By Dave Chace, SWCS Public Affairs OfficeJuly 17, 2012
The Special Forces Qualification Course takes at least one full year to complete, and requires its students' top physical and mental performance during each of its starkly different phases.
Wear-and-tear on these students is part of the course's design; after all, the course's instructors are experienced Special Forces Soldiers evaluating their future teammates, and need to make sure each graduate is ready to join their small, yet strong, community.
Wear-and-tear on students' Families, however, is an unintended side-effect when Soldiers leave home for field-training exercises, stay late to study for language tests and cancel their plans at home at the last minute in order to adjust to course's schedule.
"The fact of the matter is that this course is long and stressful for everyone. For the Soldiers and their spouses," said Nicole Young, who runs the Special Forces Qualification Course students' Family Readiness Group. "It's designed to push the Soldiers to their limits in every phase. They want to weed out the people who aren't going to make it."
To clarify Family members' understanding and expectations for the course, women with husbands attending the SFQC held their first "SFQC Survival Skills" orientation meeting May 15 on Fort Bragg, N.C. Originally scheduled to run from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., all put a few attendees with babysitter deadlines slid out the door before 8:30 p.m. while others continued to throw questions about schedules and course requirements toward the FRG's panel of expert spouses.
Standing in front of a classroom full of more than 60 SFQC students and their wives, fiancés, girlfriends and children, Young can be easily mistaken for an official U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School spokeswoman as she rattles off Special Forces acronyms and walks her audience through each element of the course and its five different specialty tracks. In the front of the room, several SFQC wives (and one student) sit below a slideshow mapping out the standard components of the course. One by one, each member of the panel describes their personal experiences with the different phases. One spouse described adjusting to her husband's transition from a unit's leadership position, where he made the schedule, to a training environment where his schedule was dictated. Others described their husbands' weight gain and loss during the course, challenges of keeping up with language and cultural studies, and even one instance where a husband couldn't write home during a field exercise because he hadn't memorized his new home address in Fayetteville.
"Rumors and misinformation. It's one of the most frustrating parts of the course - can we all agree?" Young asked the group, which responded with enthusiastic laughs and nods.
"For example, when the guys go out to [the small-unit tactics field exercise], they always think they're going to get to come home early," she dead-pans, "this almost never happens." Young went on to explain that not all schedule changes are negative - there are occasions where husbands are kept late until weather conditions will allow them to complete their training safely.
Some phases of the course, including small-unit tactics; survival, evasion, resistance and escape training; and the Robin Sage culmination exercise; require each SFQC student to attend field training for at least several days, with little or no contact with their Families possible unless of an emergency. The course's five specialty tracks -- leadership, weapons, engineers, medics and communications -- bring additional exercises related to their field requirements. Each year, eight new iterations of the SFQC begin at Fort Bragg, so members of the FRG can easily share their experiences with others who are just beginning the course.
"The student FRG usually has accurate information from the training battalion, so if at any point in time your husband is away and you don't know what's going on, give us a call," Young said, referring to issues such as what time Families can expect their Soldiers to return home, and whether or not students will be allowed to use their cell phones. "Don't be afraid to double-check."
At the same time, Young said the course helps Families prepare for their lives in the Army's Special Forces community. "[Small-unit tactics] is only eight weeks long. If you can't handle that, then you can't handle a deployment," she said.
Spc. Nick Amador and his wife, Leah, attended the event together.
"I wanted her to be more comfortable with what's going on during each phase," Nick said. "What to expect and what not to expect, that kind of thing."
"A lot of things that [Nick] thinks are second-nature, I might not think about, so it's really nice to come here and get concise answers for anything that I'm wondering," Leah said. "I think that misinformation can be so much worse than no information. I would rather not know something than think that I know it and be completely wrong."
"Here, I've met women who I know I can go to and get a direct no-nonsense answer, rather than just wondering or asking the wrong people," she said.
To provide additional information and resources, the 4th Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group (Airborne) chaplain and Fort Bragg's special-operations Military Family Life Consultant also attended the meeting.
"I wanted this even to be as much about logistics as it is about relationships, emotions and communication, because they're all equally important," Young said, adding that although she'll move out of the group when her husband graduates the course, she'd love to see the FRG grow the Survival Skills event into an all-day boot camp. "I think this is one of the most important things that we can offer as an FRG. Our goal is to stop problems before they start, so if we give the Families more information, then couples can head into the course with a better understanding of what they need to do."
"One of the hard things to remember, and one of the hard things to deal with, for spouses and Soldiers, is that this course is subjective, in a sense. It's going to be different for everybody who goes through it," Young said. "A lot of things are last-minute, and that's just how it's going to be. It can be frustrating, but you have to accept it."
Make no mistake: Young isn't complaining. While her husband was dreaming in Russian and attending Special Forces communication sergeant training, Nicole was asked by the course's senior leadership to figure out how to alleviate students' household pressures.
"They asked me to fix it, and I said OK," Young said. "Even if you don't think you need it, to have that conversation time with someone else and to hear that someone else is in the exact same spot, it's helpful. I think we run into that a lot with the girls who don't think they need the support, and then they love it when they have it."