The anonymous email, signed, “A concerned Green Beret,” accused the leaders of the school of “moral cowardice” for lowering the standards, and weakening instructors’ ability to discipline students as they look to get further through the pipeline.
“[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,” the email said. “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.”
One of the specific complaints was that the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC), commonly referred to as “Q-course,” was restructured so that there were “no physical barriers to earning the coveted Green Beret.”
The email, which was blasted out to the entire U.S. Army Green Beret force in November 2017, became known as the “letter heard around the world.” It was then published by a news site started by former special operations forces, and it generated stories from the Associated Press, NPR, and other major news outlets.
Maj. Gen. Kurt L. Sonntag, the commander of John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, which runs the course, responded at the time that the selection process before the Q-course, known as Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS), has evolved into a “proven, challenging process” that allows the training regiment to predict whether a Green Beret candidate will be successful operationally.
“If SFAS is correct, and we believe it is, the SFQC is not a place where high attrition rates should occur. Instead, the mission of the SFQC cadre is to train to standards,” he said at the time. Sonntag also said no “fundamental SF standard” has been “removed,” but that some comments in the email “warrant further evaluation.”
But in the months since, soldiers have been quietly punished for the email, according to the two Green Berets. The commander of the company of instructors was relieved around April, and later given a 15/15 on his Officer Evaluation Report, the lowest score one can get, affecting his chances for promotion, and thus, staying in the military.
The author of the email was given an Article 15 around June for disrespecting a general grade officer. An Article 15 is an administrative, non-judicial punishment, according to the United States Code of Military Justice, which hurts one’s ability to be promoted and to stay in the military. Now, the two additional Green Beret instructors, Sergeant First Class Micah J. Robertson, 33, and Sergeant First Class Michael Squires, 31, say they are being punished by association.
Robertson said in an interview that after the email was sent out, commanders put together a list of about seven suspects, including them. He said he believes they were suspected because they had previously brought up concerns during town halls with leaders that were held to solicit their feedback. Both have been instructors since 2016, before Sonntag took command in June 2017, and say they have witnessed the changes.
“Although Micah and I had nothing to do with it, it spoke true to what’s happening in the regiment. This guy Sonntag, who’s basically the one who’s trying to screw us over — he’s trying to make his career about putting a female through the course,” Squires said. He added that he did not oppose women in Special Forces, but opposed lowering the standards.
“Not only doing that, he’s changed it to where the guys who are coming through the Q course are not even the same quality of guys we had back in the day. Guys who should have been kicked out for several different things … As instructors, they took our power away.”
Both Robertson and Squires were also served with Article 15s related to the email, as well as to an online app they started building in September 2017 named Kayu, aimed at helping travelers and veterans with similar interests connect. The Article 15 accused both men of using their positions as instructors “for the purposes of personal gain” by “sourcing information from students that had no relevance to training,” or having their students sign up for the app. Robertson called that “hogwash.”
Robertson and Squires rejected the Article 15 and requested a court martial — which they knew was a risky course of action, given the potential for a more severe punishment. However, they said they were so confident of their innocence they wanted to fight the Article 15s, and tell their side of the story.
In November, they were notified that Sonntag had decided to drop their Article 15s. They were then both sent a General Order Memorandum of Reprimand (GOMOR) — a letter of reprimand from a commander that requires zero evidence. GOMORs either stay on one’s record temporarily or permanently, and if permanent, can hurt a soldier’s ability to be promoted and stay in the military.
“It’s a hate letter, and you can’t fight that,” said Guy Womack, a military trial lawyer and analyst, about GOMORs. “You can ask your commander not to put it in your permanent file…but you have no real right to due process like you do with criminal proceedings.”
He said Sonntag likely dropped the Article 15s because he knew he would lose in a court-martial. Robertson and Squires “called their bluff,” and the GOMOR was a “face saving” measure, he said.
“Unfortunately, that’s a common way to shoot someone in the back and that’s what it amounts to,” Womack said. “I’ve had cases — a few of them in recent years — where the evidence was not there to convict someone of a crime, but the command believed they had done something wrong. So they say, ‘We’ll give you this GOMOR.’ It’s a common tactic.”
In December, both Robertson and Squires received word that their GOMORs would stay on their files permanently. And just last week, both were told they were being discharged from the military within 60 days.
“Based on what? I said take it to court martial so I could have my day in my court, so I could have my voice, and give my testimony, and show how jacked up this is, and I was not given my chance to tell my side,” said Squires.
Robertson has served over 13 years in the Army, and Squires have served over 12 years. Both joined after 9/11, in 2005 and 2006, when they were 20 and 19 respectively, and have both served multiple deployments overseas. Both have three children.
“They could care less about what we’re going to do about our families and our jobs,” Squires said.
“They’re even getting to the point now where they’re trying to make us work very long hours just to keep a handle on us because they’re worried we’re going to go crazy, and they basically want us to be in the office all day long, and at the end of this, we’re just going to get dropped off, out of the military,” he said.
“So I can’t even go search for a job, look for a job, they’re holding us, and they’re just going to kick us out, no money, no paycheck, on the streets, my kids with no food, no health care, nothing,” Squires added. “They don’t care what happens to us.”
Sonntag has also come under fire for trying to punish an Army chaplain and his assistant after the chaplain said he could not conduct a marriage retreat with same sex couples due to the requirements of his chaplain-endorsing agency. Both were later exonerated.
It is not clear whether any of the comments in the email that Sonntag said “warrant further evaluation” have been addressed. In response to a request for comment, U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s Director of Public Affairs Lt. Col. Loren Bymer said in a statement:
Army Special Operations Command is predicated on high standards and character attributes that define a Soldier’s service. There was not an all-inclusive investigation launched, but all allegations of misconduct were handled by commanders at the appropriate levels and adjudicated accordingly. The Special Warfare Center and School has a responsibility to ensure each soldier attending training is prepared to meet the needs of the nation now, and in the future. This includes ensuring professional instruction, consistently strenuous mental and physical standards, inclusive training, and upholding the expectation that cadre and candidates demonstrate the Army Special Operations attributes at all times.
The issue of standards will likely continue to be a heated topic of debate, as the military continues to integrate more women into the combat arms.
The Obama administration began lifting restrictions on women serving in the combat arms, and services have been slowly implementing those policies.
The Marine Corps, which was the most resistant, has made recent headlines for integrating a female platoon into a previously all-male battalion at Parris Island, S.C., and the first female Marine officer recently graduated from the Scout Sniper Unit Leaders Course.
At the same time, the military is facing recruiting shortages, and an ever-increasing demand for Special Forces.
Only 29 percent of young Americans between 17 and 24 are eligible to meet the requirements to join the military, according to the Heritage Foundation. Only one in eight wish to serve in the military, according to the Associated Press.
“We have some recruiting challenges, and I think the trajectory is not good over the next few years,” Mark Mitchell, principal deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, said February at the 2018 Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict Symposium, according to Military.com.
Former Green Beret and Ultimate Fighting Champion superstar Tim Kennedy said Army recruitment challenges have hit the Green Beret force especially hard.
“[For] Special Forces specifically, we are gonna have the biggest deficit of eligible… population, to select from,” he said on The Joe Rogan Experience on May 17. “You have to have a certain level of intelligence, a certain level of physicality, just to be eligible for Special Forces to pick you…that pool is the smallest that has ever been in history.”
Sonntag himself acknowledged those challenges shortly after taking command. He said at a symposium in November 2017 that all three of the Army Special Operations regiments are facing serious challenges in “force structure changes, pipeline production, and recruiting.”
“We are currently not meeting our production numbers. The restructuring of the 85th [Civil Affairs] Brigade has created an imbalanced CA force structure. And our recruitment is down. If something doesn’t change soon, we will short the operational force drastically over the next five years,” he said.
Robertson said lowering standards in order to produce more Green Berets goes against a fundamental SOF truth that every Green Beret is taught.
“They were basically telling us to not uphold standards,” said Robertson. “The reason they were doing that is because they were trying to make quota…In Special Forces you don’t sacrifice quality for quantity.”