The Army has launched an investigation into allegations of lowered training standards and “moral cowardice” among Army leaders in charge of the school that trains soldiers into Green Berets.
The accusations were lodged in an anonymous email. It was sent by a writer purporting to be speaking on behalf of an undisclosed number of trainers at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
In the letter, the author says that over the past two years, a drive to increase the number of Special Forces soldiers has resulted in fundamental standards being removed, and the training cadre fear it could threaten the future of the force.
The anonymous author alleges that the school’s commander, Maj. Gen. Kurt Sonntag, and other members of his command staff have put careerism ahead of building a quality force in their efforts to produce more of the elite Green Berets.
“[The school] has devolved into a cesspool of toxic, exploitive, biased and self-serving senior officers who are bolstered by submissive, sycophantic, and just-as-culpable enlisted leaders,” according to the email, shared with Army Times and other media outlets. “They have doggedly succeeded in two things; furthering their careers, and ensuring that Special Forces [are] more prolific but dangerously less capable than ever before.”
Sonntag penned a response that both refutes many of the accusers’ points, defends the quality of the graduates during his tenure, and expresses concern about some issues raised in the email that “warrant further evaluation.”
Specifically, the email alleges that a command directive at the school bars remedial training or physical punishment for student infractions. Instead, the directive says only counseling or Uniform Code of Military Justice actions would be taken.
The email author also alleged that students are no longer required to pass physical standards such as a 15-foot rope climb while carrying 25 pounds, a 5-mile run under 40 minutes, and a 12-mile ruck march in under three hours, among others.
The writer alleges certain students, who he lists by name in his email, tried to bribe and blackmail instructors into passing them when they failed events. The email also offers examples of students with connections to family or friends in command positions that helped them graduate when they had failed events.
The email also criticizes the school’s former senior enlisted leader, Command Sgt. Maj. David Gibbs.
During an open forum with staff about putting graduates into operational units even though they failed to pass previously mandatory standards, the email’s author wrote that Gibbs said:
“We push some of these issues forward [to the Regiment] because we believe that the Groups can succeed in fixing those problem graduates when they arrive. That is an amount of risk we willingly accept, because after all it’s much easier to get a tab removed at Group if he doesn’t pan out, than to risk relieving what’s basically a fully qualified student who might have been able to fix himself and become a solid Green Beret.”
In his written response, Sonntag flatly states that no fundamental standards for Special Forces training have been removed, and neither have academic or character performance standards been adjusted.
“Let me be clear, I would be proud to serve with each and every one of our Special Forces Qualification Course graduates, and I stand behind the quality of every soldier we are sending to the operational force,” Sonntag wrote.
Congressional leaders called for a closer look at how Special Operations Forces are used and ways to alleviate strain on them.
The two-star also defended the rigors of the training, calling it some of the most difficult in the military, noting that this year, 2,000 soldiers attempted Special Forces Assessment and Selection, and only 541 graduated the course.
He also clarified that the Special Forces Physical Fitness Assessment, which includes the rope climb and ruck march, is now evaluated in the last phase, rather than the first phase of the course, as was the previous practice.
“This shift gives the cadre more time to prepare the students for these events. Students must meet these standards prior joining the operational force,” Sonntag wrote.
The anonymous email author also alleges that training cadre have been “gagged” and “expressly prohibited” from holding students accountable.
Sonntag’s statement says that he values the training staff’s input and has not, “and will not, issue a gag order.”
“Every level of the command has been encouraged to challenge the current process, phasing and training methodology to ensure SWCS’ training remains relevant to meet the needs of the [1st Special Forces Command],” Sonntag wrote.
There is a place in the mix for both conventional forces and special operations forces. The key is matching the balance to the mission, the commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command said.
Without specifying, the two-star said that “some of the comments in the email warrant further evaluation, and we are doing that through formal inquiries and a number of existing institutional forums.”
“Every decision is made, not only by looking forward, but with the utmost respect for our Special Forces legacy, to ensure we maintain the integrity and standards of those who have come before us,” Sonntag wrote.