By David Van En and Vlad Odobescu
When it comes to the military, teamwork has a different purpose than creating trivial paperwork or making some money: it’s about staying alive. Considering Dave’s impressive experience in this field (detailed below), we discussed about how Special Forces teams function, about overcoming difficult moments. We found out that humor is an essential ingredient in extreme situations.
Dave: I was an Air Force SERE Specialist and an Army Infantryman assigned to three Special Forces Units, but never was a Special Forces soldier myself. I have trained hundreds of Special Forces soldiers, am close friends with number of these guys, and have worked alongside many of these soldiers in the past. I was in the process of going through the Army Special Forces selection and training process when I was recruited for a position to another unit made up from various special operation backgrounds and members.
We are looking at team dynamics of Special Forces (SF) teams. There is a common misconception that often appears in news articles that confuses the term “Special Forces”. To clarify, Special Forces is a specific job category that belongs to the U.S. Army. The confusion often arises when referring to other Special Operations troops or units. For example: a writer may think the terms SEAL or Special Forces are interchangeable, when in fact they are not. The name Special Forces can be synonymous with Green Berets, but often Special Forces soldiers do not prefer to be referred to as a hat. A common and acceptable interchangeable term for Special Forces is SF.
Vlad: How is such a team built, psychologically and physically?
Dave: When we talk about the selection process, they’re looking for people who are typically smarter than the average soldier, to determine this they would have a number of academic based tests. Those would often also be coupled with massive physical or other mental tasks. For example, you may have to write an essay after you’ve been running around with a 80 pound rucksack for about 14 hours and you haven’t slept in two days. Even while physically and mentally exhausted a Special Forces brain is still expected to function and still be somewhat articulate. Another psychological thing that they do – and it’s really important for the team dynamic – is that during the selection phase they do a series of what they call peer evaluations. So it’s not just some instructor who are watching the selectees go through and making decisions on whether or not they would be a good fit, but it’s also the other trainees, the other selectees who are rating each other.
Vlad: So that is the first interaction you have with your future colleagues.
Dave: It is. Well, you could even be working with your instructor when you’re going through the instruction later on, but more likely the tightest bonds that you’re going to create are with the other trainees. Because those are the folks who are suffering with you.
Vlad: Just to have an idea: are the backgrounds of these guys very different or are they rather similar?
Dave: There is a lot of differences…
Vlad: That is important when you’re trying to create a team.
Dave: I would say that there are commonalities probably more often than not. A common term used is to say that these men and others like them are cut from the same cloth. Most people in the military – I would say the majority – tend to be from middle America or South-Eastern America, so there’s that kind of a regional commonality that a lot of folks may have in addition to cultural upbringings, that a lot might share. A significant portion of the military probably has similar political leanings, so there isn’t often conflict on those issues. If you have a different opinion most keep them to themselves. When there are differences of opinion (not too rare) one of the things with these individuals is that they have to be able to give sh˙˙and take sh˙˙ and have a thick skin and not worry about it differences. Ultimately, what they all will always have in common is that they’ve gone through the same very tough physical and mental selection process which overrides most ideological or political differences.
Vlad: And that transforms you, I guess.
Dave: Yes. One: you know that the guy next to you is able to deal with significant challenges, both physical and mental and is also bright enough to be able to learn from mistakes and rise above difficult problems. At a minimum a Special Forces soldier knows the man next to him is resilient and trainable enough to be counted on when things get tough. If I just meet you, and I know you’re a Special Forces (SF) guy, I wouldn’t have to go through the typical getting to know you or ‘sizing-up’ of the other person. I know at least that we share the fundamentals. There still may be some interpersonal differences, but that initial tempering is a big part of the trust that these men share.
“Humor is huge for bonding and getting through very difficult situations: being able to laugh at yourself and how much everything sucks. There’s a term, “embracing the suck”, that is very common. You’re in it with the buddy next to you and you have to look and laugh of how you’re such an idiot to be here in the first place, to be putting yourself through something so grueling, when you could have a nice and safe job, spend time with your significant other or family and not have to deal with the pain and frustration.“
Vlad: What happens next, when the selection is over and you’re actually training with your colleagues?
Dave: I’ll go through the whole thing. Initially, they had the “18 X-ray program”, where someone off the street could apply for Special Forces and go through basic training, through selection, the Q-course (qualification course) and then be assigned to an ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha) team. When they make it onto a Special Forces team the training continues after that throughout their career. But you’re actually operational at that point.
There are also people who are already in the army who can put in an application package. Who also go through selection. As of now, I think it’s 24-27 days long and it’s a severe task saturation, sleep deprivation, you’re moving long distances with heavy weight and you’re getting problem sets that you have to work through. A typical problem maybe something like: you have a lot of heavy equipment including an axle, two tires, some rope and you have to move everything for seven miles in two hours or something similar.
Vlad: This looks really tough and I’m sure it is. Is there place to show emotion when you interact with people throughout this process?
Dave: There is. Probably the most common, the most accepted and most appreciated is humor. If someone breaks down and starts sobbing, they probably are not going to do very well. Just because it pulls everybody else down a little bit and that’s a distraction that no one can really afford to deal with as it can put a strain on the team.
Special Forces Assesment and Selection
“It’s a leaderless environment, where you say: «This is what it’s going to happen, this is what it needs to happen, and let’s see who takes charge, and let’s see how they work together as a team.»”
Vlad: It means you’re not made for this.
Dave: Yes, If you are breaking down emotionally you’re likely not solid enough to push through lack of sleep and sh**** work and the other guys that can deal better probably don’t want to work with someone who loses their cool when things get hard.
Vlad: So humor would have an important role in creating an atmosphere, in creating the team, after all.
Dave: That’s huge for bonding and getting through very difficult situations: being able to laugh at yourself and how much everything sucks. There’s a term, “embracing the suck”, that is very common. You’re in it with the buddy next to you and you have to look and laugh of how you’re such an idiot to be here in the first place, to be putting yourself through something so grueling, when you could have a nice and safe job, spend time with your significant other or family and not have to deal with the pain and frustration.
US Army Special Forces
“You have fights inside a team, maybe you lost some good people in the team. (…) Some had heartaches, had problems, and succeeded in spite of that.”
Vlad: When there’s so much discipline, is there place for negotiation between the members of the team when you have a common task?
Dave: Absolutely. There is still military ranking with officers and enlisted men working together. There is a point when you’re given a military order and you do it, but typically a Special Forces team allows a lot more back and forth. Because everybody has such significant training, and they all typically bring a high level of professionalism and experience. Something that I actually appreciate about a military team dynamic is that ultimately, after we’ve had our discussion, one person is still making the decision. They are going to listen to everybody, but it’s on them to make that decision. Maybe you don’t like the decision, but you know that at least you were heard. Even if you disagree you are going to follow that decision, because that’s what you’re expected to do, and that’s what is going to keep everyone alive. Sometimes, in non military professional environments when you don’t have that absolute necessity to cooperate, it can be kind of frustrating, with too much give and take and nobody willing to make a hard choice. This is not to say that there are not sh**bags in SF or other Special Operations teams people who you’re not going to fully mesh with, or people who outrank you with whom you disagree, but at the end of the day you need to be a professional to get the job done.
Vlad: Is there a significant change in the way you are looking at teamwork before and after you started?
Dave: I’m a weird duck. A lot of the guys would come from significant sport high schools backgrounds… I hadn’t participated in too many team environments before my time in the military. My selection process as an Air Force SERE (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape) specialist was much less team dependent. Some participants were not very interested in the team dynamic. What initially drew my attention to SF is that they tend to be a little older than SEALs, Rangers, SERE guys, PJ’s or other Special Operations, where the average age is 19 to 23. The average age for the SF soldier is 27 to 35, they are more developed psychologically and socially.
One of the things that attracts you to the necessity of working with a team is that when you’re going into scary situations, you realize that it’s not you alone that needs to negotiate those. You need people to your left and your right who you can rely on. You want to know that you’re effective in taking care of the people too. You realize that a team is absolutely necessary in something like that, and it’s nice to have people to depend on you and it’s nice to have people that you can lean on too. One of the reasons that I went into the military is that I have many dear friends from high school, but before joining I couldn’t count on them for more than superficial things. I wanted to work with and make friends with people that I can count on for anything.
“More than having to do push-ups for 4 hours it’s that you’re not getting along with everybody or you’re not clicking with them. So when someone starts crying or gets pissed off, it’s not because he’s doing push-ups, it’s because all of the stress that has been building up. The push-ups are just the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
Vlad: Do you remember an experience when teamwork was really important?
Dave: I’ll tell you one in the Air Force, when we were in one of the first phases of our qualification course. We were in a survival scenario: 30 days in the middle of nowhere, with very limited food, limited resources. We had an ax and some clothes for the night, and we were given massive amount of work to do. We would work for 20 to 22 hours a day, and maybe get a little bit of sleep and then go again. In some days, you wouldn’t finish your stuff, so you wouldn’t be able to sleep, and everyone is a mess. One of the things we needed to do was to build beds for everybody. A basic task, for which you needed pine boughs, to have them arched up, and they had to be like 3 feet high, and there were about 12 of us there. They had to be 4 feet by 3 feet high, so you needed a significant amount of pine boughs. We were also in an area with a forest regulation, where you couldn’t cut whole trees down, you could take only the lower third of the pine trees branches. We had been in this area for about ten days, and we had a limited range of where we were allowed work out of. We had already basically stripped all the pine boughs for other task, and were in short supply of our needed materials. So after the instructor had left us we hiked out of area that we were allowed to be in and found 3 or 4 big trees with lots of pine bough. We didn’t follow the rules and just cut them down completely. We took the stripped tree trunks and move them another 2 miles away from our camp, and threw them off a cliff, so they would never be found. Next day, all good. The day after that, all good. It was the third or fourth day when our instructors came back on a different route and they found the trees. They were furious we had broken their rules so they “smoked” us. At this point we hadn’t slept for a few days, we were completely exhausted, kind of delirious – the last thing you need is to burn 1000 calories in an hour – at the end they said that we needed to go and get those trees and bring them back and with our knives and our axes turn them into tiny chips, that had to be no bigger than an inch in diameter and a quarter inch thick. There were 3 or 4 trees, each over 60 feet long. We just had to chop the sh** out of them. It was pretty good, we were making fun of each other. As a group, we made a decision to try and save some time and cut a corner and we knew that there were consequences to pay if we got caught. When we got caught no one was bitter or angry at each other. It sucked for everybody, but it was a funny and hard way to learn a lesson. We got a kick out of it, and the punishment was hilarious, honestly. It was awful to do, but it was quite a creative punishment. (He laughs)
In all such situations, it’s about suffering together and then laughing together and getting through it. I have a couple of other stories with people who weren’t able to process it and the frustration level gets too high. They tend lash out either in anger or sadness…
A video that follows one Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) Special Forces team in Afghanistan
Vlad: And they are isolated from the others, I guess.
Dave: Yes. Unless there’s someone who is willing to risk his reputation and stick their neck out to try and bring that person back into the fold. If someone has a negative breakdown it is likely more than just having to do push-ups for 4 hours it’s that you’re not getting along with everybody or you’re not clicking with them. So when someone starts crying or gets pissed off, it’s not because he’s doing push-ups, it’s because all of the stress, including interpersonal, that has been building up. The push-ups are just the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
(…) In the Special Forces, they got it down to 12 men groups and that team has some redundancy, so it can split into 2 teams. For the actual breakdown, there’s a team leader who’s an officer, and the second in command would be the assistant team leader. The team leader is concerned with the strategic mission of the team: we’re going to Afghanistan and we’re going to try and be responsible for this region. We’re going to meet with a warlord and see if we can recruit him and this guy, we will talk with some of the villagers, and see if we can win their hearts and minds and see if we can work with them. The goal is to see if we can feed them information and allow us to operate inside of their community. The assistant team leader is going to look at the specific threat models and intelligence strategies and advise the team leader, but he can also split and act as a team leader for half the team. So he and the team leader communicate a lot and he would be the number one adviser. It would be comparable to a vice-president position. Then you have a team sergeant, and he’s typically going to be the hammer of the team leader, but also more approachable for the rest of the men.
Vlad: So can we say that it’s a more informal position?
Dave: It is, but probably he interacts the most with the other team members.
Vlad: Is there also place for a more natural structure of the team, so to speak?
Dave: To an extent. Some of it is difficult, because it’s going to be broken down by those positions and by specialties. (…) With the pairs, it works like that: one would be senior weapon guy, and the other guy would be the junior. So naturally, if the junior guy is more gifted or knowledgeable, he’s not necessarily be in a position of authority, but because of his background folks would probably going to listen to him. There isn’t a process for the team to naturally work, you’re plugged into a spot and you’re expected to perform in that area. (…) On paper, there’s not a lot of room for it, but in reality it’s a bunch of guys who typically get along. If they don’t, somebody is probably leaving or trying to find a new home. They have areas of responsibility that they have to focus on, but they always going to know each other and learn.
Vlad: Starting from the examples you gave: is it possible to have resentment after working and suffering together like this?
Dave: Resentment can’t live long. There’s probably going to be a little bit of conflict, but at the same time the majority of the time guys are still working together professionally and they are still going to accomplish their mission. If there are personal differences or problems it might not necessarily be the ideal place they want to be, and chances are someone is going to leave. It’s rare on teams: they’re closer than blood brothers. I felt the same a lot with the teams I’ve been with. They say that the three things that are would mess up a soldier’s life are going to be booze, sex, or money. Those are all out of your professional environment. If you make a problem out of any of those, it’s probably the quickest way to destroy a team. To answer the question as simply as possible: it happens, but professionally there’s no room for it. A problem that the individual members can work out will most likely escalate to the team sergeant. The team sergeant would say something like: “You need to go behind the shed and beat the sh** out of each other and sort this out or both of you are going home.”
“Resentment can’t live long. There’s probably going to be a little bit of conflict, but at the same time the majority of the time guys are still working together professionally and they are still going to accomplish stuff.”
3 Comments on “Life with the Special Forces: “It’s about suffering together and then laughing together and getting through it””
Dave and Vlad,
I really enjoyed reading your post/interview about teamwork. Thank you Dave for sharing about your experiences in the military. I have friends in the military and sometimes I don’t understand the way they process information or approach situations, but your interviewed provided some valuable insight. There were many parts of the interview that resonated with me, but my favorite part is the quote below.
“You need people to your left and your right who you can rely on. You want to know that you’re effective in taking care of the people too. You realize that a team is absolutely necessary in something like that, and it’s nice to have people to depend on you and it’s nice to have people that you can lean on too.”
I think this quote exemplifies what it means to be a member of a team and work as a team because it goes beyond individuals coming together and benefiting from the team and focuses on how one can help the team.
David and Vlad,
I am in favor of the part when Dave and his colleagues used the trees. And you tell it in a very frankly way: Vlad pushed David to confess something and David honestly told about his punishment. Also, it was interesting for me to know that the SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) teams used to be selected from the groups of groups of volunteers. Thank you for interesting post.
Dave, thanks for sharing your experiences and knowledge in such detail. You’ve got a heck of a background, and I’m glad we’ve been able to hear more about your expertise.
I’m fascinated by the indoctrination process in all aspects of the armed forces (not just SF), and the idea of breaking down the individual in order to foster an attitude of camaraderie. From a leadership standpoint, I’d be surprised if it doesn’t help to eliminate aspects of competition and resentment one might find in typical workplaces. Given ranks, rates and command structures, there is a clear leadership structure in the military. Perhaps that creates a more cohesive team, and perhaps it also represses creativity. I’d be curious to get your take on the subject.
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