A Few More Good Men
Once selected, the soldiers are trained in special operations techniques. A course in survival, evasion, resistance, and escape is now mandatory for all trainees, instead of for just officers. The training includes prisoner and hostage situations. Since secrets about the course have leaked out, the detention phase can now last longer than the once standard three days. In April, a group of soldiers set off on the course in knit caps and light packs, while others hooked into helicopter harnesses for airborne infiltrations. For days they would live off the land, fashion their own tools, and seek to evade capture, but eventually all would be caught. Then ensues what most call a life-altering experience of simulated capture. A staff psychologist and instructors help them before, during, and after the traumatic parts, which include being confined in tiny cells.
The next phase of the training is in individual specialties. While the school has been successful in boosting overall graduation numbers, shortages remain in critical areas. The number of officers has fallen short in the past three years. The number of applicants will be raised to 388 this year in hopes of graduating 155 captains. More critical are the shortages of combat medics and the chief warrant officers who serve on each 12-man team. The medics receive the most extensive training in the military and are qualified to do field surgery. Only 47 percent of medics used to graduate from the yearlong course. Now, after being provided more coaches and more intensive training in advanced trauma, 80 percent are graduating.
In the all-important foreign language training, students must now meet a higher level of proficiency. They study throughout the year, but the intensive language block was shortened to nine to 15 weeks. (The standard military school for difficult languages such as Arabic lasts a year.) In response to complaints, 12 days have been added to the language block this year. On a recent day, students in a class spoke only Arabic while their Middle Eastern teacher occasionally corrected grammar. They also spend hours in a language lab outfitted with learning software and satellite feeds of foreign television broadcasts.
Retraining. The Army Special Forces' growing pains pale in comparison with the hurdles facing the new 95th Civil Affairs Brigade, activated at Fort Bragg in March. This active-duty unit is slated to double in size. It once filled its ranks with Special Forces sergeants, but now they must be recruited from all over the service. That means training soldiers who used to do jobs like drive trucks in an entirely new specialty. A longer, nine-week course has been developed to train them, and officers now make civil affairs a permanent career. Both of these changes will pay off, says the brigade commander, Col. Ferd Irizarry, but getting there requires lots of mentoring and on-the-job training. "In-service recruiting has been excellent, but maturing our force will be a generational project," he says.
Irizarry praises the new training course but adds that intensive courses in negotiation, language, and cultures are vital since his troops interact with local populations more than any other unit. To simulate that experience, the Army has established a distinctive training complex at Camp MacKall, west of Fort Bragg. In a village of buildings set in the woods, hired Iraqis and Djiboutians role-play some of the most sensitive situations faced by a civil affairs or psyop soldier.