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Military Specialty Schools in the United States

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With the War On Terror entering its second decade, the military forces of the United States continues to operate at a high tempo.  A salient factor of U.S. military forces has always been the high level of training that its members receive.  It is this training that is the focus of this list.  Military personnel are tasked with performing dangerous missions that require not just bravery, but a high degree of skill to accomplish.   As a result, the men and women who undertake these perilous missions subject themselves to some of the toughest, and most intensive training imaginable.   Tasked with testing and molding the physical, mental and emotional aspects of every trainee, these military schools represent the upper echelon of military training.

Authors Note:  I am fairly certain that some readers will wonder about international schools such as the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines and the like.  I fully recognize the amazing training these schools offer.  However, this list is dedicated to military specialty schools within the U.S. Armed Forces.

10.  Pathfinder School

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Mission:  Army pathfinders have the all-too-important mission of insuring that airborne assault troops reach their proper landing/drop zones.  Pathfinders are the soldiers that are inserted into a designated drop zone ahead of the main assault force (up to 72 hours prior) for the purpose of marking the drop zone, initial area security, landing and drop zone surveys, etc.  These soldiers are capable of calling in air strikes for targets of opportunity, and are expected to coordinate most phases involved with LZ/DZ operations (coordinate aircraft drops/movement, weather forecast, sling load ops, etc.).  Operating in four-man teams, they operate alone behind enemy lines until the arrival of the main assault force.

Training: The U.S. Army’s Pathfinder School is a three-week course that is conducted at Fort Benning, Georgia.  In order to attend, a soldier has to be assigned to (or en route to) a billeting slot that requires pathfinding skills, be physically qualified to participate in airborne operations, and have a GT (aptitude) score of 110 or higher.  The course aims to instruct soldiers:

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“How to navigate dismounted, establish and operate a day / night helicopter landing zone, establish and operate day / night parachute drop zones (DZs), including Computed Air Release System (CARP) DZs, Ground Marked Release System (GMRS) DZs and Army Verbally Initiated Release System (VIRS) DZs, conduct sling load operations, provide air traffic control (ATC) and navigational assistance to rotary wing (RW) and fixed wing (FW) airborne operations.”

Over the course of the three weeks, students will essentially learn every facet necessary to carry out a successful air assault into a specific point.  While the course is not necessarily physically intensive, it is academically so, as students are required to absorb an incredible amount of information.  Students will undertake their curriculum in both classroom and field environments (quite a bit of field time).  Upon successful completion of the curriculum, soldiers are awarded the prestigious Pathfinder Badge, and are qualified to be assigned to one of the three pathfinder formations in the US Army.

9.   Airborne School (Basic School)

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Mission: Where traditional soldiers may find certain terrain impassable or difficult to navigate, paratroopers can be airlifted and dropped in any location accessible by air.  This includes behind enemy lines.  Additionally, the ability to rapidly deploy “boots on the ground” by air, especially in hostile environments, is a military asset that cannot be minimized.  These types of combat missions require soldiers with exceptional infantry skills, not to mention the nerves and training necessary to jump out of perfectly-functioning aircraft.

Training:  The United States Airborne School is located at Fort Benning, Georgia.  The Basic Airborne Course (also known as Jump School) is a three-week affair with the stated purpose to: “qualify the student in the use of the parachute as a means of combat deployment and to develop leadership, self-confidence, and an aggressive spirit through mental and physical conditioning.”

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The hallmark of jump school (besides jumping out of planes) is the intense physical training that is required throughout the course of the 3 week training cycle.  Students are expected to be able to withstand the PT regime and successfully pass the required PT Tests along with their jump related requirements.

The jump training is broken into 3 cycles.  The first cycle/week is spent learning how to land correctly while utilizing the parachute landing fall (PLF).  Students will spend an inordinate amount of time jumping off platforms and learning this maneuver.  Upon successful completion of learning the PLF, students move to the tower in the second cycle/week.  This training will familiarize students with the parachute apparatus, proper techniques for exiting a plane, falling from extreme heights, etc.  Students must successfully complete all the requirements of this phase to continue.  The third cycle/phase entails actually jumping out of a plane – five times.  Each student must successfully complete all five jumps to graduate.  Upon graduation, students are awarded the coveted, and well-recognized, basic parachutist wings.

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8.  Marine Scout Sniper School

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Mission:  United States Marines are elite in their own right.  Every Marine is trained, from the onset, to be an infantryman and highly effective with a rifle.  Imagine, then, what a Marine sniper is capable of.  Marine scout snipers are unique in that they undertake the dual responsibilities of reconnaissance and sniper duties. Scout sniper platoons are a battalion commander’s resource to gather intelligence, or to utilize precision fire for the suppression of hostile targets (i.e. kill bad guys).  Their motto is “one shot, one kill”.  Working in two-man teams, usually alone, in target-rich environments that have become the norm with America’s War On Terror, Marine Scout Snipers have their brand of skills in much demand.  Trained to be unseen until it’s too late (and not even then actually), these Marines learn their trade in arguably the toughest school in the Marine Corps.

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Training:  The Marine Corps Scout Sniper course is conducted at four different locations (Camp Lejune, North Carolina; Camp Pendleton, California; Quantico, Virginia, and MCB Hawaii).  In order to attend, a Marine must be at least a Lance Corporal (E-3) or above, have an infantry military occupation, be a qualified rifle expert, and be first-class physical fitness and swim test qualified.  Additionally, a Marine has to be selected by his parent command.  Once selected, a Marine will generally attend one of the four schools that is closest to his original unit.  The school itself is 12 ½ weeks long, with a strong emphasis on training Marines to be the deadliest long-range marksmen in the world.  This is evidenced by the first nine weeks of training that is almost exclusively devoted to shooting and qualifying – from both known and unknown distances.  During this phase, students will learn the craft of determining distances, flight physics for projectiles, spotting, shooting techniques and more.  There are a number of shooting qualifications in this phase, testing a student’s ability to shoot under all manner of conditions and from varying distances (1000 yards and beyond).

All of this is done under an element of directed stress, and at a hurried pace.  The second phase of training is devoted to field craft.  This is where students will learn how to stalk, camouflage techniques, recon surveillance training and the like.

The school is demanding, and the dropout rate is 60% or higher.  Marines are expected to successfully pass each stage of qualification in order to continue with training.  Failure to do so will result in being dropped.  Upon successful completion, Marines are certified scout snipers, and are eligible for advance training (such as urban and mountain sniper courses), and assignment to the Fleet Marine Force as a sniper or spotter.

7.  Aviation Survival Technician/Rescue Swimmer School

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Mission: We forget that the Coast Guard is a valued member of America’s armed forces.  Nevertheless, these brave men and women continue to serve and perform their duties at the highest levels.  This is certainly true of the Coast Guard’s Rescue Swimmers.  In my humble opinion, anyone that is willing to jump out of a helicopter into a storm-churned sea…at night…with swells that dwarf skyscrapers, deserves to be on this list, and any other that details the best of the best.  Rescue Swimmers are the elite of the search-and-rescue efforts that the Coast Guard maintains.  These are the people that are coming to get you when your ship is going doing in the Arctic Sea or some other remote place.  These guardsmen place their own lives in harm’s way so that others may survive.  It takes a special breed to perform these duties at the highest levels that are expected, and only the best survive the training.  Their motto is “so others may live.”

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Training: The Coast Guard’s AST school is located in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and is an 18-week course.  In addition to this, students will have to attend a four-week emergency medical technician course in Petaluma, California.  But before any of this takes place, potential rescue swimmers must attend a pre-course.  These pre-courses, held at various Coast Guard stations, are 4 to 6 weeks long and feature grueling physical training (especially swimming) geared to prepare students for the demands of AST.  Only about half of the initial prospects make it past this stage and attend AST.  In total, a rescue swimmer will spend about a year in training.  At AST, students learn how to deploy from helicopters, numerous rescue techniques, as well as receive in-depth training on the aircraft systems of the craft they will be assigned to.  Upon successful completion of all of this, a guardsmen (or woman) will be rated as an aviation survival technician. This honor isn’t bestowed on everybody; the school has a typical dropout rate as high as 80%.

6.  Pararescue School

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Mission:  These are the airmen that risk all to save those warriors who have gone down (usually pilots), especially behind enemy lines.  In fact, they are the only operational unit among U.S. armed forces, that are specifically tasked with rescue operations in hostile environments.  These are among the bravest and highly trained soldiers to be found, not just in the U.S. Air Force, but throughout the special operations community.  Not only must they possess the necessary infantry skills to penetrate behind enemy lines, but pararescue jumpers (PJ’s) must be able to render effective medical treatment to keep their charges alive.  Interestingly, until recently, this elite service was only available to enlisted Air Force personnel.

Training:  They refer to the training required to be become a PJ as Superman School.  And with good reason, because not just anyone can be an Air Force Pararescue Jumper.  In all, before becoming fully certified, a potential PJ will have undergone two years of very physical and intense training covering a wide spectrum of disciplines.  The first step is the Pararescue indoctrination course. This is a “let’s see if you have what it takes” course that lasts 9 weeks.  Conducted at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, students will be continuously drilled with running, swimming, weight lifting and the like.  Students will be introduced to the basics of diving, military weaponry qualifications, medical treatment procedures, and other necessary techniques.  A graduate of this course will have his “ticket” to continue on to the other specialty schools necessary to earn the coveted maroon beret of the PJ’s.  These schools include: Airborne School, Combat Diver School, Basic Survival School, Parachutist Free Fall School, Pararescue EMT/Paramedic school, and Underwater egress training.

Only after successful completion of this training will an airman be certified a PJ.  Consider this; among the entirety of the special forces community training schools, pararescue training has the highest dropout rate (about 90%).  It is not unusual to have only 4-6 successful graduates out of a 100 students. These guys are the real deal.

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