Some of the Best Fail Selection

Interesting thing about the selection programs for SF and other Special Operations Forces: most of the guys who could probably pass don’t even try.

And most of the guys who do try and don’t quit probably could make it. You see, there’s four ways out of SFAS (or any of these deals).

  • You can pass, the outcome everyone wants and hopes for, but not everyone gets;
  • You can quit, in SF vernacular “VW” (voluntary withdrawal), in which case you get the dreaded “NTR letter” (Never To Return). The “Never” can be a little rubbery for a soldier that subsequently displays considerable character growth, though.
  • You can fail for good, making it all the way to the end but not selecting, and receiving an NTR letter. (This is often the case when the many cadre observing proceedings take a view you’re not giving 100% or not a team player. Being a Spotlight Ranger is a great way to collect an NTR).
  • You can fail for now, making it all the way to the end, not selecting, but being invited to try again. (Sometimes after a fixed interval of months or years). This is usually reserved for people who may nonselect for youth or inexperience, or who struggled with some aspect(s) of the assessment and selection process, but who favorably impressed the cadre with their character and persistence.

After many years of running these courses, the cadre are surprisingly skilled at selecting the youth who lacks maturity now and his peer who’s never going to be teammate material.

One reason Big Green kind of hates SF is because good conventional troopers and officers who go to SFAS and get NTR’d often sour on the Army. They either turn to dirtbags (the index case being Timothy McVeigh) or just get demoralized and get out.

An NTR does’t mean you’re worthless. It just means that this, and you, don’t fit together. A lesson a guy can’t learn unless, or until, he tries.

At Breach Bang Clear, there’s a remarkable and thoughtful appreciation of the SFAS experience from Eric Hack, a soldier who attended and failed to select — and yet, found it a positive, growth-catalyzing experience. Hack was a full-length non-select, but wasn’t NTR’d, and he hopes to return some day. We think that he is displaying the kind of maturity that his future ODA will welcome. (And believe it or not, whatever MOS you come from, wherever you have served, the time will come when your experience is pure gold to your teammates). Here’s a taste:

The rest of the day was a blur. I threw that set of ACUs away, took a baby wipe shower, brushed my teeth, and I think I took the psych test and IQ tests next (but those days all seemed to roll into one). I remember a safety brief on the “Star” land-nav course and the cadre talking about all the scary venomous snakes around, trying to get some of the less committed to quit right there. I grew up on a Missouri farm and knew how to handle snakes. I was more concerned about wandering onto some backwoods moonshine distillery and dealing with Ol’ Bubba.

The Star Course excited me. I was pretty skilled in map tracking and land navigation, and the Star Course marked the exact middle of the 14-day selection course. In 2008, the JFK Special Warfare Center and School experimented with shortening Special Forces Applicant Selection (SFAS) from 21 to 14 days in an attempt to get more soldiers in the Q-Course and more SF troops on the battlefield. The experiment was roundly rejected by the cadre. They warned us on Day 0 they were going to be extra critical because they wanted the experiment to fail. In this they were successful. Only ten percent of our 401 candidates completed the course. ….

I carried my rubber duck replica M-16A2, old LC-2 suspenders, a web belt, two one-quart canteens, an eighty-pound ruck with e-tool and two two-quart canteens on the sides, an additional three-liter CamelBak on top, and all the rain and sweat my equipment could soak up.

I was cold, hungry, tired, and sick. I would routinely look at the stock of my rubber rifle to read the words a previous candidate carved: “KEEP GOING.”

Amen to that.

…even though I was miserable and the 18D was jacking with me, I was having the time of my life. Some might see that guy as an asshole, but I got the message: he wanted me to succeed, but the only way he would help me was by pissing me off. He wasn’t there to encourage or coddle me. He was there to challenge me and let me prove I had what it took to earn the right to go to the Q-course.

But while that excerpt is all fine and good, you really ought to Read The Whole Thing™. We can assure you that Eric suffered considerably to be in a position to write it. And he’s got the guts to want to go suffer again. (A lot of guys pass selection on a second pass, and some take more than that). Pure pigheaded stubbornness is a Regimental value, in the Special Forces Regiment.

21 thoughts on “Some of the Best Fail Selection

  1. S

    What is the record for most amount of tries before successfully passing? And, who is so far the oldest to succeed? I take my hat off to anyone who makes an honest try even once, at any age.

  2. Kirk


    An awful lot of this stuff we do, from Basic and AIT through to things like SFAS just aren’t things we’ve done consistently, or with any real thought going into the entire process.

    I haven’t been to SFAS, and never will go through that experience, but I’ve sent a bunch of guys off to it, and then gotten them back in one form or another. The thing that strikes me is that they’ve all come back describing different things going on in the assessment, and the one universal take-away that I developed from those second-hand reports is that SFAS seems to be a lot like Basic, in that the experience is highly dependent upon the men running it at the time you attend. I’m sure a lot more research has gone into SFAS, given the expense of the training and running the assessment, but… I’m really not seeing the overall consistency in reports that I’d expect from something like that.

    One guy comes back reporting that they were dropping guys for doing minor cheats; the next guy I sent off came back telling me that they were dropping guys who didn’t do minor cheats. It’s like the things they were looking for were very inconsistent, and really based more on the subjective desires and goals of whoever happened to be running the assessment at the time.

    I hooked up one of my candidates with another guy who’d made it nearly through to completion before he totally destroyed one of his knees near the last part of the assessment, and they worked together to do recovery for the second guy and to have the first guy get prepped to go. First guy goes off to SFAS, comes back a non-select, but he also reports to me that virtually nothing about the prep he and the other guy had done really applied, aside from the physical fitness work they’d done. The guy who got dropped due to his knee? Made a full recovery, went off to SFAS a second time, and came back saying that he’d essentially had a completely different experience than the first time, or what that other guy, now one of his best friends, described as going on.

    After a few things like that, I really started to wonder whether it was a deliberate deal, or just the Army being unable to effectively institutionalize something consistent, which is a pretty general trait of the US Army, down through history.

    I’d entertain the argument that SF does it deliberately, in order to keep people guessing, but… I’ve seen enough of the rest of the Army to know that we’ve got a general problem across the board with everything else we do, in training and the whole “soldierization” process of acculturation and indoctrination.

    You would think, by this stage of the game, that we’d be able to map out and ensure that every soldier got a consistent training experience, one that we’d studied and actually organized beyond the casual word-of-mouth crap passed down generations of drill sergeants. You’d also think that we’d have a solid idea of how to go about integrating new soldiers into units, and plan for that kind of thing, in order to cement their training into a positive mold, but… We don’t. Anyone who’s watched a kid come to them from basic training with what amounted to a reformed attitude and outlook on life slide back into the form they had before IET can tell you that what we’re doing out in the units for the first year or so isn’t exactly doing an ideal job of continuing that process.

    Huge part of the initial process of acculturation to the Army comes from the foolish way we leave the new troops essentially at sea in their first units, and kinda just wing it with regards to just about every damn thing. My personal opinion is that the key influencer in these things isn’t necessarily the leadership, either–It’s the damn peer groups they fall into, and the ringleaders of those groups. Anyone who’s been around the Ranger battalions has probably heard of the Spec-4 Mafia, and Marines know well the Lance Criminal phenomena. Institutionally, we don’t pay enough attention to things down at this level, nor do we formally leverage the influence that the “senior-junior enlisted” have on new members of the ranks very well.

    I’ve read, in vain, everything I could ever find about the issues of small unit group dynamics. The majority of the academic work I’ve read has been completely useless to me as a small group leader or “developer”, to attempt to coin a term. Building really effective, cohesive small groups is an art form, and one that is truly dishonored in the services, or we would do things a hell of a lot differently than we do. Even the non-academic stuff, like Malone’s Small Unit Leadership (which really needs updating…) doesn’t really provide a solid set of effective principles and rules for “how to do it”. Most of that work is reactive, telling you how to deal with the small unit situation as you find it, not describing what the hell you need to do to avoid many of the pitfalls he’s telling you how to overcome.

    Structurally speaking, there’s a lot of shit we do completely wrong, especially at that interface between the IET graduation and the first year or so in a soldier’s new unit. My heartfelt belief is that the so-called “training base” needs to go away, and we need to start having the units run their own IET training, the way we did things back before the massive wartime expansions where we institutionalized the “spare parts” mentality about our human material. The individual replacement system we have is insanity institutionalized, and the way we went about standing up new units like the Stryker brigades…? Sweet ‘effing Jesus on a pogo stick, was that fundamentally erroneous.

    What is aggravating as hell is that the lessons are there to be learned, in how what we’re doing ain’t working, and the examples we have where some of our enemies made it work so much better are just agonizing to observe. The German experience in WWII is one example, and the VC/NVA in Vietnam another. It’s really something that’s pissed me off, over the years, reading the literature describing the training/acculturation/indoctrination process those forces used, sometimes out of our own intel resources, and then realizing that we did exactly jack squat to either recognize or adapt any of the innovations/techniques the enemy was using against us. We’re mind-bogglingly obtuse with a bunch of this shit–I think the last time anyone really effectively “learned from the enemy” in this area was Evan Carlson, the guy who adapted the Communist Chinese cell structure over into the Marine squad/fire team. That was seventy years ago, and nobody since then has done anything even remotely like the analysis and development he did in order to improve our own operational techniques. Utterly baffling.

    1. Hognose Post author

      The constant change in SFAS is actually part of the program design, designed to prevent candidates from G-2ing the program. The uncertainty is an extremely important part of the psychological selection; you can be a great soldier in the usual unit milieu and still be uncomfortable with real chaos.

      SFAS’s objectives include finding guys whose performance actually improves under stress and in chaos. They are fairly rare and we still don’t have a read on to which extent they’re born versus made. Best guess is that there are innate proclivities which are honed by stress inoculation.

      I can think of at least two other selections that consciously juggle the course to induce uncertainty, and there are probably others. We’re probably unique in producing and using a lot of biochemical data, although some other services and some friendly foreign nations have participated in some of the research.

      1. Kirk

        That makes sense, then.

        It’d be nice if they applied a similar interest into what the hell goes on in plain old IET, though. Over the long haul, I think that stuff might, just might, be more important than selecting and training elite forces.

        I think it would be very interesting to do some longitudinal tracking from recruiting through IET to first assignment, and then on to the end of someone’s initial term of active duty. My guess is that we’re doing a very inconsistent job of applying appropriate stressors and “bonding events” for the average soldier; as well, I also suspect that a lot of the stuff we should be paying close and careful attention to, in terms of acculturation, simply isn’t getting done consistently or effectively.

        Hell, I’ll go one step further: We don’t even know what the fuck “right” might look like, because we haven’t bothered to define it or think it through.

    2. GQ

      Kirk, good monologue; solid free association.
      Small Unit Leadership; Expert in all the basics. (so you can do new things and think on your feet without trying). Lead by example. (because troops can spot bullshit at 100 paces). Take care of troops. (belief in leaders, equals faithful performance). Expect and allow them to work one and two grades higher. (the secret of our success, is that every soldier believes in his soldiers heart, that he is at least as smart as the 1st General in his chain of command).

    1. Hognose Post author

      Nope. One of my team medics (the one who later worked with the entertainment industry gun house) later did, and he has a lot of war stories.

  3. robroysimmons

    There was a Discovery Channel type documentary dealing with SFAS, very interesting.

    Note: the two shrinks looked like the Democratic Party personified, but somehow SF survived them.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Shrinks are shrinks. They wouldn’t be in that line of work if they weren’t nervous about the goings-on going on in their own Brain Housing Groups.

      1. Kirk

        Self-selection for that skill-set is something I think we’d be wise to take a look at. I don’t think it serves the rest of the human race very well, at all–Because, when the people who are doing the research and developing the baselines for “normal” are starting out from the place most of these people are, it shouldn’t be surprising when it turns out the way it does.

        Frankly, I’d prefer to not even engage with these types. What we should really be doing, in my opinion, is growing our own–Go out into the force, find guys who are introspective and capable of actually doing a good job at soldiering, and then make them an offer they can’t refuse: Go get qualified as a sociologist/anthropologist/psychologist, and come back to the force to do the work that needs doing. I would love to have someone qualified actually go through IET and do a workup on what is actually going on in these environments, and then try to extrapolate better ways to conduct business. So long as we rely on outside academics, we’re not going to get really good answers.

        1. Toastrider

          The military in general is such a distinctly different environment than the civilian world that I’m surprised this ISN’T done.

          I understand you don’t want to turn into a closed echo chamber, but the experiences and skillsets are completely out of kilter between the two worlds. It’s like asking a jumbo-jet pilot to con a submarine.

        2. GQ

          Again Kirk, you’re nailing it. We do have “top men” who are the guys in this business of; “The Psychology of performance and selection to elite groups.” But is is not shared too far beyond some pretty rare air selection process’. In fact, some pro sports franchises have paid to utilize what the service has developed, to build better teams so that they can reach beyond just picking the best guy. Skill and grit are one thing, but team performance is another.

  4. Hillbilly

    After I attended SFAS I was asked about attending by the Troop XO (my former Platoon Leader) and my current Platoon Leader and they both voiced concerns about going and failing because of how 3rd ACR would treat them on return. The CO told me he didn’t like seeing guys going to SF, because he thought they needed to stay in the Regular Army.
    I know from 97-01 my Troop in 3rd ACR sent at least 10 guys including myself to SFAS all Enlisted. Most were 19D, but there was a couple of tankers and 11C too. That one Troop during that time period produced 4 18E, 2 18B and a 18D for the Regiment. I did run into 2 officers that had been in 3rd ACR later but officers going to SFAS seemed to be rare.
    My son is talking about giving it a shot, but we will see if that happens.

    1. Hognose Post author

      My ODB commander in Afghanistan was a former 3rd ACR (Desert Storm) guy. He got a nuclear OER so went into SF and the reserve components!

      Great guy, by the way. Academy grad, one of the good ones.

  5. Keith

    I am in awe of anybody who even attempts to join the Elite forces much less passes the course.

    Kirk as always reading worth the price of admission. I have to wonder in the two specific cases you mentioned how much what you talked about wasn’t grounded in the culture of that time and place and the struggle as seen from inside the society at large?

    Keep your powder dry and your faith in God.

    1. Kirk

      Keith, I presume you’re referring to my allusions to the Germans and North Vietnamese doing things better…?

      If not, then what follows is wasted verbiage. If so, then I apologize for not offering more details to my argument, earlier.

      First, understand that I’m not being a Wehrmacht or NVA fanboy; I’m simply acknowledging that the two forces did things a hell of a lot better than we did, in some aspects of how they conducted their wars and organized their military forces.

      When you look at it coldly, the two have a lot in common, in that they both punched well above their weights, in terms of strategic, industrial, and military capacities. The Germans, more so than the North Vietnamese, but both offer us lessons in personnel management and training technique. Which we’ve signally ignored, to our detriment.

      With regards to the Germans, what you have to look at and recognize is that they should never, ever have gotten as far as they did. Strategically, economically, industrially–They weren’t even really a second-rate power. Which they demonstrated in spades–But, what they did have going for them was an exquisitely trained and organized military, which was able to carry them as far as they did get, despite all the things weighing them down. And, they did that through tactical and operational excellence that the Allies just never really got going until late in the game. It nearly won them the war, and enabled them to achieve a truly obscene exchange ratio with the Allies, particularly the Soviets. That they managed what they did really isn’t so much a testimony to their strategic brilliance, but our own tactical and operational weaknesses. The French Army of 1940 should have walked all over the Germans, but no… They let every advantage that they had slip through their fingers. Same-same with the Soviets–When you’re invaded by an army that’s nine-tenths horse-drawn, and you have a tank fleet that numbers in the tens of thousands…? Yeah. If you lose under those circumstances, it’s not necessarily their military power that is at fault, it’s your own organizational weaknesses.

      If you do as much reading in the primary sources as I have, and compare the memoirs of the typical German to the typical Allied soldier, the one thing that is striking is that the Germans did their best to ensure that the experiences we casually inflicted on our soldiers and replacements didn’t happen. You contrast the replacement experience outlined by Guy Sajer in The Forgotten Soldier with what your typical American replacement dealt with, and you really start to develop some misgivings about how we do business, then and now. Where Sajer was gradually introduced into combat after prolonged training, and then integrated into his unit while it was out of the line, thus ensuring that he didn’t have the experiences we routinely inflicted on our replacements. That resulted in a much lower loss rate for replacements, and a much higher overall unit effectiveness than we achieved.

      The Germans relied on their primary groups as integral components of their units, and did everything they could to foster their growth and perpetuation. By contrast, the Allies (particularly we Americans) seemed hell-bent on doing everything we could to break them down.

      Anyone disagreeing with me, feel free to explain the incredible difference in the exchange ratios throughout the war. I’ve tried, and every time, I come back to “They did better training, and paid more attention to cohesion and primary group formation…”.

      With regards to the NVA, when you look at the whole picture, you really have to wonder why the hell we’re not researching the living hell out of what they were doing, and trying to implement it for ourselves.

      Granted, a lot of their ability to do what they did stemmed from their near-religious devotion to Communism as a cause, but that still doesn’t explain why the hell their units were able to maintain cohesion and effectiveness in the face of what they were going through. Typical NVA unit had to walk down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, under bombardment, reach the South, and all while knowing that there wasn’t any going home until the war was won.

      Typical American? Flew in on a jet with pretty stewardesses, knew he was there for a year, and that was it. That the NVA/VC were able to maintain functionality under the stressors they were dealing with is actually mind-boggling. And, they managed to punch well above their weight for most of the war–Against our almost insanely superior fire support. The fact that they were still fighting, and were able to put together the Easter Offensive in ’72 is something I find awe-inspiring, and that they came back and did the same thing in ’75, to take the south? Absolutely one of the greatest long-term feats of arms in the 20th Century. I doubt that anyone else could have managed that whole thing, from 1950 on to 1975.

      I don’t like what the North Vietnamese stood for, or what they did, but… As a feat of arms? You have to acknowledge that they were doing something right. The cohesion and long-term sense of purpose and mission they managed to inculcate into their troops is something to observe with wonder; I doubt that any other force on the planet would have done as well as they did. The fact that they came back after the ’72 Easter Offensive the way they did, and in only 2 years or so? That’s like the US and the UK getting curb-stomped on the beaches at Normandy, and then going back for more with the same basic plan. I’m not sure that we would have, to be honest…

      1. Toastrider

        Kirk, correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I’ve read the VC/NVA did fine as long as they stuck to insurgency/fourth-gen warfare tactics. The U.S. military was simply ill-equipped to handle that sort of thing.

        But when they went for the Tet offensive, they opted for a stand-up fight, which we obliged them. Result: lots of dead VC/NVA guys.

        If I recall right, one of the NVA honchos later confessed that if public opinion hadn’t turned against the war (due to the Tet offensive being sold as a U.S. defeat), the VC/NVA would’ve had to fold. They’d taken that much damage.

        Or am I mistaken or misremembering things?

        1. Kirk

          No, you’re absolutely right.

          What I’m getting at with my praise for the NVA isn’t necessarily the fact they won; I’m in awe of the fact that they managed to train their people and conduct the war at all.

          Fascinating book written back in the 1990s, called Inside the VC and NVA: The Real Story of North Vietnam’s Armed Forces goes over all the gory details. We indeed won most of our engagements with those guys, but the thing is, we had such an overwhelming amount of firepower to do it with that the fact they even stayed on the battlefield with us was an amazing feat of arms and organization. And, the fact that the North Vietnamese were able to take a young man out of the paddies in North Vietnam, train and indoctrinate his ass, send him to walk down into South Vietnam under fire along the Ho Chi Minh trail, with the poor bastard carrying half his logistics load on his own…? Yeah. Compare/contrast our guys, and imagine framing that same sort of dedication and fieldcraft in our terms.

          How they formed their units, trained them, and then managed to keep them together and cohesive under fire in the South? Absolutely amazing achievement, in the purest military sense. Yeah, they were about as bad as the Nazis were in some ways, but holy spitballs… I have to acknowledge that they accomplished something amazing.

          And, further, that we should have studied what they were doing, right down to how they organized and fought down at the lowest levels. The consistency of message and indoctrination they achieved, in order to keep their guys motivated as well as they did? The Marines only wish they could do the same damn thing with every recruit. I just don’t think we have any military force here in the US that could match what those guys did–It’s the equivalent of telling your troops that hey, you’re gonna have to walk from the Canadian border down to Northern California, carrying your food, weapon, and ammo for the fight you’re going to have when you get there, and oh, by the way, you’re not coming home ’til it’s over or you are dead. And, we’re probably not even going to be able to tell your family where to go looking for your body, either…

          I’m pretty sure we’d have to revamp our training and indoctrination process to make that work, even for Marines…

      2. GQ

        “…the experiences we casually inflicted on our soldiers…” Ouch! Yeah, we do, we are so good at that. You’d think it was part of the plan. Maybe it is. Tine for a Doctoral Theseus on that topic.

  6. James

    What happens if you get injured bad enough to be pulled out of process but recover fully,do you get a chance to try again or is that a deal killer?

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