Story by Sgt. Spencer Rhodes
This past weekend, the Florida National Guard’s 3rd Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group, held a Special Forces Readiness Evaluation at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center. It’s an event that happens a few times a year. It’s open to civilians and military service members of all branches, and it is the first step of many for someone interested in becoming a Green Beret. A three-day event that grows more difficult each day, the process allows the 3-20th to gauge candidates on a range of traits and abilities to determine if someone is a good fit for the organization and to find those they believe will succeed in passing the official selection process held at Fort Liberty, NC.
It’s Friday morning, and around 20 men enter a classroom area for the welcome brief that will set the expectations for the weekend. In this SFRE, there are as many civilians as military personnel, some current and former soldiers, and even a few active-duty sailors from the U.S. Navy who traveled to CBJTC to participate. Each of them takes a number; it is the only thing they will be identified by until the weekend ends. Before they leave the classroom and are assigned training gear like rucksacks and dummy rifles, the cadre emphasizes a single critical point over and over: this is not just a tryout but a job interview. Everything they do and don’t do, how they do it, and how they push through and engage with others as a group are all being evaluated, and it is not just a test. Those who perform the best will be invited to a board, where they will be literally interviewed by two of the most senior members in the unit: candidates will not get this chance if the weekend is deemed a failed interview.
All the candidates have trained for this in some way, shape, or form. The quality of that preparedness will show through when they reach a breaking point. One of the Green Beret instructors for the weekend, Staff Sgt. Jay, says the most common miscalculation by participants is not adequately preparing their mind and body for the kind of work it will go through.
“A majority of time, they think that if they just can run good and ruck good, then they’re fine. But it’s getting that mental endurance going to really push them beyond the fact that like, understanding the body is going to shut down, they’re body is going to start quitting a lot earlier than they expect and how to work through that. That’s what I keep seeing a lot of candidates not understand. And they learn it the hard way,” says Jay.
An entire day is dedicated to PT tests, obstacle courses, and swimming tests; another day is dedicated to an additional ruck or land navigation, and another to team-building exercises that will push every candidate to their limit at every stage. Weaknesses and strengths quickly become apparent in different candidates, sometimes as a surprise even to them. Their instructors are strict and, at times, hard, but they never tear down an individual. Each instructor brings a different method to push candidates and assess the attributes of the men they engage throughout the day.
During the obstacle course, the group is split into different squads; those not in line preparing to start the course can eat and rest. While candidates wait for enough time to pass after the previous candidate starts, they stand at the first stage: two parallel bars for performing dips. Master Sgt. Dan Jones asks each candidate, “who are you, and why are you here?” A simple question, Jones says, but one that provides insight into their conviction for being there, what makes them tick when tested. He wants to find out their motivation in a very short amount of time. He says those who gave it real though prior to coming, should be able to give the answer confidently and quickly.
“There are the textbook answers, the elevator pitches, but I’m looking for something a little deeper. Who are you really? And does that come out in their presentation,” says Jones, “And when you bring it out you get that raw emotion and a better understanding of: is this person worth the effort? When they leave from that, they are now starting a very physically strenuous event, and now that mindset is at the vanguard of their thoughts, as they’re going through this event. Those are the kind of things that are like, ‘what pushes you to be better?’ Well, what did we talk about not thirty seconds ago? You have to keep that cycle going and get to know these people beyond just a number.”
Just as each prepared differently, each candidate possesses different motivations for being here. Alex Mayhan, a Petty Officer 2nd Class in the U.S. Navy granted permission to travel to CBJTC for the SFRE, explained his primary purpose for being there during a brief period of rest during an exhausting portion of team exercises in the woods. His uniform drenched in sweat and half his face still covered with sand, Mayhan took a breath before answering: He was here for himself and his daughter. It was also not his first attempt at a path in special operations.
“I’ve already quit a special forces pipeline before, and when my kid grows up there’s going to be a time where she asks me: how do I get through the hard things in life? And If I can’t supply her with that answer because I have myself quit before then, uh, what kind of Dad would I be? So that’s partially why I’m here,” says Mayhan.
Staff Sgt. Jay, who has been an instructor for the SFRE for multiple years, says it’s rewarding to be a part of the process where you witness someone who was previously just a candidate at an event and to see them successfully become a Green Beret.
“Being able to see that progression, and seeing them go from you know, regular Joe Schmo, to making it through successfully, putting in the work and then making it to a team, it’s rewarding.”