The Army’s Green Berets have gained a reputation over the decades for their toughness and fighting skills. They served with local forces in Vietnam, and in recent years, they’ve deployed repeatedly to Iraq and Afghanistan. The list of their deployments continues to grow: Niger. Somalia. Yemen. Syria. Philippines.
Now a fight appears to be growing inside the Green Beret community.
An anonymous and scathing 12-page letter that begins — “Our Regiment has a cancer, and it is destroying the SF (Special Forces) legacy, its capability and its credibility” — has gone viral over the past few weeks among active-duty and retired soldiers.
It charges that the Green Beret command at its Fort Bragg, N.C., school has lowered training standards and graduated Green Berets who are “markedly and demonstrably weaker; and quantifiably projecting measurable risk and liability onto the teammates with which they serve.”
It is signed: “A concerned Green Beret.”
The letter writer’s identity remains a mystery at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg. But the command does not dispute its authenticity and has responded with a letter of its own, signed by the officer who runs the school, Maj. Gen. Kurt Sonntag. It’s addressed to the men and women at the school.
“Many of you have seen the anonymous letter calling into question the integrity of our training standards and the quality of the Soldiers being produced. Let me be clear,” Sonntag writes in his letter, a copy of which was provided to NPR by the command, “I would be proud to serve with each and every one of our Special Forces Qualification Course graduates, and I stand behind the quality of every Soldier we send to the operational force.”
The general went on to say that “no fundamental SF standard has been removed. No academic or character performance standards have been adjusted.”
The Green Beret community weighs in
NPR reached out to nearly a dozen current and former Green Berets — none of whom wanted their names used — and got a mixed reaction to the dispute.
Some see the anonymous letter writer as disgruntled, or lacking in sufficient experience or being unaware of the bigger picture, namely the difficulty in recruiting and retaining Green Berets.
There are some 7,000 active-duty Green Berets and officials say they could lose hundreds in the coming years because of the strain of repeated deployments and failure to meet recruiting targets.
Others say the letter writer is raising some important issues.
They contend the quality of the Special Forces soldiers has decreased for at least several years. “We don’t want to lose quality for quantity,” said one veteran Green Beret stationed at Fort Bragg, who requested anonymity. “You can’t mass produce special operators.”
This non-commissioned officer said he only has a few years left to serve and he’ll stick it out. If he had ten more years, he says, he would opt out. He said the loss of veteran operators and the increase in less-competent Green Berets is having an impact.
“It’s killing morale,” he said.
Still, this Green Beret empathized with the command.
“I see it from both sides. The recruiting pool is gone. They’re in a tough spot.”
One Green Beret who served with Sonntag in Afghanistan praised his leadership skills, and recalled him saying that all Green Berets have a responsibility to make sure every one of them succeeds.
Charges are detailed and specific
In the anonymous letter, the “concerned Green Beret” takes on physical fitness workouts — where he claims that instructors are punished for making them too hard — and says there are instances of favoritism and cheating.
The author’s examples of below-standard students and maligned trainers are complete with names, rank, units and dates.
As far as training, the anonymous letter says students can no longer wash out for failing to pass physical tests, ranging from a five-mile run to a twelve-mile march with a heavy pack to dozens of push-ups and sit-ups. Instead these tests became “diagnostic” to determine the students’ level of achievement.
The only way out of Green Beret training is voluntarily withdrawal or injury.
“To say that standards have not been eliminated would be laughable, were it not so tragic,” the anonymous letter states.
Maj. Gen. Sonntag, in his own letter, defended the diagnostic approach as opposed to simply washing out a student.
Such an effort gives instructors “more time to prepare the students for these events. Students must meet these standards prior to joining the operational force,” the general wrote.
Those who applied and passed the physical tests and assessment to become a Green Beret student, the general wrote, should be able to make it through the more than year-long qualifying course. If such an assessment “is correct, and we believe it is, the [Special Forces Qualifying Course] is not a place where high attrition rates should occur.”
Sonntag declined an interview request from NPR. Instead he agreed to address a few questions through his staff.
The anonymous letter writer says one Green Beret officer during a meeting ordered a 92 percent pass rate, though Sonntag says, “There has been no graduation percentage set by any level of command…” The school declined to talk about graduation rates, but one current Green Beret said his class a decade ago saw more than 50 percent fail.
Sonntag did offer one statistic in his letter to the school: “In 2017, more than 2,000 Soldiers attempted the [Special Forces Assessment and Selection], and 541 graduated from the [Special Forces Qualifying Course].”
But he offered no number on how many passed the assessment and made it into the qualifying course, so there’s no sense of the fail rate.
The anonymous letter writer claims there’s a reason the standards are being adjusted: To bring in female candidates, a view supported by one of the Green Berets contacted by NPR. The Pentagon allowed women to apply for Green Beret training two years ago. Only a handful have tried; None has passed.
But Sonntag also denies that standards have in any way been altered to bring in more female students, saying in response to an NPR question: “That is not the case. Special Operations training is inclusive, and each candidate is held to the same standard…”
The general ends his letter to the troops by saying he wants a “healthy dialogue as a means of improvement.”
“Every level of command,” the general writes, “has been encouraged to challenge the current process, phasing and training methodology to ensure (the school’s) training remains relevant…”