Soldiers regularly arrive at Camp Mackall to undertake what has been deemed one of the most stringent selection processes in the U.S. Army. They show up, set aside rank and unit, are organized alphabetically by last name, and embrace 21-days of “suck.” The Special Forces Assessment and Selection process is a grueling one. But it is only the beginning. Those selected then enter the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, and attend the Special Forces Qualification Course, where they are met with challenges and learning opportunities that will, if they persevere, deliver them to the ranks of some of America's most elite soldiers.
Many of these soldiers do not arrive to the Q-Course alone; they arrive with their spouses and families in tow.
Several of those spouses signed up for a unique opportunity to walk in their partner's footsteps, even if only for an afternoon on Wednesday, May 4.
This is the second year the Spouse Q-Course, organized by JFKSWCS and Orient, Navigate, Employ, Train, Educate, Advise and Mentor (O.N.E. T.E.A.M.), has been offered.
DeeAnn Rader, the JFKSWCS family resiliency coordinator, explained that the event took on a life of its own, with spaces filling up very quickly.
“There was huge interest,” Rader explained.
One participant signed up to gain insight into what her husband was experiencing and to meet new people.
“I signed up mainly to get the experience he went through, and the second thing was to meet other wives, other spouses,” said Ashton, whose husband is in the Special Forces Delta (Medic) Q-Course.
The day began with a briefing on the events planned for the day.
After being separated into groups, the spouses rotated through different modules, each representing some form of the training their partners have experienced or will be experiencing on their journey to becoming Green Berets.
Arriving in a caravan of white buses, participants disembarked at the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) training facility at Camp Mackall.
At the SERE facility and under the instruction of the school's cadre, the spouses were introduced to forms of makeshift weaponry such as atlatls, an ancient style of spear, and wooden bows. Each took a turn with the weapons while learning skills and details similar to what their spouses are taught when they attend the SERE school.
After demonstrating the construction and use of the weapons, the instructor explained that the weapons help the soldiers feed themselves in austere conditions.
“Now we have something we can kill with, with a lot more accuracy,” a cadre member said.
After learning how to create an active means to feed themselves through weaponry, the spouses took a stroll through a winding path of preset snares and traps.
“In Vietnam, one of their [Prisoners of War] main sources of protein was trapping,” an instructor explained. “When they [soldiers] are out evading and need to feed the machine, these are some of the techniques we teach them.”
Beginning with Figure Four, a baited trap, the SERE instructor explained how each trap could help a soldier survive.
“This is a baited trap, and as we tell y'all's husbands you need to catch the nose first,” he said.
As explained to the participants, each trap on display has a particular mechanism designed to target specific types of prey and each trap or snare works best when placed in the right environment.
“It's got to be in the right area,” he explained.
After learning about trapping and snares, it was time to learn about the other wildlife that can make or break a soldier's survival chances.
Entering the Little Muddy Training Area, a classroom with stadium seating and a wall of primarily venomous snakes, another SERE instructor welcomed the participants.
“This is the survival training area,” explained a member of the SERE cadre. “This is the first-place students come before they continue on in the SERE pipeline. We set the ground rules for everything we need to be able to survive behind enemy lines.”
After a joke or two about escaped snakes, civilian instructor John Breach, originally from the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), taught the visiting spouse-students about the different types of snakes on display. While most were dangerous, one of the menagerie was a harmless corn snake that was passed around to the participants. Some squealed, some faced fears, and some handled the serpent like old pros.
As the participants filed out of the facility, they were greeted by the “Roadkill Café.” Two types of meat were presented on a grill over a smoking firepit. Each pile of meat was accompanied by the corresponding creature's leg to help identify which was deer and which was goat. Cadre offered the teams of spouses small portions of both to sample.
One of the spouses asked about food preparation techniques.
“If there is one thing we stress, there is no medium rare with wild game,” explained the Roadkill Café chef as spouses collected their samplings. “You thoroughly cook it and then boil it until it's nice and tender and then I cut it up, put it over the fire and let the smoke take care of it.”
After grabbing a piece of each Roadkill Café offering, the students assembled on bleachers to learn all about fire.
Christopher Kibler, a civilian instructor, asked the attendees, “What is our goal here?”
In unison, they responded, “Survival.”
Kibler rattled off a long list of pros and cons of fire and showed his audience what wood to burn and how to create fire with a mix of unexpected tools, including household batteries. Kibler explained that while fire is essential, they teach soldiers it has a time and a place.
“It provides that psychological boost. You know, you're staring at the old Ranger television, and it makes you feel good,” Kibler said. “The problem is you're staring at this [fire], and you don't see who is staring back at you. So, fire gives you that psychological boost, but it also gives you a false sense of security.”
After the group fire course, the spouses broke for a lunch of Meals, Ready-to-Eat.
Next up, the spouses encountered an obstacle course of legendary proportions. The Nasty Nick obstacle course is a rite of passage for would-be Green Berets. The course is named for Col. James “Nick” Rowe, who was held captive during the Vietnam War and was one of only 34 American POWs to escape his captors. He spent five years in captivity. Rowe is credited with developing the SERE program from the knowledge he gained as a POW.
The course comprises more than 20 obstacles and stretches for a mile through the Camp Mackall woodlands.
As the participants navigated the course, they called out words of support and coached one another over difficult hurdles.
Michelle, who is an Army veteran herself, said she did not train before the event.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” she said.
At the third obstacle, she was feeling the difficulty of the task.
“I am winded, and I am nervous to see what's next.”
However, the experience has been a positive one.
“My biggest takeaway is how fortunate we, and I am, to be able to come out and do something like this. And to just be around an awesome group of people, not just the spouses but the cadre and the service members themselves. That they're taking their time to do this for us and teach us these things, give us this boost of confidence,” Michelle said.
Rader explains that the teams have built a strong connection by the end of the event.
“You can see the interaction build, and you see how throughout the day they encourage one another, and they build on one another's strength,” she said.
Rader said that she feels this event exemplifies how the Special Operations community works hard to support soldiers and their families.
“SOF World is an awesome enterprise that focuses on the health and wellness of the whole family; this is just one of these examples that we take pride in of taking care of our soldiers and the families. Families are very important, and I think that is a great experience for all of the spouses to be able to have,” Rader said.
Ashton was excited about going home to share her experience with her husband.
“It was a blast,” she said. “We are going to sit down and talk about every single obstacle, and I am going to try to remember every instructor's name and say, ‘do you know this guy’ and ‘do you know this guy?’”
She said that her feedback for the organizers is simple, “Keep doing it … Keep doing and providing things like this.”