THE PLIGHT OF THE GREEN BERET:
Why Special Forces is still losing most of its junior leaders and its survivors are forced to contend with a cultural crisis.
Disclaimer: This paper is meant to generate awareness and discussions across Special Operations as a call to action to a critical issue currently affecting the Special Operations community and culture. This is especially affecting Special Forces and can be tied to officer and leader management. I love the Regiment and want it to be successful as it is my home. There are many other issues in the Regiment, just like any other organization, but if we cannot get the leadership culture and environment right, changes will be less impactful and short lived. If you are a senior leader reading this, this paper is for you. If you are a junior NCO or an officer in SOF, this paper is for you. What it is not is an effort to write the perfect paper. The proof comes when deeply concerned leadership across the Regiment realize they cannot answer the question of why the culture is suffering or why officer and NCO retention is so low. This paper serves as a reflection of why we must push recruiting so hard because we cannot hold onto good people that are respected by their subordinates. The real proof comes when they ask their junior officers and NCOs if the issues brought up in this exposition are true and then make meaningful change.
Currently over 50% of our best and brightest Special Forces Captains are leaving the Army and the shadow of huge morale issues continues to haunt the Special Forces Regiment. Many factors are considered as to why: including intense deployment schedules, no deployment potential, stress on families, limited command opportunities once promoted, and the promise of a more lucrative civilian career. Each of those reasons have traditionally had merit, but a glaring deficiency underpinning this is a flawed system that manifests itself in how we select and promote Special Forces (SF) officers.
To become a Special Forces captain is a gamble. The qualification course to get there is one of the longest and most rigorous qualification courses that demands prospective officers to risk their entire careers in the dream of becoming a Green Beret. In the Army officer community, it is well-known that if an officer should fail in the course, they will likely not be successful by Human Resources Command (HRC) standards. Due to the tight promotion timeline for an Army officer, losing even a year in the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) would place them at a distinct disadvantage amongst their peers. The officer will be extremely vulnerable by failing to have the evaluations needed to be competitive for the next grade as the officer loses that years’ worth of evaluations and would potentially need to spend additional time in another branch’s career course. Those few that do succeed and don the Beret, enter into the ranks of an elite Special Forces Regiment (Regiment). But all is not greener on the other side of the fence. A strange phenomenon is occurring at an ever-increasing rate. Over 50% of SF officers are getting out of the Regiment. Given the hardship, the risk, and defying the odds, what is compelling over half of SF officers to not just look for a way out of Special Forces, but the military as a whole? And why are enlisted Soldiers following suit? This is a question that is being asked at all levels of the Regiment as well as other Special Operations elements with a selection process.
As I observed many of my fellow Special Forces officers resign, the obvious question to me was, “Why?” What was so compelling that after just one or two years in the Regiment, just under half-way through a normal 20-year Army career, they would just quit it all? There is a large percentage of the officer population at this point in their careers that choose to get out for reasons which typically include personal and family reasons, they have been offered a better job with better benefits, or they recognize that promotion potential is low and make the decision to pursue other opportunities. My Company Commander, Battalion Commander and Group Commander have all asked the same question. However, when I engaged my fellow Captains to determine if the above were the possible reasons, it was apparent that was not the case. Additionally, when equipped with HRC data, it was even more evident that there is a more consistent factor amongst those choosing to leave the Regiment and military service.
After discussing this at great length, additional puzzling occurrences were discovered, including a Lieutenant Colonel who deferred taking Battalion Command. It turns out that it was not just Captains who were leaving the Regiment. Field grade officers, many of whom that have invested their lives and careers into the Regiment, were resigning their commission, retiring, or turning down key command positions. Majors were electing to take non-traditional career paths that would lead them back into the conventional Army which is likely to result in limited or no promotion potential in SF. Captains chose to go Warrant Officer or resign their commission rather than become a Major. Another concern also became evident as it was not officers at risk of non-promotion or choosing to leave the service for the typically stated reasons.
In the last two years, SF officers have seen a 90 percent promotion rate for those officers that participate in their respective board. During these two years, only one Most Qualified (MQ) evaluation out of their last 5 was necessary for those selected for promotion. With one of the highest promotion rates of any branch, why would any officer choose to retire or resign? In 2019, a SF HRC newsletter was released
One of the more intrinsic questions was “is the SF Regiment retaining your highest-quality peers for future service as SF battalion commanders and beyond?” Surprisingly, not one single respondent answered, “absolutely yes”, a mere 7% answered “probably yes”, followed by 9% that did not comment at all and 84% answered either “no” or “absolutely no”
While I considered whether to stay in as a YG 12 Captain going into my RA ACC Major Promotion Selection Board, I inquired with numerous peers as to why they were electing to forego the promotion board. As I heard their stories, I also talked with Officers in Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations, and basic branches in the regular Army. They all provided consistent and similar answers. What it boiled down to was a perception that the promotion system is severely flawed, in essence, “Ducks pick ducks.” Commanders have shown a proclivity to pick and promote people like themselves. In the military, this produces an effect where officers of a certain background or type will naturally draw commonality with others of similar experiences and philosophies, resulting in their selection over other more qualified candidates. That is how a culture is shaped. Over time, a certain type of officer dominates the command structure, skewing leadership in that direction, and losing people that do not fit into that particular mold, regardless of actual skills and abilities. A 2018 Rand study on selection of Army General Officers (GOs)
Sadly, this system leads to company and battalion command teams that strip away authority and the ability of Captains and Majors to accomplish everyday tasks. A Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (SFOD-A) commander on deployment as a Ground Force Commander, leading diverse multi-national elements in combat, has the authority to direct any asset or service member that is in the sky or on the ground with dozens of lives on the line. It is not even questioned. However, in garrison, these same leaders have reduced or no command authority. They cannot approve a leave form, perform Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) duties, command-refer a team member in need, move someone off the team when they are unsuitable, or sign a risk assessment for a range. Yet, Regular Army Captains have all of those authorities. Does that make any sense? SF Captains have all the responsibility and accountability in sensitive environments that is beyond that of their regular Army counterparts but none of the authority. In business circles, that is a well-known recipe for a toxic culture that is destined to ultimately fail. Soldiers who worked so hard to become Green Berets are made cogs in a wheel, where their intelligence, resourcefulness, discipline, and persistence is constantly stifled by a command structure of micro-management and risk aversion.
This current system also leads to underhanded actions including milking connections, spreading unfounded rumors about other leaders, and being a “yes man.” Officers with the courage to say “No” are too often left behind. The “Yes men” incorrectly perceived as team players are rewarded, while the resourceful and highly functional leaders who hold themselves, their troops, and their leaders accountable and say “no” are punished. This is reinforced by survivorship bias, a logical error that focuses its attention on the people that made it through the system, overlooking those that did not. The survivors in SF know that the system is flawed but because they made it, it becomes the model of success to be followed and mimicked by all who want to continue in this Regiment. For many officers and enlisted, this is their life, who they are, and how they feed their families. Whether they are successful or survivors, they have sacrificed much of their youth, health, time with their family, and many have had to fight in a system that they could not change by themselves. What Majors are asked to do is hellish and even if they aspire to take care of their Soldiers, their hands are tied. I was told by a Company Commander, part of the “In-Crowd” and a “duck,” that to be successful in SF you needed three things: 1) 10% Skill, 2) 39% Networking, and 3) 51% Luck/timing. Taking care of ones’ team was not even mentioned. No unit can truly succeed if leadership does not engage with Soldiers by a lack of choice or a lack of saying “no” and making time for that engagement. In any human endeavor, employee engagement is the key to success. That commander was not a “bad” person, simply a man who learned to do what the current system asked of him. That commander needed to be a “yes man” and the result was that taking good care of his Soldiers’ family time and personal needs was less of a priority as he was squarely focused on everything else the higher echelon demanded.
There is also another factor. Name plate management. Certain officers, upon showing up to group and prior to serving a day on a team, are already being groomed. They have a different standard than other lesser-known officers and senior raters and raters have their favorites whether by their choice or influenced by someone above them. They spend more time with them, providing mentorship and guidance, while minimal time is spent with lesser favored officers. Too often, the only interaction a senior rater might have with a lesser-known team leader during a whole year is just one-hour watching a team’s pre-mission training full mission profile, after which he will then decide that officer’s future with an evaluation report. There is no objective, comprehensive evaluation of an officer’s capability or potential, it ends up too often being a popularity contest, and selecting the next “duck.” Research shows that the best goal is “Mastery” or capability of the skill. That becomes a “Pass-Fail” assessment. You are either capable, or not. In mastery, everyone can win, and helping each other be successful helps everyone. It encourages genuine team cohesiveness and support. In SF, the criteria are more akin to how good of a “duck” one can be or hoping other teams do worse so yours can look better. That is not unique to the military, but human nature. But it alienates the best and brightest, where it feels like the “ass kissers” and “politicians” get the promotions, and the truly skilled and capable officers who spend time with their team, cultivating esprit-de-corps and expertise, get left out.
Many officers in my cohort who saw that they were not particularly political or did not want to pick up a knife for the fight, could not tolerate being that type of officer to become “successful.” They chose to leave the service rather than compromising their values and morals to get ahead. Officers that take care of their troops, recognizing them as their most valuable resource, feel that they do not have a home in the Regiment. Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers have seen too many “successful” leaders treat their human resources like cogs in a wheel, ignoring climate surveys and feedback from their troops. What message does it send when a commander who obviously does not care for his troops, is called out in climate surveys, and nothing happens. Or worse, he is promoted and will come back to serve as your company or battalion commander. What an effective way to create resentment and unmotivated performance at all levels of the organization. Watching incompetent leaders “fail up” guts morale.
Empathy. Few people wake up each morning wanting to be a leader that no one respects or disregards taking care of his/her people. Having accurate empathy for one’s people is key to functional relationships but is not compatible with our current system. I have heard some leaders stress that some “evil” may have to be done to get to a position where you can change the culture. However, the inertia of going along with the dysfunctional values of the current system most always wins out, with the officer rationalizing why s/he let go of their original values. We become like who we associate with. The group values are much stronger influencers than one individuals. Colin Powell also discussed this phenomenon, saying that one of his greatest frustrations was realizing the authority to change things and make them better always resided at the next higher level. Those that stay will survive, perpetuate the system, and it will continue as all bureaucracies do. You must change the underlying system if you want to change the current personnel and cultural issues in the Regiment.
If the Regiment can admit it has an issue, the next question is how we fix the problem. Research is clear that employees that feel appreciated, respected, and valued enjoy their jobs, are inventive, resourceful, loyal, competent, and go above and beyond. All the “feel good” moves of mandatory fun, meaningless awards, pay raises, and other token “rewards” have little real value, and are usually held in contempt as superficial and phony ways to pretend to care about one’s troops. They may look good on paper but are actually destructive. These transparent, superficial actions do not build the relationships so critical to high performing teams. The key is building genuine relationships within SF teams, companies, battalions, groups, and the Regiment. Keys to solid relationships are things like true empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard. This is shown by firm, fair, consistent, and caring interpersonal actions and leadership. These are the skills and qualities that need to be assessed, tested and evaluated. A focus on continued development of leaders with psychologists and leadership professional development is critical and should be a part of training as an on-going requirement and added to our shoot-move-communicate-first aide-PT core skills. Add “leads” in front of those core skills and develop the Mission Essential Skills Task list to implement it. Learning MDMP or how to work in the JIIM environment does not directly teach you how to evaluate and test your leadership or develop others as a deliberate skill set. An ongoing system of objective external evaluation is also necessary to evaluate mastery and cure some of the nepotism. In Ranger Regiment, the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program continues to evaluate the individual potential and leadership skills of both officers and NCOs as they progress in rank ensuring they are prepared to assume the next higher level of responsibility. This should be implemented into SF to keep us all honest and prepared. Leadership should also consider giving ODA commanders authority to actually manage their teams like their peers in the military. Micro-management that destroys ingenuity and resourcefulness needs to be stifled. Leadership works best by selecting quality people, then helping them succeed. External evaluations, mastery, and objective performance needs to be valued and captured in OERs. Truly effective leaders are servants to their people, rewarding their skills and talent. I would like to highlight the current efforts of HRC: the deferment option allows captains the opportunity to move back a year which helps give them more time on detachments and opportunities for evaluations before going into their primary zone for their Major PSB. They have started pilot programs which allow SOF officers to go to other positions in the force or VTIP to other branches. Other efforts like merit-based promotion IAW Title 10 U.S.C. Section 616(g) (3) are based on performance and not time in grade to push those chosen officers up on the promotion list. Another, the Battalion Commanders Assessment Program promises to select only those who are ready to lead a battalion. These are great initiatives but will only address a small percentage of issues and not make cultural change. None of them address the primary issue of a system that allows only a certain type of officer and leader to survive in the Regiment.
When you have dedicated your life to the Regiment and the military, it can be hard to see its flaws for what they are. The current culture and system will continue until a conscious, deliberate effort is made to empower junior leaders, have meaningful engagements, and start to value the contributions and mastery of more than just a few leaders who fought hard and sacrificed much to survive. If we all want the Regiment to succeed and truly be an organization of our finest men and women to confront the enemies of our great Nation, we owe it to ourselves to understand and confront our flaws. This problem will require leadership at all levels to confront the system they fought to succeed in. The stakes are high and if we do not get our culture and systems right, we will continue to lose its best and brightest.
This content has been reviewed by the Special Forces Public Affairs Office but does not represent the view of the Special Forces Regiment, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense. The views expressed are those of this author and on behalf of numerous concerned officers and NCOs.
Human Resource Command . (2019). Branch Update. Human Resources Command Special Forces, 12.
Rand Corporation. (2018). Raising the Flag. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation.