Is a “Cancer” in Special Operations Leading to Less Vigorous Standards?


U.S. Army photo

There are five “SOF Truths” that guide the training and employment of America’s special operations forces. Third on the list is, “Special Operations Forces cannot be mass produced.” If you believe an anonymous email sent to members of the special operations community last week, and published in its entirety at the special operations-focused website SOFREP, the John F. Kennedy Social Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, N.C. is thumbing its nose at its own guiding principles.

SWCS accused of graduating incompetent operators

Railing against what he (and yes, he can only be a “he”) calls a “cancer” that is “destroying the SF legacy, its capability, and its credibility,” the email’s author is blunt, specific, and in some cases, names names. And he paints an ugly picture of a special operations community whose senior leaders have, in his words, “doggedly succeeded in two things; furthering their careers, and ensuring that Special Forces [is] more prolific, but dangerously less capable than ever before.”

The author is clearly an instructor, or was until very recently an instructor, at SWCS. He stresses that no one graduates from the Special Forces Qualification Course — usually just called the “Q Course” — as a fully functional operator, but that over the last several years “dozens of graduates every year” have left the school “incapable of ever being ‘value-added’ to ODA’s.” ODA refers to Operational Detachment Alpha, the 12-man “A-Team” that is the foundation of the Special Forces.

The author accuses SF senior leaders of “reducing, and then ignoring course standards,” calling the move, “a perfectly acceptable philosophy to embrace in pursuit of graduation numbers.” The author claims that statement was made by a SWCS Sergeant Major last year. If true, so much for SOF Truth Number Three.

What it’s about, or isn’t about

The author’s most damning charge is that SWCS, at the direction of its commander, Maj. Gen. Kurt Sonntag, eliminated all physical requirements for graduation from the Q-course. Once a student has passed the selection phase (called SFAS, for special forces assessment and selection), “there are no physical barriers to earning the coveted Green Beret.” Prior to last month, the author charges, every soldier had to pass the two-mile run with a score of 80 percent, run five miles in 40 minutes or less, and march 12 miles with a 7-pound rucksack in less than three hours. That is apparently longer the case.

We all know women in combat roles is a major hot-button issue. The first women have graduated from the Army’s grueling Ranger School, and joined infantry and armor units. But there are not yet any female Green Berets. At least one woman began the training, but she was injured and dropped from the course. According to the author, Sonntag wants to burnish his resume by changing that.

“Being able to say they graduated the first female Green Beret is a milestone no officer (devoid of principles, that is) can possibly pass up,” the author said. Furthermore, he argues, women now entering Special forces training “would have wanted to test their metal against the historical standards and ensured they were every bit as capable as the men they aspire to serve next to,” but Sonntag’s decisions mean “they have been robbed of the ability to earn that achievement.”

Sontag, for his part, issued a statement saying some of the email’s points “warrant further evaluation,” but that he stands behind the  “quality of every soldier we are sending to the operational force.”

This issue needs to be investigated from the top. I urge the our new secretary of the Army, a former infantry officer himself, to visit Fort Bragg immediately to learn firsthand what is going on at SWCS, and to demand that the school uphold the traditional mental and physical rigor of the training there.

The nation deserves nothing less.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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