This is a guest post from Eric Hack, a former Regular Army soldier and currently serving member of the Texas Army National Guard. Eric is an Iraq veteran and aspiring actor (he even has an IMDB page). He’s also one of Mad Duo Chris’ soldiers. Eric tried SFAS, failed, and found victory in that failure. You should read, and take to heart, the message he has for us. Mad Duo
I Failed Selection. It’s One of My Proudest Accomplishments.
October 2008. North Carolina. I, the newly-promoted SPC Hack, had an undisclosed distance to ruck within an undisclosed time. It was raining and dark, and I had three days of backed-up shit trying to force its way out. This was the end of my first week at Special Forces Assessment and Selection. I was Candidate 140, still dizzy from log and rifle PT and improper hydration, stumbling along the dirt route through the pine trees of the Star Course.
We had been bussed to the site. Some have said they rucked out to the site, but we rode busses. The ruck in the rain made up for the comfy bus ride. I zombied out shortly after starting, and was still dizzy from puking earlier in the day. That morning we got up from our usual three-and-a-half hours of sleep, ate MREs (mine was beef stew) and were split into two groups. My group had the logs first.
Not only was I scrawny, I’m also short. And I wound up at the end of my mounted log. The strain from the log work made the freshly-eaten food in my stomach fight back. When we had to roll right, roll left, or roll over the weak my own weakness came out all over the rubber tire chunks. Fortunately there was a polite Green Beret hovering overhead to provide immediate instruction: pick up my weakness and put it in my pocket.
This routine repeated until all the weakness had left my stomach and found its way into the cargo pockets of my trousers, while other candidates rolled over me. Then we switched places with the other group and conducted rifle PT. Turns out, I still had some weakness in reserve. The rest of the day was a blur. I threw that set of ACUs away, took a baby wipe shower, brushed my teeth, and I think I took the psych test and IQ tests next (but those days all seemed to roll into one). I remember a safety brief on the “Star” land-nav course and the cadre talking about all the scary venomous snakes around, trying to get some of the less committed to quit right there. I grew up on a Missouri farm and knew how to handle snakes. I was more concerned about wandering onto some backwoods moonshine distillery and dealing with Ol’ Bubba.
The Star Course excited me. I was pretty skilled in map tracking and land navigation, and the Star Course marked the exact middle of the 14-day selection course. In 2008, the JFK Special Warfare Center and School experimented with shortening Special Forces Applicant Selection (SFAS) from 21 to 14 days in an attempt to get more soldiers in the Q-Course and more SF troops on the battlefield. The experiment was roundly rejected by the cadre. They warned us on Day 0 they were going to be extra critical because they wanted the experiment to fail. In this they were successful. Only ten percent of our 401 candidates completed the course.
That afternoon I started the Star Course, and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. The mere sight of an MRE made me retch. That’s all I’d eaten for three-squares a day for a week, and all I would eat for the rest of Selection. The commander told us to eat everything in the MREs every day, because we’d need every calorie. I understood that all too well, but still couldn’t force anything down.
By the time we arrived at the bivouac site it was dusk. I was alarmed how dizzy and sick I still felt, so I went the medic table. After pushing away a voluntary withdrawal (VW) statement and explaining I just needed to see a medic, an 18D sauntered over with a thermos of some of the best smelling coffee in the world and told me to drink more water. Then he gave me a pill (in hindsight it was probably Motrin). I vaguely remember asking what it was and what it did. He said it treated seasickness and might make me drowsy. I took it and got in line to start the ruck march, leaving a few fellow candidates at the table filling out their VW statements.
I weighed 120 pounds. I wore my ACUs in accordance with AR 670-1. I would have made my Sergeant Major proud. Our cadre had forbidden rolling our cuffs and unblousing the boots like all the documentaries and pictures on Google showed. I carried my rubber duck replica M-16A2, old LC-2 suspenders, a web belt, two one-quart canteens, an eighty-pound ruck with e-tool and two two-quart canteens on the sides, an additional three-liter CamelBak on top, and all the rain and sweat my equipment could soak up.
I was cold, hungry, tired, and sick. I would routinely look at the stock of my rubber rifle to read the words a previous candidate carved: “KEEP GOING.”
Somewhere along the route the 18D from earlier stepped out of the darkness and asked, “Candidate, why are you behind 90 percent of the class?”
I stared at him for a long time. Where’d he come from? I thought only Rangers were ninjas. I was loopier than I thought. All I could say was, “I guess I need to ruck faster, Sergeant.”
After a good chuckle he had me move out. In a few minutes I looked back and saw him following me in the white truck. “You got something you want to say to me, Candidate?” he shouted out his window.
“Then move out, Candidate.”
He cranked up the radio and started playing “Eye of the Tiger”. I had to stop and get myself under control before the laughter made me shit my pants. To tell the truth, even though I was miserable and the 18D was jacking with me, I was having the time of my life. Some might see that guy as an asshole, but I got the message: he wanted me to succeed, but the only way he would help me was by pissing me off. He wasn’t there to encourage or coddle me. He was there to challenge me and let me prove I had what it took to earn the right to go to the Q-course.
When I flew home to Ft. Hood after Selection, I carried a memo from the school. But it didn’t say “selected.” I wasn’t going to the Q-course. The memo was, to anyone who has never been to Selection, a statement of failure. But those of us who have been there know better. Although the memo said I wasn’t going to USAJFKSWCS to become a Special Forces Soldier, it didn’t have the true declaration of failure: “Never to Return (NTR).” I didn’t make the cut this time, but they’d let me try again when I was ready.
I arrived at Hood on a weekend. The next Monday I crept to my Company building, head low, copy of the memo in hand. One of my section NCOs laughed and said he could smell the Bengay on me from across the parking lot. I spent the rest of the morning being razzed by everyone for screwing up. As a consolation prize, my squad leader gave me a two-day pass to recover.
At home I hobbled around worse than Kevin Bacon in Murder in the First. The “pass” turned into two days to think about not being selected. Two days of emails from friends with messages like, “Hey, pussy! I heard you were a huge flake and too pussy to make it. Ha-ha! Love you bro.” Two days of depression and embarrassment. I really thought I had it in me when I flew out to Ft. Bragg. Now I just felt like a failure.
After a day of self-loathing and questioning whether I trained hard enough before I went to selection, debating whether I should have taken the medicine the 18D gave me and second guessing everything else, I came to a realization:
Fuck ‘em. At least I tried.
Of course I didn’t make the cut. I had only been in the Army for two years. I “deployed” once to the Republic of Korea and had zero combat experience. I had just gotten promoted from PFC to SPC and had never had more than two soldiers under my command. Yet I was crazy enough to volunteer for some of the most hellish training in the Armed Forces. I wanted one of the most dangerous and toughest jobs the Army has to offer, and I did my best to get it. And for that, the cadre said, “Give it another shot.”
I wasn’t like some of the candidates that go through Selection. I wasn’t doing it for the adoration of my unit members, to escape a deployment or to get some of that Green Beret prestige and cool guy status. I did it because I wanted to be the best in my job. I wanted to earn my awards rather than get a piece of flair for falling asleep in the back of a HMMWV (I got an AAM for that once). But although I went to Selection for the right reasons, I wasn’t the right guy for the job.
When I attended SFAS in 2008 I was a typical young soldier. Minimal, not exceptional. I wasn’t the guy an ODA could count on. I wasn’t the guy they felt comfortable next to in a firefight. Bottom line, I wasn’t the guy they wanted. I realized I wasn’t given the opportunity to earn the tab and beret because I wasn’t ready for the responsibility.
Throughout my life and career I have always achieved things too easily. I conned my way through college with cleverness and a little research. I excelled in Basic and AIT by just doing what I was told and keeping my head down. I earned top levels of respect in my unit by scoring high in marksmanship and PT. I could do all those things with minimal effort. But to be a true professional like the Special Operations soldiers I’d have to be exceptional at every aspect of work.
I couldn’t con my way into Special Forces. I had to actually earn it.
My uncle was a Vietnam-era Ranger and I have an in-law in 7th Special Forces Group. I’ve always had a deep respect for the professionals in the special operations community. When I first joined the Army, I had no interest in volunteering for Special Forces. I wanted to do one enlistment and that was it. Before I enlisted I wanted to be an actor, as far away from the military as possible. But after less than two years of service, I found I wanted to be more than just marginal. I wanted to do something meaningful.
What I learned in preparing for Selection, and failing it, was pride and courage. Pride in my work, and the courage to fail, rise up, and come back stronger. At some point in our lives and careers we’re all dealt hard blows. We’re not the heroes in a story. We don’t always overcome a challenge the first time, or ever. But we stand a better chance of overcoming it if we have the strength to keep going.
One of the cadre at Selection admitted he went through the course five times before being selected. My in-law went through twice. Stories like theirs forced me to realize how much work I needed to do if I wanted to earn what they’ve earned. That includes accepting I might fail many times over en route to victory.
Almost nine years since my initial enlistment, I’ve suffered several failures and achieved many victories. I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve led larger and larger numbers of young soldiers. I’ve achieved higher levels of education and military training. I’ve consistently sought out the hard triumphs, because I’m no longer appeased by the easy win. I dedicate everything I have toward excelling where others would be content to just pass.
Failing selection is one of my proudest accomplishments, because it forced me to look at myself. It forced me to realize how little I’ve challenged myself and how often I “worked smarter, not harder”. Sometimes working hard is the only way to get the job done right.
Premier soldiers are not identified by their expert marksmanship or PT studliness. Those are basic soldier skills earned through a minimum amount of effort. Premier soldiers are identified by their steadfast dedication to accomplishing the mission in the face of extreme challenges when all others give up. You don’t need to be SF to be a premier soldier, you just need to work for everything you have and do it with perfection as your goal.
I plan to go back. I don’t care about the dyed wool or tab. I want to earn something through hard work that no one can give me, something I cannot con my way into by doing the bare minimum. Whatever the outcome, I feel prouder of this failure than I do of almost all of my successes.
To all the members of the Special Operations community, I have nothing but the deepest respect for the work you do. You’ve earned your titles, your awards, and your pride the hard way many times over. Thank you for what you do and for teaching me what it means to actually work hard.
About the author: Eric Hack is a soldier, actor, and hopefully future Special Forces sergeant.