The History of Special Operations Psychological Selection

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The History of Special Operations Psychological Selection

L. Morgan Banks

Fort Bragg, North Carolina

The history of special operations psychology is a relatively new one. Although what we now call special operations can be traced back to the very beginnings of this country, it had its modern start in the 1940’s during World War II. During that war, such units as the U.S. Army Rangers, Merrill's Marauders - the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), and the 1st Special Service Force began the long road to institutionalizing the concept of special operations in the U.S. military. One of the better known U.S. special operations organizations of the war was the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Tapping into the patriotism and dedication of some of the best psychologists in the United States, the OSS established the first psychological assessment center in America. (OSS, 1948; MacKinnon, 1974; Morgan, 1957) Ten years later, when U.S. Army Special Forces was created, halting steps were taken to use psychological assessment as part of the selection process. Over the years, this program waxed and waned, and was eventually eliminated during the Viet Nam War.

Following the Iranian hostage crisis, an Army aviation unit was organized in 1981 to provide aviation support to U.S. Special Operations ground forces. These aviators flew very difficult mission profiles, (e.g., pioneering flight under night vision goggles,) and they consequently had a very high accident and fatality rate. Partly because of this, the unit, which is now referred to as the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), began a formal psychological assessment for all of its pilots. This assessment program continues to this day.

In 1988, the use of psychological assessment in Special Forces was reborn. That year a formalized assessment program was created that has screened, as of summer, 1998, approximately 20,000 soldiers for assignment. In 1994, the 75th Ranger Regiment instituted a formal selection program, involving psychological assessment, for all officers and NCOs being considered for assignment to the regiment.

The use of psychologists in U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) has become well entrenched, and their numbers continue to grow, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the overall Army drawdown. The origin of all Army psychology is deeply rooted in assessment and selection (Banks, 1995), and it has historically had great (arguably its greatest) success in this area. Army SOF psychology has 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.

The Office of Strategic Services

A discussion of the development, utilization, and success of the OSS is beyond the scope of this chapter. However, because of its seminal role in psychological assessment, a brief description is required. The OSS was in many ways a unique organization for the United States. Although intelligence sections of the various military services had existed since the founding of the country, and although the FBI conducted counter intelligence activities in the continental U.S., at the beginning of World War II there was no unified agency responsible for organizing all foreign intelligence. Not too surprisingly, Army intelligence did not communicate well with Naval intelligence, and both tended to have a distinct tactical military focus. In 1941, President Roosevelt created the OSS, and placed William Donovan, a well known (and well connected) attorney and World War I hero, at its head. Roosevelt gave it the mission of being the major national level agency responsible for intelligence collection, espionage, subversion, and psychological warfare. As such, it was one of the forerunners of modern U.S. SOF. The tremendous contribution of the OSS has been documented elsewhere, (see Bank, 1986; Smith, 1972) but, as one example, General Eisenhower stated that in Europe alone the resistance movement they had fostered was equivalent to fifteen infantry divisions (Bank, 1986). Unfortunately, when the OSS was first created in 1941, there was very little screening of candidates prior to their acceptance into the organization. One common nickname for the organization was Oh-So-Social, because many of the members were well-to-do friends (or friends of friends) of Bill Donovan.
By mid 1943, having undergone its creation and tremendous wartime expansion, a significant personnel problem had developed. In the high threat environments required by some of their missions, reports of problems began to come back to OSS headquarters (OSS, 1948). A significant number of the people who were deployed overseas were having difficulty adjusting to the danger and stressors required by OSS operations. A suggestion was made that the U.S. consider using a psychological-psychiatric assessment unit, similar to what the British were then using for selecting officer candidates (OSS, 1948, p.4; Ahrenfeldt, 1958). This idea led to the development of the first psychological assessment center in the United States (MacKinnon, 1974). Over the next year and a half, more than five thousand prospective candidates were evaluated before acceptance into the OSS. This assessment was performed at no small cost and was the precursor to both the civilian personnel assessment center movement and to the Special Operations selection programs currently in existence.

A large number of prominent psychologists were responsible for the creation and operation of the OSS Selection program. Donald K. Adams, Staff Sergeant Urie Bronfenbrenner, 1st Lieutenant John W. Gardener, Joseph Gengerelli, O.H. Mowrer, Edward C. and Ruth S. Tolman, and Robert Tryon were among the long list of distinguished participants. Five individuals, Lieutenant Donald W. Fiske, Eugenia Hanfmann, Donald W. MacKinnon, Captain James G. Miller, and Lieutenant Colonel Henry Murray, assumed the overall responsibility for completing a remarkable book that discusses their selection program, The Assessment of Men (OSS, 1948). Although many were deserving of recognition, Murray is probably the individual most closely associated with the development and philosophy of the program. He and his colleagues developed a three-day assessment program that attempted to measure a candidate’s suitability for assignment into the OSS. Although a solid evaluation of the success of the program is difficult, the rate of stress related problems reported from the field dropped dramatically following the initiation of the selection program (Banks, 1995, OSS, 1948).

The psychologists working in the OSS were used primarily for assessment and selection, although one psychologist did manage to deploy operationally (Morgan, 1957). At the end of the war, the OSS was disbanded. In 1947, its intelligence collection functions were given to the newly created Central Intelligence Agency, and its first chief of psychology was a former OSS psychologist (Morgan, 1994).

Special Forces Assessment and Selection

U.S. Army Special Forces (SF) was created in 1952, initially as part of the Psychological Warfare Center at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. (An interesting side note is that there has historically been limited involvement of military psychologists in Army Psychological Warfare. Although positions have existed at various times for active duty psychologists within psychological operations units, they have been very difficult to fill.) Looking back on the experiences of the OSS, the 1st Special Service Force, and other similar units in World War II, and looking forward to the cold war, this new organization had a variety of missions. They all revolved around guerilla warfare and sabotage. In fact, the current missions of SF include Unconventional Warfare (also known as guerrilla warfare), Foreign Internal Defense (training countries how to fight insurgencies), Direct Action (specific, aggressive, tactical operations, usually with strategic implications), Special Reconnaissance (the collection of tactical military information, often deep within enemy territory), and Counterterrorism. Initially, many of the SF soldiers were prior OSS members or foreign nationals gaining their U.S. citizenship by serving on active duty under a program referred to as the Lodge Act.

In 1952, Colonel Aaron Bank, a former member of the OSS who had parachuted into both occupied France and Indochina, was assigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina (Simpson, 1983). On June 20th, 1952, the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) was created under his command. Initially, COL Bank designed and ran the Special Forces training program without utilizing a formal psychological assessment program. Instead, he relied upon selecting only very fit and motivated soldiers (Bank, 1986). He did, however, rearrange each twelve man team for the best compatibility. Later, a psychiatrist was used briefly to screen candidates, and a psychological test battery, the Special Forces Selection Battery, was developed and used (Department of the Army, 1961). This battery was dropped sometime during the 1960’s.

Special Forces, which was born with the idea of helping to defend western Europe, instead got its biggest boost from the Vietnam War. It expanded greatly during the 1960’s, first with President Kennedy’s personal support, and then because of a greatly increasing number of missions around the world, mostly revolving around counterinsurgency (Simpson, 1983). This expansion, however, did bring along some selection and assessment problems. Initially, the training for Special Forces lasted over a year, and had a very high attrition rate. This expansion led to problems.

"At Fort Bragg, the Special Warfare School...dutifully shifted into high gear in an effort to meet the new manpower goals....[The] Special Warfare School increased its output of graduates from something under 400 a year to almost eight times that. Attrition through training standards had always been a valuable tool when the Forces were small; it served to sort out those who belonged from those who did not. By 1962, attrition had fallen to about 70 percent from its earlier rate of near to 90 percent. By 1964, it was down to 30 percent, and more ominously, the "numbers merchants" at the Special Warfare Center and in the Pentagon were applauding the improvement. (Simpson, 1983)

It was in Vietnam, however, that Special Forces was to prove itself on the battlefield. Although the U.S. strategic policy used in Vietnam may have been flawed, (see Summers, 1982), the tactics and techniques used by Special Forces units during Vietnam were extremely successful (Schemmer, 1976; Simpson, 1983; Stanton, 1985). According to one author, they had, “trained or retrained large portions of three standing armies for frontline combat….trained most of the indigenous special warfare contingents in South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, and South Vietnam….[and] created, trained, and fielded the Civilian Irregular Defense Group program troops that fought a large share of the war throughout the most threatened regions of Vietnam.” (Stanton, 1985, p. 291-292.)

However, after the post-Vietnam drawdown in the mid to late 1970’s, SF began, like the rest of the Army, a significant decline in both manpower and quality. Additionally, as described below, there was a great expense in both manpower and money in selecting and training SF soldiers. (It should be noted that all SF soldiers are male, since SF is a combat arms specialty, and Congress has required that all combat arms specialties be composed of males.) All of the assessment and training of SF soldiers was, and continues to be, conducted by the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (JFKSWCS), the descendent of the old Psychological Warfare Center, at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.

By 1988, Special Forces training, technically called the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC), was broken down into three phases. (For an excellent description of the final phase of the SFQC, see Waller, 1994.) The first phase of this course included training soldiers in basic infantry skills, to include patrolling, raids and ambushes, but also advanced land navigation, and some beginning Special Forces skills. There was limited pre-screening of soldiers prior to their assignment to the SFQC. For this reason, the first phase was also used to screen out soldiers who were not considered appropriate candidates for eventual assignment to an operational Special Forces unit. Conceptually, the purpose of this phase was ambiguous. The purpose of training soldiers up to a particular standard was confused with the task of selecting out soldiers who would probably not be successful in SF. As might be expected, this phase had a very high attrition rate, often up to 60%. Most soldiers were permanently moved to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, from other locations around the world prior to beginning this training. Therefore, when they were dropped from the course, they either had to be assigned somewhere else on Ft. Bragg or moved, at significant expense, to another Army base. This caused morale problems, and was not very cost effective for the Army.

In order to both improve the quality of SF soldiers and to reduce the overall expense of their selection and training, then Colonel, later Brigadier General Richard Potter proposed and successfully defended the concept of a three-week selection course. Now referred to as the Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS), the first iteration was conducted in 1988. Candidates would be brought on temporary duty to Ft. Bragg, go through SFAS, and then be returned to their parent units. If they were successful in the selection, they would be given orders to report for training and reassignment into SF. If they were not successful, they would have no derogatory information placed in their files and would, in fact, be thanked for attending. This philosophy of not denigrating non-successful candidates had, and continues to have, several positive effects. Good soldiers who are not successful do not leave with a bad taste in their mouths concerning SF, and it encourages candidates who might not otherwise apply. It also reinforces the standard that SF soldiers need to always attempt to treat people with respect, since most of their jobs in SF will involve working with other cultures, often in politically sensitive situations. Their treatment in the selection begins their own acculturation process.

To assist in the assessment, a position was created in the JFKSWCS, and a uniformed psychologist, COL Ernest Lenz, now retired, was assigned in 1989. (COL Lenz was a Special Forces trained officer who received his SF training prior to returning to school to study psychology.) He conducted a screening of each individual and viewed the candidate’s performance during the entire course. This type of psychological assessment, which is still utilized today, begins with the administration of a number of routine tests, to include the MMPI (now the MMPI-2, a measure of psychopatholoty), and the Wonderlic Personnel Test (a measure of intelligence), soon after the candidates arrive. The candidates are then put through a grueling series of tasks, all of which are designed to measure their motivation, fitness, practical intelligence, and ability to work with others under stress. They are tested both individually and in groups, and carefully designed behavioral observations are taken during each task. A candidate can voluntarily remove himself from the assessment (after the first couple of days), without negative consequences. (Often, he will be allowed to return and attempt the course at a future date.) At the end of approximately three weeks, the psychologist reviews the psychological profiles of the remaining candidates. Soldiers with unusual profiles, or with profiles that have historically been associated with poor performance are then individually interviewed by the psychologist, who will attempt to assess each soldier’s suitability for success in training and ultimately for assignment in SF. Necessarily, this process focuses on selecting out unsuitable candidates, rather than selecting in the most suitable ones. In particular, the psychologist attempts to identify potential problems that are likely to interfere with the soldier’s success, either academically during the training course, or behaviorally at any time. For example, a history of poor academic performance, coupled with poor test scores on the Wonderlic Personnel Test, indicate a poor likehood of success in the more academically challenging courses. Similarly, a history of arrests, or of non-judicial punishment while on active duty, are good indicators of future problems with authority. The psychologist attempts to evaluate the “whole man,” incorporating not only the test scores, but the complete background and history of each individual. He or she will then prepare recommendations for each questionable candidate. (As this paper is going to press, some changes are being made to the specifics of the assessment course. What is presented here is accurate through 2000.)
Finally, a board of experienced SF officers and Sergeants Major meet to review each candidate’s performance. The senior officer on the board, usually the Training Group Commander,

a Special Forces Colonel, is the president of the board. The psychologist will present relevant information on questionable candidates to this board. The board President is the decision-maker on selection, and the psychologist’s role is that of an advisor. This is a major distinction between the role of the physician medical advisor (usually referred to as a surgeon in the Army) and the psychologist. Ordinarily, the surgeon either finds an individual qualified or not qualified, medically, for a particular job. This is done in accordance with specific regulatory guidelines. In contrast, the psychologist gives a descriptive analysis of a particular individual’s strengths and vulnerabilities, while the president of the board makes the selection decision. As of summer, 1998, approximately 20,000 soldiers have been screened and assessed by this process.

From the inception of SFAS, Army Research Institute (ARI) psychologists were intimately involved in its design. ARI assisted by tasking research and personnel psychologists to assist in the development of this program. They provided insightful and carefully documented recommendations, always helping to insure the program was on solid empirical and legal ground. Many of these reports focused on larger issues, such as a major needs analysis of SF (Brooks, 1992), and a detailed job analysis of SF positions (Russell, 1994). The integration of clinical psychologists performing the assessments, and personnel psychologists continually reviewing the entire selection program led to a very close working relationship that continues to this day. This symbiotic relationship was so successful that in 1994, ARI created a Field Office at Ft. Bragg. Dr. Michael G. Sanders, an Industrial/ Organizational psychologist with extensive experience in personnel selection, was the first ARI psychologist permanently assigned to work with the Army Special Operations Community. To the author’s knowledge, not since the OSS program has this integration been so successful. By virtue of the tremendous number of assessments conducted, the clinical psychologist assigned to the JFKSWCS, along with the ARI psychologist, have been able to conduct extensive normative and predictive research on what profiles are associated with success or non-success. They have developed new screening instruments and validated currently used tests. This emphasis on validating, by research, the effectiveness of the screening process, began with the initiation of the program and continues to this day.

The JFKSWCS is also responsible for training soldiers in a variety of advanced skills required by SOF soldiers. These areas include Psychological Operations, Civil Affairs, foreign language training, and various high risk training courses, such as Military Free Fall and underwater (dive) operations. The JFKSWCS psychologist provides instruction in many of these courses, teaching areas such as cross cultural communications, target audience analysis, and even stress management. He has also been involved in preparing and debriefing personnel involved in many SF deployments, and is on call to provide support to the entire SOF community.

160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment

The unit currently referred to as the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) (160th SOAR), was created after the failure to rescue the Iranian hostages in 1980. One of the identified problems of that attempt was that the U.S had no dedicated, properly trained, special operations rotary wing aviators (Ryan, 1985). Consequently, a task force was initially formed, and later, in October 1981, the unit was formally designated as Task Force 160.

One of the critical tasks that these aviators had to master, and which had not been well developed up until that time, was the use of Night Vision Goggles to fly helicopters at night. This was extremely dangerous work, and the unit experienced a number of fatalities developing the techniques required for their use. Partly because of this, and to assist in the selection of these men, a psychologist was assigned in 1984.

Selection into the 160th SOAR requires that each candidate aviator meet both rigorous physical standards and even more rigorous flying standards. The current selection program includes a complete psychological evaluation by the unit psychologist. Each candidate is fully tested and then interviewed for suitability. The results of that evaluation are presented to a board of senior leaders, and this board makes the decision on selection.

As with the other psychologists in SOF, teaching and training are an important role for this psychologist. As might be expected, these aviators undergo extensive and intensive training before they are considered operational members of this unit. The psychologist provides subject matter expertise to assist in the training of these aviators. The psychologist also provides consultation to the training personnel and students on a case by case basis as required.

Because of the high operations tempo of the 160th SOAR, the psychologist also plays a crucial operational role. Not only is he able to provide typical Combat Stress/Battle Fatigue treatment and command consultation, but he is also trained in Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape debriefing (see below). In 1993 Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant was captured by a Somali warlord. The assigned psychologist assisted in his debrief following his release from captivity and provided critical support to him during his transition back to the United States.

Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape

In mid 1980's, the Army created a program designed to train soldiers how to successfully survive captivity by training them in a simulated Prisoner of War (PW) environment. At this time the U.S. Air Force and Navy had permanent programs, but the Army did not. Consequently, the Army Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) Department was created in the JFKSWCS at Ft. Bragg to train soldiers army-wide, in a safe, but intense environment. Lieutenant Colonel (later Colonel) Nick Rowe, a former prisoner of war for five years (Rowe, 1971), was brought in to create this training course. A requirement, learned from past experiences with such programs, was that a SERE psychologist must be assigned to any such program. As described by Zimbardo (2000), programs that simulate captivity can very easily become quite dangerous and can potentially cause both physical and psychological damage to students. Because of this, the author was assigned in 1985 to provide psychological screening of all instructors providing such training, and to insure that such training was conducted in a psychologically safe manner.

This program has been in continuous operation since that time, and has had a SERE psychologist assigned and present at each training event. In order to be effective, the training must simulate captivity in a realistic manner. As pointed out by Zimbardo, it is extremely easy for soldiers who are role-playing enemy guards and interrogators to act in an inappropriate manner, possibly causing harm to the students. The original reason for assigning a psychologist was to screen out instructors who would be likely to endanger students during the training. The concept was that by performing a detailed evaluation of each potential instructor, the SERE psychologist would help prevent the assignment of personnel who might injure students in a simulated PW environment. While screening has certainly played a role in insuring quality instructors, perhaps the most important value of the SERE psychologist has been in providing behavioral expertise in enhancing the design of the program to insure its safety. In other words, they have made sure that psychologically effective safeguards are built into the training. This includes constant monitoring of the instructors, treatment of stress reactions among students, and, most importantly, constant monitoring of the training process and environment. The SERE psychologists have also been heavily involved in research on the effects of high stress training, and on preventing these effects. Because of the intense nature of the training, MAJ Gary Hazlett, the current JFKSWCS psychologist, and Dr. Andrew Morgan, of Yale University, are currently conducting research to study the effects of such training, both immediate and long term, on the students. In particular, they are monitoring the stress effects on various hormone levels as a function of training by various subgroup populations who attend this training (e.g., SF vs. aviators).

Because of their expertise in the behavior of soldiers in captivity, SERE psychologists have been involved in debriefing and helping Americans who have been held captive by foreign powers. In particular, Chief Warrant Officer Bobby Hall was shot down and detained by the North Koreans in 1994. The incumbent SERE psychologist, then MAJ, now LTC Fred H. Brown, was sent to Korea to assist in his debriefing and transition back from captivity. In another example, when Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant was released following his captivity by a Somali warlord, he was first met in Mogadishu by a SERE trained psychologist, MAJ, now COL Larry Lewis. COL Lewis accompanied him to Landstuhl, Germany, where he was met by LTC Tony Franklin, a SERE psychologist assigned to CW4 Durant’s unit, the 160th SOAR. LTC Franklin then accompanied CW4 Durant to the United States and assisted in his debriefing and homecoming. Currently, a plan is in place to help insure that SERE trained psychologists are deployed to assist any U.S. PWs on their repatriation. As might easily be imagined, most mental health professionals do not receive training in this area. Consequently, it is often easy for those individuals with limited experience to do more harm than good. Because of this the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, the Department of Defense agency that oversees such training and debriefing, has established standards for specialty training and expertise in this area. MAJs Carla Long and Jeff Stolrow, both former SERE Psychologists, helped to develop the current Army Medical Department guidance on credentialing Army Psychologists in this area.

The SERE psychologist, like the other psychologists working in SOF, provides classroom instruction in the psychology of hostage and PW survival, captor behavior, and stress reactions. Because of his or her combined expertise in human behavior and in the actual history of PW behavior, he or she is often involved in helping to develop Army, and joint, doctrine on both SERE training, and on how to best manage the care of former PWs. The author, while assigned as the SERE psychologist, was also instrumental in helping write the current Army doctrine on how to survive captivity, Field Manual 21-78 (Department of the Army, 1989), and COL Lewis wrote the current chapter in the Army’s survival manual, Field Manual 21-76 (Department of the Army, 1992), on the psychological aspects of survival.

Ranger Assessment and Selection Program

The 75th Ranger Regiment, as the world’s most elite light infantry organization, has one of the most distinquished lineages of any U.S. Army unit. This lineage begins at least as early as the French and Indian Wars, prior to the American Revolution, through the American Civil War, World War II (Center of Military History, 1990; Hogan, 1992; Lock, 1998), and has continued until today, most recently where in 1993 they fought heroically the viscious street fighting in Somalia (Bowden, 1999). Today, the 75th Ranger Regiment is a flexible, highly trained, and rapidly deployable light infantry force that can be used against a variety of targets. It can conduct offensive operations against targets of strategic importance, such as seizing airfields or other key facilities, performing raids, or by conducting other crucial missions of national importance, such as evacuating non-combatants from a hostile situation. Additionally, they may conduct other sensitive operations in support of national policy objectives. All of these missions require tremendous dedication from the Rangers, often because the training requirements for such missions are extremely rigorous, and because these missions can be some of the most difficult and dangerous our nation must perform.
The Regiment has always carefully selected its soldiers, but in 1994, based partly on the success of the psychological selection programs discussed above, they added a psychological component to their selection process for leaders. All Sergeants and above must complete a Ranger Orientation Program before taking a position in the Regiment. This orientation includes not only a physical assessment of the Ranger leader, but classes on professional ethics, Ranger standards of behavior, and the law of land warfare. In 1994 the psychological assessment was added, and is referred to as a Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP). The technical aspects of the assessment are similar to the one described above for SF, and includes personality testing and measures of intellectual functioning. In addition, measures are taken of a leader’s ability to handle various challenging situations.

A board then meets to consider each candidate. The Regimental Deputy Commander is the board president, and the members consist of Regimental Battalion Commander, Sergeants Major, and other field grade officers of the Regiment. The board evaluates each individual as a “whole man,” not focusing on any one particular trait. Again, the psychologist provides input to the board in the form of strengths and weaknesses of each individual, and functions only as an advisor. The board gives a recommendation on each candidate to the Regimental Commander, who makes the final determination on assignment.

U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command

The U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (USACAPOC) is responsible for providing command and control of all army Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs units, both active and reserve. USACAPOC is responsible for training, validating, and monitoring the readiness of these units, and then assisting in their deployment. With the current U.S. deployments in Bosnia and Kosovo, this command has become critical to the long-term success of the U.S. mission in the Balkans. Because most of USACAPOC is composed of reserve units, (70% of PsyOp units, and 96% of Civil Affairs units,) they have many difficult and unique deployment challenges.
One outgrowth of this increased use and these challenges was the employment of a full time reservist, LTC Scott Middleton (now retired), to help develop profiles of successful Civil Affairs soldiers. These profiles, currently under development, will provide commanders assistance in screening deploying reservists. Additionally, LTC Middleton helped develop a skills assessment survey that measures the civilian skills the reservists bring with them to active duty. He also provided pre-deployment briefings and post-deployment debriefings of these soldiers.

Psychological Applications Directorate

The United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), a Major Command (MACOM), was created in 1989 as the headquarters element for all Army Special Operations units. USASOC currently includes the units discussed above, i.e., Special Forces, the 160th SOAR(A), the 75th Ranger Regiment, the USAJFKSWCS, and, additionally, USACAPOC, and the Special Operations Support Command. There are approximately 25,000 soldiers assigned to USASOC.

As the use of psychologists grew within USASOC, a need developed for a Special Staff office with responsibility for providing technical support and supervision of the use of psychology within the command. In 1994, the Psychological Applications Directorate was established to meet this need. COL(ret.) Gary Greenfield was the first Director, and was followed by COL Larry Lewis, and now the author. As the senior psychologist within special operations, this position also serves as the Special Operations Psychology Consultant to the Surgeon General. The Director reports directly to the Commanding General, USASOC, through the USASOC Chief of Staff. Specifically, this position is responsible for insuring the provision of all psychological support to USASOC, to include the selection and assessment programs discussed above, as well as a variety of leadership development programs.


Throughout the initiation and development of these programs, several consistent themes have emerged. The first, as mentioned above, is that psychologists function in an advisory role. In selection programs, this provides the command with the best possible assessment, but leaves the decision in the hands of the commander, the individual responsible for living with the consequences of the selection decision.

The second theme is that these psychologists have been most successful, in the author’s opinion, when they have been assigned to the lowest possible level. Because of the sensitivity of the information provided by the psychologist, he or she must be a trusted agent. To be successful, he or she must be trusted by both the unit commanders and by the unit’s soldiers. This requires the psychologist to walk a very careful line ethically, being constantly aware of the potential for, and avoiding, improper dual relationships. At the same time, he or she must be intimately familiar with the job requirements of the unit, and be seen as supportive of the organization’s mission. Although not without it’s own set of problems, the role of an internal consultant, assigned to the supported unit, has been most successful.

Lastly, work in this area requires specialized training and experience. Although not inordinately difficult to aquire, in most cases it is critical to success. In some areas, such as SERE support, it is an ethical and regulatory requirement. In others, such as providing assessments of average to high functioning soldiers, it requires a shift in the internal norms that we use, from assessing psychopathology to assessing each individual’s strengths and vulnerabilities. Then the psychologist must provide feedback in a manner useful and understandable to the commander.

The use of psychologists in the selection and assessment of soldiers for SOF has shown tremendous growth over the last ten years. I expect that this growth will continue, as the Army seeks to maintain it’s high level of readiness in times of shrinking available manpower. Much of this expansion may actually occur outside the area of SOF, as this model gains acceptance throughout the Army. Screening Drill Sergeants, providing support to basic trainees, and assisting with the selection and training of recruiters are just some of the areas currently being developed. This model has a very bright future.


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