When originally conceived, Special Forces was not for beginners, and you couldn’t expect to just join up off the street. In the 1950s, most of the members were career NCOs, especially from the Airborne Infantry, then the Army’s corps d’elite; many were Lodge Act immigrants, prized for their language skills; and a few were young bucks whose potential had caught the eye of one or more of the grizzled World War II and Korean War vet sergeants. You always had to be a triple volunteer: for the Army, for Airborne, and for SF.
Not many of those Originals are left. We can think of only one guy we know from the original manifest who’s still looking at the grass from the blade end, although there’s certainly a few others that we’re not in touch with. But from the very first, Special Forces had a guerrilla mindset (as well as a guerrilla warfare mission) and called for the knowledge and maturity of long-service soldiers. On the enlisted side, it was a specialty for career men. (In those days, tours in SF would usually be interleaved with tours in infantry, or even recruiting or drill-sergeant duty).
The officer side was a little different, because Special Forces was deeply mistrusted by most of Big Green, and a promising career officer might well poison that career by putting on the unofficial Green Beret — or even the post-1961 official one. SF tended to collect free-thinkers and eccentrics, ranging from men with Lawrence of Arabia potential to men with Lawrence of Arabia narcissism (the movie didn’t help). This was good and bad at once.
Over the years, it also developed that SF had some great assignments that were in high demand and one assignment that was proportionally much smaller than Big Green’s commitment to the area — Korea. This is significant because Korea, which has been expected to break out in war at any time since 1953, was an unaccompanied tour, often shunned by married or family men — if they could. As an Infantry officer, there was only one way out of orders to Korea in the 70s or 80s — volunteer for SF. (In the early part of that period, the separate SF Officers’ Course was less demanding. Starting about 1981-82, the difficulty for officers rose to equal and later to exceed the challenges facing the NCO students). A guy who went SF to stay out of the Land of the Morning Calm was probably not going to impress us, and there was high attrition among characters like that.
But for all the career guys who came in and did one tour after another, whether they were Managing a Career like some, or just having the time of their lives and unwilling to stop, teams were filled out with junior commo, weapons, engineers and medics who were in for one tour and out. As it was, it was rare to have a “12-man ODA” of more than nine men. This was, in a way, deliberate; we’d rather hold the standards and roll shorthanded than lower the bar to meet the applicants. It often meant a very junior junior had to step up into a senior commo, weapons, engineer or medic position.
Sometimes one-and-out was always their plan. Sometimes it was the many sickeners of Army culture that drove them out. Sometimes these guys had high-functioning wives that needed to live somewhere other than an Army town where shopping meant pawn shops, and entertainment, pole-dancing bars. They did one and out. And they did it honorably and they did it well.
Of our Light Weapons section only a few of us stayed in beyond that one tour. Most of the real memorable characters from SFQC were one and out. Guys went to college, to their family’s business, to other agencies, or they tried to please wives for whom the team was always the Other Woman.
But we’d never have been able to field 54 teams in a major exercise without those one-and-out SFers. They were as SF as any of us, we needed them, and by and large they performed and we missed them when they were gone.
But there’d be a new crop of young guys, who paradoxically got younger every year, and they kept the team young and kept us from losing track of the basics or overlooking any fundamentals. It was great having them, and we wish them all well in the rest of their lives.
Re: sickeners. Our observation was that everything that was bad about SF was something that it inherited from Big Army, and everything that was good about SF was SF-specific.
Our class was big, and Light Weapons was divided into two sections, one that met in the HALO Barn behind the closed-due-to-stabbings Yntema Club, and one met in Arms Room #4. So most of us only kept track of the guys in our own section.
The club, yclept the Enema Club by one and all (soldier humor is not subtle), was named for an SF hero — posthumous MOH — from Vietnam, Gordon Yntema, but SF men were well advised to steer clear when it was open. The crowd was more like a seething mob of violent minority privates from the support units of the 18th Airborne Corps, and the knife fights were officially out of hand when one of them killed a responding MP.