We repeat these old adages constantly until they reach the point of almost being cliches at times but two of the most cardinal rules to follow if you’re looking at a career in Special Operations are being a self-starter and being a team player.
If you fail at either one of those either in Selection or a qualification course, you won’t last long in the Special Operations field. All of the units in SOCOM put a high premium on each of these traits and regardless of whether you aspire to be a Green Beret, Navy SEAL, Combat Controller or any other Special Operations professional in the U.S. military or one of our allies, you’d better be a shining example of both.
And for the purposes of this, I’ll give you some examples of both from both sides of the equation as both a student and as a cadre member. I recently had a conversation about what Special Operations were like and specifically what they weren’t with a civilian who had never served in the military. This person’s idea of what SOF troops were like and how they operated was not even close to being steeped in realism.
This person thought all SOF troops were blind automatons that were incapable of independent thought and would blindly follow the last orders given by a commander to the ends of the earth but were physically hard enough to keep blindly slamming their heads into a wall until told to stop.
Of course, this person was quite taken aback when I laughed at this suggestion and said that in fact, the exact opposite was true. “Oh…so what trait do they value above all else?” I was asked. I know that the answer he least expected was when I said,
“Intelligence. Specifically, the ability to think on one’s feet while under a very stressful situation. That and the ability to think and act independently.”
While leads us to “Old Guy Anecdote #1” while a student in the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC).
Many moons ago when the Army had just transitioned from smoothbore muskets, (okay maybe not that long ago), I was a student at the final Unconventional Warfare (UW) exercise known as Robin Sage in the mountains of North Carolina.
Our student detachment was a very sharp group of guys who worked hard and together and were ready to take the next step and move on to becoming full-fledged if, only basically trained Green Berets into the operational groups. Our team at Robin Sage had three officers instead of the normal two. Two of these guys were outstanding, team players who knew their stuff and were quick to jump in and lend a hand wherever it was needed. The third was the opposite. When the team infiltrated the area and linked up with the guerrilla band, he would butt heads with the guerrillas and especially the G-Chief at every turn.
It was quickly turning things sour and for no reason. A quick example of this was when the “Jefe” said, his men didn’t know anything about field sanitation and wanted a proper outdoor latrine built. He pointed to an area where at the far end of the base camp he wanted it placed. This one officer was trying to talk him out of it for a very minor reason and in reality, it was such a small thing, it wasn’t worth the trouble. While the officer and team sergeant (who was dragged into it) were talking with the G-Chief, (the Jefe as the G’s called him), our senior Medic grabbed two of us and three G’s and we just walked to where the Jefe wanted it done and we dug it out.
A couple of hours later, the latrine was done. Complete with even a wooden frame to perch oneself on. We dug it deep enough to last a while and cut down the trees to make the frame. Right about this time, after much deliberation, the officer finally relented and came back to tell the team to go construct it.
When our medic said it was already done, the G-Chief snapped he wanted to see it. We walked him over there and he was impressed with how it had been constructed. He turned and snapped at the medic, “Why did you do this on your own when your own officer was trying to tell me to put it somewhere else?”
This was one of those times where there is no right or wrong answer but lots of gray areas. “Well,” the medic said. “This IS where you wanted it done, but more importantly, from a medical standpoint, your men NEED a proper latrine or we’ll start getting people sick in here, and that doesn’t help you or us.”
The “Jefe” nodded, “This is a good latrine, maybe you should be in charge,” he said as he walked away with a sneer to our third officer. Later after graduation, when I was assigned to my first Special Forces A-Team, the “Jefe” was the Senior Engineer on the team. He was a great NCO and a super guy. He told me our entire detachment was in danger of getting kicked out of the G-Base for the stupid arguing of one man who could have undermined the rest of the team. But the actions of a few self-starters, not only diffused the situation but turned it into a positive.
Many years later I was assigned to the SFAS course where candidates were selected for the SFQC. When we first began it was called SFOT, which stood for Special Forces Orientation and Training, but the candidates called it “Special Form of Torture” which was brilliant.
Here is where not being a team player would directly cause a candidate who had excelled at everything else to be a non-select.
This one candidate was an NCO who showed up for Selection in phenomenal physical condition. He smoked the PT Test and Swim Test with ease. He scored the highest marks for every timed run and gated events as the ruck marches. This NCO literally flew thru the Obstacle Course, “Nasty Nick” with ease. Out at Land Navigation, he was finding his points during the practice sessions and smoked the Land Nav exercise, finishing with plenty of time to spare.
During Team Week, he was graded as a Team Leader twice and scored very high marks on each, one of which I was his lane grader for the day. So what was the snafu?
Other than the time when he was placed in charge of a specific event, all of the cadre NCOs noticed, he has virtually no interaction with his fellow candidates. He was a loner, who kept entirely to himself. During Land Nav when all of the candidates would finish their practice runs, he’d keep to himself and wouldn’t join in as the others compared notes which is encouraged.
We’d walk thru the barracks at night and weaving in between the huts, he had a rep among his fellow candidates as aloof, arrogant and gave the impression that they were all beneath him.
During Team Week, as soon as he was finished being a leader, he’d give no assistance to whoever was in charge. He’d pick up the heaviest item and carry it with no problem, but as to helping any candidates who were needing some support? He gave none. Some candidates are good with lashings and tying of ropes and such. Others are not, he was very good at it but never once volunteered to help out the following candidates who were under the gun and being rated as a team leader.
He was not selected as being a team member in a small unit environment and being a team player was not for him.
Don’t be that guy, be a self-starter and be a team player, the guys that you help and lift up today, will do the same for you tomorrow.
Photos: US Army