Photo: U.S. Special Operations Command
College for commandos
At the Joint Special Operations University in Tampa, the curriculum isn't a secret. But the identity of most of its students is classified.
At a former bank building near MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, a dozen clean-cut men in their late 30s and early 40s, wearing khakis and open-collar shirts, sit around a U-shaped conference table, discussing leadership and problemsolving techniques.
With laptops open in front of them, they could be MBA students.
The laptops, however, are government-issued, and a heavy metal door and federal guards provide security not typical at a traditional college. The students are all servicemen from America’s special operations forces — Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets and Air Force air commandos.
Leading the class — “Profession of Arms” — is instructor Mark James, a retired Army command sergeant major. Referring to “Band of Brothers,” a TV miniseries about a parachute infantry unit in World War II, he contrasts the European theater of 1945 with the battlefields of the Middle East. “How much battle space do we cover today?” he asks.
“Depends on how far the helicopter will go,” a student says, halfjoking.
James smiles and makes the larger point — the need for trust between soldiers and leaders, without which the military “can’t manage the extent of the battlefield today.”
James then directs the discussion toward critical thinking and ethics. Urging his students to consider the immediate and long-term consequences of military action, he poses a hypothetical question.
“Let’s say we remove the entire Ba’ath Party regime and get rid of the military,” he says.
“Problem solved,” a student cracks.
“Doesn’t that cause a larger problem?” James says, and heads nod as he looks around the room.
The class is part of the curriculum at the Joint Special Operations Originally from San Antonio, Army Sgt. Major Brian Rauschuber enlisted in the Army after high school. “I joined the Army to jump out of airplanes,” he says. Currently stationed at MacDill AFB, Rauschuber is an instructor at JSOU, where he teaches leadership and communication skills to senior-level enlisted special operators.
University (JSOU), which is the educational arm of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).
Congress created the Special Operations Command in 1987 after the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission of 1980 and the 1983 invasion of Grenada highlighted the failure of U.S. forces to effectively conduct joint operations. From its headquarters at MacDill, SOCOM supports missions conducted by special ops forces from all branches of the military — SEALs, Rangers, Green Berets, Marine Raiders, Air Force Air Commandos and others, including ultra-secretive Delta Force commandos.
For SOCOM and other branches of the military, educational institutions like JSOU address several needs.
One, they teach specialized problem-solving skills needed by military personnel that aren’t directly related to combat.
“We’re not teaching anyone here to steer a plane,” says JSOU President Brian Maher, a former Air Force C-130 pilot who holds a Ph.D. in education from the University of West Florida. “We work on the brain, helping people think new thoughts. As the world gets more and more complex and less predictable than during the Cold War era, we want the person in uniform to be able to form ideas on their own.”
More broadly, JSOU functions as part of the military’s overall professional development program. Unlike its private-sector counterparts, the armed forces can’t poach executives from competitors to fill leadership positions — the services’ closed-loop personnel structure makes lateral entry virtually impossible.
In addition to West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy, higher education in the military encompasses more than a dozen professional continuing-education schools, including the Air War College at Maxwell AFB in Alabama, the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Va., and JSOU, which was established in 2000, a year before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Originally located at Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton Beach, next to what was then the Air Force Special Operations Training Center, JSOU opened with a staff of two dozen people.
Maher, who retired as an Air Force colonel that year, took the helm of what soon became a very much in-demand school. “When 9/11 hit, units started calling us and saying, ‘Help us understand the adversary, the environment and unconventional warfare,’ ” he says.
Now with a budget of $15 million, JSOU serves more than 12,000 students each year, both online and in person. The faculty is composed of military and civilian personnel from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
In addition to teaching special operators, JSOU offers courses geared to conventional forces that support special operations, as well as interagency and international partners. In January, for example, JSOU held a two-week course for students from 19 countries on countering violent extremism.
“What I call a terrorist, someone else might call an insurgent or pirate,” Maher says. “We find that sharing of ideas very helpful.”
In 2010, JSOU moved to Tampa and will soon take over a new building near SOCOM’s headquarters at MacDill.
“It’s a purpose-built schoolhouse with the newest, hottest designs in higher education,” says JSOU Chief of Staff Joe Kilgore, a retired Army colonel and former Green Beret. “For classified classes, the walls can’t be penetrated by signals.”
JSOU offers college-level classes but not college degrees. It’s nationally accredited at the associate degree level by the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training and is seeking graduate- level accreditation so that students can count their JSOU course work toward a bachelor’s or post-bachelor’s degree.
JSOU’s keystone course is the Senior Enlisted Academy, which blends six months online and nine weeks in residence. It’s for senior enlisted special operators like those in James’ class and generally is required for promotion to the rank of E-9.
Over the next two months, James’ students will study the history of special operations, analyze national security documents, write research papers and make PowerPoint presentations. When they finish the course, they’ll receive a certificate that helps them meet military promotion standards.
“They all bring in recent battlefield experience,” James says. “I can have a guy who’s just returned from a mission in Uganda sitting next to a guy who’s just come back from Afghanistan sitting next to a guy who’s just been training in Eastern Europe. That’s what makes this unique.”
Established by Congress in 1987, the U.S. Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, unites the special operations forces of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines under one command structure. Green Berets, Rangers and other Army soldiers make up the largest contingent, followed by Air Force air commandos, Navy SEALs, combatantcraft crewmen and Marine raiders. SOCOM’s commander is Army Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas III, a West Point graduate and Army Ranger who held key posts in multiple special operations units. SOCOM has funding and operational authority to send troops into combat or train and equip them for other commands. Since 2001, the ranks of special operations forces under SOCOM control have more than doubled to nearly 70,000 personnel, and its budget has tripled to about $10 billion a year. SOCOM’s growth reflects the Pentagon’s heavy reliance on special operations during the war on terrorism.
Founded in 2000, JSOU (pronounced “jay sau”) is the educational arm of the Special Operations Command. Among its courses: “Irregular Warfare Theory,” “Combating Terrorism” and “Orientation to Foreign Cultures.” JSOU provides training for military leaders and other decision-makers in the national and international security communities. JSOU also aims to provide a source for post-graduate degree credits. It has an in-house press that publishes research papers on national security, military strategy and regional studies.
The Elite Forces
» Green Berets: Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, are experts in unconventional warfare. They work in 12-person “A” teams to carry out raids and ambushes in far-flung hot spots. Their motto is “De oppress liber — to free the oppressed.” Green Berets must be able to speak at least one foreign language and must have a college degree.
» Army Rangers: The 75th Ranger Regiment, based at Fort Benning, Ga., is the Army’s go-to light infantry fighting force. Rangers specialize in rapid assault, night fighting and airfield seizure. Their motto is “Rangers lead the way,” and each battalion must be able to deploy anywhere in the world with only 18 hours’ notice.
» Psychological Operations Specialists: Army psychological operations units develop and distribute information via leaflets, radio broadcasts and web postings to support U.S. interests. During the war in Afghanistan, American planes dropped leaflets urging Afghans to turn in Taliban and Al-Qaida fighters. “Al- Qaida and the Taliban destroyed your cities,” said one leaflet depicting ruined buildings on one side and an Afghan family on the other. “The Coalition forces can provide a stable environment to allow Afghanistan to rebuild.”
» Navy SEALs: The Navy’s multiskilled warriors get their name from their ability to carry out missions on sea, air and land. Although they trace their origins to the frogmen of World War II, today’s SEALs are trained to operate in desert environments as well as maritime. They undergo 30 months of physical, emotional and mental training before deploying.
» Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen: The Navy’s so-called “boat guys” transport SEALs to and from hostile situations. They operate fast, heavily armed boats in and around rivers and coastal areas and can deploy from planes if necessary.
» Pararescue Jumpers: The Air Force’s combat search-and-rescue specialists are trained to perform every part of a life-saving mission, from parachuting out of a plane to providing emergency medical treatments. They’re known as Pjs, and their motto is “That others may live.” They can be called upon to rescue downed pilots, accompany Green Berets to remote areas or support NASA missions.
» Combat Controllers: The Air Force’s combat controllers go behind enemy lines to establish assault zones before the arrival of conventional troops. They also work as air-traffic controllers, calling in and directing air strikes.
» Marine Raiders: Special operations Marines go deep into hostile territory to conduct raids, gather intelligence and train foreign armies. Like SEALs or Rangers, they use airborne and combat diving techniques to get around traditional land defense systems.
» Covert Commandos: SEAL Team Six and Delta Force, the nation’s most elite commando units, specialize in hostage rescue, counterterrorism and other high-stakes missions. SEAL Team Six, based near Norfolk, Va., is best known for killing Osama bin Laden in 2011. Recruits are selected from the larger SEAL force and typically have at least five years of experience. Delta Force, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., draws from a subset of Green Berets and Rangers. In 2003, Delta Force worked with ground troops in Iraq to find and capture Saddam Hussein.
In 1981, Mark James enlisted in the Army at age 17. A native of Holt, Mo., he says he knew exactly what he wanted to do. “I was going to be an Airborne Ranger,” he says.
James joined the 82nd Airborne Division and then Special Operations Forces, specializing in civil affairs — nationbuilding work that included humanitarian and economic assistance, post-war reconstruction and other stability-related tasks. During a 25-year Army career, he deployed overseas multiple times to Iraq and other trouble spots. Meanwhile, he obtained a bachelor’s degree.
After retiring from the Army as a command sergeant major in 2006, James worked for a manufacturer of military protective gear in Michigan. Eventually, he says, he grew tired of “shoveling snow” and decided to move to a warmer climate.
In 2011, he became an instructor at JSOU, where he teaches critical thinking, decision-making and leadership to enlisted senior-level special operators. He now has a second bachelor’s degree and is working on a master’s in strategic leadership.
He says he enjoys “being back with my comrades” and sees his role as prompting and facilitating discussion.
“It’s not about me standing at a lectern and spouting off for 45 minutes with PowerPoint slides,” he says. “Everybody has a teachable point of view. I might have a Navy SEAL in my class with a point of view on something that makes an Army Ranger say, ‘Hey, I hadn’t thought of that. I kind of like it.’ ”
The military prefers not to identify special operators. Our student — “Chris” — is originally from the Midwest. He joined the Army straight out of high school and never looked back. “I knew I would stay in forever,” he says.
Now in his early 40s, Chris specializes in psychological operations — the use of propaganda and other tactics to influence an opponent’s thoughts and emotions. Based at Fort Bragg, N.C., he manages training and preparation for a battalion that has troops deployed in 11 countries.
Last year, Chris earned a student slot at JSOU’s Senior Enlisted Academy. He says he got orders to deploy to the Middle East “literally four days” after his online classes began. During the next six months, he found himself “burning the midnight oil” to study between mission assignments.
Fortunately, he says, his instructors at JSOU were familiar with the vagaries of special ops work and granted deadline extensions. He received his course completion certificate earlier this year. Among his classmates was a Green Beret named Dave, who also had deployed recently to the Middle East. “A lot of what we learn, we learn from each other,” Chris says.
A typical Special Operations member is …
» 29 years old if enlisted; 34 if an officer
» Married with two children
» College educated
» Able to speak another language besides English
» A “thinking” athlete — someone who enjoys water polo, track, wrestling or football
Source: U.S. Special Operations Command