This is a little bit about my experiences in Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS).
This is also a story about what not to do!
Coming back from a deployment in Northern Iraq in 2005 with 3rd Ranger Battalion, I dropped my Special Forces packet and began to prepare for SFAS. We had several Rangers laid up in the Walter-Reed military hospital in Washington, DC, who had been hurt when we got fragged in Mosul. When my Platoon Sergeant asked me if I’d be willing to travel to DC and act as a liaison, I was more than happy to do what I could. When I came back after a couple weeks, I was supposed to have some time to prepare and train for SFAS.
What train up? My Platoon Sergeant insisted that I would be taking part in the airfield seizure training mission we had planned for the next two weeks. And so I did an additional two weeks of training with my unit, ran home, threw a bunch of military gear into a duffle bag, and flew to Ft. Bragg that night to start SFAS the following day. I’m not complaining here, such is life in Ranger Battalion, but try to plan things a little smarter than I did!
I showed up with brand new jungle boots (didn’t know we could wear desert boots) which would turn my feet into ground meat during the 19-day selection course. I ended up losing a few toe nails in the process.
During the first week, we were stepping off on one of what were to be many long ruck marches through the North Carolina pine forests in, and around Camp Mackall, when I heard someone call from behind me.
“Hey,” the Special Forces candidate said in his southern drawl. “Don’t I know you?”
I’ll call him Johnathan. Johnathan and I had been waiting to start the Ranger Indoctrination Program together at Ft. Benning years prior. It’s the fear of the unknown that weeds most soldiers out of these selection courses. The instructors at SFAS call this “self assessing” and once these thoughts creep into a candidate’s head, the constant second guessing of yourself, it is almost assured that they will quit.
Johnathan was a self assessor. In the RIP barracks in Ft. Benning, he had told me and several other Privates that he wasn’t ready for RIP. He wanted to go and get his Air Assault badge or his Pathfinder torch first, he didn’t want to embarrass himself in RIP. Johnathan quit RIP that day and I didn’t see him again until that moment on the trail in SFAS.
“Yeah,” I replied. “We went to basic training together.”
Johnathan was that guy. He was the one who got into a fist fight the first day of basic training and we had to tell the Drill Sergeants he fell on a door knob (there was only one door knob in the barracks) to explain his black eye.
I took off, putting as much distance between Johnathan and myself on the trail. I knew everything I needed to know about him. He was a quitter.
We started off SFAS with about four hundred candidates. By the end of the course, less than a quarter of them were selected to attend the Special Forces Qualification Course. It should surprise no one that Johnathan was not among the graduates.
SFAS consists of the runs, ruck marches, swim tests, and obstacle courses that you would expect, but without strong guidance from the cadre. New events and timelines are written by the instructors on a white board, and it is the candidate’s job to be at the right place, at the right time, in the right uniform.
When the event begins, the instructor will brief you as such, “This run is for an undetermined distance to be completed at an undetermined time. Follow the cones to the finish line. You may begin.”
If you are not comfortable with minimal guidance and are not self motivated, then you don’t stand a chance in SFAS. The lack of certainty is what grinds on you. This is why many candidates start to self assess themselves.
Land Navigation is also a big part of SFAS, and you will be stumbling through the forests and swamps of the star course both day and night. When you find your point, a point sitter will give you a new eight-digit grid, offering no encouragement one way or the other.
There are no smoke sessions in SFAS, it is an individual event and there is no mass punishment. The course is run in a professional manner. The instructors give you tasks to preform and you step up to the challenge or you don’t, and do the duffle bag drag back home. It’s up to you.
However, there are some head games involved. I’m not going to give them away, but suffice to say, we were amped up for an event without any warning, told to preform, then the entire thing was called off. For a lot of candidates, this was like having a gun put to their head only to have the trigger pulled and the gun go click as it was empty all along. After that, about thirty people quit the course. It’s not just a pointless mind game though, I can’t tell you how many insane missions we were geared up for in Iraq and Afghanistan only to have them called off at the 11th hour.
The rest of SFAS consists of team events. These are scenarios that assess the candidates individually, but also how they work together as a team. Are you a team player? Can you pull your weight? I can’t tell you exactly what is graded since you are never told, but as they say, you are always being assessed, and this includes interactions with fellow soldiers and role players.
I won’t comment too much on the team events, but you will do a lot of rucking and moving from point A to point B while building various contraptions. These are also leadership exercises, as everyone gets their turn to be a patrol leader during the team events. Before you try to war game SFAS, expect these events to change every class. The instructors have a ton of events in their play book and will pull them out at random, so you can’t possibly prepare for every specific event.
When all was said and done, we were kicked back in to the barracks, me with two bloody stumps for feet, my back cut open by my rucksack frame, and my joints feeling like those of the tin man. It didn’t help that I went into SFAS right off a combat deployment without any real preparation. My knee was also blown up the size of a grape fruit. Good times!
Then they announced another event. “Ruck march for an undetermined distance for an undetermined time.”
I suspect it was twenty five miles but have no way to know for sure.
After the hell march, we were each counseled individually on our performance in SFAS. One of the civilian instructors said I came in at the bottom twentieth percentile on the final ruck march. I told him my ills, the blown up knee, missing toe nails, and so on.
“I finished SFAS on two broken ankles!” he screamed. “Well, other than that you did pretty well. Get out of here.”
I had been selected to come back and attend the Special Forces Qualification Course.
To go to SFAS you must:
- Be a male, age 20-30 (Special Forces positions are not open to women)
- Be a U.S. citizen
- Be a high school diploma graduate
- Achieve a General Technical score of 107 or higher and a combat operation score of 98 on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.
- Qualify for a secret security clearance.
- Qualify and volunteer for Airborne training
- Achieve a minimum of 60 points on each event and overall minimum score of 229 on the Army Physical Fitness Test
- Must successfully complete the Pre-Basic Task list