What does it take to make it into SOF?
Become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
That’s the first thing I tell people who ask me what they need to do if they want to get into Special Operations. Be prepared to spend a lot of your time cold, wet, tired, hungry, thirsty, and hurting. Discomfort and uncertainty will become the new normal in your life.
You’ll miss meals and often not have a choice of what you eat. There will be times when you lose a lot of weight. Your uniform will smell like ammonia, because your body is using your muscles for fuel. Sometimes, you’ll be so exhausted you’ll fall asleep on a ruck march and face plant into the trail; other times you’ll be so keyed up that you won’t be able to sleep, even though you have time and you need it. Your schedule will be erratic and you’ll have a hard time getting into a routine.
Most days you’ll wake up sore or in pain and wonder if you’re injured or just hurting. To be successful you’ll need to learn the difference between the two. Sometimes, you’ll have to work through an injury; you’ll always have to work through pain and discomfort.
Travel will include trips to the worst places on earth to work with people who smell terrible, that you don’t like, and can’t understand. The terrain there will be too rocky or too sandy; it’ll be unbearably hot or freezing to the bone cold; the air will be too thin and you’ll be gasping to catch your breath or so dirty and dusty that you won’t want to breathe.
The places you live on deployment will try to poison you. Cuts will become infected. You’ll go months without a solid shit and learn to never trust a fart in certain parts of the world. You’ll become intimately familiar with Cipro, Motrin, and Z-Paks.
You’ll lose touch with old friends and won’t be able to follow your favorite sports teams as closely as you once did. Priorities will become apparent and take precedence for your time; choose wisely.
Some people won’t believe in you. They won’t think you’re capable. I’ve come to realize that’s okay. It’s not their job to believe in you. You’ll need to be intrinsically motivated and completely committed.
You will do bad things for good reasons, good things for bad reasons, and sometimes have no clue as to why you are doing something.
Friends of yours will pay the ultimate price—you may even have to yourself.
Here’s the takeaway: It’s all worth it; every moment of suffering. You’ll look back when it’s over and wish you could do it all over again.
Your attitude will get you through it all. The guys with a sense of humor and the ability to shake off things that are more than just trivial are the ones that succeed. Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how long the tunnel may be, is crucial. A warrant officer on my team once told me that he could do anything for a short period of time, “hell, I can gargle peanut butter for two weeks.” That’s the attitude of someone who knows it will get better. The motto of my first SF Battalion reflects the same sentiment, “Hard Times Don’t Last, But Hard Men Do.”
Grow to love all of it. Meet every challenge head on and smile through it. Get your mind right—your body will follow your mind. Be proud of how hard you’ve become. It’ll make you thankful when you return home for all the freedoms, amenities, and creature comforts that you have there.
Don’t feel bad about complaining, everyone does it from time to time. A great medic on my team would say, “if a soldier isn’t complaining, there’s probably something wrong.” But, if you’re going to bitch, have a solution. Be ready to present your solution professionally and also be ready to be told to shut up and drive on.
Once you set out on your path never falter, never choose to give in, never quit. Be steadfast and disciplined in your actions and relentless in your approach. Stopping is easy; put that thought out of your mind, because it won’t be an option on the battlefield. Adjust to the darkness in the tunnel while you’re there, because that’s where we thrive when others fail.
I’m not the type to look to motivational quotes, pictures, or songs, but there’s a prayer written by Andre Zirnheld, a French paratrooper in the SAS who was killed fighting in Libya in 1942, that I occasionally reflect on. The following was found in a notebook on his body.
The Prayer of the Paratrooper:
I'm asking You God, to give me what You have left.
Give me those things which others never ask of You.
I don't ask You for rest, or tranquility.
Not that of the spirit, the body, or the mind.
I don't ask You for wealth, or success, or even health.
All those things are asked of You so much Lord,
that you can't have any left to give.
Give me instead Lord what You have left.
Give me what others don't want.
I want uncertainty and doubt.
I want torment and battle.
And I ask that You give them to me now and forever Lord,
so I can be sure to always have them,
because I won't always have the strength to ask again.
But give me also the courage, the energy,
and the spirit to face them.
I ask You these things Lord,
because I can't ask them of myself.
Special Operations will take a toll on your mind, body, and spirit, and will always demand more of you. But, you’ll work with some of the smartest, hardest working, and most ingenious people on the planet, and you’ll know you’re fighting for the greater good.
The author wishes to remain anonymous. He’s spent over a decade in Special Forces and is still active in the SOF community.