Before there was the Special Forces Assessment and Selection course (SFAS), the attrition in the Special Forces Qualification Course was heavily frontloaded in the first phase of SFQC.
In those days (1970s-80s) the course had three phases. Phase I at Camp Mackall, then an austere camp in the wayback of Fort Bragg, comprised a variety of gut checks, physical evaluations, and many, many must-pass gates, everything from survival skills to physical . Phase II was an MOS-specific phase; enlisted men learned one of five skills: light weapons; heavy weapons (in the 1980s the two weapons specialties would merge); military engineering (construction & demolition); medical; or communications. Officers got familiarization training in each skill, plus some specifics on A-Team leadership.
Each specialty had a phase culmination exercise of some kind where they were tested in their skills; weapons men went to the range, commo men went to the Uwharrie Mountains to send and receive traffic back to the mothership at Fort Bragg; medics had a trauma exercise that was a must-pass event.
In Phase III, some classroom instruction in guerrilla warfare prepared student teams — with all the specialties represented — to conduct a complete UW/GW mission, from mission planning to disbanding a victorious guerrilla force and exfiltrating the ODA. This overall culmination exercise or CULEX had different names in different decades; we recall hearing old-timers talk about CHEROKEE TRAIL or GOBBLERS WOODS. But by the mid-seventies, it was known by the name it still bears: ROBIN SAGE.
If you made it to Phase III, you were almost certainly going to graduate. There were exceptions: a captain who proved to be utterly lacking in leadership potential. A couple of good guys who got DUIs when things relaxed in the days before graduation. A guy who, after passing everything, quit because he decided SF was not for him. But most of the men who started Phase III were on A-Teams a couple months later. (Well, unless they were commo men. Many of them got stuck in Signal Platoon for a while). They would be shocked, most of them, to discover that the learning wasn’t over, and “qualified” or not, they had a long way to go to be useful to an ODA. We used to say, “It takes 10 years to make a Special Forces soldier.” Some guys picked it up quicker; some guys never really got the hang of it. If they got through school, they were almost always useful for something.
Rewinding a bit, if you made it to Phase II, you were probably going to graduate. That depended on your capacity for absorbing instruction, and on the difficulty of your specialty. The general consensus was that medics had the hardest training. It was certainly longest, and had the highest attrition. Communicators were most at risk during their first eight weeks, when they had to learn to send and receive International Morse Code by hand at 15 groups per minute. If they made it through that, learning to cut antennae to frequency and to use and maintain Army communications gear was a piece of cake. After medics and commo men, and sometimes before them, in the rank order of attrition, came the heavy weapons men. Learning to serve on the crews of mortars, recoilless rifles, and other antitank and antiaircraft weapons was not hard, but forward observer and fire direction control procedures were. In the Phase II we attended, there were about 130 Light Weapons and 100 Heavy Weapons trainees. About 100 Light and 7 or 8 Heavy Weapons men completed the phase; the others were recycled to the next class, or, if they were out of second chances with the cadre, trucked across post to the 82nd Airborne Division.
But as we’ve said, most of the attrition came in Phase I. The big widowmaker was land navigation. SF takes land nav very, very seriously — the only units that approach the same level of skill, in our humble opinion, are the cousins at the SAS, and another US special operations unit that has some SF DNA in it. After land nav, the thing that was most likely to get you singing “We’re All American, and proud to be,” with a sad face, was an injury. Phase I was very physical and hard to complete, even if your fitness was perfect. If your fitness was imperfect, “hard” git very close to “impossible.” Not every SF guy was a natural athlete; you could make up for a lot of deficiencies in your physical strength by sheer guts and unwillingness to quit. But you needed some balance of fitness, athleticism and stubbornness, and the more you had of each, the more likely you were to make it out the narrow end of the funnel into Phase II.
One of the events was rucksack-marching as part of PT. “Marching” is a very loose description of it; it usually resembled either Olympic speedwalking or a very, very slow jog, depending on the length of your natural stride; with the added bonus of sixty-five pounds of lightweight gear on your back. You’re also laden with load-bearing equipment (LBE) and rifle, in our day the long-serving M16A1. But because that’s not challenging enough, you also have a few heavier weapons in the squad — an M60, a couple of ancient M14s — and maybe an extra rucksack, just for grins. The extra stuff gets handed off to a new guy every ten minutes or so.
It was not a crime to break step, to curse, to stumble, at least as long as you recovered. There was no singing of Jody calls or airborne cadences. If you had air enough to sing, they’d use it going farther or faster, or both, instead.
The crime was “falling out,” breaking formation and falling behind. If you did that once, they had a way of encouraging you either to quit, or never to fall behind again.
They would play some mind games with the formation, for instance returning to the compound at Mackall, running through the main gates, right to where the trainees would usually stop and drop their gear in formation — and keep on boogie-ing right out the back gate.
But all good things, all bad things, indeed, all mortal things, must come to an end, and a Camp Mackall ruck march is no exception. By this time, the SF trainees no longer look light a tight military formation, like one of the 82nd companies that shuffle around Fort Bragg with their guidon and road guards, singing airborne cadences. They look more like a gypsy band. Some guys are wrestling with busted ruck straps or flopping boot soles; others are just flat straggling. They’re falling further and further behind as he broken-back snake of trainees loops back around the dusty clay roads of Mackall, and back into the gates.
And as the main body of the formation clears the gates, two instructors swing the gates closed in the face of the stricken-looking stragglers.
They’re about to learn how to bounce the gates.
The guys inside are sent to turn in their firearms and take their rucks back into their tarpaper shacks. (There are permanent barracks now, but before the relative luxury of tarpaper shacks, there were only tents). They begin to shower. They have a tight schedule, and need to clean up and grab breakfast before their next evolution.
Meanwhile, the stragglers have been told that they have failed and their stuff is weak.
But there is one way that maybe they can redeem themselves.
“Bounce the gates!” an instructor roars. “Make these gates ring! You!” — and he singled out some wretch — “Bounce that gate!”
“Bounce the gate, sergeant? I don’t know what — ”
“Jesus, you’re not just a weakling, but also a dumbass. Bounce the gate means run full tilt and crash into the gate.”
The student looks like that’s not the best offer he’s ever been given.
“Do it! Or pack your $#!+ and go home!”
So the trainee runs full tilt into the sturdy chain-link fence. Khawangg! The instructor laugh, and critique the bounce, and have him do it again, while queuing up the next victim. And for the next half hour, or hour, or some time period that feels even longer, the stragglers make repeated kamikaze runs on the locked gate, in ones and twos and, if there are that many, tens, as the instructors laugh and, sometimes, wager.
“Hey, Phil, I bet you Number 107 can make a louder crash than 233.”
“You’re on, Don!”
Bouncing the gates continues until they’re tired of it — not the students. They start off tired. They keep it up until the instructors are tired of it.
The gate bouncers are smoked. Some quit on the spot. Some are injured. Some will keep trying, but the calories they lost from the breakfast they didn’t have time to eat, plus the extra calories they burned in their assault on the gates leave them with an irrecoverable deficit, and tomorrow they’ll be shambling through bouncing-the-gates with half of today’s energy; they’re as good as dropped now, the poor bastards just don’t know it yet.
And there are a few, very few, for whom the worst of bouncing the gates is the shame of it; it burns, and they will not feel that burn again. Tomorrow, they will not fall behind. They will, in fact, never bounce the gates again, and they will walk across the stage and receive their diploma and green beret from some celebrity (in the idiosyncratic way SF defines celebrities; nowadays, it has been formalized as Distinguished Member of the Regiment).
We have thought about this barbaric ritual a lot since seeing it for the first time in 1983 (fortunately, from inside the compound. We never had to bounce, ourselves). And we’re no closer to the answer now than we were then: was it just hazing, or was it a worthwhile, integral part of the Phase I gut check?