9 Misguided Reasons to go to SOF Selection

Whether you’re battling the crashing waves on Coronado Beach, slogging out mile after mile in the sugar sands of Fort Bragg, or trudging your way up and down the deceptively steep Appalachian Mountains…attending selection for one of America’s elite special operations force units is a gauntlet of physical and mental endurance.

The fitness demands exceed what you could have hoped to train for. You face each day not knowing which of your professional (and personal) talents you’ll be called upon to validate. Your career ambitions…and often your life’s goal…rest on the assessment of operators who have forgotten more about combat than you’ll ever know.

But if you make it through…if they accept you…you’re set. You’re on the team! You can go no higher. And can brag for the rest of your life about how you were “one of them,” earning instant respect in any circle.


SOF Selection

Special Operations Soldiers conduct a full mission rehearsal in Afghanistan in preparation for a night combat operation April 22, 2013.
U.S. Army photo by Spc. Ryan S. Debooy. Link to photo.

“Selection Never Stops”

Selection is full of people who think that making the roster is the hardest step, when in fact it’s the very, very beginning. The intense specialty training that follows, then the operational tempo that today’s target-rich environment demands, makes selection look like a vacation.

Every day is a test to stay in SOF, to improve skills that were perfected years ago, to maintain fitness for any fight in any environment, to envision solutions for unknown tactical challenges to come. SOF units rest their success on the tenet that one must continually verify the skills required to win.

Operators have a phrase that endures their tenure:  “Selection never stops.

The Wrong Reasons

So, “because life will be a lot easier” is not a good reason to tryout for SOF. And in an effort to stir a little introspection for those interested in taking the walk, here are a few other reasons that should not be driving factors in one’s quest to join the ranks of the elite:

  • To validate your personal or professional worth. This reason is very common, yet no one will admit it. Lots of folks apply for SOF because they need it to justify their military service. The mindset is usually phrased like this, “I just have to go and find out if I have what it takes.” People with this mindset aren’t happy in their current professional (sometimes personal) situation and need acceptance from the toughest units in the military to fill the void. It won’t work. A military unit can’t validate a man or give him purpose.
  • To see if you can physically handle it. People with this notion are shortsighted and won’t last. Physical fitness is just the starting point of a life in SOF. It’s the very first gate you must survive, not the last. Mental agility, creativity, and intellectual fortitude make up so much more of an operator’s life than fitness.
  • You don’t want to be in the “big Army/Navy” anymore. Running away from the conventional force is a prime motivator for joining SOF. Folks think that life is just so much better over there, that there are no unit problems or bureaucratic nonsense. Again, shortsighted. People are people. Every organization has good ones and not-so-good ones. Drama and people problems are unavoidable facts of leadership environments…SOF is no different.
  • You think leading conventional troops isn’t important enough. Similarly, some self-absorbed people think that conventional Soldiers/Sailors aren’t worth their effort to lead, that they’re substandard service members. They don’t appreciate what an awesome opportunity it is to lead service members, regardless of the unit. Then when these people fail selection, they let their resentful attitude hamper their performance, short-changing their unit and themselves.
  • You’re tired of playing by the rules or wearing a uniform. Younger officers and NCOs often get enamored with the idea of having increased responsibility, less oversight, and fewer conventional restrictions. They want to be in the “cool guy club.” I can assure you that an ardent desire to grow a beard has never been sufficient, or even helpful, in passing SOF selection. A currently serving operator I know confirmed, “Yes, we wear uniforms, go to mandatory annual training, and take DA Photos. We’re still part of the service.
  • You think you will get more time at home. 4 month deployments sound nice, but the reality is that SOF units have been deploying 4-on, 4-off (or more) for 13 years straight, and to more theaters. And they will continue to deploy long after the conventional forces leave country. Operators don’t get more time at home because when they’re not deployed, they’re training. People associate “big boy rules” with free time…not the case in SOF.
  • You think you’ll be an instant operator if you pass selection. Refer to the above point that selection never stops. You never “arrive” in SOF…you only strive to grow to a higher level of lethality. Just like Basic Training, selection is designed to see if candidates have the foundational skills to potentially handle the rigors of life on the other side. There’s no guarantee that anyone will pass the training that follows selection, and frankly, SOF units have such a faithful adherence to the standard that they’d rather fail everybody than put an unqualified operator on the teams.
  • SOF has higher promotion rates and more command opportunities. Good-on the person who can get through selection and training motivated by career advancement. It doesn’t happen often. The facts are that the promotion rates are very similar to conventional units and there are far fewer command opportunities in SOF than elsewhere. To command in SOF, you have to be the most lethal, agile, reliable, and consistent leader…in a pool of similarly talented peers. It’s no picnic. And it’s no reason to take the walk.
  • As my good friend in Army SOF said, “Going to SOF doesn’t make you a hero.” You have to earn everything. And when you do valorous things in SOF units, it’s commonplace. Humility is pervasive there, which starves egos looking for attention. The “Quiet Professionals” attitude is alive and well, so don’t think that joining SOF will get you free beers for the rest of your life.

One Right Reason

There’s really only one reason to tryout for SOF…and one that the evaluators are specifically screening for. Selfless service. It sounds like this,

I’ve gained some skillsets in my short career. I want to offer them in units that have the highest impact for my Nation. I don’t know if they’re what SOF is looking for, but I’m willing to push myself past exhaustion to make them available.

To get in the right mindset, you should become stoically dispassionate about your endeavor to join the SOF ranks. Accept that SOF units are looking for a very narrow bandwidth of talent and that although you meet all the qualifications, you might not be the right person for the job. That doesn’t make you less of a leader or a failure. It just means that your skillsets aren’t specifically tailored for success in SOF.

And here’s the reality…if you aren’t up to their standard, you don’t want to be there! What’s worse than not passing selection is making it through only to find out that you never really had the requisite skills, and consequently put people at risk. Not cool.

Questions for Candidates

  • Why do you want to join SOF? For yourself…or for your Nation?
  • Are you prepared to spend the rest of your career outside of your comfort zone, physically, mentally, personally, and professionally?
  • If you didn’t achieve this highest goal of passing SOF selection, would it detract from your continuing service as a military leader?

Preparing for Selection? Be sure to check out The Secret to a Blister-free Foot March and I Admit It…I Forgot How to Workout.

What I promise for The Military Leader is that I will only write about topics of which I have personal knowledge. When that is lacking, I will include input from those who have personal knowledge. For this post, I have done both, and sincerely thank the several SOF service members who contributed to the content. Each of them went to SOF for only one reason.

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • All-American

    This article is spot-on perfect. A SEAL would never make it in an Army SF Group. The quickest way to stop a SEAL platoon dead in its tracks is to leave them a box of hair brushes and mirrors.

    • Keith Michael

      Good suggestions, but if you wanna make em cry you throw a ruck at em.

  • Jason Jermaine Smith

    Great article. This should be mandatory reading for people who think they want to be SOF. Too many people join for one or more of the wrong reasons listed above and have no understanding of what they’re getting themselves into or what the whole team concept is actually like.

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  • Bob Mayer

    What’s strange is how things have changed. There was a time when going into SOF was uncool. When your Infantry battalion commander flat out told you that your career was over when you put in your paperwork for the Q-Course. When pinning on your crossed arrows as SF became a branch while attending the Infantry Officer Advanced Course didn’t make you popular.

    I fear too many officers are going into SOF now to enhance their careers; and that’s a terrible, terrible reason to be in command of fine soldiers.

  • Aaron

    De Oppresso Liber

    This was my calling. I disagree with Ellen Haring. There are many “SOF Warriors” who have applied for and joined the ranks of SOF on the basis of selfless service. Nine months a year, sometimes more, deployed, for 20+ years in both conventional as well as SOF I have seen winners and failures. The selfless warrior goes the distance where all others fall short. It’s a long haul and a personal goal of making selection for rank, recognition or as a stepping stone is an impedance upon self and others. Know, Be, Do is a basic analogy one should heavily weigh before undertaking selection and any long term goals in SOF. Yes, the perks are there, but what one must give up to attain those perks are costly. Isolated from American Society, not to mention family, including business ventures, educational opportunities and all those “extra” curricular activities Americans enjoy week to week, month to month are missing from SOF who are neck deep in high tempo operations either real world or training. Candidates for selection don’t always realize what boat they are trying to board and many end up swimming back to shore. A smart candidate will have already discovered this by asking the right questions and taking a hard look at themselves. It’s not a cake walk. For those who think just making it through selection or “The Course” is all it takes they should go ask an SOF “Lifer” what happens after the course. If you’re not willing to give what it takes you won’t make it. But, isn’t that what an all volunteer military is about? Giving your all? Selflessness! SOF duty is just that, a duty not a prima-donna stage.
    nuff said. Bless America and those who Give for it.

  • Prior SOF

    Enjoyed the article, and agree with most – along with some of the comments below. The only thing jarring: I despise the term “Special Operator”. Whoever coined it after 9/11 should be banned from using the English language. There are Operators, and they serve in Special Operations Forces, whatever that branch of service may be. There is no such thing as a “Special Operator”.

    Civilian: “Are you an Operator in SOF?” Prima Donna: “No, I’m a cut above. I’m a SPECIAL Operator”. Whenever I hear it, I immediately know the person talking isn’t one.

    • Haven’t heard that distinction before – thanks for the perspective!

      • Prior SOF

        Seriously? “Special Operator” didn’t appear on the scene until after we invaded Iraq and everyone with a gun began calling themselves “operators”, slapping velcro all over themselves and wearing enough pouches to sink a ship. News teams began confusing the terms, and “Special Operator” was born. Same thing happened after Mogadishu and the Black Hawk Down book. Before, you’d have been laughed at for saying “D-boy”. After that book, everyone was saying it to appear as if they knew what they were talking about – and sounding stupid in the process.

        • Prior SOF,
          In light of your input, which I’m sure is shared by many more, I edited two parts of the post to avoid the “special operator” phrase. Thanks for providing your opinion on the matter.

  • Ellen Haring

    The 10th misguided reason; selfless service. There are very few people on this planet who can claim to have offered selfless service to anyone or anything; Mother Teresa comes to mind but certainly not any members of the military. We choose the military and our specialties because they suited us personally, not because we objectively and accurately assessed what our true talents were and then cast about to determine how we could offer them up, unselfishly to the military. In my 30 years in the military I was always uncomfortable when people thanked me for my service. I served because I liked the Army. I’ve never deluded myself with the patriotic babble of selfless service that many military members like to cloak themselves in. Let’s just admit that we serve because service fulfills us in a multitude of ways. SF is just another opportunity for personal fulfillment.

    • Sure, it’s probably unrealistic that we can absolutely meet the concepts we espouse and encourage Soldiers to follow: Integrity, Selfless Service, Duty, Courage. That shouldn’t dissuade us from holding them up as admirable, pursuable qualities, right?

  • silencedogoodreturns

    High minded, but completely pie in the sky, and wrong in many of the reasons. Of COURSE people with motivation and initiative want to test themselves and see if they are up to the highest standards. It’s like volunteering for the hardest missions, the hardest jobs. That is exactly what selectors should be looking for in an applicant.

    • Agree…but should it be the SOLE reason? A self-interested one?

      • silencedogoodreturns

        I don’t see striving to be your best, to be all you can be, to aim high, as being “self-interested.” And it certainly shouldn’t NOT be a reason to try for SOF selection.