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Ask Stew: How Special Ops Instructors View Candidates

Special Tactics Training Squadron students swim the length of the pool with their hands and feet bound during a pre-scuba class (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy).

People often ask me about the mentality of making it through tough military selection programs like BUD/S, SFAS, Basic RECON Course, MarSOC, Ranger, PJ/ CCT and other highly challenging military and law enforcement special ops programs. Here is a great question about how special ops instructors view you as a candidate along with some clarification: Stew, can you explain the pro’s and con’s and difference in your philosophy of going to training to compete vs survive and being the Gray Man?

What the Gray Man Is I think there may be some misunderstanding at what the Gray Man is in selection programs. It by no means be a guy who survives on just above the minimum standards, does not contribute to the class, nor is a good team player.

It is true, by definition, that the Gray Man does not stand out in the crowd and may not win an event with superior fitness but the Gray Man never fails anything either. He is just a solid guy in the class who gets the job done, meets the standards, but behind the scenes, the entire class needs to come together and work well together.

Everyone has to become a good team player as you will not get through BUD/S or other selection programs on your own. The Gray Man is the guy who is just solid. There is nothing wrong with being that guy in the class. 

It is true you do not want to let the instructor know your name but for the reasons that will typically get you kicked out of training. Failing runs, swims, pool events, poor evaluations, ducking your head under the boat will all get you noticed by instructors. Be the guy who meets the standards – that is all the instructors what to see.

What the Gray Man Is Not But most importantly the Gray Man is not arrogant, mouthy to his teammates, back talks an instructor, or whines or shows too much emotion when times start getting tough. The Gray Man does not stand out negatively amongst the instructors, but receives good peer evaluations from his classmates. Sometimes you need a guy to suffer in silence like the Gray Man can, but there are times when the day turns to night, and it is cold, dark, wet, sandy, and downright miserable that someone cracks a joke and makes the unbearable a little more tolerable.

However, there are winners in runs, swims, obstacle courses, shooting events, diving events, and other challenges. Being a stand out in that way is not the Gray Man either, but you will be known by the instructors as a stud, a good team player, and it pays to be a winner. The Gray Man gets none of that enjoyment as it most certainly does PAY TO BE A WINNER.

Compete Not Just Survive

You will typically see three types of people in spec ops selections: 1 – Outliers and Competitors – Men who crush everything and win races, events, lead by example in physical and tactical events. Not often do they win everything, but the type of people who attend these selection programs like BUDS will have special abilities somewhere. Maybe they battle to win all the runs, all the swims, or the obstacle course is their thing. Maybe they crush every PT test and can out navigate and shoot everyone. There are people in the class that are motivated to WIN events or at least be competing for the 10% of the class in as many things as possible. The Honor Man of the class is no Gray Man. 2 – Gray Man – As defined above, the guy who gets the job done, never fails, never wins, and never gets gooned (bottom half of the class on runs). Overall the Gray Man is a good team player and a guy you want in your squad. 3 – Survival Mode – There are some who attend these training programs woefully underprepared. They have to check into their mental toughness every day to meet the standards. They may be borderline pass / fail on a majority of events. This man is the easiest to consider quitting in my opinion. However, all three types of people quit – just statistically speaking, if you are bordering on failure every day, and making a name for yourself being last consistently, your confidence and health may fade.

The Mentality of Each The difference, in my opinion, between the three mentally, is that the competitor thinks more about winning events than quitting or failing an event. The Gray Man is solid and puts out to pass the events and maybe has to dig down deep on a few events of the week to remain in the middle of the pack. The Survivorman is struggling with multiple events every day to reach his goal of just passing the standard. There are a few of these in each class that actually graduate by sheer will and guts. In fact, there is an award for that person – The Fire in the Gut Award. This is given to the guy who endured the most, overcame the most injuries, illnesses, personal loss, or just made it through every day with 110% effort and a never quit attitude. Sometimes we all are a little bit of all three of those types. You have good days and bad days and you can soar with the eagles one day and be at the bottom of the heap the next. Your ability to handle that transition and struggle with failure is what makes a graduate.