Old school special operations forces guys sometimes recoil at the idea of injecting diversity into formations, but it’s necessary to keep the organization evolving and adapting to what comes next.

That was the message from a panel of current and former U.S. Special Operations Command troops on Wednesday at New America’s SOF Policy Forum in Washington.

That might look like opening up recruitment from a wide range of military occupational specialties, a Marine Special Operations Command noncomissioned officer suggested, or letting a non-operator head up a task force, a civil affairs officer added.

“It’s for performance, it’s for effect, it’s for lethality,” said Master Sgt. Michael MacKay, a Marine Raider currently serving as a Pentagon congressional fellow.

MacKay was deployed in 2006 when his Marine Force Reconnaissance community went through the MARSOC re-brand, he said. When it came time to start recruiting new members, they went straight for infantrymen.

Then it opened up to any MOS in the Marine Corps, he said, mostly because they were running out of options.

“There was a lot of animosity through the command,” over that decision, he said, adding that stalwarts “did not not want to take on cooks, bakers and candlestick makers.”

But their formations improved specifically because of that diversity of background, he said, adding in perspectives from people who joined the Marine Corps to do more than engage and close with the enemy.

Maj. Nicole Alexander, an Army civil affairs officer, took that idea a step further, offering that in some situations, an organization within SOCOM might do better with a non-traditional leader.

A service member has to hit specific gates to command those teams, she said, and those positions tend to be billeted for SEALs or Green Berets, considered the most elite SOF has to offer.

But their experience is limited to their expertise, she added, and in some cases ― like a recent deployment to Europe, with a focus on the post-war stability of the Balkans ― the mission could be a better fit for a civil affairs or psychological operations officer.

“It was a huge fight throughout the command as to whether civil affairs can command anybody,” she said.

Her team got its way in that scenario, she said, convincing the SEAL in charge there to let civil affairs take the lead.

Some of that is already happening, MacKay said, embodied in the selection of an AC-130 door gunner to be SOCOM’s senior enlisted leader, a position traditionally held, again by SEALs and Green Berets.

Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Gregory Smith took over this summer.

“In the non-shooting space, you’re going to see these people, I believe, continually rise to the top,” he said.

One way to foster that, Alexander offered, would be to create separate promotion boards for troops who are in civil affairs, special forces or psychological operations, for example, and spend their careers there.

Especially for officers, each of the military services lays out a strict path for hitting each milestone and working one’s way up the ranks.

In the conventional force, a captain will command a company-sized element and a major will take on a staff officer job. In SOCOM, however, an officer won’t take command until they make major, and when they go up against their conventional counterparts at a promotion board, they look less experienced.

“We are all individually asking where are we going and what is this doing for us?” Alexander said.

Her suggestion, she added might be a service special operations board, or even a joint one, for officers across all four of SOCOM’s component services.

The dissenters

Some diversity of thought and background is already happening, panelists said, just based on the way millennials and Gen Z-ers think.

“This generation yearns for the why and they want to be impactful, they want to be a part of a team, and if we subjugate them…we’re going to be on the losing side,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Trujillo, a Special Forces officer and fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

The key will be cultivating that, rather teaching them to relent to the way it’s always been done.

“We have to build the capacity and the comfort within our teams to be positive dissenters, from the youngest levels,” said Air Force Col. Megan Ripple, the director of Operational Test and Evaluation Command and former AC-130 gunship pilot. “We need to continue to bring questioners into the commander’s office.”

That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be a hierarchy, she explained, but that it should be standard practice to war game the reactions to policy and operations.

“What does this look like to the soccer mom, sitting, who’s going to watch how this strike goes down?” she said. “It’s about taking a perspective — rather than writing off those dissenting views, whether they be within our formations or outside of our formations — understanding where the dissenting views come from and then working within those.”

Their ideas sounded almost right out of a recent British army recruiting campaign, which capitalized on millennials and Generation Z, appealing to their sense of justice, their technical skills and their desire to do something important for their country.

“They’re very aware. They’re very empathetic of, are we doing the right thing?” MacKay said of those groups. “We’re going to have to risk potentially taking in people that don’t fit the mold that’s given us success over the past 18 years.”

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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