For more than 60 years Green Berets have been at the forefront of America’s most dangerous humanitarian missions around the world.
They crept along the rigid rocks at the base of a mountain held by the militant group Ansar al-Islam in northern Iraq, commonly known as Iraq Kurdistan. It was the dead of night and nothing could be heard from these quiet professionals except the light footfall on the occasional loose piece of shale. It was just two days into Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003 and U.S. Special Forces were doing what they do best – unconventional warfare. They met up with Kurdish rebels lingering in the area surrounded by numerous Iraqi militant divisions. The rebels called themselves Peshmerga—“Those who face death”—and they were willing to fight for freedom. So, using small groups of 12 men, a task force — called Task Force Viking — led the Kurds to victory against the Ansar Al-Islam.
Operation Viking Hammer was a textbook U.S. Army Special Forces operation. The mission was to train, fight with, and lead guerrilla forces, and that’s exactly what they did successfully. More commonly known as the Green Berets, the elite branch specializes in unconventional warfare and has a rich history of fighting with and for the mistreated. Their motto is “De oppresso liber,” or in English, “To liberate the oppressed,” and they are some of the toughest soldiers in the world.
Who are the Green Berets?
The Green Berets, so known because of their distinctive service headgear, are specialists in unconventional warfare (their original and most important mission), but they also have four other duties: foreign internal defense, special reconnaissance, direct action, and counter-terrorism. Because of these five missions, the Green Berets have the widest operational responsibilities of all the Special Operations Forces (SOF).
Unconventional warfare (UW)— also commonly known as guerrilla warfare or insurgency – is the action of aiding and bolstering a resistance movement with the aim of overthrowing an enemy force or government. This type of warfare is often done “underground” with guerrilla forces, requiring Green Berets to work and live with the locals – they live as the natives do, speak as they speak, eat what they eat, gain their trust, and win their support. Thus, they need to be highly skilled in language and culture, and they need the skills to effectively train foreign troops.
They operate in 12-man teams, called Operational Detachment Alphas, or ODAs. Each member of the team has a specialty, making them a subject matter expert at a specific critical skill. The ODA is ideally led by a detachment commander and an assistant detachment commander, followed by an operations sergeant, assistant operations and intelligence sergeant, two weapons sergeants, two engineer sergeants, two medical sergeants and two communications sergeants. These 12-man teams have the mission of liberating the oppressed through aiding resistance movements and guerrilla forces. While winning the support of natives is their hallmark, Green Berets must be trained in combat tactics and reconnaissance, diplomacy, psychological warfare, and even disinformation. Because these quiet professionals must be so skilled in such a wide-range of activities, they have the longest and most complex qualification course in the U.S. military.
Becoming a Green Beret
It’s a small percentage of the military that become part of Special Operations, and an even smaller percentage that are able to wear the signature Green Beret. Azad Ebrahimzadeh is one such man.
It’s not the physical demand of training that causes three-quarters of candidates to fail. The psychological warfare is unbearable,
“I remember the lasting impression that the first SF guy I met left with me. He was charismatic, confident, and well spoken. I wanted to work with people of that caliber,” Azad, who more commonly goes by his call sign “Oz” (picture below), said about joining the military. “All I knew was that it was an honorable thing to serve my country. I was young and foolhardy. I was excited about the concept of saving lives and making a difference.”
Azad Ebrahimzadeh, U.S. Army Green Beret Medic, Call sign: “Oz”, “Leonidas”. Rank: Staff Sgt Unit: Operated with 3rd Special Forces, 19th Special Forces and 20th Special Forces Group. Tours: Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan, operations in Thailand, South Africa and Mozambique
Knowing little to nothing about the military, Oz joined at the young age of 17 after finding himself in trouble with the law. “I wasn’t prepared for what I was getting into,” says Oz, a SF Medical Sergeant. What was he getting into? A three-year program that boasts a washout rate above 75 percent.
Even though an SF Medical Sergeant goes through advanced additional schooling (each team member gets special training in their field to make them an expert), all Green Berets have to go through the Special Forces Assessment & Selection, or SFAS – a nearly 4-week long selection process where, as Oz put it, “essentially you get your ass handed to you the whole time.”
During SFAS, there’s no one motivating you – no one saying “you can make it,” or “you’re almost there,” said Oz. “There’s no one encouraging you.” With virtually no interaction between the staff and the candidates, you never know if you’re doing well or failing, according to the Green Beret medic.
There’s a common phrase often heard during training, uttered by the instructors: “Do your best, candidate.”
“How far do I go?” candidates often ask in regards to a training mission. “Do your best, candidate,” is the response.
“How do I know when I’m done?”
“Do your best, candidate.”
“They don’t teach. They assess. You’re given a mission and told to complete it, but not how, no specifics,” Oz says. “They want to see you solve complex problems while in intensely stressful environments.”
It’s not the physical demand of training that causes three-quarters of candidates to fail. The psychological warfare is unbearable, Oz says. “When you go to SFAS, you aren’t told anything. You don’t know when you’re getting up or when you’re going to bed. You can’t mentally prepare for any single day and you’re never given any clues as to what you’ll be doing.”
Remembering back to one particular experience he had during the selection process, Oz recounted: “We had been conditioned to think that when the instructors set up the cones, we were going to go on a road march. Well, we had already gone on a long march of 10 or 15 miles, loaded with 65 lbs. We were already exhausted. We thought they were going to let us go to bed, then we saw the instructors laying out the cones again. We started getting worried because we didn’t want to fail, but we didn’t know if we were going to make it – we had already been at it for 20 hours a day for over a week already,” he said.
“I wanted to work with the best.”
After the instructor had the men line up to do it all again, he asked them who wanted to quit.
All was quiet.
The instructor asked again. A single hand was raised. Then, like a domino effect, several others raised their hands and so they pulled them out of line and were labeled as VWs – voluntary withdrawals.
“They think that they’re going home when they quit but what they don’t know is they have to stay for the remainder of the class to set up our course for training even though they won’t be able to participate,” Oz says. “That is the worst punishment of all – to watch your class keep going and to live with the regret of quitting.”
After the instructor asked once more if anyone else wanted to quit and no one else raised their hand, he ordered the remaining candidates to drop their gear and go to bed. “So it was completely a mental attack,” the Green Beret says
10 Green Berets who become Legends
Those who pass SFAS head to the Qualification Course where Green Beret soldiers are forged. One of the courses is a 70-day school, Small Unit Tactics or SUT, and is designed after the Ranger school, training soldiers to be leaders in a combat environment behind enemy lines, to which Oz said: “Which is a really nice way of saying we’re going to starve you, we’re going to beat you, we’re going to make your life miserable for 70 days and see if you can still hold it together.”
After SUT, it’s on to SERE-C school (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape-High Risk) where candidates learn survival training. A simulation ensues where the candidate is taken hostage by enemy forces for three weeks. During this time they learn how to survive behind enemy lines, evade capture, resist interrogation, and plan and execute escapes.
“The physical and mental strains these soldiers are put through are so intense that doctors closely monitor students after completion to ensure a healthy recovery”, Oz said. “I lost 27 pounds during my winter class.”
We do it because we gave our word. In our community your word is all you have.
Physical training is not the only kind of training a Green Beret endures. Each candidate is sent to a specialty course for an additional 25-56 weeks of highly-specialized training. As a Special Forces Medical Sergeant, Oz went through a 56-week long training program required for all Green Beret Medics, where candidates learn advanced trauma medicine and everything from veterinary medicine to dental medicine, x-rays, surgery, and even delivering babies.
“We’re the closest thing to a doctor the team will see in combat,” says Oz.
Oz uses his skills as a Green Beret medic to help the locals.
All Green Berets have to be proficient in a second language, so they go to language school, held by the JFK Special Warfare Center, for another 25-56 weeks depending on the language. It’s important for Green Berets to be fluent in another language so as to communicate with locals they are helping.
The final stage of the qualification course is a three-week exercise called “Robin Sage.” Robin Sage is the largest and most complex continuous training event in the U.S. military. Candidates from separate specialty courses are placed into an ODA to conduct a series of complex missions. All responsibilities fall on team members who are carefully observed and evaluated.
So why would anyone want to go through such training?
“I wanted to work with the best. The guys I saw with ‘Special Forces’ on their left shoulder set the standard,” he said. “They have an internal drive to constantly better themselves.” But there are qualities that Green Beret training can’t teach, and those qualities, according to Azad Ebrahimzadeh, must be inherent in the man willing to go the distance.
“You need discipline. You’re going to be asked to do a lot of things in the Green Berets that you’re not going to want to do.” To go places you don’t want to go, to make sacrifices others will never know about. But you have to, he said, because if you don’t, people can die. “We do it because we gave our word. In our community your word is all you have. The Special Forces doesn’t make you into something you’re not; they don’t make you into someone who has integrity; they don’t make you into someone who has strength and courage. You bring that to the Special Forces. They just give you the opportunity to use those traits to make this world a better place.”
Why the beret?
The beret hearkens back to the OSS veterans who served with the French Resistance during World War II and then became members of the 10th Special Forces Group, the US Army’s first Special Forces unit. The OSS teams wore the beret as a sign of compatriotism with the French Resistance. When these veterans joined SF, they continued wearing the beret, which was seen as early as 1954 being worn unofficially by other Special Forces members. Green became the color of choice, inspired by the British Commando-type beret adopted in 1942 and in honor of the Canadian Army design in rifle green after the First Special Service Force – the “Devil’s Brigade”. It wasn’t until Sept. 25, 1961, however, that the green beret was authorized as the official headgear of the US Army Special Forces.
This article was originally published on “Warrior Scout e-Magazine” on Apr 13, 2015 by Steffani Jacobs
For more information about this magazine, please visit: http://warrior.scout.com/story/1427452-green-berets-the-quiet-professionals?s=155
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