Bouncing the Gates

Picture from a ruck in a recent SFQC. Note foreign participants in their own national uniforms.

Picture from a ruck in a recent SFQC. Note foreign participants in their own national uniforms.

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.

Mindslap.

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?

26 thoughts on “Bouncing the Gates

  1. looserounds.com

    I am no one to ever question the way these things are done. but i have always had the strong principle that if you take a good man and treat him like an animal., then after a while they start to behave like animals. It can be seen in the most extreme cases to the most harmless of environment.

    I read this then though about some discovery channel documentary I saw some time ago where those Special Forces guy went on to some scuba diving training deal and while there None of the trainers/instructors talked to them like shit or even yelled at them. I know there is a difference in what is trying to be accomplished but I guess it shows that these things have a place in some areas and at the level you guys were, they knew when was the right time?

    One thing I have wondered about for a while., The SF and what in my limited knowledge , the missions they carried out in the Vietnam ear and such was all the stuff you mentioned above and then more I am sure i know nothing about. But It seems from an outsider now that the missions on the Special Forces have increased to heavy focus on things maybe they did not do as much back then? Why is it a common view by the media that Special Forces practically means some kind of recon unit mainly or direct action.? was that always a strongly defined role from the start? At come point did PR campaigns or something decided to play it up more? Is the unconventional warfare thing just not as sexy as it used to be for most people and media and even the army?

    1. Hognose Post author

      There are different phases, small-p, in training SOF.

      Selection — this is a gut check. Candidates are also being assessed for the “secret sauce” of what a unit wants. SF has found that land nav over long distances and other near-impossible tasks, with lots of performance stress, works. (In the 1980s, teamwork and leadership tasks were added).

      Basic skills training — this is generally conducted without abuse but with a high standard and the very real possibility of failing. Standards are objective where possible, failures are reviewed by several different eyeballs when subjective standards are necessary (i.e. patrolling go or no-go, UW meets, etc.)

      Important factor, same stresses are applied in selection and basic skills to officers, senior ncos, and other ncos. This has a bonding effect that lasts literally for decades.

      Advanced skills training — these are what we used to call “gentlemen’s courses.” There is generally no stress apart from that required by training standards. SF Combat Swimmer at Key West is such a course. Very high standards, very hard to pass, essentially zero harassment.

      The guys going through don’t believe this, but there is never hazing just for the sake of hazing in the training pipeline. It’s always done for a reason.

      Since before I was in, and to the present day, the students complain the standards are arbitrary and cause the loss of good candidates, and the instructors complain the standards are arbitrary and don’t let them purge slugs. In my experience the standards are biased towards purging most underperformers at the price of losing many potential performers. (This is strictly SF I’m talking about here).

      We have learned over the years that our guys are not only very different from non-SOF guys, biologically speaking, they’re different even from other SOF including SEALs and SAS (who are pretty close, but their courses select for slightly different traits. For instance, they have less concern about NCO ability to lead at what’s usually officer level; but their concern for their ability to operate independently is as great — maybe greater in the case of SAS). Funny but these differences show up in the bloodstream, in stress hormones.

      I will not address selection and assessment of any unpublicized special operations unit. Anyone who has the requisite knowledge is enjoined from commenting, and anyone who’s running his mouth is probably lacking the requisite knowledge.

    2. Hognose Post author

      Also, SF has always been capable of a wide range of missions in a wide range of environments. SR/DA has been stressed lately because the present wars need a lot of it.

      UW, though, is what initial training and regular SF Group exercises are based around, because it’s the most complex ARTEP/skill set. If you can do that, you can do SR/DA in your sleep. (Mind you, if you’re actually going to do SR/DA, the team or unit trains up for it extensively, but that’s because only a chump fights fair). SR (strategic reconnaissance) is basically your fundamental recon patrol, just at a crazy large distance from home and help. So there are some special TTPs but a guy coming in from the Rangers or any infantry gig has the basics already. DA (direct action) is just a raid.

      Many of the once-SOF-specific TTPs (such as sensitive site exploitation) have bled down into the conventional Army, and it’s a good thing.

  2. W. Fleetwood

    That’s a damn good question. It deserves a damn good answer. I haven’t got one. However, since you did ask, I’ve got a few thoughts, some occurred to me at the time in similar situations, others came only in retrospect.

    One is the difference between training and selection, granting that a given course is rarely entirely one or the other. If the military objective is essentially training there is a requirement for some form of fairness. If the course isn’t fair, or fairly administered, the military either get folks with certification but not skills, or they lose individuals who were skilled and could have been certified, or both. A selection course, on the other hand, may come down to “Yeah, he’s got all the skills and so forth, but…….we don’t like him.” and for certain units doing certain missions that is totally valid, if, at the same time being totally unfair.

    Another point is that a military is training and selecting towards the objective of waging war. War is viciously unfair , to say the least. So one tries to train and select soldiers who can accept, and operate within, an lethally unfair environment. Our society can not, in general, accept the idea that the treatment of a group of people can be excessively fair but, in the preparation for war, it can be.

    One way to prepare folks for war is to convince them that they are The Chosen Few. To an extent this can be done by denigrating an amorphous other (“Legs”, Civviescum”, NoBas, etc.) but to be truly effective there must be, and there must be seen to be, the Unchosen. To have winners one has to have losers. This also provides scapegoats to whom all sins can be assigned as they are expelled from the ranks of the Chosen. This can get pretty damn ugly but it is still used, even in our oh so enlightened times for one simple reason, it works. I suspect it’s been working since some Sumerian NCOs pounded a bunch of conscripted farm boys into a fighting unit and went North to reclaim the provinces that had been lost to the barbarians.

    So, as promised, no answer, but I hope these observation are of some value.

    Wafa Wafa, Wasara Wasara.

    1. TF-BA

      I thought this was about hazing until I read fleetwood’s post and all that followed. I wish I had the good guy “go by”. You know the one. It’s the one, or the list, or the one where everyone understands. Because today is the day. They all understand and have been training for years.

      Personally I think the description of how you create men willing to assault a defended beach is insultingly accurate.

      HM2 Bullet magnet reporting for duty; making SOF look good-ish whenever. If you are removed, there are plenty of simplemen hurting the world on call. Or not.

      All we need are some super ninjias who drop out of the fucking sky. Hey, who is in charge of ninjias?

      I understand that this is less than the best deal ever but I just wanted to get an idea of how it ……

      1. TF-BA

        Hazing= yes Always. If I was unclear. The absence of head fuck difficulty is the absence of reward.
        Did I mention that I totally should have been a super badass. Answering to no one ever. Mostly because I showed up. CAN’T YOU HEAR MY SUPERAWESOMENESS?

        Even leg infantry needs selection. I joked that “we were so highspeed that we didn’t even know how fast we were going.”

        Please don’t hold my mission jealousy against me. Continue hazing at pace. It gets the dickfaces out.

  3. Kirk

    ‘It’s not Hazing, it’s just your turn.’

    ;)

    See, here’s the thing: A lot of people don’t understand this stuff, even the ones that are doing the hazing. I’d be willing to argue that there’s an awful lot of cultural/biological/psychological stuff going on in a military environment like basic training and SF selection/training that isn’t well understood or thought out. We just do it because… The last guys who did it, did it that way, and it is now traditional.

    There is a two-way process going on, with all this stuff: Not only are we seeking to bond the individual to the organization, the organization is being bonded to the individual. Were you to move in laterally, without going through SFQC or Selection, you would lack legitimacy in the eyes of your peers and supervisors across the board. The fact that you went through the same process they did serves to show them that you’re “One of them…”, and thus, worthy of membership in the organization. Without it, you’d always be an outsider, even if you’d been running clandestine organizations under the same conditions that SF is meant to for your entire life, and knew more about the subject than the instructors do.

    The psychology of unit cohesion and individual acculturation to that unit is an arena I think we’ve paid very little formal attention to, and it is to our disadvantage, because when the social activist types start harping about “…doing away with unfair hazing…”, they’re screwing with some very important things about how people bond with each other for dangerous activities. I can’t prove that the lack of doing the “blood stripe” ritual for promotions somehow lessens the bond between new privates and the unit, but I have a suspicion that suppression of these things has a definitely deleterious effect on the strength and nature of the bond between that new private and the unit, running in both directions.

    There’s a common thread, going from the ancient hunter-gatherer bands we mostly evolved in, and the modern-day Infantry squad or other small unit. Just like with street gangs and motorcycle clubs, there are definite common features between the initiation rites in each of these organizations–And, those rites all serve a purpose, psychologically speaking, or they wouldn’t be there. There is a definite lack of comprehension on the part of the social justice activist types, when they look at this stuff, and the fact that we can’t articulate what the hell we’re doing when we do these things like the assessment phase and in basic training, we get shut down, and lose those long-held traditional tools to inculcate and create the bond between individual and organization.

    This is an arena that really needs some serious attention by someone who’s a.) been there and done that, and b.) has the academic chops to articulate this stuff in a coherent manner for the rest of the world to understand. So far, nobody like that has appeared on the scene, and you can tell that because we keep losing these arguments with the idjits of the world who think they can just change traditions willy-nilly with out repercussion.

    1. John M.

      “So far, nobody like that has appeared on the scene, and you can tell that because we keep losing these arguments with the idjits of the world who think they can just change traditions willy-nilly with out repercussion.”

      The Left, always and everywhere, wars against property, family and tradition. Even if you could clearly articulate the purpose of something, it wouldn’t convince someone who has a preconceived bias against tradition itself. (See also gay mirrage.)

      If you’re not sure who is on the Left in a given conflict, look for who most vigorously opposes property, family and tradition. Warning: this may lead to some uncomfortable judgments of history.

      -John M.

    2. Hognose Post author

      SF does have mechanisms for formally recognizing guys who have been there and done that, although they’re dormant now they were used a lot when selecting people in SF’s first decade or so (1952-61). An early Vietnam SF team might have a guy who was in the ETO in WWII, a guy who was in the SS, and the TL or XO was in Brigada 2506. Of course, it also meant the Soviets had potential penetrations in SF, which drives some of our compartmentation and opsec TTPs to this day.

  4. Arsenal 762

    I have no right to comment, never having served, but as a lifelong fitness freak i will admit that I certainly harbored a desire to test my mettle in the crucible of SF training if only to say that I could stand shoulder to shoulder with those that crossed that Rubicon. In my completely unqualified opinion, if the enemy is unlikely to provide any quarter, the instructors should carry a similar mindset. Cruel though it may be, it is reminiscent of my time in grad school where the mental punishment far exceeded anything I’ve encountered in the private, academic and gov sectors. If you can handle the institutional hazing, whatever you face in the field will be surmountable if you carry that mindset that got you through. BTW, I love these type of posts that illuminate the stuff they don’t show in the discovery channel docs. Thanks again, Hognose.

    1. Hognose Post author

      There’s a couple of things out there that have some SF vibe to them. The Goruck Challenge was started by SFers, and the Tough Mudder, I believe, by the cousins (SAS).

      Again, it’s not “hazing” like you’d get at prep school, or the bullying that Russian second-year conscripts gave to first-years. It’s for a purpose, even though the trainees can’t see the purpose yet.

      ETA: of course you have the right to comment. We tend to go nonlinear when someone pretends to be one of us, but that doesn’t extend to having an opinion. No SOF mission can take place without an awful lot of effort beforehand by a wide range of folks, many of them civilians. It’s a bit like that old economics lesson about the pencil, such a simple thing but it needs a veritable army of people with a wide range of skills to produce.

      1. Arsenal 762

        Yeah, I’ve done both. And the Spartan too. That one was particularly brutal. Nothing like failing a challenge because you’re completely spent and having to do 30 burpees as a penalty.

  5. Lost in WV

    I rarely post anywhere but this post got some memory juices flowing. I went through SFQC at CMK in 1978. The course was organized in the same three phases that Hognose so well described. When I went through there was nothing that I would have ever called hazing but the course classroom and field performance standards obviated any real need for them (we started with over a hundred and twenty guys and finished a month later with around 35-40 guys, mostly lost guys through land nav, and PT/quitting).

    We did have gate bouncing, though. It was a little different in that at the end of a ruck ‘march’ (at the end it was more of a run if you were behind the main body and actual ‘running’ with a ruck was then banned at CMK—but double timing was OK…go figure) one had to be with or close to the main body when the run (er…march) ended…stragglers were considered to be part of the main body if they were in a ‘ten count’ of the lead when it entered the main CMK gate.

    OK…Imagine an instructor standing in the gate (it was always still dark/early morning) counting 2-4-6-8-11 real fast and slamming the gate on students diving to get through it. Happened to me once. I dove for the gate as it was being slammed and hit the ground halfway through the gate. The instructor (Maxim) put his foot on me and instructed me to remain still while he pulled out a flashlight, looked me over and then stated, “No-Go! Your ruck is not at least halfway inside the gate. Reeeeeeecover and prepare to bounce!”.

    I still remember those ruck marches through the dusty gloom on the ankle-deep sand roads that circle the airfield. Everyone around you was simply an apparition in the dark preventing you from getting close to the front of the main body.

    I later was as an instructor at CMK during a period in the early 90’s where phases one and three of the SFQC were combined-we instructors called it phase 13, despite the threats from the IMA white house not to do so (it was considered to be disrespectful of their ‘better’ course thought processes and philosophy—yeah, Hognose, I am talking about one particular Russian) The students then first went through selection and subsequently the MOS phase before we got them at CMK for the 63 days combined course, hence the’13’ moniker. No harassment or targeting of the students was prevalent or even considered necessary by the vast majority of my fellow instructors, though problem children were given multiple opportunities to “excel”. I can honestly say that I never observed anything that approached hazing, unless you include making students dig a proper grave and lay in it while being negatively counseled for a very serious violation of the Principles of Patrolling that would have resulted in their or a team-mates death.

    Note: you did not mention what stressed the engineers. It was math, pure and simple. Everything was done long hand and calculators were NEVER allowed…period. If you could not do the math in your head or on the back of a C-rat box with a grease pencil in the dark, then you could not perform the mission. That got more guys than the inability to memorize charge calculation, construction and placement formulas, or figure minefields, or calculate for construction materials. Long division with decimal points done very rapidly by hand provided enough stress for a lot of guys. 80% on all tests, too, if I recall correctly, and no retests. Blow one test and you drug your bag down the road to the 20th Engineers or the 307th further down in the 80-twice.

    I was also an O&I instructor. The gates there at that time were academics, pure and simple. Poor study habits, weak research/writing skills and bad time management ate up generally a third of a starting class…and you had to maintain a 85 average or you were on academic probation. I recall 80% still to pass, be we did have one retest per student per class. Lots of stress there, but wholly academic in nature. Zero harassment or BS (other than one punctuation nazi on the instructor staff).

    Great website, Hognose. Nice Tolz articles, too. Thanks for taking me back…damn…38 years ago.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Ah, Maxim. I hace a funny story about him and M13 disintegrating links. And you would have had Major Howard, did you not? That guy actually scared me… he changed out at the start of my class, to a guy that was no doubt a fine officer (USAF Academy grad, of all things) but the couple times Howard showed up to walk with us were intense. I met him several more times when he was an O6 and he still scared the living daylights out of me.

      1. Lost in WV

        Howard seemed to be a decent guy but we did not see him all that much when I was out there …maybe five or six times and correct….for the morning march.. He would walk behind the guys before we started, lifting their rucks to find the heaviest one and swap his out for the heavier. I recall him smiling a great deal.

        The guy that impressed me the most had eyes that would bore right through steel—Ola Mize. I will never forget his intensity when he zeroed in on something/someone. MOH from Korea and the story was he got it for his adept handling of an e-tool at up close and personal ranges.

        All of the instructors had personalities but no one had the ‘big head’. Most would sit mixed in with us under the ‘mess hall’ parachute and eat/BS with us. Some of them introduced themselves by first name vice rank and last name that we could all read for ourselves…common SF culture from the get-go. It had a real acculturating affect on us few SF babies in my class. I also later was on two different teams with instructors from my phase one…something I was (and am still) kind of proud of.

        One morning Maxim singled me out (oh shit) because I was not wearing rank insignia…I did not have any as I was still an E-1 and had not yet received the automatic promotion to E-2 at six months service as I was still short of it a few weeks. “How can I take anything from you if you have nothing to take” was his response. He made a phone call and ‘fixed’ that with the student company HQ and the next day made a spectacle of me by early promoting me to E-2…to a great deal of accompanying laughter, hooting and various other ‘congratulations’ from my fellow mostly NCO classmates. He was hard and tough but not in a nasty way. All in all, very good memories, other than those daily death marches in the dusty dark.

  6. paul

    I remember training in the woods around Mackall a few times as a member of the 307th Engineer BN of the 82nd Abn. Seemed like everyone in my company was either an SF reject or an SF wanna-be.
    On one of theses trips we were close enough to see the tar paper shacks. It was late afternoon/early evening. There was music playing over loud speakers from the camp.
    One of our guys was a SF reject (good for all concerned) he had a sad look on his face. “That is the song they play when you do the dufflebag drag back to Bragg”.
    The song was ” Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Yep. They started that not long after the song came out.

      There were a couple other favorite speaker songs, but my mind is blanking on ’em. I’ll have to ask a buddy who was an SFAS instructor a few years ago.

      At one time, some guy had read about the SEALs’ bell, and installed a — this is no $#!+ — gong. And VWs had to bang the gong. He rotated out and the gong went with him, everybody else thought it was needless humiliation. After all, a good percentage of the guys who drop out come back and try again — if it’s overall a positive experience for ’em.

  7. Torres

    Pre-phase over in the COSCOM area got my Phase I class in pretty good shape PT-Wise for Mackall. It still kicked people’s asses on he runs and ruck marches. Carrying the M16’s and M-60’s out there was something that was missing from pre-phase and it made a BIG difference for some.

    I had heard all about bouncing the gates well before I ever got to Ft. Bragg, let-alone Camp Mackall and I figured the best way to avoid that torment was to never be on the wrong side of the gate when it closed. I remember the TAC yelling “hit it!” and at that point everyone would break formation and run for all they were worth. They never got me at the gate and they never got me with the in one gate and out the other mind games, either.

    Regarding the engineers and math, after Phase I while waiting for 300F1, they put the medics and engineers through a math course over at he JFK Center. The reason they gave was that the engineers were boloing charge calculations and the medics their drug calculations. It wasn’t a bad class and actually was pretty useful. They also included math classes at Ft. Sam during 300F1.

    One of the instructors at the JFK Center told us “when you put your hands into a pile of goo that just a minute before was your best friend’s calculator, you’ll know what to do.”

    Those were the days…

  8. mr. sharkman

    “and anyone who’s running his mouth is probably lacking the requisite knowledge.”

    So true, on so many levels.

    I’ve been through more than 1 ‘selection’. It’s very noticeable to me that every single time I’ve read or heard someone spouting about ‘which course is tougher’, ‘which training is tougher’…invariably the babble is coming from someone who has never been through a ‘selection’ of any kind.

    In a rare case of being directly qualified to comment, my sincere opinion would be that they are all a kick in the nuts. The only difference is the type of boots worn by the kicker(s).

    ‘This is an arena that really needs some serious attention by someone who’s a.) been there and done that, and b.) has the academic chops to articulate this stuff in a coherent manner for the rest of the world to understand.’

    No, no, no, no, no. Not just no, but FUCK no. The following comment is in no way directed at you personally.

    What is needed is all of the relevant senior Os having the backbone they are supposed to have and saying to any and all concerned:

    ‘How we go about filling our ranks is our business. Until the day comes where the small groups of guys we send off to the Dark Side of Democracy (TM) are lacking the proficiency and motivation to accomplish the impossible (By Appointment Only), kindly mind your own business. If you want to be involved, sign on the line, and show up for a kick in the nuts.

    Love,

    SOF Senior Officers’

    It’s fine as it is. The Guardians of the Gates and the Temple are guys who have been there, done that and are selecting guys that they may very well be doing the deed alongside in a year or three. Is it 100% fair? Hell no. Is it 100% efficient? Hell no. Do really good and really bad guys slip through the cracks both ways on occasion? Absolutely. I know of a few guys who were injured too severely to continue, and never returned. I’ll state with complete honesty that they had the nerve, the refusal to quit, and were smarter and quicker than I was. The instructors/cadre will try to save the worthy when they can. I know of one guy who they ‘hid/shuffled’ for a year to keep him in the program due to a severe injury and recovery complications. Their ‘gut read’ of him and their extra effort on his behalf paid off for the community. He wound up doing the job and excelling at it for longer than most last.

    I simply don’t believe there is a formal, structured way to improve on the direct observation and assessment of the instructors that would be worth the pain and the hassle. It’s close enough to ‘if it ain’t broke, leave it the fuck alone’ that it should be left alone.

    I was never an instructor in the selection/entry-level realm. I have a lot of colleagues who are and were, and the one nearly unanimous insight I found most interesting from the ones who were 1st phase instructors at BUD/S was that they could not predict who would quit. Sometimes, guys who were physical studs would fold mentally over what the instructors considered to be ‘no big deal’. They were all shocked and surprised more than once.

    But there was something they would notice in a select few guys, pre-hell week, where their prediction of said student ‘never quitting’ was very accurate. They could just see something in the demeanor, especially when not being scrutinized, that told them that the student in question was ‘over the hump’ mentally.

    The stress hormone level discovery made total sense when I heard about it. I chuckled thinking back to all the medical-related questionnaires and psych related tests when they were trying to find the ‘ideal student profile’ so they could save some money on training, by reducing the # of students who were likely to quit.

    That stress hormone made me think of something when I first heard about it. If there was one common denominator among SOF guys that I believe in, it’s the statement ‘From when he was a boy, the more serious things were the calmer he got’. I’ve heard that statement from pre-service friends and family members of SOF guys more than once, and I think there’s a tie-in there with the hormone discovery.

    The bell is more than what it seems. You’d have to be nearby during hell week on an especially cold, nasty night to see the (group) psychology behind it. A large group of students might be desperately attempting to dig in mentally, and the group keeps a fragile hold on its members for a time. Then 1, 3, 4, 10 guys ring out and you get a cascade effect. Maybe the guys who rung out were waiting for someone else to do it first, to avoid shame. Maybe some fellow student that was looked up to as ‘the toughest guy I know’ rang out and a couple of guys decide ‘If he can’t hack this, there’s no way I can’. Probably multiple causes and motivations. But we’re all looking for the guys who have hearts that turn to stone when the odds hit 50 to 1, right?

    My favorite selection story is from an SAS Brother of mine. Back before the details of selection were far too well known and publicized (which reduces the effectiveness of selection in my opinion, due to reduction of mental stresses by eliminating some ‘unknowns’), he was at the tail end of the death march but was unaware of how close he was to completing it. His 2 best friends, both of whom he considered to be superior Soldiers, had dropped within the previous hour, 1 due to a legitimate immobilizing injury (he later completed selection and went on to great things). So here he is, tromping all alone in the dark, beat down, but the one thing he knows is he’ll black out before his legs stop moving (every SOF guy reading this is now smiling). He comes to a bend in the road, trees and foliage make it so he can’t see much further down the road even on the straight sections, and an instructor informs him he’d better put some serious effort in because he’s fallen behind and they’ve got no use for slow Soldiers in The Regiment.

    So he digs in deep, and can feel things starting to protest prior to breaking, tearing, etc. No hint of an upcoming blackout, so nothing else to do but embrace the suck.

    He rounds the sharp corner, and there are a bunch of the cadre, in the back of a lorry, with some kegs of not-water. He gets hauled up and in, clapped on the back, ‘Well done’ from multiple guys whose opinion of him means everything. He told me that story years after it happened, and he’d seen plenty of action in the intervening years. He described that as ‘The best day of my life’, which I an a lucky, select few others will totally understand.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Ah, brother. You speak the truth, a deep truth.

      If there is any greater high than to be respected by the men you respect, I have never experienced it.

      It is strange to compare universities to SOF training. In the university, the business professors have seldom been in business. The professors of education have never stood before a classroom. The entire staff of the MFA creative writing program has never produced a single readable, entertaining novel. That’s how we get MBAs who can’t find their ass with both hands, school superintendents who chase fads like a terrier chases chipmunks, and waiters who have an attitude about bringing you the Parmesan cheese.

      Compare and contrast: the guy who’s lionized among the BUD/S or SFAS instructors is the guy who has the scars, the TTPs, the experience, and the bone-deep knowledge of the importance of personnel excellence that only comes from doing the job. And that’s a basic qualification to do the job. (We have rowed back some first-tour SF grads to instructor jobs, but we hate doing that). Sure, we bring in specialists (physicians for some of the med training, for instance). But mostly your graduation is in the hands of guys who will have to serve with you and have a very direct interest in not graduating problems.

      The guys that were legendary instructors at SFQC were guys who built that legend operationally. I’d bet it was the same way at SEAL school.

      1. mr. sharkman

        ‘But mostly your graduation is in the hands of guys who will have to serve with you and have a very direct interest in not graduating problems.

        The guys that were legendary instructors at SFQC were guys who built that legend operationally. I’d bet it was the same way at SEAL school.’

        Indeed.

        Every once in awhile, I’ll wind up in a discussion with a family member or a close acquaintance with no military experience where the topic is the ‘ferociousness’ of some drill instructor in a ‘war movie’.

        I explain to them that being screamed at, berated, threatened with various fates worse than whatever…you either figure out fairly quickly that if they’re willing to expend the energy to scream at you you’re probably not individually in too much trouble or you succumb to that particular mind game and you probably quit. Probably better that way, thin skin is a no-go.

        I also explain to them that the most terrifying encounter would be the Legendary Instructor, kindly taking you aside for a 1-on-1 and in a relatively gentle tone asking you ‘Are you really certain this is what you want to do? That this is the life you want to live?’

        I think a lot of guys get into selection-ending trouble because they don’t understand how important the very specific definition of ‘selection’ is. ‘Can he hack it?’ is important. ‘Does he belong?’, ‘Do I want him on point?’, and ‘Do I want to be back to back with this guy on LV-426?’ are equally important. ;)

  9. Keith

    RAH wrote all about this in Starship Trooper. And it wasn’t in the abortion of a movie. He knew.

  10. PBeck

    I remember three official phases in ’80, but we also had the month long, “Pre-Phase”, portion of the itinerary, wherein we had two-a-day PT and were flat out asked on a regular basis if anyone wanted to quit, while the class was forming up, and waiting to go to McKall for Phase 1.

    We had 1SG Montgomery at A Co., and Bob Howard (still a MAJ at the time) was camp commandant at McKall.

    Never had to bounce the gates. Saw it done though. Decided that my efforts would be better spent staying in the middle of the formation. Another jedi mind trick, a variation of the old, “coming in the front, going right back out the back”, was for the instructors to bring us in the gate, slow the formation, halt the formation in front of the flag pole, right face, pause, then another right face, and then start right back out the front gate again. See who relaxed and mentally relaxed/shut down at the halt, thinking it was over.

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