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Integrating Women into U.S. Army Special Forces: Every Day is a 'Selection Event'

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Integrating Women into U.S. Army Special Forces: Every Day is a 'Selection Event'

Alex Quade

(SWJ Editor's Note: Award-winning freelance War Reporter Alex Quade first reported on this issue for The Washington Times.  Here's the rest of her story, addressing the issues of standards, social engineering, "the brotherhood", and historical context.)

(Jacksonville, FLA) -- "I've worked with lots of great women at the CIA.  They bring super value to the table.  It's going to happen in SF (Special Forces).  Get used to it," retired Special Forces Sergeant Major Billy Waugh, a former CIA Paramilitary Officer, stated.

Waugh, the author of "Hunting The Jackal," spoke to a room full of skeptical Special Forces brothers at the recent Special Forces Association conference in Jacksonville.

That's where Colonel Nestor A. Sadler, Commandant of the Special Forces Regiment at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center School (USAJFKSWCS) confirmed, two female Army officers have been invited to report to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in their first step towards earning the Special Forces tab and becoming a Green Beret.

Colonel Sadler said the two female candidates accepted their invitations for Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) class.  The earliest class they could attend would be this October, though neither have received orders directing travel to Fort Bragg for training yet.

Special Forces officer candidates are trained to lead 12-man Special Forces Operational Detachment Alphas (ODAs), known as "A-Teams".  One core mission is to conduct unconventional warfare campaigns behind enemy lines.

Should the women attend and pass SFAS, as well as the following Special Forces Qualification Course and earn the coveted Green Beret, each could become an "18-Alpha", the captain in charge of an A-Team of senior non-commissioned officers.  Theoretically, if neither woman were be dropped or recycled due to injury, it could be about 2-years from beginning the SFAS process, to when they'd be sent to lead an Operational Detachment Alpha, or "A-Team."

Col. Sadler explained to the national Special Forces Association conference in Jacksonville, Florida, that over the past several months, seven female's application packets for Special Forces had gone through Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) selection panel.  Of those, he said, two officer's packets were approved for attendance at SFAS.  (Reporter's note: according to USASOC, five packets, not seven, had actually gone through.)

"Two females met the requirements for SFAS and were nominated by the ARSOF panel to attend SFAS.  One candidate declined her invitation and withdrew from the process.  Special Forces Branch asked why.  On the last day to accept or decline the invitation, she changed her mind and accepted the invitation to attend SFAS," Sadler said.

Of historical note and controversy within the SF community, Captain Kathleen Wilder was the first women to go through the SF Qualification Course (Q-course) in 1980, which is different than SFAS.  There was no Selection and Assessment at that time, and the Q-course was not military occupational specialty (MOS) producing.

According to UPI news reports, Wilder failed "Robin Sage," the unconventional warfare culmination exercise.  After an Army investigation on charges of sexual discrimination, Wilder was credited for the Q-course, graduated, and finally received her Green Beret in 1981.

The difference between Wilder's situation and today is now there is SFAS, and graduation from the Q-course will make that person a Special Forces officer or Non-Commissioned Officer by MOS.  Also, in 1981 no Special Forces tab was awarded, as the SF tab was not established until 1983.  This in no way diminishes Wilder's contribution to Special Forces history.

Today, officers may apply for ARSOF positions once a year.  This past April, the ARSOF Panel reviewed the packets of 860-officers who'd applied for the three ARSOF Regiments, which include Special Forces, Civil Affairs and PSYOP.  Of that, the ARSOF Board chose 600-packets for those three Regiments; breaking it down to 340-packets approved for SFAS, 225-packets approved for Civil Affairs, and 120-packets approved for PSYOP (now known as MISO, Military Information Support Operations).

"Of the 860-total packets, 71-women applied for ARSOF positions.  Sixty-five were selected," USAJFKSWCS spokeswoman Major Melody Faulkenberry said.  "This was the first time females had the ability to choose Special Forces, and nine female officers marked Special Forces as their first choice in their packets," she added.

Of those nine female officer candidates, five met the requirements and were considered for Special Forces.  Of those five, two officers were selected amongst the invited class of 340.

Both female officers are active duty and served in combat support roles.  Neither attended West Point.  One received her commission via ROTC, the other via OCS (officer candidate school).  There are no indications that either was ever a Cultural Support Team (CST) member attached to Army SOF, or a member of a Female Engagement Team (FET).

USASOC would not release their personnel records.  Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for basic service background information, such as their MOS (military occupation specialties), their awards, or if either officer had deployed, were denied by USASOC and by Army Human Resources Command.  Both denials cited they'd need permission from each officer by name, due to the Privacy Act.

"An important thing to remember is, these are volunteers.  Special Forces (assessment and training leading to a career) is something soldiers volunteer for,"  Maj. Faulkenberry said.  The two female officers are proverbial “triple volunteers” --  having volunteered for the Army, volunteered for Airborne training and now volunteered for Special Forces.

Special Forces Assessment & Selection

The two women, along with the 338-men wanting to join Special Forces as an officer, must first go through a tough weeding-out process called Special Forces Assessment and Selection, or SFAS, which lasts 21-days.

"It's a challenging and scientifically-based process that allows the Regiment to predict a candidate's ability to succeed in the intensive training that'll follow, as well as operate in a team environment," Maj. Faulkenberry explained.

"It is built on lessons learned dating back to World War II and Office of Strategic Services (OSS) selection.  The OSS is the predecessor to today's CIA and Special Operations Forces, and of historical note, women served in combat as members of the OSS," retired Special Forces Colonel David Maxwell said.  Maxwell commanded JSOTF-Philippines (Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines) and is now the Associate Director for the Center for Security Studies at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown.

According to the course description, SFAS Cadre evaluates each candidate on eight core Army Special Operations Forces values, or "attributes" - integrity, courage, perseverance, personal responsibility, professionalism, adaptability, being a team player and capability.  Unique tests push each candidate's strengths, determination, intelligence and willpower to the limit. 

"SFAS tests the candidates on those attributes under extremely stressful conditions. We're looking to see what they're made of," Maj. Faulkenberry added.

SWCS Special Warfare magazine editor Janice Burton and Lt. Col.  Joseph Long wrote in the May issue of "Armor & Mobility Magazine" about SFAS.  They said military and scientific experts, including psychologists and physiologists, evaluate each candidate.  Special Forces combat veterans closely watch each candidate during the entire SFAS process.  They're looking for Soldiers who are physically strong, mentally tough and "cognitively flexible" and who possess the character and will power needed to survive and thrive in uncertain Special Operations situations downrange.

"There's a fitness baseline candidates must achieve.  This test is not graded by age or gender, but purely their fitness level," Maj. Faulkenberry said.

If the candidate passes the baseline, they then move on to ruck marches and runs covering unknown distances.  "Other testing events" measure their perseverance and ability in dealing with extreme physical stress in unpredictable environments.

According to Burton and Long in their article on SFAS, the candidate's character and intellectual capability are also measured through a series of IQ, academic and psychological tests. 

The Cadre also evaluate the candidate's ability to follow instructions while completing hard tasks, centered on long-range navigation covering rough terrain (known as "Land Nav").  It's a physical and mental endurance test.  During this challenge, Cadre are looking for traits such as personal responsibility, professionalism, adaptability and capability.

Finally, the candidates are assessed on their ability to work as a team under difficult conditions, which is what they'll be expected to do in the real world hostile environments.  The candidates must step up and assume team leadership roles, without notice.

"There are a lot of unknowns the candidates will deal with during Selection.  For instance, the ruck marches and runs must be completed within an unknown timeframe and unknown distances.  During the land navigation portion, they don't know the distances or the time parameters.  They either thrive or fail as part of the team," Maj. Faulkenberry said. 

"When candidates ask how far do they have to run or ruck march, the traditional response is, 'Do the best you can.'  This is contrary to the way the Army trains based on task, condition, and standard.  The Army trains to standard but Special Forces does not provide the standards and forces the candidate to operate in conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity, which by definition are conditions," Col. David Maxwell explained.

Recent SFAS Class: Candidates Ruck-March for Unknown Distances and Unknown Times (DoD Photo)

According to Long and Burton, not only are the candidates evaluated by Special Forces combat veterans, but also by their fellow classmates going through the course with them. 

"Peers see things that the Cadre do not and the fundamental question that peer reviews are really seeking to answer is do you want this candidate on your team.  This provides the candidates the ability to identify those who are “dead weight;” not team players," Col. David Maxwell explained.

"Peer reviews help further identify the attributes Special Forces are looking for.  Peer reviews are used throughout the entire training pipeline as an additional measure of a candidate's performance," Maj. Faulkenberry said.

SFAS is designed to be tough.  Injuries and other circumstances may force a candidate to be recycled, to try again.  In the past, candidates have been recycled an average of two or three times, with each individual reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

Candidates who demonstrate the competencies and complete the course are then invited to go through the Special Forces "Pipeline", or qualification course ("Q-Course") as a student, which has six phases.  SFQC (Special Forces Qualification Course) varies in duration per student, but is approximately two years.  A student may be dropped or recycled during any phase if they don't meet the standards.

Lowering Standards?

The current commander of 1st Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Group, Lt. Colonel Seth Wheeler, who is responsible for SFAS, was not authorized to speak on record about the issue of the possible lowering of standards.  But his predecessor, Lt. Col. Stuart Farris, who was commander at Camp Mackall from 2014 until last month (June 2016), where SFAS takes place, did comment in a discussion on a social media site.

"I am intimately familiar with the women in service initiative.  I can assure you that we have the most comprehensive and rigorous Assessment and Selection process and methodology in SOF (all Special Operations Forces).  Bottom line, rest easy knowing that no standards have changed, and they will not change -- everyone in my chain of command up to the SECDEF (Secretary of Defense Ash Carter) has been absolutely emphatic about this," Farris said online.

Farris addressed concerns that many retired and active Special Forces members have openly expressed, that the male standards had been recently lowered in time for the arrival of the first females.

"I can assure you that is untrue.  The integrity of our course lies in preserving our time-tested and validated standards.  They are unknown for a reason," Farris stated.

Farris tackled head on the enduring speculation amongst the Special Forces community that certain SFAS tests had been "coincidentally" eliminated.  Testing events in question included physical training with rifles, a swim test, a test involving the candidates in teams carrying a log on their shoulders and above their heads for long periods of time (known as Log PT or Log Physical Training); and that the weight amount carried in rucksacks had been lowered.

"Log PT was done away with about 3-years ago, well before the female integration directive.  Here's why - Log PT was designed to get guys to quit, and it was very good at that.  You'd usually get about three guys to quit.  However, you'd also injure about 10-15 guys, with things like blown out rotator cuffs; guys who may have been selected, while the three guys who quit would most likely have been attrited later in the course anyways," Farris stated.

Farris explained that Log PT was replaced with "Combat Readiness Assessment," a cross-fit like test in which candidates, dressed in their full combat gear, must sprint from station-to-station, flip tires for distance, carry a mock casualty, and drag a rescue stretcher.

"It's a timed event and is taken into consideration along with the other events to assess a candidate's overall physical fitness.  We've found the Combat Readiness Assessment to be a much better assessment tool than log PT," Farris said.

"I believe that if women serve in SF/SOF they serve the way any other soldier does and no special accommodations are made.  And I believe that the women who truly desire to volunteer to be in SF/SOF feel exactly the same way and do not want anything changed.  It is only the outsiders looking in who will never hump a ruck or jump out of a perfectly good airplane who think they know what is best for women.  Only the women who actually volunteer should have that vote.  I am sure they would not want it any other way," Col. David Maxwell added.

Former Commanding General of all Army Special Forces, retired Major General Mike Repass is certain that the institution of Army Special Operations and Special Forces are ready for this challenge. 

"They've had plenty of time to think through this and ensure the standards were critically reviewed and validated.  I am fully confident the Special Warfare Center will do what's necessary to ensure that standards are applied and met by all Selection and Assessment candidates, and those lucky enough to make it through to the actual Qualification Course," Repass said.

"Whoever meets those standards ought to earn the privilege of wearing the Green Beret.

Earning that beret means they get to be an apprentice, and have to earn everything that comes after that," Repass added.

If the female officers get to the 'A-teams' in the field, they will have the challenge that every new operator has - they will have to earn their spot on the team.

"In the very unlikely event that there was some institutional slack on the standards, there will be none on the Special Forces detachments, the A-teams. Everyone has to pull their weight and be able to do other people's jobs as well.  Every day is a 'selection event' for an operator and you can be told to step off the team if you are not meeting the standards," Repass said.

Integrating Women: How U.S. Army Special Forces “Got Here”

When he was the Commanding General of all Army Special Forces, from 2008-2010, at Fort Bragg, Major General Mike Repass worked on a "Special Forces 2020" strategy to re-shape the force for the near future which would be marked by draw-downs in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to capture the capabilities Special Forces (SF) had developed over the previous 8 years of war.

One element of that strategy was a section which discussed the need to integrate women.  It was a forward-thinking proposal at the time, years before the Secretary of Defense brought it up to the services to consider. 

"I told my guys in 2009, that we have to figure out how to integrate women into Special Forces.  It was coming and we had to be prepared for it in case it was directed to happen with no meaningful time to examine how best to do it," Repass, who's retired and working as a defense consultant, said.

At the time, he says, there appeared to be two options.

"The first was to make them part of the Special Forces 'A-Teams' and structure with the existing male SF MOSes (military occupational specialties or jobs) and skills.  The second option would be to create an female auxiliary element like what the CSTs (cultural support teams) became, whereby they are able to integrate with the ODAs on a mission-by-mission basis," Repass explained.

Repass' comments then were not met with opposition from the subordinate Special Forces leaders when he briefed it at his annual commander's conference in Pinehurst, NC.

"I had a lot of interest at the time, as I had made sure we looked at doing things differently in the future to ensure we (SF) had relevance and the best operational capabilities we could muster," Repass said, "I wanted to do it in a way that made sense."

He says, it doesn't make sense that the "A-Teams" couldn't effectively engage 50% of the target population, the local women, that "have a lot of intelligence and information," from which they could benefit.

"We just didn't have the women organic to our formations that could engage the indigenous females in the villages and cities.  It was a big topic of discussion," Repass added.

Repass' comments were revisited in 2013 when Lt. General Charles Cleveland, USASOC Commander, directed Colonel Laura Loftus to spearhead what USASOC's stance would be after Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta repealed the Direct Ground Combat Assignment Definition and Rule, which had barred women from serving in combat.

"Initially, when the Secretary of Defense made that announcement, the Infantry, Armor and Special Operations communities thought it didn't apply to them," Loftus, who's now retired,  said.

However, USASOC moved forward quickly with the effort, known as Project Diane, named after World War II OSS operative Virginia Hall, code name "Diane".  Col. Loftus and her team's Project Diane recommendations for USASOC went to SOCOM and led the way in the joint Special Operations community.

"My perspective was that obviously it was a difficult subject, because of how emotionally charged the issue is, because of having a huge cultural change.  But what I saw was a Command looking objectively at accomplishing the SOF mission, that THAT was the key."

"From my time, from the Operators' perspective, it was always 'Don't let the standards drop.'  It was refreshing to me, to look at how to get the SOF mission done, and that we need to keep the standards of SOF operations in place.  Competency was critical, and the general level of maturity.  It wasn't about gender, it was about competency," Loftus said.

Loftus said the recommendations for how to integrate women into the Special Operations community, or if the Command would ask for exemptions to gender integration --  was not a political, knee-jerk reaction.

"It was very deliberate, well thought out.  It was how do we implement (women into Special Forces) in a deliberate way without sacrificing the SOF mission?  It's emotionally charged, but that it can be done in a thoughtful and deliberate way," Loftus said.

Last December, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter made it official, that there would be no exceptions in the special operations branches, after recommendations from the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, the secretary of the Army, and Chief of Staff of the Army.  That as long as women qualified and met the standards, they'd be allowed to serve in roles they could not before.

"They'll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALS, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men," Carter stated in a press conference.

With news of the two female officers being invited to go to Special Forces Selection, Col. Loftus, who graduated from West Point in 1986, wanted to extend her congratulations to those two officers.  

"Special Forces is an exceptional community and I only wish this decision had been made 15 years ago so I could have competed as well.  The opportunity to serve in any career field, as long as you qualify and meet the standards, is long overdue in our military," Loftus said.

The biggest challenge those two female officers may face, could be the cultural shift, Maj. Gen. Repass added.

"There is a unique bond between the members of the operational detachments.  The small team has a personality of its own and every member contributes to that, as well as the reputation of the detachment within the company and battalion," Repass said.  "The women who make it into the team rooms will not be myths, they'll become living facts," he added.

The Special Forces “Brotherhood” & “Social Engineering”

Many who oppose this accuse the Department of Defense and the current administration of social engineering to support their cultural agenda.  However, there is no way to know how this initiative will work and play out unless a real effort is made to try it.  There is no testing that can determine the outcome other than trying it.

"The question is, what if it fails?  What if it turns out to be a disaster for Special Forces and ground combat units in general?  As important, what is the definition of success or failure?  And most important, if it fails will DOD be willing to reverse the decision, or will it succumb to those who are pushing the social engineering agenda?"  Col. Maxwell posed.

This, he said, is the real test as to the entire intent of this initiative. 

"I would bet a beer that those who are pushing this agenda cannot describe failure of the experiment because they are so clouded by their judgment that this is the only way forward.  On the other hand, if it turns out to be even a moderate success will the critics holster their criticism?"  Maxwell added.

That cultural shift was addressed by retired Special Forces Sergeant Major Billy Waugh, a former CIA Paramilitary Officer, at the national Special Forces Association conference in Jacksonville. 

"In my opinion, women are bright and have proven themselves over the years with the CIA.  They are just as anxious to serve in Special Forces and do a good job to protect America, as the men are," Waugh told the room of skeptical combat veterans.

Waugh reiterated that his experience working with women at CIA at stations overseas was positive.

"I can't say enough about the women I worked with. There's a role for them. They're sharp.  Again, it's going to happen in SF (Special Forces).  Get used to it."

Brigadier General Mark Arnold, a retired Green Beret attending the Special Forces Association conference, explained what a contentious subject integrating women has been amongst the Special Forces brotherhood.

"Within two months of being promoted to Brigadier General, I began speaking very publicly about this issue within the Army.  Nobody would listen when I was a Colonel.  It may have made me persona non grata among some of my peers, but only a few," Arnold said. 

"The issue has been: women in all military occupational specialties, and I always drove the point home by saying women should also have the opportunity to become Green Berets and serve in all jobs within the Ranger Regiment," Arnold said.

He spoke about this in every venue where discussion covered anything to do with Human Resources, or any type of progressive change was on the agenda.

"It’s not simply about equal opportunity; our nation and the US military have highly talented females whose capabilities can improve the strength and versatility of Special Operations units," Arnold said.

"If women are afforded the opportunity to serve in SF and Ranger units, then you could actually raise the standards because you would have a larger pool of candidates to select from and train," Arnold added.

While three women earned their Army Ranger tabs in 2015, Ranger School is a conventional school, while SFAS is part of the Operator track.  USASOC PAO Lt. Col. Rob Bockholt reiterated, it will not grant any media coverage of the female Special Forces candidates. 

There are women successfully flying with 160th SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment).  Historically, women have served in various capacities in Army special operations since World War Two starting with the Jedburgh Teams.  There are women currently successfully serving in Civil Affairs and in PSYOPs. 

"We can expect that women will soon be successfully serving in Special Forces as well.  We should acknowledge that it will be a challenging transition, but I think we have to approach it like ripping a bandage off a wound -- it will be temporarily painful, then uncomfortable and then it will heal," Col. David Maxwell said.

About the Author(s)

Alex Quade is a war reporter and documentary filmmaker who has covered U.S. Special Operations Forces on combat missions since 2007. Extreme storytelling and risk-taking lie at the heart of Alex’s work.  She's the recipient of more than two dozen professional awards for excellence in journalism.

Among the more notable awards: Two Edward R. Murrow Awards, one for her film Chinook Down and the other for her documentary Horse Soldiers of 9-11; the Congressional Medal Of Honor Society’s Excellence in Journalism Award for her “honest & courageous” war reportage; a Peabody award for coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (a CNN group award);  an Emmy award for coverage of the 9-11 terrorist attacks (also a CNN group award); and her in-depth, frontline reporting on the Asian Tsunami was individually listed in CNN’s Du-Pont Columbia Award. 

Alex started her career at the White House.  She's worked in television covering global conflicts and hostile environments for CNN, Fox News, Headline News (HLN) out of Frankfurt, Germany and New York.  She's produced special video reports for The New York Times, and The Washington Times.  Alex Quade's first book, "Danger Close", will be published by Hachette Books in 2018. www.alexquade.com