FORT BRAGG, NC – Five Psychological Operations specialists assigned to the 4th Psychological Operations Group (Airborne) recently underwent a grueling five-day assessment to determine if they are fit to serve and fight with the 75th Ranger Regiment.
PSYOP roles are usually divided into two areas: strategic and tactical. Strategic roles may require a Soldier to wear a suit and work in an embassy, whereas tactical missions often see them out in the field, carrying a weighty man-packed loudspeaker system in addition to their normal combat gear.
The detachment of 16 PSYOPers supporting the Rangers is certainly described as tactical. After all, their name is Tactical PSYOP Detachment 9B40, part of Bravo Company, 9th PSYOP Battalion. Because of the tough missions and austere conditions that Rangers are notorious for, the Soldiers providing them PSYOP capabilities have to be the best available.
Staff Sgt. Matthew Mead, 9B40 detachment sergeant, had the job of running the events and helping evaluate the candidates.
“These guys might have to move out for 20 miles loaded down with equipment, keeping up with Rangers who are probably the fastest ruckers in the Army, and still know how to perform their PSYOP role, and how they’ll fit into a given mission once they reach their objective,” Mead said. “We need thinkers that can fit in with the Ranger Regiment.”
Capt. Bruce Hoffman, 9B40’s detachment commander, has been in the Army for over 19 years. First joining the Army as an infantryman, Hoffman has served with scout platoons, Long Range Reconnaissance and Surveillance teams, and as a Ranger instructor for four years. Members of his detachment recognize him as the standard bearer. During the five-day assessment, he used the skills he gained as an instructor for the Rangers to determine whether the Soldiers trying out have what it takes to be a member of his team.
The week-long assessment was designed to stress the Soldiers out and observe how they perform in that condition. The week kicked off like most in the Army, with physical training before the sun came up on Monday morning. The first event the group faced was the Ranger Physical Fitness Test , which is similar to the Army’s PT test, but it adds dead-hang pull-ups, and instead of a two-mile run, there’s a five-mile run that must be completed in no more than 40 minutes.
After a quick breakfast and the chance to change into their duty uniform, the Soldiers and their evaluators moved out to Mott Lake for the Combat Water Survival Test. Mead ran through a demonstration, then the five candidates were individually canoed out to the middle of the lake where they donned a blindfold, carried a weapon and a load-bearing vest that were tied to the boat, and jumped into the water. One Soldier didn’t consider himself a strong swimmer, so the evaluators watched him closely, making sure he didn’t drown. All five completed the water test successfully, after which the group was taught how to use their Army Combat Uniforms to make a personal floatation device.
The class ended abruptly when Sgt. Bradley Thuma, one of 9B40’s NCOs, yelled at the group to get back to the shore as fast as possible. It was time to recite the Ranger Creed, a favorite amongst the team’s NCOs. Before the assessment, each Soldier was given a little black Ranger Handbook and told to memorize the Ranger Creed. Messing up while quoting it resulted in an immediate increase in the volume of the assessor’s voice, and of course, remedial training for the entire team.
“Almost everything we quizzed them on was in the Ranger Handbook,” Mead said. “If a guy shows up to assessment and he’s not even willing to read the Handbook that kind of says something to us.”
One candidate was prompted to recite the Creed’s first stanza. He snapped to attention, ran out in front of his fellow Soldiers and shouted, “The first stanza of the Ranger Creed!” His veins bulged and sweat dripped off his forehead thanks to the hot, humid North Carolina air, not to mention the previous bouts of sprints, push-ups and flutter-kicks he’d endured.
“Repeat after me…” A few seconds of silence indicated the Soldier’s uncertainty. Given a bit more time he might have led the group in a resounding rendition of the Ranger Creed, but hesitation wasn’t the name of the game.
“Are you telling me that you came to this assessment without having memorized the Ranger Creed?” one of the team’s NCOs shouted. The group was then told to sprint to the lake, swim out to the middle and back as fast as they could. The Soldiers executed this command immediately, but on their faces they had a look that showed they hadn’t bargained for what lay ahead.
“They need to be physically fit for not just a PT test, but for a week-long endurance event,” Mead said. “They need to know the Ranger Handbook, and they need to know tactical PSYOP. If they do those things and come with the right attitude, they’re probably going to be successful. But if they blow off any of those three, they’re gonna have a hard time.”
For one of day two’s events, the group met in the August heat at one of the obstacle courses on Fort Bragg. After a run-through to show the Soldiers what to expect and to point out any hazards, they lined up at the beginning and were let loose one at a time. Climbing up walls, swinging on ropes, low-crawling through muddy water, jumping over obstacles, and rolling through sand left the candidates covered from head to toe in water, dirt and sweat.
One of the candidates, Sgt. Minkyu Rhi, said he volunteered for this because he was looking for a challenge.
“One of my cadre from when I went through the PSYOP course used to be a member of 9B40, and from how he described the team it sounded like the bar was higher over there than in the rest of the Group,” Rhi said. “That first day was kind of a rude awakening. I knew there was going to be a little bit of ’smoking‘ or whatever you want to call it, but I didn’t expect it to be at that level. But I can take a lot of punishment, so I got quickly in that mode.”
During days three and four, the group went out to a site near Camp Mackall to do small unit tactics, and land navigation.
“During the small unit tactics portion of the assessment, we were curious to see how they would react during a stressful situation,” Mead said. “Obviously you can’t replicate the stresses of actual combat, but we tried. We fired blanks and shouted at them and basically got them excited, got their hearts pounding to see what they would do.”
Rhi, who before trying out for 9B40, was assigned to Charlie Company, 8th PSYOP Battalion, summed up the assessment.
“I would tell anyone that’s interested in this, that it’s probably one of the most vigorous events, physically and mentally, that they’ll ever do,” he said. “But, it’s not just one big ’smoke-fest.’ I learned a lot about land nav, common infantry tactics and a lot of PSYOP capabilities. I’d have to say the last day was the most challenging part of the week. It was really hot, and at that point we were all pretty beat, and they told us that we had to road march all the way back to Bragg. But I think we stopped around the 12 or 13 mile mark, which was a relief.”
“They went and occupied a broadcast position; broadcast a message, recorded the reaction of the target audience, and then exfiltrated,” Mead said. “It’s similar to a prepared deliberate ambush, because you have to determine your fields of fire. But, in this case, instead of laying waste to the objective, they were broadcasting a message.”
Other PSYOP tasks included in the SUT lanes were face to face interactions with “locals”, consequence management, and loud speaker operations. Mead said determining how effectively the Soldiers performed their PSYOP roles was a big part of the assessment.
At the end of the week, three Soldiers were chosen as new members of TPD 9B40: Sgt. Minkyu Rhi, Spc. Christopher Darbyshire, and Spc. Matthew Thomas. Hoffman and Mead told the two Soldiers who weren’t selected that they were welcome to come back and try again in November, when the detachment will hold their next assessment. The only thing that will keep Soldiers from being invited back to try again is a legitimate medical problem, and any sort of integrity violation like cheating or lying during the week. Soldiers that complete the week receive a Certificate of Achievement worth five promotion points, even if they aren’t selected for the detachment.
Hoffman said that new members of the detachment prepare for two main options: joining a team and training with the Rangers for a roughly 90 day pre-mission training period and then deploying, or going to pre-Ranger course and Ranger school.