A Warrior Class of Their Own

By Willy Stern and Breck Walker

UNDISCLOSED, Lebanon — The Army recruiter thought the well-dressed young man was lying. After all, the yarn this man spun, after walking into the recruiting office in Baltimore, sounded like pure nonsense. All kinds of honors at Swarthmore College. Top of his class at Columbia Medical School, and now into his fourth year of the elite, seven-year residency program at Johns Hopkins in neurosurgery. He claimed to speak both English and Korean fluently. Yeah, sure.

This young man wanted to be a Green Beret? An enlisted man in the U.S. Army? Bringing home a base pay of $32,000 a year? The recruiter was polite; they always are. But he insisted the recruit come back with his diplomas to prove he was who he said he was. When proof was provided, the recruiter tried to convince the aspiring brain surgeon to join the U.S. Army Medical Corps as a physician.

No dice. He had a different adventure in mind.

Today, that young man is a sergeant. He is a Green Beret in the U.S. Army, the absolute crème de la crème of the 1% who chose to serve in the military. He carries an M4 assault rifle to work, can jump out of a C-130 cargo plane, fast-rope off a Black Hawk helicopter, and is an expert on small unit tactics. He can avoid capture, resist interrogation, and train a guerrilla force behind enemy lines. 

There’s more. He can conduct reconnaissance in hostile environments and, when necessary, neutralize the bad guys. Sabotage or demolitions operations? No problem.

These volunteers will gather with soldiers from the regular Army or other military branches in a grueling 24-day assessment program to see who has what it takes to wear the coveted green beret. Since the civilians rarely have prior military service, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command gives them a special designation: “18X.” More familiarly, they are called “X-rays.”  The soldiers who have entered the secretive, hard-boiled Green Beret community through the X-ray program are about as varied and extraordinary a population as you will find. During four months of reporting this story, we were given unparalleled access to X-rays at bases around the U.S. and also at several tiny, secretive Special Forces outposts in the Middle East that are not marked on any maps. (Quick note of explanation: A Green Beret is a soldier who wears the Special Forces tab. For all practical purposes, Special Forces can only mean Green Berets.

We met all types of X-rays. The Army’s operational security regulations
prevent us from using their real names.  But we can tell their stories. 

We met a former corporate lawyer. We met a commercial pilot. And then there’s the handsome, young man who grew up in a small town in India, eventually earned a doctorate in nuclear engineering in the U.S., and was making big bucks in corporate America. This Green Beret spoke four languages fluently before he entered the Army as an X-ray; he has since picked up Arabic. A reflective sort, he describes being in the Special Forces as part of a “spiritual journey to something bigger than myself.” 

There are other soldiers with doctorates on similar journeys in the Green Berets. One was fluent in Mandarin and earned his degree before deciding he wanted more challenge out of life. Then there was the beefy standout SEC football player who signed an NFL contract. 

Our Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon was not the only doctor who left medicine to try to become a Green Beret. Yet another physician volunteered as an X-ray and is now a weapons sergeant. He is capable of breaking down, rebuilding, and fighting with every current type of pistol or rifle, both our own and those used by our enemies. Take the Zastava M70 assault rifle, made in the 1970s in what was then called Yugoslavia. No problem. Heck of a skill for a doc. 

No surprise, we found our share of country boys who could kill and field-dress a deer before they could read, and always had their Skoal tin handy. X-rays tend to come from rural areas, but not always. Much to our surprise, we learned of yet another X-ray who was an ex-gang member.

Another X-ray was a preacher’s kid working as a counselor at a Christian summer camp. Others: a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, a gifted clarinetist, toss in a carpenter, a small-business owner, and several mechanics.  Explains a veteran Green Beret: “We need guys who are Swiss Army knives, who have lots of diverse skills, some of which can only be found in the civilian sector, and are independent thinkers and good problem-solvers. Our job is not just to shoot our enemy in the face and rout bad guys. Our job is at times to be violent, but it is also to have the judgment to figure out a plan to get to the desired end state under high-stress situations where violence may be counterproductive.” One such X-ray had been a cross-border drug smuggler. “He had ingenuity.” 

There you have it — perhaps the only job in America that both a neurosurgeon and drug smuggler are uniquely qualified to perform well. 

Explains another Green Beret who was a star college basketball player: “Give me a standardized test and I’ll screw it up. But give me a complex problem to solve, and I’ll figure out a solution. And I will have a Plan B. Green Berets know how to get things done. Effort is important, but we’re about results.” 

As summarized by a retired Green Beret, a grizzled veteran of 31 years: “When the shit hits the fan, get next to a Green Beret.” 

Getting into the Green Berets isn’t exactly a cakewalk. The Special Operations Recruiting Battalion keeps its data private, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say it’s easier to get into Harvard Law School than to wear the Special Forces tab on your left shoulder. Why, we asked repeatedly, would you chuck a civilian life of comfort to take a shot at qualifying for what may be the most demanding job in the U.S. military today? Answers varied. Most centered on working with other highly elite soldiers and getting to do the most extraordinary of jobs. Many spoke of being part of something bigger than themselves. Two common themes: service to country and a desire to be where the action is. 

What is it a Green Beret does? If the answer were simple, the Army recruiters could sell the X-ray program more easily. Other branches have obvious appeals. Navy SEALs are the toughest dudes in the room and get to kill all the bad guys with kick-ass weaponry. Marines look sharp in their dress blues and swords. Aviators fly snazzy jets off aircraft carriers. 

Green Berets? Not so simple. On any given day, they may throw on a Brooks Brothers suit and brief an ambassador on cutting-edge policy issues from Iraq. They might go out on a lethal kill-or-capture mission in up-armored Humvees in the dead of night and wipe out a nest of insurgents who never saw them coming. They might be training an indigenous force in Syria to fight the Islamic State, and do so entirely in Arabic. They might travel many days through the jungle to neutralize a high-value target with a single sniper shot. 

What else can a Green Beret do? He knows a dozen ways to kill an insurgent and has employed several of these techniques on his last Middle East deployment. He might jump out of a C-17 transport aircraft at 18,000 feet with his trained Belgian Malinois dog, both wearing oxygen masks, or launch an underwater scuba attack with a serrated MK3 dive knife. Or scale a near-vertical on mountain bike with 75 pounds of gear to get eyes on an enemy village. 

Starting to get the picture?
A Green Beret must be brilliant, subtle, and lethal. He must speak at least one foreign language and be deeply immersed in cultural training and critical thinking. 

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