Special Forces – photo courtesy of the U.S. ArmyCredit: photo courtesy of the U.S. Army

November 2011 marked the 50th anniversary for the Green Berets; the only truly “Special Forces” organization according to many of the approximately 8,000 strong group.  It seems all of the Special Operations Forces get called “Special Forces;” however, the Green Berets are the only ones who have the official title.  It may be semantics, but with a dwindling defense budget, the Green Berets want folks to get it right.  

History of the Green Berets 

Like other Special Operations Units, the Green Berets were officially formed in the early 1950s.  They were unofficially operational long before that.  Special operation units were used in World War II to carry out missions under monikers such as the Devil’s Brigade, Darby’s Rangers, Merrill’s Marauders and the Alamo Scouts.  These units were considered the Army’s elite.  

The philosophy of these units was to shock the enemy with quick strikes and deep thrusts. This became the basis of the modern-day Army Rangers.  While these units were conducting their operations during WW II, another force of small units were parachuting behind enemy lines, developing a network of contacts, training local fighters and waging guerilla warfare on the enemy.  These units were developed by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  

In 1952, the Special Forces were formed and based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Originally 2,300 personnel were allocated to the unit. Colonel Aaron Bank and Colonel Russell Volckmann, two OSS operatives who remained in the military after the war, were instrumental in convincing the Army to form a unit who could go behind the enemy lines and disrupt its operation using unconventional tactics.   

Bank recruited the best men in the Army: former OSS officers, ex-Ranger troops, combat veterans of WWII and Korea and airborne troops.  The men spoke at least two languages, held at least the rank of Sergeant and were trained in infantry and parachute skills.  All of them were volunteers and willing to work behind enemy lines, in civilian clothes if necessary, even though this put them at risk because being out of uniform provided no protection under the Geneva Convention.   

Bank’s unit was activated June 19, 1952 and was designated as the 10th Special Forces Group with Bank as its commander.  The unit consisted of Bank, one warrant officer and eight enlisted men.  Within months, hundreds of volunteers reported to the group after completion of the initial phase of their Special Forces training.  Once the 10th Group was large enough, Bank began training the troops in advanced techniques of unconventional warfare.  

The Army defined the main mission as "to infiltrate by land, sea or air, deep into enemy-occupied territory and organize the resistance/guerrilla potential to conduct Special Forces operations, with emphasis on guerrilla warfare." Secondary missions included deep-penetration raids, intelligence gathering and counterinsurgency operations.  The Special Forces were designed to spend months or sometimes years, deep within hostile territory.  ThA-Team – photo courtesy of the U.S. Army - photographer: unknown (credited as Special Forces Association in Douglas Waller's book The Commandos)Credit: photo courtesy of the U.S. Army - photographer: unknown (credited as Special Forces Association in Douglas Waller's book The Commandos)ey needed to speak the language and be self-sustaining in the target area without extensive resupply from the outside.  

The 10th Group eventually split and formed other Special Force units.  By 1958 the basic operational unit of the Special Forces emerged as a 12-man team known as the A-detachment or A-team.  The A-team consisted of two officers, two operations and intelligence sergeants, two weapons sergeants, two communications sergeants, two medics and two engineers.  Each member was cross-trained and spoke at least one foreign language.  This 12-man A-team could be split into two 6-man teams when necessary. 

The Green Beret Becomes Official Headgear 

The headgear for the Special Forces is traced back to the 77th Group (the first group when the 10th split in 1954). The 77th wanted something to distinguish their group, but administration was resistant to making the beret an official part of the uniform.  President Kennedy had a hand in making that happen.   

In 1961 President Kennedy took interest in the Special Forces and believed they shoGreen Berets Commander and President Kennedy - photo courtesy of the U.S. ArmyCredit: photo courtesy of the U.S. Armyuld have something to distinguish them apart from other troops since they had a special mission.  He called the green beret “a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom;” "symbolic of one of the highest levels of courage and achievement of the United States military." September 21, 1961 marked the official adoption of the hat as the official headgear of all Special Forces troops.  The Green Berets honor Kennedy by placing a wreath in the shape of the beret on his grave on the anniversary of his death.  This tradition began when a sergeant in charge of detail of Special Forces guarding the grave the day of Kennedy’s funeral, placed his beret on the president’s coffin.  

The Special Forces Insignia 

Special Forces Logo is a distinctive black and silver crest with the Latin phrase “De Opresso Liber” which means To Free the Oppressed which is the Special Forces moto.  Two crossed arrowsSpecial Force Badge - photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Institute of HeraldryCredit: photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Institute of Heraldry symbolize the role in unconventional warfare and a fighting knife attached over the arrows reflects the “straight and true” qualities of the Green Beret soldier. 

The patch worn by members is gold and teal in the shape Special Forces Sleeve Patch - photo courtesy of the U.S. ArmyCredit: photo courtesy of the U.S. Armyof an arrowhead.  The gold represents constancy and inspiration; the teal background represents the Forces’ encompassing of all branch assignments.  The arrowhead shape represents the craft and stealth of Native Americans, the first warriors of the country.  The upturned dagger represents the unconventional warfare missions of Special Forces. Three lightning bolts across the dagger represent blinding speed and strength, and the three methods of infiltration - land, sea and air. 

Currently there are five Army and two National Guard active groups.  The Groups are the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th and 10th Army Special Forces and 19th and 20th National Guard groups.  Each group wears a specific insignia patch for their group.  

Requirements for Entry into the Green Berets 

As with other special operation teams, the Green Berets have several general criteria as well as a rigorous assessment process.  Applicants for Special Forces must: 

  • Be a male, age 20-30 (Special Forces positions are not open to women)
  • Be a U.S. citizen
  • Be a high school diploma graduate
  • Achieve a General Technical score of 107 or higher and a combat operation score of 98 on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.
  • Qualify for a secret security clearance.
  • Qualify and volunteer for Airborne training
  • Achieve a minimum of 60 points on each event and overall minimum score of 229 on the Army Physical Fitness Test
  • Must successfully complete the Pre-Basic Task list
  • Must have 20/20 or corrected to 20/20 in both near and distant vision in both eyes
  • One year of college is preferred, but it is not a mandatory for enlistment 

Training for Special Forces 

Training begins with a 30-day Special Operations Preparation Course (SOPC).  The SOPC is designed to prepare candidates for the Special Forces Assessment and Selection Course (SFAS). The course focuses on physical training and land navigation.  Candidates taking and passing this course does not guarantee they will pass the SFAS. 

The SFAS pushes the candidates’ limits of physical and mental endurance.  The 24-day course consists of the following elements:

  • Marches of various lengths or durations, day, night, and weather conditions.  Candidates carry 50lb backpacks and are not told at the beginning of a march how long it will last.
  • Runs, with or without packs
  • Obstacle courses designed to test fitness and stamina and to weed out candidates with a fear of heights or enclosed spaces
  • Orientation and Field-craft Exercises test candidates’ abilities to navigate with map and compass.
  • Situation and Reaction Exercises tests designed to evaluate candidates’ abilities to solve problems while mentally and physically exhausted.
  • Team Cooperation Exercises test the candidates' abilities to work together and accomplish a common goal. Being able to work as a part of a team while under pressure is an important attribute of a Special Forces soldier.

 Throughout the eSFAS  Green Beret Course - photo courtesy of the U.S. ArmyCredit: photo courtesy of the U.S. Armyntire course, candidates are deprived of sleep and kept under intense pressure. By the second week of SFAS, over half of the original 300 candidates have quit or been disqualified by their instructors.  Those who graduate SFAS move on to Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC), or Q course.  

The Q course consists of five phases (phases II-VI).  Phase II is the individual skill phase and consists of land navigation, small unit tactics and live-fire training.  Phase III focuses on the candidates’ specialty skills, and thus is aptly called MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) training. Specialty skills are based on a candidate’s background, aptitude and desires.  

Phase IV is Collective Training and consists of Special Forces doctrine and organization along with Unconventional Warfare operations, Direct Action operations, methods of instruction and both Airborne and airmobile operations.  Candidates are deployed to Uwharrie National Forest in North Carolina for an unconventional warfare exercise where they perform as a member of an Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) (also known as the A-Team) and their specialty and common skills are evaluated.  

Phase V is Language Training.  Candidates are required to be proficient in at least one foreign language in order to be a Green Beret.  During this phase candidates not only learn the language, but also the culture associated with it.   Phase VI is the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) course. This course ends the SFQC training.   

Special Forces soldiers might receive further training called Live Environment Training (LET) which completely immerses the soldier in another culture.  He learns to be fluent in the country’s language, customs and traditions.  

Current Green Berets 

Typical structure for a team continues to be a 12-man team consisting of two Weapons Sergeants, two Communication Sergeants, two Medical Sergeants and two Engineering Sergeants in addition to a Commander, an Assistant Commander (Warrant Officer), an Operations/Intelligence Sergeant and a Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge (NCOIC).  However, team configuration changes according to the type of mission.  The members continue to be cross-trained and specialty trained in different disciplines.  

Special Forces were some of the first boots on the ground in AfghaniSpecial Forces Training Foreign Military – photo courtesy of JSOTF-TS Public AffairsCredit: photo courtesy of JSOTF-TS Public Affairsstan and Iraq in the early 2000s to combat the war on terror.  According to the NY Times, “Special Forces equals Green Berets. Got it?” the Green Beret small-footprint counterinsurgency is being discussed as a possible exit strategy of Afghanistan. The program, Village Stability, designed by the Special Forces is promoted as the way to keep the Taliban out with few U.S. troops needed.  Don’t tell a Green Beret this task should be farmed out to “regular troops.”   Retired Special Forces Col. David Maxwell says not everyone has the skills or aptitude to work in small teams in remote areas with indigenous forces. 

The copyright of the article “Special Forces: The Green Berets” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

The Ballad of the Green Beret

SSgt Barry Sadler - "The Ballad of the Green Berets" (1966)