Selection for the unit is conducted once annualy. Promotional teams from the unit go through the conventional forces and hold presentations. All potential candidates must have at least 2 years of service in the military, have no criminal record or disciplinary offenses, pass an inital physical fitness test and psychological evaluation. Candidates who pass the previous criteria are then summoned to the unit in order to form a fresh class for selection and training. Upon arriving, more tests follow: a more stringent physical fitness test including battle runs and rope climbs with packs and rifles, swimming and diving, written exams on general military knowledge, etc. Next, they attend a 2-week initial assessment and selection course. It is designed to brush up on the candidates’ basic military skills (combat marksmanship, land navigation, camouflage, small-unit tactics, fieldcraft, etc.) while introducing them to increased stress and physical strains, all the while monitoring the students’ peformance. Those who pass this initial phase are sent to attend the medical exam for airborne troops and have a few days off before the real challenges that await them.
Basic Special Operations Course
What follows is the first block of training in the candidates’ desired SOF career field, and it is what will set them apart from all other members of the military. It will be an experience unlike any other they had so far and it will most definitely, in some way, affect them for the rest of their lives. Officially, the military calls it the Basic Special Operations Course. Everybody in the SOF community calls it the Commando Course. Lasting for about 2 and a half months, the Commando Course is designed to put candidates under extreme physical, mental, and professional pressure in order to assess the candidates’ capacity to perform in a highly stressful environment, all while learning new skills, performing to given standards, and demonstrating the desired qualities of character. Designed by veterans of the Homeland War and constantly updated, the Commando Course is arguably the most brutal military training in the region.
Candidates that survived initial selection assemble for this next phase and are immediately stripped of all IDs, cash, credit cards, cellphones, anything that has something to do with the outside world. For the next 2 and a half months, they will be in total isolation. Next they sign a personal disclaimer which states that they are aware that they have volunteered for a high-risk training activity which may result in death or serious injury. Unfortunately, of all the Commando Courses so far, both of these cases have been known to happen.
Candidates are assembled in training squads and battle-buddies, each squad marked with a ribbon in a different color and to be worn on the candidates’ tactical vest. Squad leaders are designated and throughout the training, they will be changed every few days, to also test and develop the leadership skills of all personnel involved. Candidates which are officers will be treated the same as enlisted personnel with the exception that they will be under a constant magnifying glass by the instructing cadre and will plan and lead most of the operations during the Commando Course. Candidates are shown to their accommodation which consists of freight containers filled with beds and given time to prepare themselves and their gear for the remainder of the day.
In the dark hours of the morning, the candidates will experience the beginning of what they’ll know as Hell Week. Machineguns firing, artillery simulators detonating under their beds, instructors yelling over loudspeakers, sirens wailing, all serve to confuse and stress the candidates. What awaits them for the next 5 days or so is the greatest physical and psychological strain in their lives. Everyday of Hell Week starts with morning PT, which is actually a smoke-session, with instructors leading cross-country runs at a feverish pace, inducing candidates to separate themselves from their squad and baddle-buddies, yet collectively punishing them if they stick together. PT is usually followed up by combatives training, with candidates doing break-falls, full-force takedowns on one another, etc. The remainder of the day is spent doing timed marches with full gear, which usually have an impossible time standard and have the purpose of sowing discord among the candidates, doing tree-log PT, moving over infantry obstacle courses, performing battle-drills and other topics from small unit tactics, etc. When night falls, candidates are trucked off 25 to 30K from base camp and required to do a land-nav march that finishes back in the camp. If you have a good pace and find the checkpoints in time, you arrive back to your rack at base camp with about 1 hour’s time before PT starts for the next day. Just enough time to treat your feet and catch some sleep. If you’ve messed up during the night land-nav, you’ll be back just in time for morning PT. In the evenings before being trucked off to do the night marches, classes are held on various less than interesting topics to observe the candidates’ mental capacities while sleep-deprived. The routine is pretty much the same for the duration of Hell Week. Within a maximum of 48 hours upon the start of the Week, all candidates are utterly physically demolished and are relying only on their inner drive and mental strength to keep up the pace and survive through another day. Soon the first quitters start to sign off. As the week passes, there will be more of them, since the exact length and activity schedule of Hell Week are slightly tweaked with every class and are a closely guarded secret of the instructor cadre. The instructors don’t drop anyone during Hell Week, that will come later. All the quitters have only themselves to blame. But the approximate 50 kilometers that are walked and ran daily with full gear, coupled with the sleep deprivation, changing weather conditions, and countless sores, blisters, cuts and bruises from all the other activities take their toll on many candidates and they come to the conclusion that this is not for them.
As Hell Week nears its end, the candidates will have returned from yet another night land-nav march and taken to the side. What follows is one more smoke session to be remembered: obstacle courses, log PT, pushups, burpees, all combined with the instructors encouraging candidates to quit and spare themselves from further agony. The candidates that remain are gathered round and take a knee. For the first time they recite the Commando Prayer (based on WW II Lt. Zirnheld’s Paratrooper Prayer), asking the Lord to give them what other people do not want: uncertainty and danger, but to also give them the strength to meet them head-on. After the prayer, another round of combatives training is done to honor the occasion. Eventually, the battered and weary candidates are formed up and told that Hell Week is over. They are allowed to go to their racks for several hours of uninterrupted sleep.
What follows next, starting that same afternoon, is Land Phase. Several weeks in length and packed with interesting activities, it covers SOF tactics, weaponry, survival, first aid etc. Classes are held on various topics such as patrols, ambushes, raids, etc. Such topics are then executed with live ammo. Classes on machineguns, sniper rifles, anti-tank systems are also held, all followed up with live fire training. Combat marksmanship is constantly improved, with candidates practicing weapons handling and up-drills, with constant shooting evolutions. Instruction is given on advanced personal camouflage, and a stalking low-crawl lasting several hours is peformed. Personnel and supply hide-sites are constructed. Basic demolition is taught, with candidates doing the calculations and destroying objects of various size and composition. Candidates are instructed on long-range comms and first aid (TCCC). Most of the nights are spent outside, in patrol bases, constantly on the lookout for approaching instructors who seek for the smallest shortcomings in the candidates’ performance. A 60 km road march with field gear is held, to be completed under 12 hours. The best time attained by a candidate is about 8 hours. A few days are spent on survival training, with candidates creating natural shelters, collecting water, building fires, skinning rabbits, etc.
But the daily grind remains unchanged through all the phases: smoke sessions of PT in the morning, possible middle-of-the night alerts which result with night live firing, a land-nav march thrown in for good measure, etc. Candidates are given more time to sleep but still not enough to physically recover. The hurt is still on. Just as they were during Hell Week, the following rules are in effect for the entire course: The smallest infractions are ‘corrected’ with pushups for both the offender and his battle-buddy. If that doesn’t achieve the desired effect, the entire squad is ‘corrected’ for the offenses of one man. Upon completing a given ‘correction’ the candidates are to yell a loud ‘Commando!’ to show their spirit is not broken. Additional methods of correction include carrying bricks or ammo cans for a 24 or 48 hour period, doing extra log PT, etc. Climbing a rope with full field equipment plus a 20-kilo ammo can is not fun. Corrective measures might be awarded for anything, like improper personal camouflage, failure to cover your arc during tactical training, or sweeping somebody with your muzzle. The measures ensure such errors occur only once. There are three meals per day, but the candidates must perform pull-ups or rope climbs in order to earn a meal. They must run in formation to the mess hall and back, singing a cadence. The time for meals is usually 2 or 3 minutes, so the candidates learn to grab what food they can and eat it sometime later, usually on the move. While in base camp, the candidates must always double-time. Your battle-buddy must always be within a few feet. The candidates’ rifle must be with him at all time and his face and hands are properly cam-creamed throughout the training. For the duration of the course, shaving and showering is not required (in fact its impossible), neither are clean uniforms or boots. The candidate must constantly have all the equipment neccessary for prolonged stay in the field in his pack (bivvy bag, goretex parka, E-tool, extra socks, etc.). Candidates try to ‘Travel Light-Freeze at Night’, since they move to most of the training events on foot, under a tight time standard. The instructors of course, move by vehicles and chew them out if they’re late.
Starting from Land Phase, instructors can drop candidates if they don’t meet the given standards. Poor weapons handling, scores in written tests on various topics and other personal shortcomings often result with the instructors assembling the candidates before heading off on the next activity, and reading out the names of those that have been dropped. The decision cannot be disputed, and those they called out must turn in their gear and leave. The squads designated with various colors that were in the beginning are now smaller. Some are completely gone, with the ribbons of those that have quit tied on to a rope that is strung between two trees in the base camp, serving to those that remain as either a motivator or a stressor, depending on each candidates perspective on things. One more important tool of the instructor cadre is peer evaluation. Every several days or so, candidates are required to anonimously write down the names of two fellow candidates with whom they would go to hell and back, and two candidates with whom they wouldn’t want to go anywhere, period. The results of the peer evaluations also factor in heavily on the instructors’ decision, with multiple cases of candidates ‘voting somebody off the island’ because he is, simply put, a jerk.
On physical and mental fitness
The type of physical fitness required to complete the course becomes readily apparent to everbody after a few days. What is required is long-distance endurance, the ability to keep moving with your gear on for long distances over rough terrain, coupled with muscle endurance, to move over obstacles, do pullups and climb ropes with all your gear on. There is not a single event where you have to bench-press 300lbs. What often happens is that guys that spend most of their time in the gym while in their unit start to train running only a month or two before showing up for selection. They might pass their conventional unit PT test with ease, but that has little in common with the type of strain the candidate is exposed to during the Commando Course. This usually ends up with them starting to accumulate running injuries during the course, since their bodies are not properly conditioned for the mileage covered. This is not to say that big guys cannot successfully complete the training, but there is a definite observation that most guys that do pass look like your average triathlete or cross-country runner, and big guys have problems keeping up with the pace, regardless of the ‘tough-guy’ reputation they might have in their home units. The candidates are under the watchful eye of the medical team all the time, but there’s not much they can do to alleviate running injuries such as a busted up knee or ankle. And if you can’t keep up with the pace of the activities, you end up getting dropped from the course. Getting seriously injured for any reason during the course is not good since the course is held only once per year, so you can’t heal up and get recycled with the next class. If you break your leg even in the last few weeks of the Commando Course, you’ll have to heal up and start over next year (but you don’t have to do the inital 2-week selection).
What often happens is that guys who’ve had enough claim they have an injury in order to give themselves an excuse to quit. That is a direct opposite form the mindset of the candidates that are truly determined to make it through the training. They are all in pain of some sort, but they’ve made up their minds that they’re not quitting no matter what happens and that’s the sort of men that make it to the end. As another example of utter determination, there have been several courses during which a candidate had his child born. The instructors would enable him to make a few telephone calls to his family, but the training doesn’t stop and there is no time off. To outsiders this might seem too extreme, but it is a good example of the mindset and sacrifices necessary to be in the SOF community.
As a side note, there were several female members of the military that attended the initial selection course. A few of them passed and were assigned to support roles in the unit. But to this day, no female has completed the Commando Course.
Land phase finishes with a culminating op along the lines of a DA mission, for which the candidates create their own planning staff, develop their courses of action, brief their decision to the instructors and are thoroughly chewed out during the brief.
Once the Land Phase is over, it is time to introduce the candidates to various methods of vertical maneuver. In approximately one week’s time they will cover the topic of air assault by marking LZs, rappelling and fast-roping out of helicopters as well as simply jumping out of a low-hovering bird. They will also complete the curriculum of basic parachute training with static-line deployed round canopies and earn their airborne qualification by performing at least 5 low-altitude jumps in day and night with varying weaponry and equipment. Air phase culminates with an airmobile operation which the candidates plan, with elements inserted both by static-line and by fast-rope in order to complete their mission.
Next, the candidates and the cadre pack up and go on a remote island in the Adriatic Sea. Here they will go through combat swimmer training, a little over a week in length.
Morning PT takes place in the water, with candidates swimming laps and perfecting their swimming techniques, under the expert guidance of their instructors. Through Water Phase, candidates are introduced to hypothermia, as for tourism purposes, the water in the Adriatic is quite warm, but if you spend most of your day in it, on it or near it, it will not seem that way to you. This is that one phase where it pays of to be the bulky guy. The bonus is that the candidates will have plenty of opportunity to soak off all the grime they accumulated to this point, with their faces almost permanently caked from all the camouflage-cream. Candidates are taught how to conduct beach reconnaisance, construct poncho-rafts, move in Klepper canoes and operate Zodiacs. They are shown how to operate with outboard motors but other than that, every day is ‘engine-appreciation day’, with plenty of paddling. They practice casting into the water from RHIBs, as well as from helicopters. Helo-casting is practiced first from cliffs with increasing heights, then from an actual helo, as well as helo extraction by hooking up to a net. Among other things, students experience drown-proofing, hypoxia, plenty of treading water, sometimes with large weights as a team building event, and they brush up on their snorkeling techniques. Water phase is wrapped up with an amphibious op during which the candidates utilize most of the skills they learned.
The candidates are then relocated to the mountains, where they will spend a week learning the basics of military mountaineering. Ropes, knots, carabiners and braking mechanisms, anchor points, rappeling, climbing and belaying are all taught. The culminating operation is conducted on an objective which requires both a decent trek through the mountains and the application of climbing techniques.
The next phase introduces the candidates to the realm of urban operations and CQB. They practice tactical movement in urban areas and basics of room clearing. Entry points, hallways, corner and center-fed rooms, fatal funnels, points of domination, positions of team members, and other concepts relating to the topic are repeatedly dry-drilled into the candidates, and then drilled again through live fire events in multiple rooms and buildings, in various conditions of visibility. This phase demands apsolute concentration from the students as they are engaging targets with live ammo usually only a few centimeters from one another. Obviously, the objective in the final op for this phase is a large building.
The final phase of the Commando Course is known as Green Ops. The candidates are moved to yet another remote location. Here they receive additional instruction on counter-tracking and dealing with military working dogs since pretty soon they will be pursued by them. The students also receive instruction on resistance to interrogation methods. Then they are split up into smaller task-organized elements and receive a detailed brief on the situation. They are about to be placed in a scenario where they are inserted behind enemy lines and tasked with completing all objectives they receive. They must establish a system of dead-drops (caches) through which they will receive ammunition, water and food. They must regularly establish long-range comms with their HQ and execute ops ranging from reconnaisance and surveillance tasks to raids and ambushes. All the while evading capture by the enemy. They will be pursued by both their instructors, K-9 units and additional conventional units. In addition, the candidates are strip searched one more time before they depart for the woods, which hinders attempts of hiding cash or extra food on them. Once the mission starts the students carry all the gear, water and food they possibly can, but as the days go by and caches must be dug and camouflaged, OPs established and manned, and patrol bases setup in remote spots, water and food start to run out, and the resupplies are minimal. Through the dead-drops, the candidates are intentionally given the absolute minimum of food and water required to sustain life. Still, they must gather all their energy to conduct close target recces, plan their ops, brief the instructors on their chosen course of action, conduct hits on the assigned targets followed by swift withdrawals from the objective areas, all the while feeling light-headed from the lack of food. This goes on for about three weeks and eventually the candidates are instructed to exfil by foot since they accomplished all their objectives and are to return to base. Somewhere in the process they are placed in a position where they have been ‘compromised’ and are all captured. What follows is approximately 48 hours of resistance to interrogation. Their captivity ends with a simulated assault on their prisoner camp. The candidates are debriefed and informed they have successfully completed the Commando Course. In a moment that words cannot describe, cheers and hugs are exchanged, as the students are given several hours to decompress and get ready for the final ceremony. And to eat and drink anything they can get their hands on.
The final ceremony takes places after sunset. During a humble and discreet event that is remembered long afterwards, the new unit members march into the scene surrounded with bonfires, active unit members as well as retired SOF personnel and war veterans. Speeches are held by visiting dignitaries. The Commando Prayer is read one more time. After that, the new unit members are called out one by one and receive their numbered Commando badge and diploma stating they successfully completed the Basic Special Operations Course. Once the ceremony is over, there is a big barbecue for all the new unit members and other guests. The dropout rate from the beginning of selection to this point is over 80%.
Training never stops
Once the new unit members report in to their respective operational companies, their work is far from over. Depending on the specialty of the team they’ve been assigned to, what follows is training in either military free-fall, open and closed-circuit diving, or advanced climbing and skiing. Apart from the additional infiltration skill they will acquire, the new unit members will also begin to receive training on their team specialization, and that will be either weapons, demolitions, communications, or tactical medicine. If the new member is not already an NCO, then he will also go through the required leadership courses in order to receive his first NCO rank. In addition to this training ‘pipeline’, the new members will undertake normal training with the rest of their company, including various regular firing range events, CQB and SOF-mobility training events, operational planning exercises, etc. in order to ‘mold’ into their new team and learn as much as possible from the more experienced personnel. The culmination of a new member’s training will be when he gets involved in a NATO SOF exercise with his team, where he will have the opportunity to work side by side with his SOF brethren from various countries in a dynamic and challenging environment and where he will be able to get the ‘big picture’ of how things work in a complex multinational operational environment. Once the new team member has successfully completed all these fundamental blocks of training, he will be ready to take part in real-world operations, go to additional courses in allied countries and generally put his skills to good use.
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