Ask Stew: Can You Make a Special Operator?

Soldiers of 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) and the Republic of Korea 11th Special Forces Brigade, provide security for their fellow members during training near Gwangyang, South Korea, April 1, 2009. The two forces trained together during the annual springtime exercises Key Resolve and Foal Eagle. (Photo Credit: SFC Andrew Kosterman)

Sometimes emails come in and ask extremely thought-provoking questions. This one is from a young man who is likely overwhelmed with all the training options in front of him as he prepares for his future in special ops.

“Stew, I am in the process of preparing for a job in my future in either Army Special Forces or Air Force PJ. I really want to be a combat medic in the special ops world. My question is do you think the programs available online and in books stores (your included) can make a special operator OR are special operators born? What I mean is, can a program really get me through the challenges of long days and nights of being uncomfortable, border line overtraining, and thoughts of quitting?” Jake

Damn Jake, that is one of the toughest questions I have been asked.  Good one!  I have a couple of stories for you to make my point, but to be brief with an answer, I think Spec Ops guys are born special. They are not made by reading a book or by doing a fitness program. They are made by a lifetime of work ethic over talent. Failing but never quitting and coming back stronger.  The question is:  How do you react to failure? Do you accept it and quit? Do you get better the next time around when tasked?

The Lion Hearted Who Breaks - Many spec ops dreams have been broken for the lion hearted due to severe injuries or not meeting a standard by failing to prepare adequately.  This person would have never quit, but he created serious injuries during selection (failing to prepare properly) or by no fault of his own – just an accident. He just broke or got severely ill and had to be dropped from training.  You could also classify the lion-hearted guy who fails academic or tactical skills tests under stress. The learning curve is steep and sometimes it can be overwhelming.

The Surprise of the Class - However, I have also seen non-athletic, underprepared people somehow make it through tough, grueling training day – day after day - and make it on pure guts and will. They had something special in them.  The WHY and WANT TO of this guy were bigger than anything the selection program could throw at them. These guys may not look like much, but they score above average on fitness tests, pass the standards – sometimes just barely, but gut out every long day like it does not even phase them.

Super Stud Athletes – Fail - I have also seen guys who are the highest caliber of athlete and could crush any event at BUD/S (for instance) and did not make it when the days turned into night and the water got cold and dark. No matter what collegiate, Olympic, or even professional sport this guy was the best in the world in, there was an underlying weakness that was discovered in the first week of Special Ops selection.

The long answer is - you have to prepare your body for the marathon of training ahead of you. These programs do come in handy for that. However, you also must be mentally prepared for failure. And come back stronger. Be mentally prepared for negative feedback and physically prepared for performing at the highest levels in your life. Not only will you be tasked with physical challenges no matter your choice (Army SF or AF PJ), you will be asked to perform a combat skill at the highest level on top of that. Being a solid and durable tactical athlete will help enable you to handle the physical and mental stresses of selection training and advanced combat trauma care.  The first goal is to discover your weaknesses. No matter your athletic history, you likely have a tactical fitness weakness (strength, power, endurance - run, swim, ruck, muscle stamina, speed, agility, grip, flexibility, and mobility.) Getting good at all of these is a requirement even though you may be great at one or two when you start.

Re-read your email to me.  You see where you said, “I really want to be a combat medic in the special ops world.”?  Well, that WANT TO, your WHY, combined with an above average tactical fitness base is what will get you through any spec ops challenges.  I think you answered your own question – if you “really want to be a combat medic in the spec ops world”, then get to work. Yes, going in at a high level of fitness will help you be more physically resilient and give you some confidence you may need some days, but there are intangibles that you need to take with you.  

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