After my horrible and embarrassing attempt at the land navigation STAR course (if you haven’t read that debacle, feel free to refresh HERE), we moved into the dreaded team week portion of SFAS (Special Forces Assessment and Selection). As a selection candidate, you've had a week straight of pushing your body through long runs, rucks, and navigating, all while operating on very little sleep. These were almost all individual events; however, and you will now be expected to work with the remaining candidates in teams to accomplish certain tasks.
Not much of team week was a surprise. If you keep your ear to the ground long enough you will have a basic understanding of what will be expected of you, and what kind of events, contraptions etc. that you will encounter. However, that doesn't mean you will find yourself prepared for the awfulness that is team week. There were 3 particular moments that really stood out to be during this second phase, and I want to share them with you.
One of the first events within team week was called ‘sand-babies’. We had to carry heavy sandbags on top of our already heavy rucksacks for a certain distance and do it in a certain way without spilling any sand. One particular individual in our group was struggling to get the sandbag full and up on top of his rucksack, and we were all trying to be encouraging but also frustrated with him (you were not allowed to help them do this particular task). He finally gets it done, grabs his rucksack and we begin walking as a group. We were probably half-way to the finish when he somehow drops the sandbag and spills all the sand. This meant we ALL had to go back to the start and begin again. Tempers are barely being kept under control at this point, and this individual is feeling the stress.
He packs up his sandbag again, and we set off and try it a second time. At this point the cadre are watching him closely and making comments such as 'does it feel good to let everyone down?'. Suddenly the cadre go quiet, and we know that’s a bad sign. I was directly in front of him and look back to see what the sudden silence could mean. This guy was marching straight ahead, unaware of the silence and probably trying to block out the verbal barbs being thrown his way, but I immediately saw why. In the rush to refill his sandbag and set off again, he forgot his rifle back at the starting point. I fell back quickly to tell him. He stops dead in his tracks, turns around, and starts sprinting (as fast as one can with 100+lb rucksack) back to the starting point, spilling sand everywhere. We all rush to keep up because, A) This is team week, and B) We now have to start all over.
He starts to refill his spilled sandbag again when he suddenly stops…stares at his rucksack for what seemed like an eternity and then stands up. At this point we knew what was about to happen. “I Quit”. The Cadre look at him and ask “candidate, am I understanding that you wish to voluntarily withdraw from selection at this time?”. Him, “I wish to voluntarily withdraw from selection at this time.” He then gets removed from the group and told to sit by himself until a truck can come grab him. Selfishly I think to myself ‘Whatever, F this dude, one less person for me to compete against’.
We finish the event, and have to ruck march as a group back to our base camp. My roster number was called off to lead the team back. We hadn’t gone even a mile when I noticed one of the smaller guys in our group falling behind. As a fellow small guy, I felt his pain. I slowed down a bit to let him catch up. The cadre immediately ran up to me and asked why I was slowly down. “Team week SGT, can’t leave him behind”. The cadre responded “This is still selection, and we don't wait around for the weak. Break that mother f*cker off now or I’ll non-select your ass”. Well, that’s an easy choice. I quickened my pace to a near run, and the straggler ended up being so far behind at the end of the ruck march back that we never saw him again in selection after that day.
The Soul Snatching Cadre:
No matter what team week had in store for us, the only commonality we all hoped for was not to be on the team led by the cadre known as SFC J. This guy was certifiably insane. This was his first selection class as a cadre after being in charge of the SOPC program that I had just been in. As I mentioned in previous posts, running was the thing I felt was one of my strengths at the time. This guy made me look like a fat, out-of-shape slob on our runs in SOPC, and then would stare at me with complete disdain as I would struggle to catch up. He DESPISED anyone and everyone who didn't match or exceed his fitness level (which was everyone). We watched day after day in team week as he would lead teams of approximately 16 selection candidates out for their events, and return each night with 5-7 candidates remaining. We called him the reaper. Each day you just PRAYED your number didn’t get called to go with him, and you watched the look of absolute despair on the faces of those that did. One of the survivors of his group was saying that one morning they rucked so hard and fast to their first contraption that the material hadn't even arrived at the spot yet for them to assemble it. Instead of rewarding them for getting there so quickly, he smoked them and made them do ranger school events until the material was delivered. If you survived being on one of his teams, you deserved to get selected.
The Moment of Truth
Finally, SFAS was over. Now the only thing that you were worried about besides your aching back and feet was the anticipation of whether or not you were good enough to have made it. They called us all to a spot down the road, where the head of the selection committee gave his talk about how proud he was of each and every ‘survivor’ who made it to the end, and that not everyone had the courage to even go to selection, let alone get to this point. He then said ‘If I call your roster number, sound off and go back to the tents down the road for further instructions.’
One by one he called off roster numbers in sequential numbered order, and people I knew well and those I didn’t got up and went off to the tents. We had no idea whether or not these were the selected or non-selected candidates. All of them seemed strong in many ways. Then my friend Aaron was called. He was by FAR one of the biggest, strongest, and smartest guys I had ever worked with. He was also universally loved by everyone. If his name was being called, then the selected group HAD to be the ones with their names called. Everyone felt it. He had a fairly high roster number, so those whose lower numbers had not been called groaned, because they thought the same as I did. Aaron gets up and sounds off, and moves to the tents. They finish going through the list, and my number was not called. The selection commander gets back up in front of us and says “Gentleman, Special Forces is a hard, brutal business, and not everyone who came out here for this selection had what it took.” At this he had a long dramatic pause and said “That being said, congratulations men, you have all been selected and have been chosen to continue in the Q-course at this time.”
The emotions I felt hearing that still give me goosebumps to this day. One of my friends stood up at that point and said “With all due respect, how can we all have been selected, and candidate ### (Aaron) was not?” There was a murmur of agreement amongst everyone, and the cadre checked his list and said, “what are you talking about? We didn’t call his number. He should be here.” When we reiterated that they had, in fact, called his number, the cadre said “Okay, well…..someone go get that guy and tell him he made it!” You’ve never seen so many guys jump up with the opportunity to go get him, busted up feet or not. As he ran back to the formation, the entire group of us who had been selected whooped and hollered for him as he came back into our group. It’s one thing to be happy for yourself, but knowing such a good guy did in fact make it was a really good feeling.
A quick Epilogue: SFAS is a gate. Completing SFAS does in no way guarantee that you will receive your Green Beret. It is simply indicating to the selection committee that you potentially have what it takes to complete the training. Of my selection class of approximately 370 students, about 1/3 of us were selected. Of that, we lost more than ½ of that remaining group in the next phase of training. While I don’t have exact numbers, I’d say out of everyone who was selected, we probably graduated 30-40 people out of our original selection class.
Epilogue part 2: I saw the individual who I had broken off on the long ruck run in the gym 3 years later. He said he was medically dropped after the ruck for a badly twisted knee, which is what was keeping him back that day. He went back to selection 9 months later and passed. He was well on his way to graduating, and said he bore no hard feelings about it.