It’s not the 80+ miles of rucking, or the lunges with 100 lbs on your back, or the Devil’s mile. It’s not the bear crawls or the sandbag babies or the low crawls on a rocky, dirt road while you’re pushing your 60 lb ruck forward, one inch at a time. It’s not the lack of sleep, or the mosquito infested mud swamps, or the smell of ammonia you exude as your body eats away at itself. And the back of the t-shirt statistics of this event will never explain why GORUCK Selection is such a formidable test of the human spirit.
The Special Forces Cadre and the standard they enforce are that solitary explanation.
The loudest part of GORUCK Selection is the silence. The tension, the stress, the self-doubt. The regret. We Cadre smell it all, and we use this to our advantage. The unprepared body is the unprepared mind, and the Beethoven symphony of GORUCK Selection begins with a slow, methodical, administrative intro. Beautiful, in its right place because of what’s coming later. You know it, and so do we. Years ago, I wondered whether we should just get to the Welcome Party and ferret out the weak, sooner. Two reasons why not: (1) every military school begins with administration, and a PT test, including Special Forces Assessment Selection. And (2), the deafening silence of your own thoughts, and regrets, are the first chink in your armor. To let them spread in silence makes it that much easier to break your mind when the hammer drops. Because once you’ve already begun to wish you were more prepared, that you had done something, anything more to help you not have this feeling of unpreparedness – we’ve got you right where we want you: fearing the standard we represent.
All Special Forces Cadre have a light switch inside them, and the ability to know when to turn it on. In war, that means the application of lethal force. You have to control your own chemical dump, and the fear for your life, and you have to remain focused on when, and more importantly when not to use lethal force. The better your training, the greater the confidence you have in your abilities, the more restraint you will show, when restraint is called for. But when the world calls for speed and violence of action, you attack the target with everything you have, methodically and accurately. You win at all costs. At Selection, to win as a Cadre is to honor what the standard means, to us.
The Welcome Party is loud and intense. The standard for the candidates is effort, and performance, and forward progress no matter the task at hand. Practically speaking, whoever is winning is achieving the standard, because winning is always the standard. If you’re trying to save energy for later, or if you start to doubt yourself, or if your body is acting like your mind is giving up, we identify it and isolate you for special attention. This sounds subjective because it is, but we Cadre are highly trained to know the difference between someone who is still fighting with all they got and someone who is feeling sorry for themselves and failing to perform, which is the same as quitting.
Failure to make forward progress is dealt with quickly, and harshly.
Candidate, why are you last at everything. Everyone else is doing just fine, they’re way up there and you’re way back here. You’re not meeting the standard. It’s only a matter of time until your body completely fails you. You have two options: quit or win, and you’re quitting.
We say stuff like this over, and over, and over. We never isolate the strong, they’re a waste of our energy because candidates don’t quit when they’re on top – and eventually everyone on top weakens to the bottom. So we focus on the weak zebras when they’re at their weakest, as any smart lion would do. And we pick them off, one by one.
You’re dead last, can you endure this for another 40 hours? You can’t even endure it right now, you’re last at everything. You’re not meeting the standard. Why don’t you just save yourself the trouble of prolonging the inevitable. Your body can’t take much more of it, it’s only a matter of time.
If you’re thinking this sounds brutal, it is, and it’s intended to be. The world isn’t full of sunshine and rainbows, and this event is honoring a standard passed down to us, to our respective Regiments over generations of warriors. This is what its enforcement looks like. The fear, the disappointment, the regrets, the sadness — these universal elements of the human condition are on display at their extremes, as they can be only when one ventures so, so far. And has so much to lose.
And then the evolution comes to an end. It’s morning, and we turn to something monotonous and slow. We want you to have plenty of opportunity to reflect on the screams of your body, on your regrets at not training harder, on whatever it is you wish you had done differently. Failures of all shapes and sizes magnify themselves into a cancer that spreads.
And then you convince yourself you can’t go any further, and you’re out. It happens fast, as any moment does. It’s also not an accident, and you saw it coming just like we did.
Most people never fail at something this awesome. Once a candidate taps out, the Cadre immediately switch out of Cadre mode, and the participants who are our friends become so again. We ask them how they’re feeling, what got them. We give them a hug and tell them we respect what they sacrificed to get this far. We offer our feedback, which is almost always – you were doing fine, you have a lot more gas in the tank and we’re sorry to see you go too soon. Here’s what you need to do next time …
Many trained for months and years, only to find out they underestimated the importance of their why. This is not a physical thing, it’s 100% mental. When the Cadre reign hell down on your body, and it’s screaming at your mind for mercy, you have to have something to draw on that they can’t penetrate. For me, in 2004 when I went through Special Forces Assessment and Selection, I wanted to fight for America on the tip of the spear, whatever that meant, wherever she would send me. I had a lot of anger to quell for what happened to us on 9/11, and I sought revenge. I would tell you now that a call to service was the overarching desire I was searching for, but at that time its manifestation was revenge, and it fueled me day in, and day out. When nobody was looking I was training for the fight, and when everyone was looking, I put out like my life depended on it. Because to me, it did.
The point is this: when the Cadre and the world get into the dark recesses of your mind, and we always do, your why is all you’ll have. And it better be able to endure everything we throw at it, and more. If you don’t have a good why – something that represents something you would fight for until your dying breath – don’t show up for this event.
If the role of the Cadre comes across as cold, methodical, and exacting, that’s the point. There is no room for mercy, or for a relaxing of the standard, ever. This carries through to how we enforce the standard and how we follow the Period of Instruction (POI) for this event to a T. There is even a baseline uniformity of appearance. Black tops, grey bottoms, black rucksacks. The small details reinforce the standards we represent, collectively, and the performance we demand.
We’re not expecting anyone to do anything we haven’t done, or to dig deeper than we’ve had to dig. We’re expecting, simply, everything you got. All of it, and not a drop to spare and then we’re expecting more. If you quit, and you’re the last man standing, then it’ll be a black class, with no finishers. The standard matters even more to us than the fairytale ending.
Let me put it into perspective. Standing in the surf, that’s Rich. A guy who has spent his life in service to America, one of the early Special Forces guys (MACV-SOG in Vietnam) who, through his actions in life, paved the way for the generations of Special Forces soldiers who followed in his footsteps to perform at an even higher level. That was his wish, after all, and it still is — that those who fight for the values he holds dear – God, family, country – are capable of more, that we learn from the mistakes he and his brothers made. And that we always improve what they got right in their long, distinguished careers. He has dedicated his life to America and her defense, and was instrumental in establishing and improving a lot of Selection courses in the Special Operations community. I love this man. Who he is, what he represents, the time I have with him. And I never want to let him down. The standards he’s established in his life – they matter greatly to me, and to us at GORUCK.
So when I invited him to come Cadre at Selection, I was seeking his blessing, and his approval. In my eyes, in judgment of this event, his was the only opinion that mattered.
So when Alex was in the surf at the final Shark Attack, and Rich (who came to thoroughly respect Alex, as all of us Cadre did), told me Alex needed to do sit-ups, facing the surf with his 80 lb. soaking wet ruck on his stomach — I said, Rich, you’re up. He walked out into the surf, his sharp eyes covered but never restrained by black wrap around shades, and gave Alex the standard. As Alex struggled, the standard remained.
As he struggled more, and the waves crashed into his face, and he rolled over and coughed saltwater through his nose, the standard still remained. Rich had no need to move, he just stood there and stared, repeating the instructions he initially gave. The standard.
As you would expect, Alex got a sit-up, and Rich asked him not in the form of a question what took him so long, and that he needed to continue the exercise. And Alex did.
For me, this was the most significant evolution in the history of GORUCK Selection. Or maybe in all of GORUCK. To honor our roots, to span the generations of Special Forces, to demand these kinds of standards of a human being, and to never compromise.
Before too long, we were back at GORUCK Scars. I told Alex to turn around, where Mocha congratulated him on successfully completing GORUCK Selection. Behind my shades were a couple Green Beret tears, and in front of me I saw a few more from the Special Forces Cadre who had demanded so much these last 48 hours.
Ultimately, if you want Selection, come and get it. We’re here, and we’d love to meet you. But more importantly, whomever you are, whatever you think you’re capable of, we’re here to tell you that you can do more, that you can dream bigger, set bigger goals, work harder, and you can win.
You have it in you, Selection is but the inspiration for what you need to do, in your life. And when you do, it’s time to celebrate life to its fullest, as we do in Special Forces, as we did here with Alex and everyone who showed up to take in this special moment in time.
Never forget your why and you can conquer any challenge you put your mind to. For me, it’s to honor our roots. So here’s to you, Rich. To those who came before you, to those you served with, to those who followed in your footsteps, including my generation of warfighters. And most importantly, here’s to those fighting now, and to those who will follow in their footsteps.
Those few in whom the human spirit burns brightest – we honor you.