10 February 2008

Trying out for the Air Force Special Forces

“I am Sergeant. The men in the camouflage are Sir. Remember that. Attention to detail is critical”.

We stand at attention looking neither right nor left. The drill sergeant, arms akimbo and in our face asks us one by one our names. Anda Greeney, Sergeant! What have I gotten myself into? The usual I suppose. Limo rides and clubbing on Tuesday. Regional Sales Manager interview on Wednesday. Handbags and Haute Couture for Thursday. On Friday, a gay night club named splash for the showers on the dance floor. Saturday couch surfing, waking in San Jose and to bed in Mountain View that evening with people I’ve never met. Sunday this. My week has been beyond surprise. The only way of coping is to play along, myself an agent in my own mad life.

I had woke at six that morning so as to make my 0700 appointment. Arriving at 0640 I had stood outside the joint NASA and Air National Guard facility waiting for my escort to arrive and take me through security. Upon being received by the recruiter I went to his office where there were in total eight of us waiting to try out for the Pararescue Special Forces (PJs). After filling out a waiver we were driven to another building and told to prepare for the Physical Aptitude Standardized Test (PAST) which was to kick off at 0800.

I’m a runner and before a race I warm up. I went out for a quick two miles. The recruiters thought I was crazy. “Do not let the PJ’s (test administrators) see you! You are attracting attention to yourself.” I was almost stopped. I went for my run to return to them hastening me back into the classroom. With nary a second to spare I packed my bag as a PJ came into the room and barked at us, “Get out of here and into the back of the truck out front.” We grabbed our things and were on our way. Trotting to the truck I thought to myself, just like the movies. With us in back the vehicle lurched forward, myself and seven others holding on tight, with four PJs riding coolly in the cab. I looked around at the seven others, introduced myself and asking their names. Brief introductions were made.

The truck pulled over at the side of the road after a few minutes of riding. We were ordered out and told to stand at attention prior to the start of the run.

After being yelled at for a few minutes we lined up for the start of the race. The truck was to drive down the road to the finish, and when we passed it, the trial was over. The start command was given and we were off. Within 50 meters I was in front pacing it out. Unsure of the length of the race other than it was to range from 1.5 to 3 miles, I settled into a 5 minute/mile pace. Keeping my eye on my watch, I saw that at the seven minute mark the truck had stopped ahead. This was to be a 1.5 mile run. I stretched my legs out the last 50 meters finishing an easy first. Looking back I saw second place in the distance. At this point I was told to “go stand over there”. Keeping my tail between my legs, my head down, I stayed out of the way and out of any line of fire. I did cop a glance and see that second place was a full minute slower than I. I was left asking myself, is it good to establish myself out of the gate and be under scrutiny for the rest of the PAST? As the last runners came in, we were told we could get a drink of water. One of the guys, Rick, who incidentally sprinted the first 50 meters of the race ahead of me, had no water. I offered what little I had which he promptly drank all but 1 oz of. Luckily there was a hose nearby which I filled up from.

Next on the agenda was pull-ups. We were told to keep doing them until told to stop. Two of us, myself and one other, were up first. I knew that what was smiled upon was maximal effort in all parts of the PAST. For those of you familiar with pictures of me finishing a cross-country or track race, making pained expressions is my forte. Putting out the effort and looking the part was to come easy. The first six pull-ups were a blur as I counted them out in my head or perhaps under my breath. Around seven, I heard through my breathing my pull-up counter/sergeant shout at me, “You think I’m stupid! I can count perfectly well!” I tried to quiet my breath. Toping ten, things slowed. After 14 I made it halfway up for number 15 with plenty of faces to boot. No luck. Taking a quick breather, I held on with straight arms. Try again. No luck. Though through my haze I heard, “for such effort I’m giving 15 to you.” What was this about, nicety? At this point I knew I was unable to do another one though I wanted to put out and show I didn’t give up. I pulled up desperately, looking like a fish out of water. All this accomplished was making it difficult to lift my arms once I was told to drop down from the bar. As the others did their pull-ups I focused inwards, trying to relax, shake my arms out and prepare for the next test.

This time it was situps. Accustomed to doing them with my arms across my chest, we were told to hold our hands behind our head. That makes a big difference as far as shifting your weight back and making them far harder. Lying on the wet pavement I began. At around 40 things were slowing down—a lot. With my arms across my chest I can do 80, though with this method, I got up to 49 and ran out of time.

And on to the pushups. Again, more strict than the navy. After hitting 50 I was shaking all over the place and being yelled at. “Fifty is the bare minimum—that should come easily. You may run like the wind but your calisthenics are terrible!”

And then flutter kicks. Following completion of that, we were told to put warm clothes on. Rick commented that he had none. The command was then changed to everyone remove your warm clothes. Rick complained that not everyone should be punished for his mistake. No avail.

Another mad dash was made for the back of the truck as soon as we were instructed. We bounced off in the direction of the pool. On the pool deck more harassment. “Don’t wear your goggles on your forehead—either hold them in your hand or wear them over your eyes. Your shorts are so baggy that will slow you down. You are here to swim fast today, not get a workout. Don’t run on the pool deck, only power walk. Get in the showers.” Surprisingly, they had warm water. And another mad dash or shall I say mad power walk back to the pool, standing at attention. I was mentally preparing myself for the 1000 meter swim which I knew was to come.

“It’s time for the underwater swim.” My heart missed a beat. I had forgotten all about this. A length of the pool underwater—something I had not practiced and was not confident about. “When I say go, you swim under water and touch the far corner of the pool where the wall meets the bottom. Do not break the surface or you fail. Any questions.” I pipe up, is it deeper at the far end? “Yes; It is a deep end. 10 feet.” With my adrenaline pumping, on the go command I push off and the wall. Glide. Stroke. Glide. Stroke. Swimming like this may use up less air, but it sure is slow. I began to speed up my stroke. Glide, stroke, glide, stroke. No air. Stroke, stroke stroke, bottom corner, surface for air. I made it!

The 1000 meter swim goes off without hitch. It is the last event of the PAST. 500 meters left. 50 meters left. 25 meters left. Done. I stand dizzy in the shallow end and am instructed to do a cool down lap. I doggy paddle my way, swimming slowly, my legs sinking deep into the water. After a lap of that I stop again in the shallow end, still breathing hard from the exertion

“We are doing more underwaters” I hear the Sergeant bark through his microphone. “Coastguard, if you hear the bweep alarm from my megaphone it means someone needs to be rescued.” “Coastguard” a former rescue swimmer for the USCG is the person you would want rescuing you if you blackout in the water. And the four paramedics standing around can handle any medical emergency that might arise. I have trust and prepare to give it my all. And with narry a minute of rest, we are given the command to start.

Same routine as last time. A bit relaxed at first and then a mad dash for the bottom corner. After touching the bottom corner I surface and gulp air madly. I did it. I swim slowly back. Who knows how many they want us to do. This may not be an official part of the test, but failure here could spell rejection. The second one is like the first though worse. Tunnel vision, singular goal and focus, loss of awareness of my surroundings. After the second one or what I think is the second, my mind is focused on one thing. I am merely trying to survive what they throw at us. It is strange how focused one can become.

On the last one of the day (three, four total?), I again question can I make it? I hardly realize I am running out of air as I swim across. You might think running out of air is a slow process of fear building up, vision dimming slowly, and realization that you wont make the pool length. Instead my mental status is so altered from the start no such process occurs. All I notice is my desire to inhale, my lungs and nostrils pulsating madly desperately wanting to gasp, though me too realizing that to inhale is to asphyxiate on water, doing little but to give Coastguard and the four paramedics standing by a bit of practice.

It is no rational process that sends me shooting to the surface short of the end of the pool. It is my survival instinct commanding me to live. Though there are stories of individuals passing out in the water overcoming such an instinct, I do not have such a drive. On the surface, one gulp of air and the cobwebs in my mind clear enough to reprioritize my goals. The Bottom corner! I redive, touch, and am done.


Of the original eight, five of us manage to pass for the day. We are told to go to lunch and report back at 1300 hours for interviews. To cut a long story short, Rick, myself, and Coastguard go to lunch together. We chat, poke fun at the morning and have a jolly time. Back at 1300, I interview second. The board tells me that it has only come to their attention that afternoon that I am applying as an officer, not an enlistee. They can not interview me for an officer position as that process is different. At the close of the interview I am asked that of those who passed the PAST, who would I want on my team. I mention that Rick did not have the best attitude. They nod knowingly.

I later learn that Rick is in fact a PJ, though undercover for the morning. His role, to see who complains in the locker room or otherwise talks of dealing drugs during lunch when away from the eyes and ears. Lucky for the four of us who are actually trying out, none of us were caught doing or saying something we shouldn’t. In fact, my support and kind words to Rick only could have helped. The three others have job offers by the end of the day, I have to wait for another day and week and months to see what will happen.

And then the best part. A tour of the facilities. We drive over to the hangar, to see their gear. “Over there we have our dirt bikes.” I see four shiny ones. “Over there are two snowmobiles and over there, those black ones are an additional two new ones. We have atvs over there (I see about 12 of them), our rubber hulled 29 foot boat there, another boat, 31 feet in length in the harbor, our two jet skis there, our HG 160 helicopters and C 130 planes in another hangar. My eyes and ears are eating it up. On those pallets we have rubber dingys folded up with parachutes attached to the load.” I ask the purpose of that. Can’t you just fast rope from a helicopter onto the ship or whatever it is you are trying to get access to? “Helicopters are slower than planes. We fly the C130 out to the cargo ship and because we can not parachute directly onto it in high winds we deploy a boat, parachute out of the C 130 with our dive fins on, climb into the dingy, motor to the ship and then alight it. Began medical care or whatever the task and then when the helicopters arrive later, fly out on those.” O, but of course I think to myself.

Further inside the hangar is the gear. “Scuba gear in that room, both open and closed circuit, wetsuits, etc. Rope room there, mountaineering gear in there, skis there, chain saws, skill saws, hammers there, medical overflow supplies there, parachutes, both ram air and static line in there. I see an errant pair of snowshoes, some packs, and more lying around casually amongst these toys. Gosh.

Thinking of more questions I ask about being deployed over seas. I’m told with the state of affairs now, most of the unit is state side. When spots opens up to deploy there are far more people clamoring for them than available. Good I think to myself. I wont have to go.


Jieh said...

Anda - when you told me this story the day after it happened, I felt like I was about to pass out from your descriptions of the physical and mental strain. Now, reading it again, I am mightily impressed with my little brother.

be well - Jieh

Anonymous said...

Well written and interesting story. There is merit to what you are doing. There is also danger. Be smart, alert, and continue to hone your good judgement.

Anda said...


Anonymous said...

Dear Anda,
your father read me this story a few weeks ago and my immediate comments were: Anda is a really good writer. anyway I hope you remember the promise that you made to me this summer when we chatted outside the restaurant.
your auntie