Its Tough Enough to Be a Navy SEAL But Even More Challenging to be an African American
“It was like being the only black in a Harley Davidson gang, as out of place as you can be,” Lt. Jake Zweig USN SEAL Ret.
U.S. special operations units have always prided themselves on how difficult it is to become a member of their ranks. For some African American SEALs, EOD’s, & Green Berets, finding the will to stay in is tougher than making the cut.
On the 21st Century battlefield, special operations groups having become the face of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. In an integrated Military, commanders are concerned that lack of diversity in the Spec Ops community is causing issues stemming from racism.
The problem, some say, is the attitudes black recruits face once inside.
“It was like being the only black in a Harley Davidson gang, as out of place as you can be,” said retired Lt. Jake Zweig of his short, tumultuous stay in the SEALs. “It was horrendous.”
The SEALs have acknowledged “pockets of racial insensitivity” and have appointed a minority recruitment chief with authority to veto bigoted candidates.
The crux, all agree, is the elitism that defines these units.
“SEALs are extremely leary of changing their bravado or lowering standards to let people in who are not up to the challenge of what a special forces warrior should be,” said Lt. Cmdr. Darryn James, a spokesman for Navy Special Warfare.
Such talk riles Army Brig. Gen. Remo Butler, a Ranger who is now the highest-ranking black soldier in special forces.
“That’s code for ‘You’re not quite as smart, you’re here because you’re getting a break somewhere,”’ said Butler, who heads Special Operations Command-South in Puerto Rico.
The armed services are often held out as standard-bearers for integration. Blacks — 13 percent of the U.S. population — make up 20 percent of the military. But they are less than 4 percent of special forces.
The Tampa, Fla.-based command for all military special operations is publishing recruiting pamphlets that for the first time prominently feature minorities. It also is sending “motivator” teams that include black and Hispanic special forces success stories into minority neighborhoods.
Special forces don’t sign up civilians themselves. Instead, they are encouraging minorities to join the military with the goal of working their way into the elite ranks.
Integration in the special forces comes slowly. According to Defense Department Numbers:
Navy SEALs currently have 21 blacks among its 2,400, less than 2 percent of the force. Even though African-Americans constitute nearly 17 percent of the male personnel within the Navy as a whole.
Green Berets have 234 African-American officers and soldiers in a force of 5,200 men. Blacks make up 4.5 percent of the Green Berets.
Air Force’ s special-tactics groups have only eight blacks in a force of 472 men.
One recent tack has been to accept a candidate conditionally even if he fails one requirement, as long as he is thought capable of meeting the standard with more training.
That applies especially to swimming, where some blacks fare poorly. SEALs candidates must swim 500 yards in 12½ minutes.
The latest recruitment efforts have been guided by a 1999 Rand Institute study, commissioned by Congress, that found that most black troops worry they will come across racism in special operations units. The report did not address whether those concerns are justified.
Jake Zweig initially rebuffed admonishments from friends that he would face racism.
But soon there were nudges of harassment, some subtle, others less so, Zweig said. His portable radio mysteriously switched stations from hip-hop to country whenever he looked away. He endured “gangstah” gibes from instructors. An officer shouted “Stop thief!” at a black sailor jogging.
When he suggested more aggressive recruitment among minority sailors, Zweig said an officer retorted sharply: “What … do you want us to do, lower the standards, so more of y’all can make it in?”
Zweig filed a complaint.
A Navy investigator confirmed Zweig’s account of the meeting but concluded the remark was a misunderstanding and “not racial in nature.” The report expressed sympathy for the view that “any change in training is seen as an eroding of the standards.”
Rear Adm. Eric Olson, Commander of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), concluded that after several internal investigations ” that the Spec Ops Community is working to improve the diversity of the teams to maximize group cohesion, if anyone is second guessing in the field for any reason that is a concern.”
Zweig, now 29, ended his three years in the SEALs last year, and is now studying law.
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