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The social hierarchy of US special operations units

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There is a fact about human beings that you’d all probably agree with: we never really outgrow our petty adolescent jealousies. It starts once we hit that Age of the Hormone, in which we are always measuring ourselves against everyone else. Within our peer groups, we judge ourselves and others, some days never feeling adequate, other days feeling superior to all.

The phenomenon is evident in elite athletics, the corporate world, among the parents at a local school, and within the government, at every level. You will no doubt be shocked to hear that it is also present within the military’s Special Operations (SOF) community. My friend George Hand ably and humorously touched on this phenomenon in his latest piece for Sandboxx News (although I’d refute that piece – gently – by stating that our particular SEAL platoon took live-fire training extremely seriously, and never once did I ever push a poop through the water toward another human).

Those minor quibbles aside, Geo’s article reminded me of a GWOT-era meme that made its way around the SOF community a few years after the various US Government SpecOps components had been working together for a while in Afghanistan and Iraq. Given the time spent together, the SOF units had had time to grow much more familiar with each other. Of course, with that familiarity was bred plenty of contempt.

The essence of that meme was that each of the various SOF elements – including the CIA’s Paramilitary Ground Branch – could be described using college as a frame of reference. I don’t remember exactly how it went, but that doesn’t matter, because I have my own ideas, and here they are. No one take offense, these are the musings of a former SEAL and they’re firmly tongue-in-cheek. Also, I’m only including ground units, so no SWCCs, or Night Stalkers.

The SOF university

Air Force Special Operations Command award ceremony
Oregon Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Steven Gregg, commander of the Oregon Air National Guard, and U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Eric E. Feil, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, applaud airmen of the 125th Special Tactics Squadron during an award ceremony held at the Portland Air National Guard Base, Portland, Ore., Jan. 23, 2013. The event honored airmen from the unit with five Bronze Star Medals and one Purple Heart medal. The airmen earned the medals during recent deployments to the Middle East. (US Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs/Released)

Let’s start at the bottom of the social hierarchy. I’m sorry, Marine Raiders, but you’re still the new kids on the block, and thus have to put up with some hazing. I mean, how much can a Marine really be a swarthy spec ops snake eater? The rigorous uniform and grooming standards are holding you back, fellas. You’ll never hit peak cool guy living that way. You’re the new freshmen on the college campus, still looking like high school kids.

I’ve gotta hit my Air Force spec ops brothers next in the Pararescuemen (PJ) and Combat Controller community. I’d compare those guys to the slightly nerdy kids on campus, who are super good at something cool despite their not-quite-cool-guy status. They’re like that one super smart math or robotics club kid who has no athletic skill, but who shreds on guitar. You gotta give him props despite your desire not to, and you’re occasionally mystified by him.

Related: The history of MARSOC is the history of the Marine Raiders

Rangers award ceremony
U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Quint Pospisil and other Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, stand in formation during an award ceremony hosted by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga., Oct. 26, 2012. Pospisil received an Army Commendation Medal with V Device for his actions during combat operations in Afghanistan. (Photo by Master Sgt. Teddy Wade/Office of the Chief of Public Affairs)

Next up you’ve got the Army Rangers. Those guys are basically the ROTC kids on campus, with their haircuts and constant hooah-ing. They’re just too much and pretty much keep to themselves, wearing their rucks and uniforms all over campus. We get it guys, you’re in the military.

Now, don’t get me started on the non-SEAL Team 6 Navy SEALs. Those guys are like the popular jock underclassmen. They’re full of ego, barely tamed on campus, always cracking jokes, occasionally getting into trouble, doing keg stands at parties, and generally getting all the attention because they’re college freshman and sophomores that made the varsity team, have lots of money, and all the girls like them. They’re insufferable, to be honest.

Constantly looking down on those SEALs are what I’d call the salty senior class: the Army’s Special Forces. Those guys could not give a shit about campus drama, or getting the attention, as they’ve been there on campus so long they’re on autopilot. They live in off-campus apartments, smoke cigarettes, hold jobs between classes, know what they’re good at and do it, and don’t care what anyone else is doing. Just leave them alone is all they ask.

Related: How to get through Special Forces selection? Don’t be the ‘Grey Man’

SEAL Team 6
SEAL Team 6 (also known as DEVGRU) members. (Vanity Fair via US Navy)

Next up on campus are the grad school teams: SEAL Team 6 and Delta Force. Those guys have left regular campus life behind and operate outside the norms and rules of college life. They’re given more responsibility, left to do things on their own initiative, and see the bigger picture a lot of the time – one that is invisible to the undergrads. They look down their noses at the silly undergrads with their myopic focus on the unimportant (in their eyes) mission at hand. Instead, they’re doing the important work, they’d say.

Now, between the two of them, there is a further division. The Delta cool guys want to be in the shadows, don’t wanna be associated with campus life, prefer to stick to themselves, and make their own way without any fuss. The SEAL Team 6 guys, on the other hand, are the wild ones. They’re stampeding all over the place, breaking things, relishing their freedom and autonomy, breaking stuff everywhere (including the rules and the law), and couldn’t give two sh**s about who knows it, because they see themselves as untouchable. They’re like the regular SEALs only with less accountability and more money.

Finally, we come to the top of this social hierarchy, which really isn’t the top at all – it’s more like the non-academic world beyond the university. This would be the CIA’s Ground Branch. They’re out there in the real world, eyes wide open, seeing the whole picture and what really happens. They’re handpicking university kids from all the above groups to join their club if they can get the job done. What that job is, exactly, they’ll only find out when they arrive and get briefed in. It’s a secret, man.

That, my friends, is Fru’s social hierarchy at the University of SOF.

Dedicated to former Delta guy George “Geo” Hand, former SF guy Jack Murphy, and former Air Force PJ BK Actual. Geo is the best single writer to ever come from the world described above, Jack is the smartest and hardest working, and BK is probably the single funniest. Well done, boys.

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Frumentarius is a former Navy SEAL, former CIA officer, and currently a battalion chief in a career fire department in the Midwest.