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Members of an elite American fighting force are asking if they're quite elite enough. Here's more from my co-host Steve Inskeep.
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The Green Berets are often first in a war zone, whether it's in Vietnam or Afghanistan or Niger, where some were killed in an ambush earlier this year. They are supposed to be trained to the highest possible standard and now face an allegation that they're not. NPR's Tom Bowman has been following this story. Hi, Tom.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: Would you remind us what it is the Green Berets do?
BOWMAN: Well, they do a number of things. First of all, it's - foreign internal defense is what they call it - basically training foreign militaries to be competent soldiers. And the other job they do is called direct action - actually going after terrorists, leading the charge, let's say, with local forces.
INSKEEP: So they have to be really tough as soldiers but also culturally smart.
BOWMAN: Exactly. They have language skills, cultural training. And they tend to be a bit older than your average soldier, sometimes late 20s, well into their 30s.
INSKEEP: Well, who's raising questions about them?
BOWMAN: Well, there is a letter - a scathing, 12-page letter that's making the rounds on websites and chat groups, and it's written by what it says is a concerned Green Beret. There's no name attached to this letter. He claims to be an instructor in the Green Berets. And he's basically saying the standards have dropped.
INSKEEP: This is one of the very first sentences of the letter - the Special Warfare Center and School - that's the school we're talking about here?
BOWMAN: Right, in Fort Bragg, N.C.
INSKEEP: This school, according to the letter, has, quote, "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." And it continues in that brutal tone page after page.
BOWMAN: That's right. That's why I say it's a scathing letter. And the letter claims that standards are being lowered. People are given multiple chances to pass physical fitness exams, and it's pretty hard to fail, according to this letter writer, unless you get an injury or just decide to quit.
INSKEEP: OK. First, is there any doubt that this is a real letter, given that the writer is anonymous?
BOWMAN: There is no doubt. First of all, he has a lot of detail in the letter, some details as recently as several weeks ago. He mentions names of instructors, names of students - again, a lot of detail that only someone in the community would know. And the important thing is the command down at Fort Bragg at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School are treating it as authentic. And the general who runs the school, Major General Kurt Sonntag, has actually sent out his own letter.
INSKEEP: OK. So what is the command saying about it?
BOWMAN: Well, the command is basically saying these charges are baseless, that the training changes all the time and that, basically, you know, people would wash out in the past for failing certain physical tests, but now they're using these tests as what they called diagnostics, meaning they want to give them more chances to try to pass these physical tests rather than just have them wash out.
INSKEEP: Because they want to work up to standard?
BOWMAN: Exactly. They just want to give them more chances to get through the course.
INSKEEP: Is there something larger happening here, Tom Bowman? For example, trouble in the Army and finding enough really highly-talented people to go into these Green Beret slots?
BOWMAN: That's exactly what's going on here - is they're having trouble recruiting and retaining special operators. And the big reason, of course, Steve, is, as we all know, we're going into 17 years of war. These guys deploy all the time. And they also have trouble recruiting Green Berets because people realize what their future is going to be - constant deployments overseas. Now, the Green Berets say they could lose hundreds because of the recruiting and retention challenges in the coming years - hundreds out of an estimated 7,000 in the active force.
INSKEEP: Which could conceivably create pressure to lower the standards. But what are you hearing when you talk with current or former Green Berets?
BOWMAN: Well, I've talked to nearly a dozen former and current Green Berets, and some say, well, this guy's kind of disgruntled. Maybe he's a bit young. He hasn't been in the force long enough. But others I talk with say he raises some very good points. And one Green Beret I met in Afghanistan a number of years ago said, this guy is right on the money, that the quality of the current Green Berets isn't what it used to be. This guy's been in the force well over a decade. He said, if it were ten years ago, and I saw what's going on, I would leave.
INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. And if you want to read this full letter, as well as the general's response to it, go to npr.org.
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