Story By: Sgt. Sara Yoke 153rd Public Affairs Detachment
KENOVA, W.Va. (USASOC News Service, March 26, 2013) – Dusk was falling, and the next assessment was about to begin. Fifteen soldiers, lost in concentration, plotted points on their maps, rechecking coordinates so they would later not find themselves lost under the night sky. As the light dimmed, they knew the time was approaching to step into the West Virginia woods with nothing but a compass, points on a map and self-confidence.
These soldiers, part of 2/19th Special Forces Group (Airborne), Detachment 1 training team, are assessed for the physical, mental and emotional aptitudes required to be a quality Special Forces soldier during a 19-day long selection and assessment program. If candidates prove themselves worthy during the training, they will be given the chance to proceed to the actual Special Forces Assessment and Selection course.
A boarding process is used as a filter to ensure only promising soldiers are even given the chance to go through the program. Soldiers must excel in the physical realm, conducting an Army Physical Fitness Test: rope climbs and pullups, a swim test wearing a uniform and boots, a five-mile road march and a five-mile run. Special Forces operators from 2/19th SFG (A) hold a board that soldiers stand in front of and answer relevant questions. They also write a biography, explaining why and how they will be an asset to Special Forces.
“Being in SF means everything is not as rigid, not as structured. We create that environment and see how what their bearing is on their own. Do they do the right thing on their own?“ Staff Sgt. Dayne Eitel explained. “They’re constantly being assessed. We observe how they will fit in, how well they mesh with their teams.”
The WVNG selection and assessment program serves as an assurance that state won’t be sending candidates who are unlikely to succeed in SFAS.
“We are not looking for people who are ‘maybes,’” explained Eitel. “These individuals will already possess physical ability and personality.”
“We know the state has limited resources,” said Sgt. 1st Class Brian Thomsen, the acting training team commander. “It’s imperative that we send people who are a good fit and will be a benefit to this unit. We are looking to fill teams with the best possible guys when they get done with training in a couple years.”
The road to become a Green Beret is arduous. The training pipeline is 60 to 64 weeks long. Once being selected and qualified, soldiers must complete six phases, including small unit tactics, specific job training, a culmination event and language training. To be successful, Thomsen said it’s critical to send only the most prepared soldiers. The training team candidates who continue on to SFAS have enjoyed a success rate of approximately 75 to 90 percent. Typical passing rates for those that don’t go through such training is 25 percent, explains Thomsen.
“We don’t give them the answers to the test, but we do give them proper training material,” Eitel said. “They arrive already in the right mindset.”
Spc. Glenn Hastings, a police officer from Charleston, S.C., is waiting on the next phase of Special Forces training after making it through SFAS in June 2012. During the program, he works as a cadre, providing recent insight into SFAS.
“The training in W.Va. definitely helped and gave us all an advantage during selection,” he explained.
The training and assessment program mimics SFAS, creating an atmosphere of tension, often perpetuated by the own soldiers’ mind.
“They’re probably wondering, ‘What’s next? Am I prepared?’” Hastings said, watching the soldiers plot their points as the sky was robbed of light quickly. “Being able to control that unknown factor from disrupting your concentration is so important, and you only learn that by training in these kind of conditions.”
The 19-day long training includes physical fitness activities everyday, including obstacle courses, land navigation, swimming challenges, multiple ruck marches and most importantly – team events. In one event, soldiers must work together in small teams to assemble an apparatus with limited supplies to move a large object such as a water barrel.
“When we got to SFAS, we already understood the ins and outs, the benefits, of being on a team. We knew how to tie knots and which methods didn’t work,” Hastings said. “Most of all, we knew how to communicate.”
No time is wasted for the duration of the program. Even mundane tasks and directives have a reason.
“Everything is purpose driven,“ said Staff Sgt. Will Eisenhart, also a cadre for the program. “They’re training under stress; each action has a teaching point.”
Eisenhart, a former Navy EOD technician, has completed some of the toughest special operations training in existence. He sought to become a Green Beret after getting out of the Navy. He is awaiting the step in the training pipeline.
“This is some of the more mature training I’ve been involved in. The candidates are treated like professionals,” he said.
From walking to the latrine, standing in line to receive chow, to how downtime is used – these candidates are always being evaluated by the program’s cadre, their leaders and each other. Only those who meet and exceed the standards will be given a green light.
Beyond the normal challenges of succeeding as a Special Forces soldier, many National Guard soldiers face the reality that their Army experience is rarely their sole focus and responsibility.
“Most soldiers can’t take time away from work to attempt selection multiple times,” Eitel said.
But by the same token, National Guard soldiers bring the expertise from their civilian lives to the table.
“They want to be here. These guys are police officers, firefighters, teachers, entrepreneurs. They motivate themselves. Many are highly educated,” Eitel said. “When these soldiers are down range, they are able to use their additional skill sets, often making their team self sufficient, independent. It helps them integrate easily into a sister force or in a local community.”
While its important to meet strenuous physical requirements, the mental and emotional capacities of these soldiers are just as vital given the unique military culture of Special Forces.
“These guys are willing to commit 100 percent, “ Eisenhart said. “Many bring combat experience to the table, but they’re also willing to put everything else on hold to be here. This is the talent pool right here. They’re building the culture SF wants.”
One soldier, Spc. Matt Houston, flies from Chicago for every monthly drill and training requirement. Houston, who previously served in 1st Ranger Battalion 75th Infantry Regiment, sought after a position in 2/19th SFG (A) after a friend let him know.
“I’m here because I want to be here. I want to train with the best, “ Houston said. “Apparently this is where that’s happening, so let’s go.”