated by internal factors and view success as a process. They tend to internalize feedback rather than externalize it to their environment. They all tend to be smart specifically to what they do.”
The Pentagon analyzing the physical fitness of these female candidates in search of some shared magical gene to explain their success will reveal no more than if they analyzed successful male candidates. Is it part of the equation? Of course. But it’s just a small part. The biggest reason men and women succeed is their intestinal fortitude. You can’t measure tenacity on a graph.
Image courtesy of DOD