The days of the burly, bearded dude in Oakleys as the face of special operations might be waning. Special operations forces need a different focus, the director of strategy, plans and policy for Special Operations Command Central said Monday.
That look may have helped recruit a certain type of service member, Army Lt. Col. Katie Crombe said during the New America Future Security Forum, but it’s only a piece of the puzzle.
“...I kind of went back to what we feel about the posters and the stamps, or the branding, of special operations ― you know, the night vision goggles and the operator with all of the gear going into a building,” she said. “And I thought, you know, that’s that’s not what we need to be advertising fully right now, for us.”
While there is a place for the door-kicker aesthetic, she added, “the people, and the mindset, and the creativity that we’re trying to recruit right now is much different than that.”
Part of that might look like more of a focus on the civil affairs and psychological operations parts of SOCOM, the organizations that do more of the “hearts and minds” work before a conflict gets to the point where operators are going after high-value targets in the middle of the night.
The other part could reflect SOCOM’s recent commitment to diversity and inclusion, which most notably, aims to recruit more women and minorities into SOF organizations.
“... but I think it is difficult for them to promote and bring on talent that looks different than them,” Crombe said of existing leadership, who came up not only in the time of the burly, bearded operator, but in a time where combat deployments meant more than any other measure of skill or leadership.
When someone has taken time out of the deployment churn to further their education or take a position outside the prescribed pipeline, “it just, it doesn’t compute somehow in these [selection and promotion] boards,” she said.
Crombe offered her fellow panel participants as an example. The discussion was moderated by Joint Special Operations University president retired Col. Isaiah Wilson III, who is Black, and included Indian-American Marine Maj. Akhil Iyer and Army Capt. Shaye Haver, one of the first women to graduate Ranger school.
“We are definitely not the recruiting poster for special operations, but I would say that we are at the forefront of a lot of thought within the community,” Crombe said.
The issue will be not only perpetuating that kind of diversity, she said, but keeping it within the organization, so that they are promoted to the highest ranks and they leave a lasting mark.
To do that, SOCOM will have to put people it wouldn’t normally select into leadership positions, but also learn to be okay with the results if it doesn’t all go smoothly.
“And I think that that’s probably the biggest diverse takeaway,” Haver said. “It’s going to look different than probably a lot of people are comfortable with, and we’re going to have to be uncomfortable moving forward. The goodness and that is that it’s a team effort.”
And to continue to feed that diversity, the way SOCOM recruits will have to look different. That should include writing, reading, speaking, problem-solving skills, Crombe said, as well as the grueling physical requirements.
“You know, I think that it’s always an afterthought and it probably needs to be on the same playing field,” she said. " ... And I think that when it comes to the challenges that we’re facing right now, with strategic competition, it’s the problem-solving and creative solutions that paralyze senior leaders ... and so those are the things that I think we really need to be testing in the future to make sure we’re recruiting.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.