By: Peter Sessum
The History Channel recently completed the first season of The Selection, their social experiment where they took 30 civilian through a mock special operations selection course. I know it wasn’t their intention, but my veteran friends and I found it hilarious. In the end, people got to know what they are really made of and I am sure that unless they are deluding themselves, most are not liking what they found out.
Unlike other reality shows there is no voting anyone off, no tribal councils, no alliances, there isn’t even a prize at the end. The intent is just to embrace the suck until you can’t take it anymore or your graduate. Everyone is assigned a number and at any time they can take it off their shirt, hand it to an instructor and say “I quit.” The instructors are all former Special Forces, Navy SEALs or Rangers so they have little sympathy for people whining in a watered down selection course. The show follows the basic five phases of military training.
Phase One: Weed out the quitters
Watching the show I was constantly reminded of a line from a Mighty Mighty Bosstones song. “I’m not a coward I’ve just never been tested. I like to think that if I was I would pass.” Some of the people on that show had never been tested, not really tested, and they all thought they were going to ace the course. I have often said that you don’t know what you are made of sitting on a beach sipping a drink with a little umbrella in it. It is only when you are cold, wet, tired, hungry and miserable do you learn something about yourself. Do you still drive on or give up?
Looking at the group you can spot the cross fitters and mud runners. The ones that Instagram at the gym and tweet #WOTD, #personal best and #crushedit. They are under the mistaken idea that just because something requires effort that it is challenging. Just because you work out doesn’t mean you aren’t a POG. Paying to run through 5k of obstacles or tossing around some kettle bells for a couple of hours takes some effort, but that is playtime compared to boot camp as these people quickly learned.
That is what Day 1 was. Basic training, and not Infantry basic training but how we all think of Air Force basic training. The instructors weren’t even really yelling at the candidates and I don’t remember any swearing. The people that quit the first day were not tested, that was like the aptitude test to see if you qualify for the course and those people didn’t qualify. Day 1 drops are quitters, pure and simple. They have no heart. I don’t care how much you can bench press, if you can’t handle one day of exercise for a show you volunteered for then you are a quitter. As a person that did that for real, I laughed with each patch turn in.
One of my favorite quits is when the instructors come in banging metal trash can lids at stupid thirty in the morning. One guy has the presence of mind to get vertical, get dressed and rip off his patch. It is good to know your breaking point, and if your breaking point is not enough beauty sleep then I think you know what kind of person you are. The cattle car out of 30th AG is full of people that think they can handle basic training and some of them are wrong. This guy must have talked himself into thinking he has more intestinal fortitude, but when it comes down to it he quit. It was humorous because I never had that option. Downrange you don’t get to decide you “just aren’t feeling it right now.” You do it because there isn’t an option not to.
Phase Two: Weed out the ones that physically can’t do it
This one is less fun to watch because you are rooting for someone and they are just unable to do it. Watch the Discovery Chanel series Surviving the Cut where they film actual military members going through actual special operations schools. In the episode on Ranger School there is a guy that is trying to keep up. They are working them over with extreme physical training on little sleep. This guy is pulled aside by the medics because he is looking a little off.
The medic asks, “Do you know where you are?”
To this day it still makes me smile. That guy just physically couldn’t hang. Maybe he over trained before getting there, maybe he was just having a low energy day but he gave it his all. He was on his feet and wanted to stay there but his body broke down on him. That guy was not a quitter and I feel for him and people like him who are dropped because they physically can’t do the job. Being really, really tired and having your body shut down on you are two very different things. I also feel bad because for the rest of his life he will be known as Hashbrowns.
Phase Three: Weed out the people that mentally can’t do it
Mike Tyson said “Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” Along that same vein, everyone is tough until they get zip tied and a black bag pulled over their head. One guy quit after being in a bag for two minutes in the back of a van. Other times, the Instructors would randomly pull people aside, zip tie them, throw a bag over their head and lead them into the interview room. A lot of tough guys had tears running down their cheeks when the bag was taken off. Two instructors would stare at them stone faced for a moment and ask them three questions. What is your name? What do you do? Why are you here?
This is the only time it is recognized that the candidates even have a name. Every other moment in the show they are called by their roster number. (Not going to lie that part felt familiar.) Everyone gives the same canned answer. Some version of wanting to see what they are made of or to test themselves. That was fine for the first few times, but the instructors started calling bullshit after a while and making the candidates look deeper into themselves. I doubt many were expecting the mental challenge. I guess gym rats are not ready for head games.
Day Two Roster Number 12 showed he had what it took to pass the mental games. After spending a long day in the surf and rolling around in the sand he and the other candidates were linked arms and shivering, the men were shirtless and the women in sports bras. I don’t know where he was, but it was another place. He was standing there telling everyone to feel the sun warming their bodies. He was a glass 1/10 full person at that moment but he had what it took to keep himself going and pulling along a few other people with him.
On the flip side Roster Number 11 was more of a loner the first couple of days. He is lucky none of the instructors were my drill sergeants. When he said that he has been good at everything he has ever tried they would have eaten his lunch right then and there. Every task that he did well would be a chance to remind the other candidates that they were not as good as him. It would be singling out by excellence. I wonder how he would have felt knowing that he was making things more difficult for the rest. Anytime anyone passed him 11 would be reminded that he is supposed to be the best. Had they wanted to they could have broken him in a day.
Not that the instructors needed to. Candidates were dropping on their own. The mentally strong had to face an abbreviated SERE training. When talking about the show with vets when we got to the SERE episode every one, as in every single one, asked how much the instructors hurt the candidates. After all, you can dislocate one joint and break a minor bone in SERE right? For the record, they didn’t and didn’t need to. Put a bunch of people in the stress position inside a wooden box with the sound of a baby crying coming over the speakers and some will quit.
Yes, it was a big bag of suck, but who could they complain to? They were fully clothed and only put in the box for a max of 75 minutes. That was a cakewalk compared to what their instructors went through at actual SERE school. Try 24 hours, naked in the box with harassing noise coming out the speakers. And that isn’t even the worst stories I have heard. It was actually a common theme among the candidates, this might have been the toughest experience of their lives but it is a normal Tuesday for some of the instructors.
I will say this, when roster number 3 was taken out of the box she seemed a little out of it. The instructors aren’t trying to kill anyone so they asked if she was OK. Her response had a little bit of edge on it when she said, “I’m not going to quit.” There was just a touch of “fuck you” in it. Good on you trooper.
Phase Four: Teach the survivors cool stuff
Everyone wants to fast forward to this point, but like everything else good in the military, you have to earn it. Before they teach someone how to blow stuff up and evade detection the military wants to make sure the person isn’t a psychopath or terrorist. The military also wants to make sure the investment in training is going to pay off. So they want someone that is going to actually finish the course and not teach valuable skills to a bunch of washouts.
So after a certain point it becomes less about PT to see who will quit and more PT with a purpose. The pool training isn’t to see who can physically do it, but to see who won’t panic. Water is an equalizer. I have seen hardcore Infantrymen get scared when it is time to do drown proofing. In Panama, at the Jungle Warfare School we had a guy hugging his life vest like it was going to fly away before he hit the water. For The Selection the standard is the standard. If you can’t pass, you gotta go.
The candidates were also taught some basic combatives. They were then turned on one another to see who the best was. Again, no prize, not trophy or money and not even a respite. Good job, you won, now put on this 50lb rucksack and move out.
This is another part which brought back too many memories. Of course, at this point in the season I had taken to drinking a beer for the candidates while watching the show. They had a moment I could relate to all too well.
So there I was, at Fort Benning…no shit. We were rucking some stupid amount of distance after spending a few days in the field. Once we hit familiar roads we knew we were close to the barracks. We could almost taste the hot chow. They marched us right up to the sidewalk, and right past our building. You could hear hearts break. They kept us moving another few miles and into a new bivouac site. To make it worse, it rained so hard that everyone’s gear was soaked and made the next day miserable.
The candidates had a similar experience, they were taken on a road march in formation. When they got back they were told to do it again at an individual pace. I honestly don’t know what any of them were thinking. Why were they heartbroken? The course wasn’t over, but you could see one of them break at that moment. As one of the instructors said, the candidate planted a seed of doubt, the instructors watered it and it grew into a nice little quit tree.
Phase Five: Put everything they have learned together
Special Forces has Robin Sage, Ranger School has an extended mission to take an objective, every school has a final push where everything they learned up until that moment has to be put together to be able to pass the final test.
Those, however, are qualification courses and this was a show about a selection course. The candidates may not have understood that at the start, but the show isn’t the hooah course that makes you high speed, it is the selection course that determines if you have what it takes to go to the hooah course. This isn’t the Olympics, it is the Olympic trials. It is kind of funny watching a candidate say that they want to see if they have what it takes to be a Navy SEAL but this isn’t the metric. It is just the placement test. And like many placement tests, many of the candidates are not going to like how they scored.
Want to be Special Forces? You have to endure three weeks of Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS). The Day One dropouts proved they don’t have what it takes to make it through SFAS, so they have no shot at the Q course. As much as they complained about physical exercise on little sleep, try Ranger School. Ranger School is two months of suck. Every day of the selection is like Ranger School only on the show they got more sleep, ate more chow and did less exercise.
tl;dr: Here are what I got out of it:
Thirty civilians volunteer to “see what they are made of” in a mock special operations selection course. Instructors are Rangers, SF and SEALs. Just like first formation at boot camp, everyone there thinks they are going to last to the end, most are wrong.
Just because you did stuff that wasn’t easy, like CrossFit, doesn’t mean you have ever been tested. CrossFit is jazzercise compared to the life of a grunt. When you pay for them, mud runs and Spartan trots are fun, when you are a grunt, dirt and exercise is a way of life.
Integrity checks matter. The candidates were told to run a circuit and do 50 repetitions of an exercise at every station without the instructors. One candidate only did 48 burpees. Why does two burpees matter? Because if you can’t be trusted with the small things you can’t be trusted with the big things. I have never seen a blue falcon suddenly step up when the time came. They always let the team down. No big deal if you work at BK, but kind of a big deal when overseas.
If you are thinking “this sucks” you are not miserable. It isn’t until you start to question why the entire history of human existence has led you to this exact moment and how can a loving God can exist if He would allow this level of suck to exist do you truly know what misery is. Roster Number 11 hit point and it was amusing to watch. I know it sucked bro, but you had to go there to truly grow.
It is not OK to quit while you still have strength left in your body. Watching the show I was thinking that if a person has the ability to rip off a 4×4 patch of Velcro they have strength to keep going. I didn’t see a single person puke or pass out and quit, they all did it on their feet. When I would see a quitter I would think, did you die? Then keep going. And this is coming from a guy that has puked on runs and kept going. I once stopped on a run because my entire torso seized up and an SF medic doing his own PT made me stop and ordered me to walk back to my unit.
It is OK to mentally quit as long as you don’t tell anyone. I touched on this in a post about Airborne School but this show reminded me of a personal story.
So there I was, at Fort Benning…no shit. Drill Sergeant Wadsworth decided to introduce the platoon to Fartleks. He took us to the quarter mile track where we would sprint the straightaways and Airborne shuffle the curves. Simple enough. I quickly learned that space, as well as time, is relative. After the first all-out sprint the curves seemed long and the shuffle too slow. But after the first mile the straightaways were super long, the curves very short and the shuffle too fast.
Six sprints into it I was smoked. By eight I knew I was done. I was barely hanging on. I was shuffling on the curves knowing that I couldn’t do another sprint. We had already lost half the platoon, one more wouldn’t matter. I had no idea how long it was going to go on. Eventually, everyone hits their limit and mine was on the last straightaway.
Each time a curve ended I promised myself that this would be the last one. One more and then I would quit. After all, this last sprint will take us to the starting point so that might be the finish line right? When we would shuffle past it and onto another curve my heart would sink a little. More privates fell out, their hearts just weren’t in it anymore. Hanging in was a matter of will. Because like the candidates in The Selection, there was no extra reward for staying in, just pride. However, when it feels like your legs are going to buckle at any moment and your lungs are going to burst out of your chest, pride is the farthest thing from your mind.
The cycle continued, I would promise myself that this would be the last one. Just what I needed to hear to give one last push. Then another sprint and curve and I would promise that this one would be the last one. My body was trying to quit and my mind was just trying to hang on and hoping to make it to the end. Like when you are driving in the middle of nowhere, your gas gauge needle is buried on empty and you are praying you make it to the next exit. My body was the car, and I was the driver hoping for a miracle.
Finally, we stopped. Drill Sergeant Wadsworth told us to look around. Dutifully we did, and he told us that we were the survivors. The platoon had dwindled down to less than a third. I have never heard a more motivated HOOAH than that moment. Suddenly I had all kinds of energy. In the end we had done 2 miles of that and I had been smoked after one. I did that last mile sure I was about to quit. So as I watched the candidates on The Selection quit when they still had juice or quit because it was too hard I had little sympathy. As did the instructors who had each been through far worse than those civilians ever had.
I am hoping there is another season. Please let there be another season. History Channel, don’t make me beg! If there is, I am going to do weekly viewing parties and invite every vet I know. Because even though it was the hardest thing these particular 30 people ever went through, it paled in comparison to what those of us who did it for real ever went through. I want to be an instructor. Not because I was special operations, but my decade as PSYOP makes me want to crank up the head games to another level. You know people watching the first season are going to be ready for what they have seen, the show needs to throw in something new.
I have already told an instructor that if he, or any other instructor, is ever in the area, the first pitcher or three is on me. Truth be told, I would also buy a drink for Roster Numbers 2, 3, 11, 20 and 30 because hard work should be rewarded and I would be interested in talking with them about the experience.
As for me, I have been tested, I know what I am made of. Some of it I am proud of, some of it needs work, but like a lucky few, I know and most importantly, I have no delusions. Watching The Selection I realize that many don’t know. Some people are better off not knowing. There are some that have looking deep inside themselves and don’t like what they saw because it doesn’t measure up to the vision they have of themselves.