Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The Army I Knew: Candy Stripers (SFQC I)

I arrived at Ft. Bragg in the late spring of 1981 with the idea that I wanted to be a Special Forces medic. There were a whole bunch of things wrong with that idea that I was too stupid and callow to understand but that the U.S. Army should have known - probably did know - but was ignoring right at that time because to deal with them would have been painful and inconvenient.
The first was that I had no business being there at all.

In 1981 the Special Forces was still a bit of a tough sell in an Army that was generally defined by several competing conventional war advocates.

There were the big cannons, the "heavy Army", that thought of itself as having won WW2 and was still centered around the armored formations then largely stationed in Germany training to fight the Battle of the Fulda Gap. I had no idea what that Army did and still largely don't; my service since my initial entry training has been entirely confined to the light infantry and light artillery. But there was certainly no room for a bunch of goofy types playing injuns with the natives there.

The other Army was often referred to as the "Airborne Mafia"; the guys whose careers revolved around the regular parachute infantry and artillery formations that clustered about the American Southeast; XVIII Airborne Corps and the 82nd Division at Ft. Bragg, and the Ranger battalions at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia. (We were told that there was another Ranger battalion somewhere near the Pacific Ocean but, frankly, nobody really believed that).

The SF was an oddball outlier of the Airborne Mafia, though, and still didn't really fit well there.

It was jump-qualified, yes. But it was populated exclusively by senior NCOs and officers who had no troops to lead. And while rumor had it that these guys were superbly qualified in their MOS they were also supposed to be utterly unreliable, undisciplined wild men who couldn't lead four privates to the latrine unless the privates were half-naked Bushmen who spoke Urdu and wiped their asses with their hands.

The "heavy Army" considered these nuts somewhere between a submersible tank and a fairy story; there just wasn't any connection there at all.

The Airborne, light community had a very peculiar connection; the SF were considered both the ultimate light infantryman and a dangerous waste of perfectly good potential platoon sergeants and company commanders.

So the outfit operated in an odd kind of gray area, which for the "old hands" in the SF seemed to be a perfectly delightful place to work.

I should note here that, even as I was wandering onto the "pre-phase" area over in the old 1st COSCOM part of Ft. Bragg to sign into the enlisted version of the Special Forces Qualification Course (or "SFQC"), the SF was changing drastically and as my battle buddy jim would probably tell you, not really for the better. To digress a bit, the original notion of the outfit, what made it "Special", was its direct descent from the old OSS "Jedburgh" teams of WW2; a very small organization designed to work with non-U.S. irregulars to create guerrilla outfits and subversion/sabotage undergrounds - "Free French" sorts of things. In Vietnam the SF had worked with a lot of the mountain tribes to create guerrilla "Mike Forces", but had also been shifted into acting as trainers and advisors to ARVN line units.

The big change came in 1977 with the official establishment of 1st SFOD-Delta - the "Delta Force" of movie, comic book, and lunchbox fame. Now the SF was in the business of "direct action"; conventional small-unit tactics designed around the sorts of reconnaissance and raiding that the U.S. Army Rangers had previously monopolized. In effect Charlie Beckwith and his pals turned a large portion of the USSF into a clone of the British Special Air Service.
I think that this was and is vastly more important than has often been recognized.

Because up until that point the rest of the U.S. Army really didn't know what to do with the SF. They looked on these guys as the weird kids in the flop down at the end of the street; kinda smelly, kinda hairy, probably subversive, and just generally not really..."Army".

But a bunch of straight-up, crew-cut door kickers?

THAT, both the Airborne and the treadhead Army types could get behind.

So here we are today.

But in the late spring of 1981 I knew none of this. All I knew is that the SF seemed like a sort of thinking-man's Army; a bunch of guys who could sneak into places the enemy couldn't control, cause a lot of mayhem and creative destruction with a couple of bits of wire and some C4, and then, if everything went to hell, blow the shit out of the place and grab a hat. And I really liked that idea - the idea that even as one guy in an army of half a million I could make a difference, play a teensy part in changing the world. Mind you, I never got to thinking far enough ahead to wonder what I would be changing that world into...

But, regardless, here's the thing; think about the sort of soldier it takes to do something like that.

I can think of a lot of qualities inherent in that sort of troop. But I can think of one thing that he's NOT:

A cherry-ass private straight out of AIT.

Which, of course, is what I was.

In 1981 the U.S. Army was going through one of its periodic stupid-spells about troop training and end-strength.

The Seventies had been bad for the SF; a lot of the guys who had thrived in Vietnam were bored shitless in peacetime. Even more were not fundamentally suited to sitting around Bragg training. My buddy jim reminds me, too, that post-'72 a lot of good officers and NCO's were let go - "reduction-in-force'd" or "RIFted", and because of their hairy-ass rep a lot of good SF guys went out in the RIF. Many simply retired after putting their twenty years in.

And, remember, the regular Army still wasn't all that enthused about these weirdo Green Beanies playing Howlin' Commandos in the piney woods, meaning that for a hard-charging NCO looking to make Sergeant Major, or for a career-minded officer, a stretch in the SF could be a career killer.

And the then-policy of taking only non-first-term enlisted soldiers and non-volunteer officers into the SFQC meant that if sergeants weren't volunteering the intake numbers to SF were down. Way down. So the intake numbers for the SF groups were down, and god-forbid that the numbers should go down.

So the Army decided in its infinite wisdom that it needed to start sending privates to SFQC.
And that meant PFC Lawes went from Jump School to bunking in the old WW2 barracks over in COSCOM, spending his days speed-marching and running and generally killing time waiting to head out to Camp Mackall for the first Phase of SFQC.

When I think back to that time and the immense foolishness of the U.S. Army the thing that comes to mind is what we wore on our heads and what that said about the idiocy of the entire business. Because what we wore we had no business wearing; a green beret. With a "candy stripe".

It's been decades since anyone's seen one of these "nonqualified personnel bars", so I should explain, and in that explanation I think you'll see the point.

Because the whole idea of the beret - useless hat that it was - was purely as a sign of military skill.

The original SF beret was a sort of secret handshake. It was pure rebellion, a raised middle finger to the rest of the Army, a sign that the rebels, guerrilla fighters, and wild men were harder, stronger, sneakier, and deadlier than other soldiers. And it remained that way until JFK fell in love with the idea of super-soldier American freedom fighters and authorized it for official wear.

But it was STILL a secret handshake. Only real SF troopers could wear it; the cooks and clerks and bakers in the SF groups had to make do with regular old issue hats; p-caps, ball caps, whatever. And - if you know the Army - you can imagine the heartburn that caused the dress-right-cover-down senior officer types that populated CINCland. All these different hats in formation! How...unmilitary! Ribbon-adorned bosoms heaved everywhere...

So word came down from on high; every swinging richard in an SF unit - including an SF training unit - shall wear the funny green headbag. Regardless of what they did or could do.

Which kind of negated the symbolism of the hat, obviously, which was more important to the team guys than military uniformity.

So. The groups finagled the regulation by coming up with a gradation of hats.

Fully qualified guys wore the beret complete with the full flash - the shield-shaped bit of colored cloth that was particular to each group; white for the training group ("JFKCMA", as it was called), yellow (with the three red striped of the RVN, at that time) for 1st, red for 7th, green for 10th...you get the idea). Which, by the way, produced the term "flash-qualified" as shorthand for a fully-trained SF trooper.
The rest of us; ash-and-trash, trainees, goatherders - we wore a rectangle cut from the same flash as the assigned group. So, being assigned to training, I wore a green beanie with a little white rectangle under my "De Oppresso Liber" scroll and crossed arrows. Meaning absolutely nothing; for all that I might look the look, I was no more capable of fighting in an unconventional war than I could have understudied the lead in a Bulgarian porno film.

The thing I wore on my head was a ridiculous mistake, for me, and for the U.S. Army.

As I was soon to discover.
(Next: SFQC II, or "Indigestion on Honeybun Hill")


rangeragainstwar said...

EXCELLENT over view, but pls allow me to add-by 1975 most/many SF combat experienced officers were rif'd and dog shit dead career wise.
The airborne mafia took over the 18 career field.
Example - the PROPONENCY OFFICE was filled with 173rd vets which was the closest flavor that equated to SF. This was sorry shit.
Indeed Beckwith twisted the 18 series to fit his viewpoint which was as u described.Example- removing the LT from the a team and replacing same with a long term EM redesignated as a WO. Intel and opns types only were selected, so this set the template.
Back in the day a WP'er would rarely volunteer for SF b/c this was generally the kiss of death- there were some notable exceptions, but they just did touch and goes for ticket punching purposes.
In closing- in my sfoc (3-70) we had a req'd reading list. Imagine that.We even studied AREA STUDIES, and were trained to conduct same- did anybody read these area studies on IRQ/AFGH BEFORE pre-invasion decisions were made?
Sometimes i think they should just put me in front of a wall and shoot my ass-i feel that outta step.

Don Francisco said...

Gripped - hope it's not long till the next post!

Lisa said...

I was no more capable of fighting in an unconventional war than I could have understudied the lead in a Bulgarian porno film. ...

TOO funny! And thank you for this excellent overview -- I found it MOST informative. We shall be eagerly awaiting SFQC II.

rangeragainstwar said...

i don't understand your comment.

FDChief said...

jim: The Army we knew is long, long gone - and I retired less than ten years ago. It's Exum's Army now, man.

And because of that I'm glad - for a lot of reasons - that I didn't make it through PhI. I don't think I would have wanted to become the sort of troop I would have if I'd been SF in the 90s and Oughts.

DF - Glad you liked it - Part 2 coming later this week...

Lisa: You mean jim hasn't told you all his Tales from Training? (Actually, I'll bet his PhI was very different from mine; even by the early 80's the old POI had changed quite a bit, and the impact of having the privates there was changing it even more...) Glad you're liking it, tho...

Lisa said...

Your tales shall be different from Jim's (though I am familiar with some of the history).

It is your unique perspective, and of course inimitable style, that keep us waiting with bated breath, m'dear ;)

FDChief said...

Lisa: I'm tickled to inspire such enthusiasm, then; now I'm on tenterhooks, and I know how it ends..!

rangeragainstwar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lisa said...

You most definitely do inspire.

Bill Sanders said...

I started as a E4 after 3 years RA as a 95B, MP, my Father and both brothers were 11B, so I reupped as a reservist after I ETSd, 12th Gp Arlington. Heights Il. I was the CBR NCO too so CSM Craig put me in the Chemical Recon.unit, what a mess. no equipment, no nothing. I thought regular Army was bad.