A Summer with the Army Special Forces
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about some of the life lessons I learned at West Point. Several of you suggested that I do a deep dive into the lessons, so here we are! This deep dive focuses on the first lesson on the list, “embrace the suck.” Read more to find out about my summer at Robin Sage and what I learned from it!
Related: Embrace the Suck
Summers at the South Hudson Institute of Technology
We do not have much of summer off at West Point or any other military academy. Most of the summertime in between academic semesters is filled with additional specialized military training. Popular options are Airborne School (paratrooper training), Air Assault (rappelling out of helicopters), and other options like SCUBA and Ranger School.
I was initially slotted for the Airborne and Air Assault courses. Both provide valuable training, but when I had the chance to attend a stage of the Special Forces Assessment and Selection course (“SFAS”), I jumped on it. You see, back then I planned to stay in the military for at least 20 years. I was going to do three years or so in an infantry line unit and then go to a Special Forces team. Life didn’t turn out that way due to an injury, but that was the plan at the time.
Special Forces Background
When I say special forces, I’m speaking specifically about the Green Beret units in the U.S. Army. There are a slew of special forces units in the military (Navy SEALs, 160th SOAR, 75th Ranger Regiment, Marine Force Recon, and Air Force PJs to name a few).
The role of the Special Forces in the Army is to go deep behind enemy lines well in advance of the main force. It’s a lot less door-kicking than the SEALs (though it still has a lot of that) and much more observation. The Green Berets also specialize in training local guerrilla fighters.
The training to become a Special Forces soldier is brutally difficult, and few can withstand it. This is what initially drew me to that career path; I wanted to test myself and do something worthwhile. The total training to make that transition lasts anywhere from just over a year to almost two years. Everyone has to learn another language to the point of near fluency, attend SERE school (not fun, basically simulated POW training), and other advanced training.
Who knows if I would have made it through all this, but I wanted to give it a shot. I was going to go in there with a “do or die” mentality and see what happened.
The specific part of SFAS that I attended is called Robin Sage. Robin Sage takes place in a fictional country called the Republic of Pineland and is conducted in various counties across North Carolina. I joined as a member of the “guerrilla” force and was there to be trained up on guerrilla tactics by the Special Forces students going through the course. I spent a couple of months training with them, and the experience left a deep impression on me.
What Sucked About Robin Sage?
There are a few things that, especially in combination, made Robin Sage somewhat tricky even as a “guerilla.” I’ll split them up into a few categories since the reasons are numerous.
From what I’ve heard from other people who went through this experience, it varies greatly. For some, it’s “Camp Fun-Fun” all summer. I heard of one group camping out near a lake for almost the entire time and having three meals a day. My experience was far from that.
We were out there for around two months. During this time, we got to shower once when we in-processed to training. The rest of the time, we relied on water and baby wipes. There was no laundry service to speak of, naturally, and by the end of the summer, we all smelled fierce. Heat rash was an almost constant issue we had to contend with in the swampy heat of North Carolina.
On top of this, we had no haircuts. My hair grows quickly, and I typically cut it every two or three weeks. When I returned straight back to West Point after training, I got lit up by a Major for having hair far outside of the standards. I looked like one of the Beatles when they first came to the United States. He calmed down after I explained why my hair was jacked up, but the experience wasn’t fun.
We didn’t sleep on mattresses or cots in the woods. We slept on pine needles and leaves with a rain poncho suspended on parachute cord for a roof. Call it a “field expedient tent,” but it wasn’t as nice as what you might go camping with.
This was easy to get used to after a few days. What was not easy to acclimate to, though, was always looking out for deer ticks and chiggers (little bugs with a painful bite).
While the levels of sleep deprivation at Robin Sage are nowhere near as bad as they are at Ranger School (which cause hallucination), it still wasn’t easy.
Examples of Ranger School Hallucinations:
- A soldier trying to put quarters into a tree because he thought it was a vending machine
- A soldier chasing a hallucinated pizza as it rolled down a hill
- Being unable to keep track of a person one foot in front of you and following an imaginary person down the wrong trail.
We often did missions at 2 or 3 AM. These missions could involve hours of walking around with 60-100 pound backpacks (rucks) through dense forests. You have to continually be aware not to get poked in the eye by a branch or accidentally walk off a cliff. We also carried weapons EVERYWHERE we went. In my case, I had an AK-47.
After returning from missions, we’d often only have a few hours of sleep before we’d go on to the next task or suddenly relocate our base of operations. After several weeks, this schedule takes a toll.
This was probably the hardest part of Robin Sage for me. During most training, soldiers are provided with Meals Ready to Eat (“MREs”) on a consistent basis. These are prepackaged meals with a shelf life of several years. The food isn’t great, but it keeps going nourished.
Toward the end of our training, our “resupply was disrupted” (quotes because I don’t believe it) and we didn’t eat anything for over three days. When we did eat, it was only after we caught some animals in the forest.
On the morning of the third day of not eating, I had such bad stomach cramps that I could barely stand up. I train a lot, and I am larger than average, so my body has higher energy requirements than most, and this type of environment hit me hard. The animals that we caught were exceptionally gamey, and there wasn’t much to go around, so aside from a small portion of meat after the third day, my next full meal was five days after we stopped eating.
I’ve never known hunger like that since. My stomach shrank considerably, and when I did eat again, it didn’t take much to get full. What was my first post-starvation meal? A beef stew MRE. It’s gross, and one of the least liked MREs you can get, but at that moment in time, it smelled and tasted like an absolute delicacy. It is STILL one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
This one is straightforward. We had almost no choice or say in any matter. We could not decide what we wanted to eat. The basics of civilization like a shower or the ability to sleep on a bed were out of our grasp. This was not unexpected or unusual in a military environment but compounded with everything else; we felt the lack of choice more than usual.
Despite all the sub-optimal conditions above, I had a great time at Robin Sage. The experience tested my resolve in many ways, and I emerged from the experience as a better version of myself. I relished the difficulties because I already knew at that point that they would force me to improve.
A bonus of embracing the suck is the sense of gratitude you develop. Now, when things are much tamer, I never take for granted the ability to take a hot shower whenever I want, sleep in a comfortable bed, or eat when and what I want. These are all perceived basics that we’re almost tempted to view as rights, but much of the world doesn’t have them. You’re not entitled to anything.
I also learned that you could endure the worst conditions and have fun doing it if you’re around the right people. We developed an incredibly tight sense of camaraderie that I haven’t felt since. Conversely, I’ve been in almost ideal situations (air-conditioned office, high salary, frequent steak dinners) and hated it. The people around you make or break an experience. One toxic person can turn a positive experience into hell. Don’t be that toxic person, ever. Do not tolerate that toxic person. If that person is your boss, fire their ass. That’s one great benefit of being financially independent: you don’t have to tolerate the same shenanigans as everyone else.
I enjoyed being around the Special Forces soldiers and one of the Sergeants Major running the show out there told me “come back, sir, we’ll make you a captain and give you a team.” A trainee also echoed the sentiment, and I’ve never felt prouder. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to go back and join their ranks, but I treasure the memory.
Another moment that is seared into my mind involves one of the missions we ran. We were moving through a dense forest after midnight for several hours. Our objective was to rendezvous with a small plane (a Cessna 152 if I recall correctly) at a small local airstrip several miles away and exchange documents for a downed pilot/POW. After hours of making slow progress through the seemingly impenetrable woods, we stepped into a wide-open clearing. It was a cow pasture, and the full moon illuminated EVERYTHING. It was almost like daylight but with an inky blackness at the edge of every deep azure tone. We skirted the open field by following the line of the forest and quickly traversed the pasture. Along the way, the few cows that were awake casually observed our presence and softly mooed at us. Aside from the bovine salutations, the only other sound we could hear was the occasional tinny rattle of our weapons and equipment. The midnight blue sheen bathing the cows and field was almost surreal. It was an oddly peaceful moment in an otherwise harried and intense mission.
Returning to civilization was a culture shock. I was and still am grateful for the little things we usually take for granted every day. I had several far more difficult experiences after Robin Sage, but I feel it was the perfect training to help me endure much worse. Weird, it’s almost like that was the design.
I’ve had a lot of situations where I’ve had to “embrace the suck,” and I’m sure you have too. Think about it for a second…how did it change you? What about you is now more robust and more resilient? Is there something you no longer take for granted? What do you have gratitude for in your life? I’d love to hear examples from you in the comments below.
Next time you find yourself in a situation which genuinely sucks, remember how you got through it the last time. Remember that experience inculcated you with wisdom you would not otherwise have. Look forward to and savor the experience, even.
Put your head down, put one foot in front of the other, and embrace the suck!