This article was originally published in Sword & Spade magazine.
David Gates, Fraternus Sage, describes the power and necessity of belonging in the Green Berets.
I was fortunate enough to be one of the three, one the very few to belong to one of the most elite fighting forces in the world. The path to belonging is hard one, and it’s hard-broken, too. The training was very demanding, both physically and mentally and was divided into three phases.
The first phase was probably the most physically intense of all. Each day involved some type of physical training, but this was not the average everyday physical training like exercises and a run. The PT was modeled after the missions specific to a special forces A-team. This meant a lot of forced marches with full gear, including a rucksack that weighed a minimum of 50 pounds. There was a five mile run toward the end that you had to complete in less than 45 minutes to advance to the next phase. I came in 3rd with a time of less than 32 minutes.
The first phase was to train and build rapport among the candidates. To that end there were experiences (hardships) that were shared equally such as sleeping on plywood beds in unheated barracks, cold showers, powdered eggs for breakfast; Patton’s famous speech playing over the loudspeaker first thing in the morning; field exercises with little sleep for two to three days or more (many of us would eat coffee straight to stay awake and alert).
Together, we were pushed past any existing limits. The second purpose was to weed out the field, to find out those who had what it takes and those that did not. I do not recall how many actually made it through the first phase, but many washed out (including a best friend who had talked me into joining the Army and trying out for Special Forces).
The second phase focused specifically on specialized training. A Special Forces A-team consists of weapons specialists (both light and heavy), communications specialists, medical specialists, and engineering specialists (including explosives training). Each twelve-man team is designed to operate on its own, often behind enemy lines, as an independent and complete unit. As we each learned our special focus, we simultaneously learned to work our specialties as part of our team.
The third and final phase is where it was all put together, and we worked as an “operational A-team” tasked with training a company of regular soldiers in guerrilla warfare. This included teaching allied or oppressed resistance forces and assisting them in carrying out operations (think of the movie “Twelve Strong”).
After graduation I was assigned to the 10th Special Forces Group in Fort Devens, MA and an A-team. I was part of a twelve-man team, working as a communication specialist. The team that I was on had a specific area of operation in Eastern Europe, so we trained for winter warfare. We spent about three weeks in the Italian Alps in northern Italy learning to climb from two Italian army instructors. One of the things I remember most of my time in Italy is the level of trust that was necessary with the partner you were climbing with. We were paired up and tethered by a rope—one of us would climb while the partner would belay. Each of us had to know exactly what the other was doing at all times and be fully aware. There was no one else, and we were entirely dependent on each other. A mistake, such as allowing too much slack in the rope or not securing an anchor properly, could have deadly consequences. The type of trust that my partner and I had did not develop overnight, it was something that began long before setting foot on Italian soil. It did, however, reach its pinnacle in those mountains when we became responsible for each other’s lives.
By the time I had been on the team for a year, there was a deep bond that each of us had with each other. Some of the team members were married and some were single, like I was. Some had seen combat in Vietnam, but many of us had not seen any combat. We were all different, but we all realized that each of us was responsible for the lives and safety of each other. Realizing and accepting that responsibility necessarily means that you become extremely close as a unit. There were times when I could honestly say that I was closer with my
“As faithful Catholic men we belong to a special brotherhood that deals explicitly in life and death.”
team members than I was with my own biological brothers. My team members were my brothers. If we were deployed in an actual live situation we would have to rely on one another to come back alive.
Check on Your Brother
On a winter warfare operation in rural Vermont, we were tasked with training a national guard unit in combat operations in a winter environment. After establishing a base camp the team Sergeant and I hiked to a location where we were to meet with the national guard unit and then go back to our base camp. There was a severe winter storm, and the wind was blowing so hard that we had to yell to hear each other (even though we were only a few feet apart). It was very cold (many degrees below zero). We got to the assigned location but no one was there. We waited for an hour or two but still nothing. By that time it was getting dark and the storm was so strong that it was not possible to get back to the base camp. We had to find shelter, and fast. We were relieved to find a barn to shelter in. In order to keep from freezing to death, we covered ourselves with as much hay as we could and clung to each other.
During that same training a member from another team died. This man, his team leader, and team Sergeant were coming down a mountain during a raging storm. Two stopped to rest while the third scouted further along the trail. This man came to a small body of water and attempted to cross but fell through the ice. His rucksack caught under the ice, and he was unable to climb out. He was found the next morning by the team Sergeant, totally encased in ice, dead. When he did not return the night before, the team leader and team Sergeant assumed that he had made it down the mountain. They did not go further and check on him, they simply decided to stay where they were. There is no question that these men did not mean for their team member to die, but they made a conscious choice to consider their own safety over that of their team member— they failed to check on their brother.
As faithful Catholic men we belong to a special brotherhood that deals explicitly in life and death. We are in deadly situations every day. Our souls are in peril. In the training I endured, the bond with my brothers intensified as the stakes got higher, the challenges bigger. Certainly in our day the stakes are higher spiritually. We know there’s confusion inside our own ranks, but it’s almost eerie how much pressure is mounting from the world, an intensification of temptation, slander against Catholics, and pressure to conform to the sins and secularism of the world. If that’s the case then it’s time for our bond with one another to intensify.
We need to see clearly that our spiritual life is dependent upon our Catholic brothers, just as their spiritual life depends on us. This necessarily means that we have to check in with one another frequently to see how we are doing—both spiritually and physically. We cannot assume that our brother made it down the mountain safely. We have to develop that trust in our brothers, knowing that they will always have our back—just as we would have theirs. In this brotherhood (just as there is in the brotherhood of the Green Beret) there is only one way to survive, by losing oneself.