One of the things that always gets a ton of mileage on social media when discussing Special Operations troops is the attrition rate. Drop in on any of the major sites and the talk of the training attrition rates always comes up.
Would-be SOF candidates are always doing the math in their heads, trying to game plan the odds of them making it as opposed to the unspoken alternative. A good piece of advice for those attempting the courses is to ignore it, it is what it is. And it isn’t anything within your control.
The drop rate from Special Operations Forces will never be an area that can be manipulated by those in the levels far above the schools’ level no matter how hard they try. It’s always slightly amusing when I hear some bureaucrat say, “We need (insert number here) more Special Operations troops.” There isn’t a shaker that you can drop a few hundred people in and they all emerge as operators. Not without lowering the standards.
Many in the media and in our government talk about this as well and trying to make sense of the minutiae of Special Operations attrition rates as if it is something that can be controlled from class to class. It isn’t. While the attrition rates remain remarkably consistent across the board for most of the courses thru the past several years, there are far too many variables that go into each class to be able to point a finger and identify why the rates fluctuate.
Down at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC) this week, I had the opportunity to speak with and listen to some of SOF personnel involved in the training and selection of their forces. And the questions always come around to the attrition rates.
I spoke with one officer from SOCOM and asked if this is still a topic of conversation that as commanders that they have to be subjected to. “Of course,” he said. “The dropout rates are always something that we get asked about.”
But when pressed further, he said, “The attrition rates may rise and fall for each individual class a bit, but we don’t worry about them. In as much as this: If we identify a recurring issue with course failure where we as instructors and trainers aren’t doing a good enough job of teaching the troops, then it is an issue that we most certainly would look at changing.”
“But Special Operations, by their nature, are very physically and mentally demanding,” he added. “Not just anyone can do them. That’s why the missions are and more importantly, the people that do them are special.”
“So I guess, to answer your question,” he said with a wry smile, “we don’t worry at all about attrition rates.”
I recall the hand-wringing going on at Camp Mackall and Ft. Bragg right after we started the SFAS Course. The first couple of training cycles were called SFOT back then. When Selection was started, being new, there was absolutely no G-2 going on in the course. The resultant mind-games (politically correct word used) were much more effective as the candidates were truly in the dark as to what to expect.
But the first couple of classes were heavily staffed with motivated hard chargers from the Ranger battalions, the 82nd Airborne, and other light infantry background units. After that well dried up a bit, the courses were filled with more different backgrounds and many of those soldiers weren’t physically or mentally prepared for what would follow. The drop rate rose pretty dramatically.
The Special Warfare School was feeling the heat from higher authority and word came down to our officers that they were being asked, “what are the guys at Mackall doing differently now?” The short and correct answer was nothing.
There is no way to micromanage the drop rate in Special Operations training and our officers knew this right away. But it never stops the bean counters from trying. A few months later we had a class in February where it rained and rained hard for nearly every day of the course. The difficulty in every aspect of the course was magnified for the candidates. What it took a toll more than anything was their feet.
During a normal course, our medics were a busy bunch of guys as the candidate’s feet take a beating. During this one iteration, it looked like a major foot epidemic hit North Carolina. By the end of the long-range movement back to Ft. Bragg, most of the candidates were hobbling around like Walter Brennan on the “Real McCoys”….look it up.
The drop rate for medical issues and VW (voluntary withdrawal) again peaked. And once again our cadre leaders were again being asked silly questions about the attrition. Want to know why so many dropped? Come out and walk in the rain for a week and see for yourself. The cadre weren’t failing people by anything they were doing. The course and the conditions were doing what the course was designed to do. Weeding out those who can from those who cannot.
For the candidates going thru the various Selection courses, take a note from Bill Belichick, “Ignore the Noise.” Who cares if the attrition rate is 5 percent or 95 percent. Stop dwelling on negatives or issues you have no control over. Be in that top 5 percent. Years ago one brilliant instructor somewhere told the candidates this and it rings true:
Somewhere a True Believer is training to kill you. He is training with minimal food or water, in austere conditions, training day and night. The only thing clean on him is his weapon and he made his web gear. He doesn’t worry about what workout to do – his ruck weighs what it weighs, his runs end when the enemy stops chasing him. This True Believer is not concerned about ‘how hard it is;’ he knows either he wins or dies. He doesn’t go home at 17:00, he is home. He knows only The Cause.
I hope that his commander gave that guy an impact award. Because that is what it all comes down to in the end.