CAMP MACKALL, N.C. — Deep in the dark North Carolina woods, a small white light flickers in the heavy underbrush. It’s after midnight and a soldier is taking a risk by turning on his headlamp to find his way.
The overnight land navigation test is just one hurdle in the grueling, monthslong course to join the Army’s elite Special Forces, and using the light violates the rules. Just the night before, at least 20 commando hopefuls had either committed a disqualifying failure or given up in the drenching rain.
“We got a light!” barks an Army instructor from the front seat of his truck as he patrols the woods. Almost instantly the tiny white beacon goes out as the soldier spots the truck headlights and tries to escape detection.
For the nearly 200 candidates scrambling through Hoffman Forest at Camp Mackall, the struggle to become a Green Beret is real. But Army commanders are making sweeping changes to shorten and revamp the course. The aim is to meet evolving national security threats and to shift from a culture that weeds out struggling soldiers at every point to one that trains them to do better.
The changes that are beginning now have led to resentment among some Special Forces that the brass wants to make it easier to pass the qualification course as a way to boost lagging recruiting numbers and ensure that women will eventually qualify. The fear, such critics say, is that Green Berets will become weaker and “dangerously less capable than ever before.”
Army leaders insist the changes reflect the military’s need to adapt to evolving security threats from Russia, China, Iran and others foes. They say the nearly two-year course had to be shortened, so some training will be done when soldiers get to their units, where it can be tailored to the specific needs of the region.
“Today’s qualification course is for exactly the type of Green Beret we needed for 2008. It is not what we need for 2028,” said Maj. Gen. Kurt Sonntag, who until recently was commander of the Army Special Operations Center of Excellence, which includes all the Special Forces training. “We need to reestablish our forte, which is our ability to work with partner forces, developing their capabilities to provide an advantage for them and the United States against our adversaries — North Korea, Iran, and China and Russia.”
Sonntag and other commanders, current and former instructors and students at the Special Forces training base at Camp Mackall spoke with The Associated Press during a rare, two-day look at the course, including observation of the overnight land navigation test.
The more than 6,700 Army Green Berets are highly trained commandos who usually work in 12-person teams that are often used for specialized combat and counterterrorism operations and to train other nations’ forces in battle skills. About a dozen died in combat this year, mainly working with Afghan forces fighting the Taliban; others are training troops in up to 60 countries.