I know what you’re thinking: “Here’s this FOG (F***ing Old Guy) preaching again about being in the last hard SFAS class.” Okay, first let’s dispense with the myths and get right to the crux of the matter. Every Special Forces guy you will meet, regardless of the era, went through the last hard class, and every class since or before his was an absolute cakewalk.
It is true. Ask anyone and you’ll be bound to hear the same. Years from now when some of you do get selected and sent to one of the Operational Groups, you’ll be saying the same thing. I swore back in the day, that I would never, ever say that. But then in my last year or so in the military, I was talking to a good friend of mine who was at the schoolhouse teaching SF medics. He was lamenting the quality of his latest class and we fell into the “man things were sure tougher when WE went through the course.” Yikes! “When did we turn into the old MFers that we used to make fun of?” But I digress.
Passing Selection is the rite of passage for every Special Operations unit in the world. And that is why we are all here right? The courses are designed to be incredibly hard for a very good reason. The operating environment that Special Operations many times must perform in is extreme. Carrying a lot of gear on your back in the heat of Iraq, Syria, in the mountains of Afghanistan, or in 100 other places isn’t a walk in the park. And all the while you’ll have a determined, hardened enemy that is trying very hard to kill you.
So, we get all kinds of emails from prospective Special Operations asking what the secret is for getting selected and what magic elixir is required to pass. The short answer is, there isn’t one. It is so simple that it is hard sometimes for young troops to get it. So we’ll go through the quick guide again.
Be in the Best Shape You Can Possibly Be
This is probably a total no-brainer. We’ve set out the physical training pieces that we’ve felt will help you prepare physically for the challenge that is ahead. And make no mistake: you will be challenged. In SFAS you will get smoked, rinsed off, dusted, and do it all over again. There will be plenty of times where you are tired, hungry, beat up, and mentally taxed. That is normal, it also is exactly what the course is designed to do.
But there is no reason to be in arguably the best shape in your life when you show up for selection. A lot of guys get hurt during their prep time and they have not completely recovered by the time their class starts. I’ve seen that as a cadre member. In such cases, the only thing to do in Selection is to just gut it out the best way you can — unless you are seriously injured. In that case, try to get your class date changed.
I was levied for SWC (Special Warfare Center), the schoolhouse, while on a deployment to Central America back in the day. As soon as I returned to the States, I was assigned to Selection. Since I had gone through the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) in the days before SFAS, I had to attend the next class. The only issue? While down south I had gotten a case of dysentery. I was still getting over it when I reported in, 25 pounds lighter than usual. Carrying the “Sandman” while having the screen door $hits isn’t the best way to go through the course. So I feel your pain if you’ve had to endure the task, while not at 100 percent through no fault of your own.
Leave the Assessing to the Assessors
This is a big one and a total no-brainer. Far too many candidates take a look around them and at the daunting task that is selection and psyche themselves right out of the course. They become so self-critical that they’ll convince themselves that they are doing terribly. It is a common trait among most successful people and many Special Operators. We are usually our own worst critics. But Selection isn’t the time for that part of your psyche to come out.
In one class in SFAS, there was a senior NCO who came from an LRSU unit. He positively smoked every run and ruck march during the course. But instead of being in his unit where he was far out in front of every such event, in SFAS, among many equally impressive troops, he wasn’t. He took it to mean he was performing substandardly when the opposite was true. He self-assessed himself and did a poor job of it. He voluntarily withdrew until “I can get my shit together and come back to do the course right.”
You don’t know on what or how the cadre is assessing you at any given time. And that isn’t your job. To quote my favorite BB, “Do Your Job.” Let the cadre do theirs. If you’re giving 100 percent every day and still standing there in the formation, that is all you should be worrying about. If you’re self-assessing yourself, you’ll be looking at a sad face in the mirror.
Remember, You Are Always Being Assessed
This will sound crazy perhaps but many of the candidates get off on the wrong foot on Day One. This can end up costing them down the road. Many of the young soldiers coming into Selection are focused on the physical side, which is good. But never forget that everything in Selection is evaluated — this means everything. And now I repeat it (listen for the foot stomp as if in the classroom): “Assessment Never Ends.” You’ll hear this often. Remember it. File it away and don’t ever forget it.
You’ll be asked to take a battery of psychological tests and they’re quite lengthy. Some of the questions will seem odd (they are) and often make no sense. You’ll get asked the same questions multiple times but they will be worded differently. They are designed that way to see if you’re telling the truth and taking the process seriously. They are also designed to identify potential psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies in some candidates.
While working at SFAS, there were a few soldiers who took this part of Selection as a joke — it isn’t. This isn’t the time to be cavalier or a smartass with your answers. They matter. Everything does. Not answering truthfully may ultimately cost you.
Another thing: From the time you sign in until the time you sign out and return to your unit at the end of the course, you are being evaluated. Act as if you are under a microscope. There is no off time save for the few hours of sleep you’ll get.
Be a Team Player
This one is self-explanatory. Selection is an individual assessment conducted in a team environment. So yes, you’re being assessed as an individual. But part of that assessment, and a VERY BIG part of it, is how well you work within a team. Being part of a team is the very essence of what makes Special Operations and Special Forces, in this case, so successful.
Lone Wolves don’t cut it in SFAS. You can ace every individual event but if you aren’t a team player, the cadre will notice and so will your peers. And peer evaluation can sink a soldier’s chances easily. Certain soldiers will have areas that they’re stronger in than their peers. Team players will recognize this, step up, and help their teammates during team events. If they don’t help their teammates, then they’ll ultimately fail.
This is an area where many of the officers fail. They perform very well when in charge of an event but balk at taking orders from lower-ranking candidates when the latter lead an event. “Spotlight Rangers” who thrive when it is their turn in the leader’s box, but then try to ghost into the background once their turn is over, are easily spotted.
Don’t Be Late, Light, or Last
These three little sins are my favorites. They will get a candidate washed out and doing the duffel bag drag quicker than any other. And add a fourth: Don’t be out of uniform! If there are 150 candidates standing there in PT gear and two guys show up are in fatigues, how do you think that would fly?
You’re being assessed on your potential to be in one of the premier Special Operations units in the world. Showing up late, or out of uniform isn’t the way to impress upon the cadre that you want to be there.
Unless things have changed drastically, at Selection the students are kept in the dark about what event is coming next until shortly before it happens. The cadre will update a dry board usually 15 minutes or so before the next event. At that time, they will mention the uniform that the candidates must be in. Most classes learn quickly to have a candidate from each hut placed outside near the board to keep everyone apprised of updates.
Being light is a cardinal sin and there is no excuse for it. Your rucksack has to weigh what the cadre said it must weigh. That is always the weight without food and water. The instructors will always use the same scales that the candidates use so there will never be a discrepancy there. If the standard says 45 pounds, then 44 pounds and 15 ounces is a fail. That doesn’t mean you should go overboard either.
One winter class in SFAS, one candidate came in straggling at the rear. His rucksack weighed 75 pounds! That didn’t curry favor with the instructors. In fact, it had the opposite effect. Be safe, and err on the side of caution. Be in the green but don’t overdo it. A pound or two over the limit won’t hurt you physically but gives the psychological reassurance that you’re well within the standards.
Being last is — next to being light — the kiss of death in selection. One has to be pragmatic here. Do the math. The failure rate for selection is high. Even those who make it to the very end of the course aren’t guaranteed to be selected. So being last in any event isn’t a good thing. But one event isn’t going to sink you or your chances if you do well in everything else. Regardless, you never, ever want to be the last guy at anything.
Ignore the Noise
The SFAS “rumor mill” used to kill me. There is something about Selection that turns good, troops into a ladies’ sewing circle. This goes right along with self-assessment. Listening to the rumor mill is an unnecessary drain on your energy and serves no purpose. Invariably the rumors are as wrong as the National Enquirer — unless you’re a fan of “Men in Black.”
Many nights, my bud Doug P. and I, as well as other cadre members, would move between the huts dressed as the candidates. We would gauge their reactions to the day’s training, and check to see if the candidates were sleeping before lights out, or eating in the barracks. Heel stomp! You’re always being assessed. (Refer back to advice number three). By the second week of the course, they rarely if ever noticed our presence as cadre.
By far, the rumor mill was always the most entertaining. As the course went on the rumors always got better. By Team Week, many of the candidates were so burned out, we’d have long conversations with some and they would never realize that they were talking to cadre members.
My advice to candidates is to have a book handy. When the rumors start flying, save your energy and brain matter, and read a book.
Sounds like a walk in the park right?
And yeah. Don’t quit!
This article was originally published in August 2020. It has been edited for republication.