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« Re: The burden they carry | Main | Daily roundup »

June 11, 2008

I’ll Never Mock that Beret Again

Greenberetjfk Catherine posted a beautiful picture the other day, capturing the joy on a loved one’s face when her brother returned home from the war. It brought tears to my eyes (photographers are great artists too)—not the least because it hit home for me, when at another time I would only be a sympathetic observer.

I had always been proud and appreciative of all our military men and women, for their dedication and sacrifice, doing what we civilians would not or could not do. And I don’t think they are compensated enough. But what they actually did seemed so far away from me, the stuff of news reports and stories far removed from my life. I had this vague, romanticized vision of active-duty military: the training, the battles, the heartbreaking tales of heroism. And to illustrate my ignorant disconnect from that life, I found the announcement of the black beret becoming standard wear for the Army, well, disappointing. I couldn’t take a beret seriously. It didn’t "look tough."

But as I express in the title of this post, I’ll never make fun of that beret again, even if they make it orange with purple polka-dots (please don’t)—because what it represents is so meaningful. Namely the Green Beret: What those men go through to get that Green Beret, and what they do once they’ve earned it, is hugely significant indeed.

Someone very close to me is now going through training with Special Forces, specializing in medicine. (Ok: All you in the military, bear with me if my terminology is “off.” I’m still learning. But feel free to share your insights and experiences in the comment section.)

So I now hear on a daily basis many of the details of that training and intense study. (And the interesting anecdotes—and pranks that, apparently, are repeated among medics through the years—I’ll spare you any examples . . . ) And at times, it makes me feel very small—not in a shameful way, just amazed at all that one goes through to get that Green Beret.

Chosen_soldier So in the interest of knowing all that this particular soldier is talking about when he describes his studies and training (if I had a dollar for every time I asked, “What’s that mean?” . . . ), I have picked up a copy of Chosen Soldier: The Making of a Special Forces Warrior by Dick Couch. I’ll be commenting on that here as I read it this summer. (This post is also a contribution to the Open Book Thread. In that thread, I had been planning to focus on Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. A few months ago I purchased a beautiful copy with ragged-edged pages, using a gift card from Gina—thanks, Gina! And I will also be reading and commenting on that as the summer goes on.)

But now I want to change my poll answer: I was going to be reading novels, magazines, and road signs. I didn’t think I’d read non-fiction. But now Chosen Soldier will be my Special Forces crash course.

Chosen Soldier, as Booklist puts it at Amazon.com, "is a portrait of the men who arrive at the JFK Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, and the minority who make it though the training and join A Teams." As Publishers Weekly describes it, "Only the most fit, smart, stable and multilingual need apply" to Special Forces, "but training is so rigorous that recruits first undergo 25 days of pretraining, from which only one-third proceed to Green Beret school, where attrition continues. Military buffs will enjoy the descriptions of exhausting marches, realistic combat simulations, high-tech weapons and dramatic instructor/student interactions." I’ve heard firsthand about all of these phases of the course. (I’ll not comment on some of the "instructor/student interactions" about which I’ve heard.) And so, this book, I believe, will further "decode" the stories I have been hearing.

The soldier I talk to daily has already made it through the majority of the course—and as he and Couch note, only about a quarter who apply complete the course. Even getting selected for the school is a feat. So I know he has already been through a lot. The last two portions he has to complete are language school and Robin Sage.

He's mentioned that term often lately: Robin Sage. I kept wondering if I were hearing some mysterious acronym. Then I just asked, "Do you mean, like the bird plus the kitchen spice?" Yes. Ok. . . . I hunted around the Internet a little to learn more of what he’s about to do at the end of this year before heading to Afghanistan next year. I found this, and it became all the more vividly real. (I also found this and tried to put it out of my mind.) So I know what Robin Sage is; but still I could not find why it’s called Bird-Kitchen Spice. Anyone know? Just curious.

I’ve picked up a lot of the SF lingo. (A little bit more, and I’ll be able to talk like Bruno Kirby’s character in Good Morning, Vietnam—the scene where he speaks in acronyms and Robin Williams’s character makes fun of him. Loved that.) I’ve got this down now (find out what they are through that first link in the preceding paragraph):

  • Selection
  • Q
  • Spec ops
  • SERE
  • Robin Sage
  • Gs

And there are a few others I know when I hear them, by virtue of the daily conversations including them. (That big red “C” on my forehead—for Civilian, not Catherina—is slowly rubbing away. I feel, a little, like I'm on the inside.) Of course, it’s more than the cool inside elite lingo: It’s what that stuff stands for that really means something.

Anne reminded us of the events of June 6—64 years ago, when 5,000 soldiers died at Normandy. We do have a lot to appreciate in our military. The danger they encounter is sobering. For those going to Afghanistan, it’s the resurgence of the Taliban and still-present danger of al-Qaeda, and the grooming of the youngest of suicide bombers. And it is our Green Berets who put themselves in particularly challenging circumstances. This current state of affairs gives me much pause. Like I said, this all now hits too close to home.

And as the SF medic I know prepares to go once again into the battle against terrorism in Afghanistan early in 2009 (his first involvement was in Iraq in 2004), I’ll hope and pray for the day that we have our own Homecoming picture late next year. Until then, God bless our Green Berets.

(Image © Three Rivers Press)

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