WASHINGTON — The Army’s special operations forces could soon be coming to a high school near you.
That’s what Lt. Gen. Jon Braga, the top general in Army Special Operations Command, said during an exclusive interview at the annual Association of the U.S. Army conference on Oct. 11.
The command derives a significant number of its Special Forces soldiers from the 18X program, which allows prospective soldiers to enlist with a guaranteed opportunity to attend Airborne School and Special Forces Assessment and Selection. In recent years, it also quietly launched a similar program, 37X, for psychological operations roles. Another contract option also offers applicants a shot at joining the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Braga wants the 37X program to appeal to young Americans and tap into the rich vein of talent that the direct entry pathway for Green Berets found.
“We’re making up about 50% of our force off the 18X program for direct recruits off the street — and these are highly talented people...[like] journalists, stockbrokers, lawyers” and others with STEM degrees, Braga explained. “It’s been the lifeblood of our [recruiting] efforts.”
There’s also the potential that overproduction on such contracts could help fill the ranks elsewhere in the force, which is grappling with a historically-bad recruiting crisis. Direct entry programs for special operations allow recruits who don’t pass to be reassigned according to the Army’s needs — an oft-repeated joke among recruiters holds that the 18X program is the 82nd Airborne Division’s top source of recruits.
The special ops community could also do a better job of getting the message out, especially when it comes to its PSYOP roles, according to Braga.
“We’ve got to do a better job of translating those opportunities for not only high-schoolers, but...[also] people already in the workforce out there,” he argued. “If I just said, ‘Hey, you want to come and be a psychological operations operator?’ some people are like, ‘What are you talking about?’ But if I went in and said, ‘Hey, do you want to be a military social media influencer?’ I think I know what you told me just there.”
Braga said applicants often have “no clue...[they] can have a career” in influence operations, which require everything from graphic design to copywriting, production skills and more.
Another challenge is getting the right messengers out there.
Traditionally, the Special Operations Recruiting Battalion has focused exclusively on recruiting active duty soldiers, or “in-service” recruiting, Braga explained. But that might change.
“I have asked [if we] can modify that to give them a wider mission statement,” he said.
More of the command’s operational units will join in recruiting efforts during the upcoming year, as well. The Army recently launched its “Meet your Army” campaign, which partners combat units with the service’s recruiting brigades to provide people and resources in support of recruiting events, and USASOC is joining that effort.
But according to Braga, the recruiting push could go beyond collaborating with recruiters or expanding the SORB’s mission.
Some units are already striking out on their own to find talent that fits their needs. Braga highlighted 7th Special Forces Group’s efforts to recruit at colleges and universities with a high concentration of native Spanish speakers. The unit is aligned with Central and South America, and all Special Forces-qualified personnel there are required to maintain Spanish proficiency.
Other corners of the command are making their own content to appeal to prospective recruits, such as 4th Psychological Operations Group’s “Ghosts in the Machine” video. Published in May, the foreboding three-and-a-half minute video has amassed more than 1.1 million views and garnered national headlines.
Braga said he wants to see more unit-created content aimed at the general public, as well as authentic portrayals of special operations life that go beyond Hollywood production value. He highlighted a video from 10th Special Forces Group called “The Why” as a positive example.
“The younger generation — they’re living on different platforms; they’re consuming media in different ways. And we have to adept to that,” said the general. “[Our content]’s got to be organic, because that’s what people like to consume. [If] it’s more believable, and the more transparency I think you have, the more people understand, ‘Oh, I could do that...I want to do that.’”
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army, specializing in accountability reporting, personnel issues and military justice. He joined Military Times in 2020. Davis studied history at Vanderbilt University and UNC-Chapel Hill, writing a master's thesis about how the Cold War-era Defense Department influenced Hollywood's WWII movies.