The Ultimate Special Forces Soldier: Team Players with Brains and Brawn

All graduates of the Special Forces qualification course are military free-fall or HALO parachutists, while many others will receive follow-on training to become combat divers or proficient mountaineers, depending upon the type of team to which they are assigned.

All graduates of the Special Forces qualification course are military free-fall or HALO parachutists, while many others will receive follow-on training to become combat divers or proficient mountaineers, depending upon the type of team to which they are assigned.

If all you’ve ever wanted is to serve your country and join an elite team that carries out difficult and often dangerous missions by land, sea or air, the Army National Guard’s Special Forces could be for you.

But it’s definitely not for everyone.

You’ve got to be a top performer from a physical and mental standpoint, and you’re going to carry out missions that you cannot talk about. In fact, the Special Forces Soldier On Your Guard interviewed for this blog does not want to use his real name. We’ll call him Staff Sergeant (SSG) Jones, and with 6 years of experience as a Soldier, and 4 years as a Green Beret, he has more advice to share.

Having the right combination of smarts and physical endurance is “just enough to get you into the door. From there, you really have to have a burning desire to win and to achieve. But it’s tempered with the understanding that winning isn’t an individual event. It’s a team event.”     

The most important thing, he says, is the Soldier’s ability to work with others, especially in challenging environments.

“In order to function effectively as a team, you can’t be labeled as an individual. That just won’t work.”

SSG Jones took a roundabout route to joining his Special Forces Unit in Florida, enlisting at age 32 after selling a business he started. Having had no prior military experience, he enlisted as an 11B Infantryman under a contract called REP 63, which guaranteed him the right to try out for Special Forces. (You can read more about the process and requirements for non-prior military to join the Green Berets on our website).

Inspired to join the military in some capacity after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, SSG Jones, whose civilian career is in aerospace finance, researched other special operations branches in the military before landing on the U.S. Army Special Forces, and ultimately through the Guard.

“Rangers and Seals are primarily a direct action force,” he says. “So they’ll operate out of a base, go out and conduct a mission, such as a raid, and generally come back in a fairly short order.”

Special Forces, however, are trained to persist behind enemy lines. SSG Jones says his team will embed with indigenous forces and guerrillas in difficult environments to train them.

“We’ll work with the guerrillas and develop the battlefield ourselves, create our own mission sets and execute those missions,” he says. “There’s really no other Special Operations unit that can do quite what we do, spending months at a time embedded with these foreign organizations.”

To be able to communicate effectively, each Soldier is proficient in a foreign language. Part of the Special Forces qualification course is six months of intensive language training, where SSG Jones learned Arabic. Soldiers are also expected to maintain not only their language skills afterward, but their skills in general.

“We do a lot of follow-on training, so the training never really ends. The qualification course may end, but you’re really expected to build upon what you’ve learned.”

Even within the Green Berets there are different teams of 12, Operational Detachment Alpha, ODA’s or “A-teams” for short, and each Soldier within that ODA will have a specialty. SSG Jones, who serves on a dive team, is an 18C Special Forces Engineer Sergeant. These Soldiers excel at engineering tasks like demolition and construction in austere environments, while others specialize in intelligence, communications (from satellites to Morse code), medicine (trauma and general care), and weapons.

Check out this short video for a closer look at what Special Forces does.

Because part of the Guard’s mission is to serve the community, Special Forces can also be called up for stateside missions. The Green Berets are especially suited for the task because they are rapidly deployable, says SSG Jones. During a recent hurricane, some men on his team did search and rescue missions by boat.

And while SSG Jones can’t give specifics on his missions overseas, he can share, as an example of his team’s capabilities, that he completed a training mission that involved underwater infiltration of a military port where the team dove from a civilian fishing boat, set up demolition charges, and exited the area on a different fishing boat undetected in an area with heavy shipping lane traffic. Plus, the entire mission was conducted with a partner force in Arabic.

“It’s fun and it’s exciting,” he says, of his Special Forces work.

But it’s a serious job for dedicated Soldiers, so SSG Jones encourages anyone pursuing a green beret to “make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. I think Hollywood and video games have made special operations, in general, seem really sexy.”

In reality, the road to becoming a Green Beret is rough.

“Probably 90 percent of that road is being cold, wet, and miserable or utterly exhausted and sleep deprived, and on the verge of a heat injury,” says SSG Jones. “So for the Soldier who thinks it’s all about jumping out of airplanes, diving, shooting bad guys, and talking yourself up at a bar … it’s probably not the right profession for you.”

What Special Forces really needs, he says are “strong, tough, intelligent Soldiers who are willing to put the mission before themselves.”

So if you’re interested in joining a team that puts the mission of serving the country and community above all else, there are plenty of ways to do that in the Guard, where you’ll serve part-time. The Guard offers more than 150 careers, from infantry and armor and field artillery to engineering and transportation. You can check out all of the possibilities on our job board and be sure to take a look at the Guard’s outstanding benefits like money for college.

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Guard Sniper School Trains Soldiers to Take Out Targets and Provide Battlefield Intelligence

Becoming a sniper in the Army National Guard won’t get you extra pay or even a patch on your uniform, but this Additional Skill Identifier, which will be added to your military records, is highly coveted among Soldiers.

That’s because sniper school is hard to get into in the first place. It’s also highly demanding, according to Staff Sergeant (SSG) Aaron Pierce, an instructor at the National Guard Marksmanship Training Center in North Little Rock, Ark., one of two Army schools that offer sniper training.

The school is limited to Soldiers in the 11 and 18 series of Military Occupational Specialties (MOSs). The 11 series covers 11B Infantryman and 11C Indirect Fire Infantryman. The 18 series are jobs in Special Forces.

SSG Pierce explains that typically a Unit’s Scout platoon holds competitions to test Soldiers’ land navigation, marksmanship, and physical training to determine which Soldier gets to go to the school, which lasts 42 days with no breaks and many 18-hour days. Only 160 Soldiers are accepted to Pierce’s school per year.

SSG Aaron Pierce (at right), a Sniper School instructor with the National Guard Marksmanship Training Center, coaches a student.

SSG Aaron Pierce (at right), a Sniper School instructor with the National Guard Marksmanship Training Center, coaches a student.

SSG Pierce recommends that Soldiers be in the top percentages of the PT scores because the job is physically demanding. Instead of a normal 35-pound rucksack, a sniper might carry 60 pounds on his back and have to walk a number of miles or even crawl to accomplish the mission.

Intestinal fortitude is a must-have, according to SSG Pierce.

“You’re using powered optics. You’re going to know whether you’ve eliminated that individual target,” says SSG Pierce, who turned down Army Ranger School to attend Sniper School in 2007. “You’re going to see it. It’s going to be personal.”

Also: “In the sniper world, you are in the business of hunting men,” he says. “There is a very high risk of capture or being killed because you don’t have a lot of support.”

Book smarts also play a role.

“Your ASVAB score has to be significant to attend this school. There are a lot of formulations. It is academically demanding,” says SSG Pierce. “If you struggle in mathematics, you are going to suffer badly in this school.”

Students must also have received an expert rifle qualification within the last 6 months.

But being a sniper isn’t just about pulling the trigger. When you go to sniper school, you’ll learn two roles – being a sniper and being the spotter, or the person who does most of the calculations to ensure the round meets the target.

“You have to know both jobs equally. If you’re a sniper, then you’re also a spotter,” says SSG Pierce.

For more about that, see the video below.

In fact, the more senior sniper typically works as the spotter who uses a kestrel, a hand-held ballistic computer, and a data book that contains DOPE, or Data of Previous Engagement. The distance of each target requires an elevation dialed onto the scope. The kestrel takes in the muzzle velocity, atmospheric conditions, and the caliber of the weapon to provide the elevation, and all of this is recorded in the data book.

The tricky part for the spotter, says SSG Pierce, is using an optic to read the wind – both for speed and direction.

“The bullet is going to curve in to the target, so if the wind is blowing left to right, we need to dial our crosshairs to the left because we know the bullet is going to be pushed to the right.”

SSG Pierce says the first three weeks of school are devoted to shooting moving and stationary objects, and estimating range. The second half is more marksmanship work, plus fieldcraft, which is stalking a target while remaining undetectable thanks to a ghillie suit. The suit provides camouflage that can be adjusted by attaching surrounding foliage to it.

Despite all the cool gadgets and stealthy moves, SSG Pierce says the job of a sniper isn’t always as glamorous as it may seem.

“Even though your primary mission is to deliver precision rifle fire, the secondary mission of a sniper is to collect battlefield information.”

While deployed to Iraq, SSG Pierce split his duties between conducting infantry patrols and operations and his role as a sniper. Most of his sniper missions involved watching main supply routes.

“You’re collecting information for follow-on forces most of the time. It’s mission first and not your own desires to use your skills to engage targets.”

And while being a sniper may not translate directly to a civilian job other than working on a SWAT team, when explained correctly to a potential employer, this Additional Skill Identifier has its merits, says SSG Pierce.

“You can certainly say that it is a very demanding school that only a small percentage of Soldiers attend. It requires intelligence, discipline, intestinal fortitude, and physical fitness,” says SSG Pierce. “It requires you to think outside the box and make snap, educated decisions. Certainly those disciplines can be applied to other things.”

So, if you’re ready to test your discipline, consider joining the Army National Guard, which, besides Infantry and Special Forces jobs, offers training in more than 130 careers. Search our job board by location, job field, or keyword, or contact your local recruiter for personalized advice.

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Women Soldiers Get More from the Guard

Lieutenant Colonel Says Opportunities and Benefits for Women Growing Steadily

In honor of Women’s History Month, On Your Guard takes a look at 21st century changes that are providing more opportunities for female Soldiers through the perspective of a West Point graduate who is now a leader in the Florida Army National Guard.

Fresh out of West Point in 2000, Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Elizabeth Evans chose Fort Hood, Texas, as her first duty station. As the largest Army installation in the country, she expected to find the widest range of opportunities for a female civil engineer like herself.

But out of 10 engineering battalions there, 9 were combat mechanized engineering battalions, restricted to men only, with women allowed to serve only in support roles within each headquarters company. The other was a construction battalion that was open to both men and women serving as an engineer platoon leader, but it had a waiting list more than two years long.

LTC Evans decided to request assignment to the 1st Cavalry Division’s 20th Engineer Battalion, knowing she would be able to serve only in a support role. It was here that she served as a support platoon leader within a support company, handling logistics for her male engineer peers and friends from West Point, but her heart was in commanding a combat or construction unit.

She was later told that 80 percent of the Army’s construction formations, which were 100% open to women, were in the Army’s reserve components – the Army Reserves or Army National Guard, causing her to question if the opportunity for a female engineer officer to lead engineer Soldiers would ever truly exist for her or others on Active Duty.

So, in 2005, frustrated by the lack of options available, LTC Evans left the Army for the Florida Army National Guard, which has a dual mission of serving the Nation and responding to local emergencies, like extreme weather events.

“When I looked at the mission of the National Guard and the fact that they responded to states of emergency that the governor requests help on, I thought, ‘This is awesome. If a hurricane hits, we come in with our engineer equipment, and we get to help our citizens and neighbors restore the community that I will be a part of.’”

Because Guard service is part-time for the majority of its members, she also had the opportunity to pursue her engineering career in the private sector as a superintendent and project manager in residential and commercial construction. She is a certified General Contractor and serves as the Southeast U.S. Director of Construction for Source Refrigeration and HVAC, Inc.

Within 6 months of moving to Florida, she was asked to command a Horizontal Construction Company in Live Oak, Fla., finally having the opportunity to command engineers as an engineer officer. She is now Commander of the 53rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion outside of Tampa, a battalion that is comprised of a combat engineer company, signal company, military intelligence company, and a headquarters company.

“I had multiple opportunities for command which never would have happened had I stayed in the active Army,” she says.

Out of seven battalions in their Infantry Brigade within the Florida Army National Guard, two are led by women: LTC Elizabeth Evans, 53rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion Commander, left, and LTC Cindy Harkrider, 53rd Brigade Support Battalion Commander.

Out of seven battalions in their Infantry Brigade within the Florida Army National Guard, two are led by women: LTC Elizabeth Evans, 53rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion Commander, left, and LTC Cindy Harkrider, 53rd Brigade Support Battalion Commander.

Still, LTC Evans has seen a lot of progress as far as the Army allowing equal opportunity for men and women, and in attitudes of acceptance of female Soldiers as equals in her 17 years of military service, pointing to these signs of progress: women were accepted and have graduated from Sapper School, the combat engineers’ defining school for their field. Women have been accepted to and graduated from Army Ranger School, which is the Army’s premier tactical leadership course; female Soldiers were successfully attached to Special Forces in Cultural Support Teams in Afghanistan; and in 2016, the Department of Defense opened all military direct combat jobs to women.

LTC Evans, who led 300 missions in a combat zone in Iraq, during Operation Iraqi Freedom II, is a proponent of equal opportunity, but ultimately, the fit needs to make sense.

“If there’s a high-speed female Soldier that can throw on a ruck and march as long and as far and as well as her male peers, then she should absolutely have that opportunity,” she said. “I don’t think every male Soldier is right for some of the positions in the Army, just like I don’t think every female Soldier is right for every position in the Army. But, if you evaluate Soldiers as a person and put the best person in the job, then I think we’re going in the right direction.”

But even just last year, LTC Evans said she felt she had to plead her case as to why she was the right person to serve as a task force commander for a counter-narcotics mission training military components in three Central American countries.

“There was some hesitation: is a female going to get the same respect from these other countries because they don’t have females in leadership roles and because of the cultural differences between us?” she recalls. In the end, she was told by several high ranking officials, both in the U.S. and in Central America, “You proved to us that this can work. Women can do this and do it with record-setting results.”

For LTC Evans, that mission was a chance to inspire cultural change in other countries. In her own unit and within the Florida Army National Guard, she enjoys the opportunity to develop and mentor Soldiers.

“I think I’m extremely fortunate to be a female in the Army National Guard because of the opportunities I have to be a role model to others, both male and female. I have the ability to show younger Soldiers coming in that anything is possible regardless of your gender.”

Her advice for anyone considering joining the Guard is gender neutral.

“Go in all in. Push yourself. Don’t be scared. Challenge yourself to be more and do more because you will get 10 times in return whatever you put in.”

She looks at the Guard’s future as being full of possibilities.

“There are great opportunities. We could sit here and focus on the past where there were restrictions on females serving in certain roles, but let’s all move past that. Let’s appreciate where we’ve come from, but let’s focus on the opportunities all Soldiers have to lead our Army into the future.”

So, if you are curious about all the opportunities within the Guard, our job board is a great place to start. You can search Guard careers by keyword, location, or category. There are more than 150 options available in fields like armor and field artillery, intelligence, and logistics support, just to name a few. Contact your local recruiter for more information.

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