HURLBURT FIELD, FL – The Special Operations Weather Team is one of the newest career fields in the Air Force, officially created just three years ago. However, this grey beret-wearing unit has been around since 1963, originally known as the Commando Combat Weather Team stationed here at Hurlburt Field, Fla.
To remember their past and unique heritage, the Grey Beret Association was formed in May 2012 and recently named seven SOWT veterans to its hall of fame.
Selected for their outstanding service record were Keith Grimes, Joseph Conaty Jr., Cornelius Gray, Ronald Kellerman, Lloyd Mitchell Jr., Charles Irby, and Henry Kelley.
These seven men laid the foundation for the SOWT career field as it is known today.
According to Kelley, today’s SOWTs have gone through a drastically different process than he did as a member of the original team.
“At first, there was no selection process whatsoever,” Kelley said. “One day a colonel came up to me and said, ‘you look like you’re in pretty good shape … take the rest of the week off, you’re going to jump school on Monday.'”
As an airman second class, Col. (Ret) Wayne Golding said he made the team because he picked a piece of paper from a hat that read, “You are a commando.” Then, just moments later he was selected as the acting NCO-in-charge because he wore the largest boots of the selectees.
Although these selection practices were pretty clever, the selectees were dropping left and right mainly due to a lack of mental strength and fortitude, according to Golding.
“We definitely learned some things along the way,” he said. “After we noticed how horrible our retention rates were, we had potential recruits come to our unit and stay with us for about a week to sort of test them out and get to know their personalities. We made sure they were going to be alright. And, it seemed to work because we stopped losing people.”
Fast-forward about five decades, and the selection process is much more intense — designed not to just retain, but to find the most elite warfighters.
Now, SOWT candidates must be able to swim 25-meters underwater twice, surface swim for 500-meters in less than 14 minutes, run 1.5 miles in less than 10 minutes and 10 seconds, and perform at least eight pull ups in a minute, 48 sit ups in two minutes, and 48 pushups in two minutes.
“That’s just the beginning,” said Maj. John Syc, 10th Combat Weather Squadron SOWT operations director. “After they begin training, they are expected to greatly improve on those numbers.”
Although the job has evolved over time, one constant between past and present is training. SOWTs have always trained hard.
During the first few years, training was trial and error, Golding said.
“We didn’t have any good roadmaps for training when we started in 1963,” he said. “By 1964, we went through parachute training and survival school (now called Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training). We also trained on Morse Code, learned second languages and became experts in every weapon we used.”
Since then, SOWTs have been steadily expanding on those training requirements.
“We now have a very structured training regimen that is scheduled several months in advance,” said Capt. David Mack, 10th CWS SOWT. “Basically, when we are not deployed, our job is training.”
The training is about 70 percent weather-related and 30 percent tactical, according to Mack.
“It’s split up this way because if we are unable to do our jobs (as weathermen), we aren’t of much value to the mission,” he said. “But, the mission requires us to become ‘jacks of all trades.’ Not only do we need to know our primary jobs, but we also need to know something about maintenance, logistics, and several other career fields, since we deploy in such small teams.”
Over the course of 50 years, the SOWT career field has adapted from casual beginnings to a very strict and structured present. SOWTs are selected from the best of the best and they train every day to ensure they are uniformly qualified for the dynamic demands of the mission.