Which Spec Ops Is Right for Me?

Which special operations field is right for you?
Marines and sailors with a company from 2d Marine Special Operations Battalion, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command, sight in on their targets as they conduct shooting drills as part of their dynamic assault package at the Washoe County Regional Shooting Facility in Reno, Nevada, April 7, 2009. (Cpl. Richard Blumenstein/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

If you are on the fence regarding how or where to serve your country, please read.

I am debating where to serve? Firefighting EMT, Police SWAT or Military Special Ops. I know you write about all of them - do you have any advice on what you\'d recommend? I am trying to do a workout that would help prepare me for all of them as I have about a year before I need to make my decision.

Whew. This is a big question but a great one. You cannot go wrong with any of your choices, but let's break it up into two major groups, with several sub groups in order to see how people can find elements of these service professions that appeal to them.

First, the community services you asked about were firefighters, EMTs and police SWAT teams. These groups may differ from town to town, so researching a city or state has to be done to determine the physical fitness entrance standards as well as other requirements and benefits.

Emergency Medicine

To make the decision to serve as a firefighter/EMT, you should consider your desire to learn about emergency medicine. You actually can be both a firefighter and an EMT -- or an EMT only. Both are physically demanding and require academic study; however, the firefighter profession is much more so and involves very hot temperatures. Also, running into a burning building to save another person requires a type of bravery that not many people have.

Dive Teams

Most cities also offer a Public Safety Diver (PSD) program where you will use your skills in the water to rescue or search for people in rivers, lakes, ponds, oceans, etc. Many firefighters and police officers also train as PSDs. This is considered a special operations team in most cities, as you will be diving in usually cold, dark, murky water where you cannot see the hand in front of your face. This requires an ability to be comfortable underwater and in tight enclosed areas.


Typically, you have to have at least a few years of experience before trying out and getting accepted into police special weapons and tactics teams. Depending on your location, the selection process may be extremely challenging and have limited spaces available. But these officers are the sharpshooters, rescue specialists and warrant delivery officers when the job goes above and beyond the average officer to handle with safety. First, you have to pass a police academy and then become an outstanding police officer in order to later become a SWAT member. SWAT tests usually are quite challenging. Some require swimming, running and PT with body armor, along with expert shooting skills, to qualify.

Military Special Operations

By branch of service, here are the differences and requirements for each of them:

Army Special Forces

The Army Green Berets are the ground element of the special ops command, So if you are smart with an ability to speak foreign languages, like foreign travel into friendly and hostile countries and can learn and teach weapons systems and tactics, this is the job for you. Army Special Forces is on the front line of the Global War on Terrorism and a highly capable force. If you like running and rucking in desert, mountain or jungle environments and have an ability to live in the field for weeks or months while performing highly sensitive operations, this job might be for you. Get prepared by running, PTing, ruck marches, and building your leg and lower back to be strong to endure miles and days of moving. Depending on your job, you can be a combat medic, engineer/explosives, diving, weapons specialist and other combat-related skills.

The Army also has a Special Operations Flight program (Army Special Operations Aviation Regiment, or SOAR) that has some of the toughest, bravest pilots and crew in the military. With this team on your side, as a ground special ops team, you grow to love the pilots who can get you out of a hot location or drop a bomb with precision on an larger enemy force. So if you think you may want to become a pilot, this may be an option for you, too.

The 75th Ranger Regiment, Fort Benning, Georgia, is the Army's premier light infantry force. They work in larger numbers than the Special Forces and are highly lethal. The Rangers are flexible, highly trained and rapidly deployable soldiers with specialized skills, who can be employed against a variety of targets. The regiment's three battalions plan and conduct direct action missions as an element of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command. Enduring long runs and rucks, gaining an expertise in land navigation and having access to a variety of weapon systems and airborne platforms is appealing to many hard-charging Army soldiers.

Naval Special Warfare

Navy SEALs require a strong ability to do underwater and maritime operations as well as missions on land in all areas of the world as well. These sailors have a challenging selection process that will require you to have a solid foundation in upper-body strength and endurance, cardiovascular endurance and the ability to run, ruck march and swim for miles. Tactically you need to learn skills such as shooting, patrolling, SCUBA diving and explosives. If you are not comfortable in the water or being cold, this is not your job. After SEAL training (BUD/S), you will continue to jump school and more advanced training. If this excites you like it did me, it may be a job for you.

Naval Special Operations: EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal)

All branches of the military have EOD units that have to travel in harm's way and disassemble bombs of all types. In the past eight years, their profession has grown out of necessity. Navy EOD also disassemble bombs underwater; their skills as divers are used often with torpedoes, mines and unexploded ordinance on the bottom of the sea. Having an ability to be calm in high-danger situations is a requirement.

SWCC: Special Warfare Combatant Crewman -- The Vietnam era swift boats are the forefathers of SWCC. The "Brown Water Navy" is now one of the three components of the Naval Special Warfare Command (SEAL Teams, SEAL delivery vehicle teams and special boat units). These high-tech, high-speed boats make up the maritime component of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). The training is similar to SEAL training, and being competent in the water, driving boats and shooting weapons is critical to success in this field.

Air Force PJs

These combat medics' skills in emergency medicine and combat are top-notch. The selection process is highly challenging and requires advanced skills in the water, land, air, marksmanship and navigation. The training pipeline is long, but the most challenging is the initial training, where there is a greater than 50% attrition rate.

Air Force CCT

Combat control technicians are Federal Aviation Administration-certified air traffic controllers and responsible for conducting all types of missions behind enemy lines while setting air fields, calling in fire support while working jointly with Army SF, Navy SEALs, etc. They have to learn the water, land and air skills of other special operations as well as stressful air traffic control. See AF PJ/CCT job requirements.


RECON still exists. They simply have rearranged the Force RECON teams into MARSOC, and the battalion RECON missions have been largely unchanged. But in a nutshell, all future RECON students must attend the basic recon course, or BRC. You still can do this as a new Marine, but you must first qualify after boot camp and the school of infantry (SOI). The link above will describe the standards that a RECON applicant must adhere to before joining the Marine Occupational Specialty 0321 (RECON Marine). RECON battalions remained as part of the USMC divisions and continue to perform missions for the deployed USMC commander. BRC is open to Marines and Navy hospital corpsman.

MARSOC took both Force RECON companies, which became the MSOB (Marine special operations battalions). The West Coast MSOB is in Camp Pendleton, California, and the East Coast MSOB is in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. 

Can you do both? Yes.

There is an ability to do both community and country special ops service. Some friends of mine are reservists in special ops (Navy SEAL/Air Force PJ/CCT/Green Beret) who are also police SWAT officers or firefighters in their home state. Many have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan and came back to their community professions. Many of these require you to have served first in order to become a reservist; however, the Army National Guard has Special Forces career paths that allow you to go to SFAS/Q course as reservists and train and deploy with SF teams.

Regardless, training for these professions requires time and effort. You should find out what the entrance standards are and strive to surpass the minimum standards to such a degree that the test is actually easy. You should have done the test so many times on your own that you feel like it is "just another workout." If you prepare like this for any of the jobs, you will be highly successful.

This was a tough question to put my hands around, so I tried to answer it as best I could. The main thing is what interests you. Do you like to swim or hike? Hot or cold? Medicine vs. explosives? Figure that out and narrow down your search.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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