10/14/2019 10:19:00 AM Army revampinge process to become a Green Beret
CAMP MACKALL, N.C. (AP) — Deep in the dark North Carolina woods, a small white light flickers in the heavy underbrush. It’s after midnight and a soldier is taking a risk by turning on his headlamp to find his way.
The overnight land navigation test is just one hurdle in the grueling, monthslong course to join the Army’s elite Special Forces, and using the light violates the rules. Just the night before, at least 20 commando hopefuls had either committed a disqualifying failure or given up in the drenching rain.
“We got a light!” barks an Army instructor from the front seat of his truck as he patrols the woods. Almost instantly the tiny white beacon goes out as the soldier spots the truck headlights and tries to escape detection.
For the nearly 200 candidates scrambling through Hoffman Forest at Camp Mackall, the struggle to become a Green Beret is real. But Army commanders are making sweeping changes to shorten and revamp the course. The aim is to meet evolving national security threats and to shift from a culture that weeds out struggling soldiers at every point to one that trains them to do better.
The changes that are beginning now have led to resentment among some Special Forces that the brass wants to make it easier to pass the qualification course as a way to boost lagging recruiting numbers and ensure that women will eventually qualify. The fear, such critics say, is that Green Berets will become weaker and “dangerously less capable than ever before.”
Army leaders insist the changes reflect the military’s need to adapt to evolving security threats from Russia, China, Iran and others foes. They say the nearly two-year course had to be shortened, so some training will be done when soldiers get to their units, where it can be tailored to the specific needs of the region.
“Today’s qualification course is for exactly the type of Green Beret we needed for 2008. It is not what we need for 2028,” said Maj. Gen. Kurt Sonntag, who until recently was commander of the Army Special Operations Center of Excellence, which includes all the Special Forces training. “We need to reestablish our forte, which is our ability to work with partner forces, developing their capabilities to provide an advantage for them and the United States against our adversaries — North Korea, Iran, and China and Russia.”
Sonntag and other commanders, current and former instructors and students at the Special Forces training base at Camp Mackall spoke with The Associated Press during a rare, two-day look at the course, including observation of the overnight land navigation test.
The more than 6,700 Army Green Berets are highly trained commandos who usually work in 12-person teams that are often used for specialized combat and counterterrorism operations and to train other nations’ forces in battle skills. About a dozen died in combat this year, mainly working with Afghan forces fighting the Taliban; others are training troops in up to 60 countries.
The changes were driven by discussions with senior leaders, including Maj. Gen. John Deedrick, commander of 1st Special Forces Command, who told Sonntag he wanted soldiers to come out of the course with solid basic skills that can be sharpened when they get to their units.
“If you try to make them an expert in everything, you’re gonna give me a Swiss Army knife that can do a little bit of everything but isn’t real good,” he said in an interview in his Fort Bragg office. “I’d prefer to have him very good at the basics and then let me tailor what he’s gonna do in the long run.”
The new course drops some training, shifts some around and eliminates gaps in the schedule. For example, language training will now come after soldiers graduate the course, becoming a skill to learn rather than one needed to pass to stay in the course.
Also, because the new Pentagon strategy is focused on threats from China and Russia rather than wars against insurgents, some counterterrorism skills will be tailored to specific regions and taught after soldiers are in their units.
Senior Army leaders endorse the changes.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said Sonntag “really grinded through this to make adjustments to the course to make it more effective and streamline the amount of time they’re in the schoolhouse” so they get to their assigned units more quickly. The new training, he said, will be more relevant to current threats.
The changes, however, caused an uproar among some instructors in the Special Forces community.
In a lengthy and anonymous 2017 email, a Green Beret instructor argued that “career-focused leaders” have eroded standards in the qualification course in order to meet graduation quotas. The email charged that allowing women to compete for special operations jobs was also responsible because commanders want to “markedly lower the standards enough to ensure that any woman attempting this path will have absolutely no issue achieving it.”