Holistic Training: Shaping the Whole Operator

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U.S. Army Special Operations Forces, John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School in Ft. Bragg, NC are trained to operate in highly challenging environments, with no support or friendly forces.

By LTC Joseph Long and Janice Burton

Over 70 years ago, an elite organization born of men and women with unique capabilities and skills was sent behind enemy lines during World War II. Members of the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, were specially selected and trained to operate in the most challenging environments, far from support or friendly forces. These men and women were not chosen for their physical strengths and tactical skills alone, instead, they were chosen for their ability to understand the operational environment, their capacity for innovation and flexibility and their ability to work in what we now call the Human Domain.

Before joining the OSS, each candidate had to pass a rigorous selection process designed by military experts and psychologists that was aimed at testing physical abilities, mental toughness and problem solving ability under extreme stress. This assessment and selection process was designed to test the “whole man,” and examined every detail of the general structure of his (each candidate’s) being, and his strengths and weaknesses for described environments and situations, as noted in the OSS Model and the Future SOF Warrior, Joint Special Operations University Report of Proceedings, November 2011.

Today, soldiers seeking to join the Special Forces, Civil Affairs or Psychological Operations Regiments are assessed in much the same way as their forerunners in the OSS. Over the past 25 years, the assessment and selection process for Special Operations Forces has evolved into a challenging and scientifically proven process that allows our three regiments to better predict a candidate’s ability to succeed in training as well as operate successfully in their respective operational environment.

Defining Principles

At the heart of each regiment’s assessment and selection programs are the eight Army Special Operations Forces Attributes. These attributes define what each Regiment is looking for in new members and serves as the driving force behind each physical or mental event. Likewise, the ARSOF Attributes provide the necessary framework for cadre in evaluating each candidate’s performance. The attributes include integrity, courage, perseverance, personal responsibility, professionalism, adaptability, being a team player and capability. The end result for each assessment and selection program is a validated series of unique events that puts each candidate’s strengths, determination, intelligence and willpower to the test. Only those candidates who demonstrate the attributes and complete the course are selected to attend qualification training where their abilities are further honed toward the operational needs of each regiment.

Much like OSS training of the past, the modern ARSOF assessment and selection process tests the “whole man” and ensures that candidates successfully demonstrate the qualities of the ARSOF attributes under dynamic and stressful conditions. To make the cut into one of the ARSOF Regiments, each candidate must demonstrate that they possess the required strength, cognitive flexibility and will power to thrive in challenging and complex special operations environments. Students are evaluated using a holistic and multidiscipline approach, supported by a range of military and scientific experts to include psychologists, physiological experts and experienced combat veterans who select candidates who have the whole package: Soldiers who are physically strong, mentally tough and who possess the character necessary to serve in the regiments.

Conceptual Evolution

As part of the evolutionary expansion of ARSOF assessment and selection, a major breakthrough occurred in 2005. In his article, “The History of Special Operation Psychological Selection,” Louie M. Banks noted, “Army SOF psychology has been greatly expanded to where it currently performs a multitude of services within SOF, e.g. training, organizational consultation, research and the prevention and treatment of stress reactions, but all of the current positions have as their basis the assessment and selection of soldiers for critical tasks.”

However, prior to 2005, assessment and selection was less structured. ARSOF assessment and selection programs still evaluated candidate’s physical fitness, mental sharpness and capacity for teamwork, but failed to incorporate scientific testing to evaluate the attributes and interpersonal skills that are necessary to work in the Human Domain. To fill that gap, the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School’s 1st Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group (Airborne) returned to its roots adopting the “whole man” concept that had proven successful in the OSS.

The “whole man” concept evaluates individuals in three distinct ways: individual inventory, individual application and team application events. In other words, candidates are assessed on what attributes they possess, how they use them and how they fit into the team. As described in Special Warfare, the professional development publication of Army Special Operations, the “whole man” concept is comparable to a three-legged stool. It must be the right height, strong enough to withstand stress and balanced to remain upright. Similarly, an assessment and selection candidate must be like a stool since a candidate who has physical strength, but lacks mental acuity or sufficient maturity to operate in complex environments will not succeed, noted by Will Cotty, Brendon Bluestein, and Jat Thompson in the “The Whole Man Concept: Assessing The SF Soldier of the Future,” Special Warfare; 2005, Vol. 17, No. 4.

During the individual inventory phase of the selection process, candidates receive a series of objective testing in distinct areas. Attributes such as integrity, perseverance and adaptability are measured by multiple physical challenges starting with achieving baseline fitness score required to continue in the course. If successful, candidate attributes are further challenged with ruck marches and runs covering unknown distances and other individual performance events designed to further measure perseverance and capability. At this point, students demonstrate integrity, perseverance, adaptability and capability by dealing with physical stress in an unpredictable environment. Following individual physical testing, a candidate’s intellectual capability and character are measured through a series of IQ testing and other academic and psychological tests.

During the individual application phase, candidate attributes of perseverance, personal responsibility, professionalism, adaptability and capability are tested as candidates are evaluated on their ability to follow specific instructions and complete a series of tasks centered on long-range land navigation over rough terrain. In this phase, individual application characteristics are challenged to determine a candidate’s overall character. Do they follow instructions or do they take the easy way?

Lastly, and most like the original selection programs of the OSS, the team application phase tests each candidate’s ability to work as a team under rigorous conditions. Team events are typically conducted in a leaderless environment and provide an opportunity for candidates to demonstrate leadership through perseverance, professionalism, adaptability and capability as candidates either assume leadership roles or accept other team member’s direction. Additionally, team events are completed within an unknown timeframes; setting apart candidates who do or do not adapt to realistic and stressful conditions and thrive as part of a team are unable to succeed.

During all phases, assessment and selection cadre utilizes a proven and scientific matrix, based on the ARSOF attributes, to assist in measuring and scoring each candidate’s suitability for service in Special Operations. Likewise, cadre also reviews each candidates peer evaluations to learn about how candidates behave when cadre is not present. Peer reviews give an honest assessment of candidate performance and help further identify ARSOF attributes of integrity, personal responsibility, professionalism, adaptability and teamwork. Peer reviews are an integral part of the assessment process and are utilized throughout the entire training pipelines.

Down-select, Only the Adept

For candidates who complete the assessment and selection process, their complete records and test scores are reviewed by a board comprised of USAJFKSWCS senior leadership where each candidate’s ARSOF attributes are evaluated through cadre assessments, peer reviews and individual scores. For candidates, success is determined by being “selected,” meaning that the candidate is invited to return and begin the Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations or Special Forces Qualification Courses. For candidates who are not selected, individual performance and leadership evaluations determine whether a candidate is eligible to return for a second chance at being selected. Candidates who failed to display any of the ARSOF attributes can even be prohibited from reattempting selection.

The reintegration of the “whole man” concept and the identification of the eight ARSOF attributes has been a useful tool for assessing and selecting the best people to serve in our three ARSOF Regiments. Likewise, the developmental process for turning Soldiers into SOF operators has proven to be the key to ARSOF’s ability to provide the best trained forces in the world able to operate in any environment and within the Human Domain.


Photo courtesy of USAJFKSWCS.