#141: Don’t Show Up For The Minimum – USAJFKSWCS Command Chief Warrant CW5 Gary Ostrander

Friday July 05, 2024

Special Forces Warrant Officers are subject matter experts in unconventional warfare, operations and intelligence fusion, and planning and execution. They also advise commanders on all aspects of special operations and are responsible for the integration of emerging technologies. 

To explore the unique role of the Special Forces Warrant Officer, Fran Racioppi asked the Command Chief Warrant Officer of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School Chief Warrant Officer 5 Gary Ostrander to join him from the Special Warfare Museum at Fort Liberty, NC. 

With over 30 years in the Army, Gary advises the commander and sergeant major of SWCS on best practices for training and developing our US Army Special Operations soldiers. 

After they defined what it takes to succeed as a Special Forces Warrant, they explained SWCS 2030, the importance of duration in assessment and selection, how technology is being integrated into training, how to create a training program that prepares people for anything and innovation in recruiting initiatives. 

Take a listen, watch, or read our conversation with one of Special Forces most experienced leaders then head over to our YouTube channel to watch CW5 Ostrander share the lineage of America’s first Special Forces in the Jedburgh Media Channel’s first documentary, Unknown Heroes, Behind Enemy Lines at D-Day, the story of Operation Jedburgh.  

Listen to the podcast here


Don’t Show Up For The Minimum – USAJFKSWCS Command Chief Warrant CW5 Gary Ostrander

Chief Ostrander, welcome to The Jedburgh Podcast. Let’s talk about the role of the Special Forces Warrant Officer. I joke with you that you’ve been there for several years but when we do break down the role of the Special Forces Warrant Officer, that’s what we want. At all levels, as you go through your career from Warrant Officer 1 to 5, the whole purpose is to add somebody into that command element who might be a little bit older and have a little bit more experience than the rest of the team who can provide that value. I thought it would be important to sit here and discuss it. I pulled the official definition of the SF Warrant Officer. I’ll throw it out here, then I’m going to ask you what your definition is.

CW5 Gary Ostrander, Command Chief Warrant of USAJFKSWCS joins Fran Racioppi on the Jedburgh Podcast.

By definition, the Special Forces Warrant Officer is an experienced subject matter expert in unconventional warfare, operations, intelligence fusion, planning, and execution at all levels across the operational continuum. They advise commanders on all aspects of special operations and are responsible for the integration of emerging technologies. You are one of the three most senior warrant officers in the regiment. In your own words, what’s the role of a Special Forces Warrant Officer?

The definition hits at it from a doctrinal standpoint. Key things that identify there is as the subject matter experts, we draw our lineage as being experienced NCOs or officers that transition and become the 180 Alpha or Special Forces Warrant Officers. Understanding doctrine is key in paramount. Also, understanding the unconventional role in planning to be able to execute that, whether in training or operations in support of a theater security cooperation plan. Lastly, looking at that senior advisor to the commander, whether that be a detachment commander, captain, major at the company level, lieutenant colonel at the battalion, or general. We continue from there at a nominative position.


How do you bridge the gap? You described where you sit and the different commanders that you interact with, but one of the important factors and prerequisites to be a Special Forces Warrant Officer is that you’ve got to be an E6 at a minimum and have to have spent at least 36 months on a Special Forces team. I think back to the warrant officers I had, and I can tell you a story about when I first got to 213. Somebody thought it was a good idea to put three warrant officers on my team. That’s like putting two captains on a team, which was never going to work. How do you bridge the gap and why is that experience, which is defined as a prerequisite, important so that you can sit there and provide that level of expertise between the enlisted team members, leaders, team sergeant, and commissioned officer like the captain on a team or battalion commander, whatever it might be?

Everybody needs to understand and define their roles. We understand that clearly. You understand we’ll use the unit of action or the ODA as our starting point, the detachment commander is up and out. He is the one who communicates to the company commander and battalion commander, if necessary, for all operations, if he wants to keep his job and he has that effective communication.

The team sergeant is down and in. He’s controlling the day-to-day operations and everything. You had this squishing thing in the middle. The warrant and the responsibility are looking long-term. The warrant specifically focuses on those long-term planning operations and actions. We don’t have to take credit. Turn that concept and training plan over to the detachment commander and have him approve it.

CW5 Gary Ostrander, Command Chief Warrant of USAJFKSWCS joins Fran Racioppi on the Jedburgh Podcast.

When it comes six weeks out from execution, you’re handing that down to the team sergeant to make sure he has all the resources to enable him to execute that or empowering other HCOs to be able to execute that on the detachment. Drawing from that, having the experience operating down at the lower level, running day operations, it’s somewhat difficult to transition into this middle goal.

On that, it’s deployed at a deployed setting. You can operate in split teams when you have sufficient personnel. That responsibility for command and control in that split team lies with the assistant detachment commander or the warrant officer. You are sharing responsibilities in an operational setting. Obviously, the detachment commander is still in charge of the mission set but splitting those roles and responsibilities.

Since you brought up the ODA as the baseline element, one of the important jobs of the warrant officer, which he shares this responsibility with the team sergeant, is the development of the team leader and the captain who comes into the team. Back to my team, I had Rudy Russell and Dave Handy, who was the one that was the team sergeant. We’ve been in groups for years.

I was fortunate because we’re big on that. They put a lot of time and effort into saying, “I guess they liked me,” which helped but said, “We’re going to spend time developing this guy or leader within our team.” Talk about that mentoring aspect and the relationship between the warrant, team sergeant, and team leader, not only running the team but in the development of the team leader.

I’ve had great experiences and some not-so-great experiences. The mentorship role is at all levels. It’s not only at the ODA where you’re mentoring that detachment commander. That elevates up to the company commander, battalion commander, group commander, and so forth. That is critical. Most officers do rely upon or seek out, “What is the chief’s opinion? What does the chief think about this plan?” whether you’ve put it together or you’ve supported somebody else putting it together. You’ve reviewed the plan that’s being presented. You can provide, from my lens, candid feedback. They may be contradictory. It’s a realistic sense of, “Yes, this is executable,” or, “No, somebody’s pulling your leg and it’s not going to be executable what the racehorse’s task is in the wilderness.” 

CW5 Gary Ostrander, Command Chief Warrant of USAJFKSWCS joins Fran Racioppi on the Jedburgh Podcast.

One of the terms that we put on that is effective intelligence. It’s this ability to think about the experiences that you’ve had in the past and then use those experiences to shape your decision-making in the future. One of the benefits of the role that the Special Forces Warrant Officer holds is they spend time enlisted. A warrant officer is a commissioned officer. You see the other side and spend time as an assistant detachment commander making decisions. Especially if you’re fortunate enough to operate in a split team environment, you can bring that perspective because you’ve sat on both sides of it. 

Then in the absence of the team leader, and there are teams that sometimes don’t have a captain, and then they serve in that role. You’re able to have a deeper set of experiences to bring that to the table and say, “I have an idea.” Maybe it’s not the best idea but you listen to it. There’s a benefit to that.

It goes along with understanding the secondary effects. Whether you’re deployed on the range or doing something in training, it has secondary effects. Are you chartered to be able to execute a mission in training, or is that something that you think is sexy and you want to do? That’s where the rubber meets the road in a sense.

Special Warfare Center And School

Let’s talk about your role here at the Special Warfare Center and School. We had an opportunity to sit down with Commander General Beaurpere and Sergeant Major Strong and dig into their vision for SWCS 2030. What does that mean? Where is the organization and where is it going? Break out the two components of it. The number one component is, how are we recruiting, assessing, selecting, training, and developing the next generation and the current generation in one of the training groups to be the most highly capable warriors and operators that they can be.

The other one is, how are we developing the doctrine and keeping the doctrine relevant? How are we closing the feedback loop quickly with the operational force, and then modifying and evolving how we’re training to stay ahead of our adversaries in the way that we train? I’m interested in your perspective. How have you seen SWCS evolve throughout your career? As we look at this SWCS 2030, why is now the time to invoke some of these changes?

Throughout my career, I went through the qualification course and ended up graduating in class 4 ‘97. Seeing it from my lens now and what we executed and performed, and also changes with modifying the qualification course or elements thereof of putting small units of tactics back in front of the MOS phase, we’re making those minor tweaks and adjustments to produce ultimately a better product at the end. Our vision and job is to focus on that. What is the operational requirement? We focus on that end product. How do we produce the best product at the end that has gone through enough tests and evaluations, not an unscrutinized look at it but tests and evaluations that are codified? How do we test them on their basic skills, whether it’s MOS, tactics, or unconventional warfare?

CW5 Gary Ostrander, Command Chief Warrant of USAJFKSWCS joins Fran Racioppi on the Jedburgh Podcast.

As we look at the transition of how SWCS is taking on its new form in 2030, I’ve had a chance to go out and see how centers of excellence operate. Coming back to SWCS, you look internal and you’re like, “We’re special somewhat but why do we do things so differently?” That’s allowed me to understand General Beaurpere’s plan and course of action, the campaign, to get after the transition and transformation.

You talk about the duration of the training pipeline. We know that there are various phases. You have assessment and selection. You have the MOS phases, SUT, language, and various other phases that fit in there in various spots. It seems tweaked every couple of years. One’s moving before another and then eventually they go back. That’s all done on data, to try and figure out the best application, if there is a best application. The duration of the course though is important. What are we evaluating for? We’re looking for people who have a certain character that’s going to come forward in a moment in which we may or may not be able to predict but inevitably, it’s going to be a difficult and unknown situation.

We talked a lot with General and then also previously with Lieutenant Colonel Dave Lucas and Sergeant Major Matt Williams from the 4th Battalion who run the course in the MOS phases about this VUCA environment: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. That’s what we’re developing leaders for. If you don’t have a training pipeline that assesses people in various capacities for a long time, you can’t draw out and put them in enough situations to bring all aspects of their character to bear. That’s what this organization is doing.

We tried to make, whether it’s the culmination exercises or the actual training, as realistic as possible. General Beaurpere and I had an engagement. We talked to a few people and students. That’s what they indicated. It is as realistic as possible and they were proud to be part of this organization. They’ve graduated through the regimental first formation and are attending language school. We have that nuanced little feedback to say, “We’re still doing things right.” We try to integrate technology as much as possible because that’s what is going to be on the battlefield of tomorrow. We try to make sure that our scenario in information exchange is as realistic as possible. 

We try to integrate technology as much as possible because that’s what is going to be on the battlefield of tomorrow.

When you talk about technology, what technology is SWCS looking at as being paramount on the next battlefield?

It’s the ability to conduct PSYOPs within information advantage. What that does is that leads back to our number one priority for the PSYWAR School and the establishment there. We’re bringing in large language models and using artificial intelligence to be able to create dialogue and messages in print, radio, or social media and feed that out during their culmination exercises near real-time. 

There’s additional technology that we’re looking at as we assess the operating environments, Europe being one of them. We’re trying to ingest and understand any form of robotics and autonomous systems as well. The realism of the future battlefield where you may or may not think that you’re going to be seen, more likely you will be seen by an unmanned system. How do we defeat it? How do we react to it? As the US military, how do we employ those capabilities against our adversaries?

CW5 Gary Ostrander, Command Chief Warrant of USAJFKSWCS joins Fran Racioppi on the Jedburgh Podcast.

How do you stay up-to-date? We’ve seen how quickly technology evolves. We were joking that it seems like yesterday many years ago, but think about how rapidly we evolved. If you walk through the museum here, it seems like we were in Iraq. You go back and look at the pictures of the kid, gear, and everything from Iraq. We used to look at pictures of Vietnam. You look at the picture and the stuff from Vietnam, and that’s prehistoric. How do you continuously stay ahead of the curve in terms of understanding the technological advantage, the information warfare, and the psychological operations to be able to integrate that quickly and rapidly evolve?

One of the benefits of the Special Warfare Center here is we’re the melting pot for the operational forces to select a cadre to come back, train, and mentor the next generation. We also participate in communities of interest across the joint force, not just the Army but from an ARSOF lens, we look jointly, including our Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps brethren out there to bring in some of those lessons.

CW5 Gary Ostrander, Command Chief Warrant of USAJFKSWCS joins Fran Racioppi on the Jedburgh Podcast.

Additional things are we try and participate in the lesser learned forums as often as possible. General Beaurpere and I, with a small team, went to Europe and were able to visit some of the units and organizations there dealing with the conflict in Europe. It was incredible to understand, “What is the product that we are producing from the schoolhouse? How is it performing? How is it able to operate in various mission sets downrange?”

I want to ask about the peer-to-peer fight, which is how we’re defining the series of adversarial nations. For years, by and large, despite the difficulty we had at times, we fought an inferior enemy when it came to technological weaponry. They gave us a run for it a lot but that’s the byproduct of counter-insurgency CT prolonged operations. Our ability as a nation and military to have mass effects in a short time at a significant volume and scale is unmatched. I believe it’s anywhere in the world but we have nations, specifically China. A couple of years ago, we would all have said Russia. The Ukraine situation has shown that they may not be as capable as we thought but still highly effective and capable. There are nations out there that can have as quick an effect as we can. 

This becomes a peer-to-peer fight. There’s discussion in the media and also within the Army, DOD, and even in SOF that we’re in this “1939 moment” where these conflicts are brewing across the world. Is it the start of the next global conflict? Could any one of these situations be the spark that ignites a broader conflict? We continue to have that fear, specifically in the Middle East. The FBI is out there talking about these blinking lights, what’s going to happen, and how they can happen. Are we going to be prepared? Are we ready to accept it?

As we talk about in the show, we talk about the OSS. It was an organization that was built when we were able to have a peer-to-peer fight because we identified that you need this SOF capability to degrade your peers’ capability. In the conventional fight, you could potentially hit a stalemate. The results of that are going to be very nasty for civilization and society on both sides.

When is SOF successful? SOF is successful when we avoid nation-state superpower versus nation-state superpower because we’re engaging through surrogates and proxy groups. They fight it out and it keeps the nation states away from the direct conflict. When you look at these threats, the complexity of the threats, and how they’re different, how do you create a training program that prepares a force to be ready for anything?

Regardless of the regiment that you’re training, whether it’s CA, PSYOP, or SF, you need to instill and educate how they understand critical thinking. How do they look at a problem set and become the world’s most adaptive problem solvers? I steal that quote from Colonel Matt Tucker. He’s in the 2nd training group and a commander but a long-time alumnus as well. As he thinks about it, and we look at these regiments, we have to have realism but what it comes down to is mastering the basics.

CW5 Gary Ostrander, Command Chief Warrant of USAJFKSWCS joins Fran Racioppi on the Jedburgh Podcast.


As CSM, we receive feedback all the time that says, “Why aren’t we putting this next combo system out there? Why aren’t we doing,” you name it, adding whatever piece of technology and things. The challenge in our future operating environment is we see that we may not have the capabilities and technology to be able to operate. We have to go back to the basics. We’re back in 1939. We didn’t have a bunch of satellites up. We need to understand to be able to operate off a mapping compass, clear commander’s intent, and guidance to go out and execute our missions. That’s the same across all three tribes.

You have to be able to do those things. Technology is an enabler. It can’t be what we rely on.

The younger generation or the digital age brought up growing up in school and everything. All they utilize is technology. They have a smartphone for everything and use a computer for everything. That all presents a signal, which ultimately we have to understand.

It can be accessed. Recruiting is a top-line discussion certainly at the DOD level and the Army. USASOC for Special Forces Command is discussing it. There are positives in recruiting. There are still a lot of folks coming out who want to be Green Berets and come into the Special Forces Regiment. There are inherent challenges in bringing people into the Army.

CW5 Gary Ostrander, Command Chief Warrant of USAJFKSWCS joins Fran Racioppi on the Jedburgh Podcast.Army SOF represents about 1.5% when you include the National Guard in those numbers. About 1% to 1.5% of the Army sits in SOF. SOCOM only absorbs about 3% of the budget of DOD. When you look at the effect that these small percentages in terms of financial resources and personnel, we remain critical and at the forefront of the national defense strategy, but it comes down to people and getting people in the door. When we look at the recruiting environment, what are some of the innovative ways that you at the command are going out to find that next generation of SOF operators?

We’re still trying to maintain standards, and that’s paramount. We’re assessing against state-of-the-art attributes to identify and bring those individuals into the SF regiment and ARSOF at large. Innovation-wise, there’s a myriad of different capabilities, plans, and actions here in the headquarters, as well as across the force used to get after the recruiting effort, including engagements, whether it be focused on college athletics and trying to present the opportunities that young individuals will see if they decide to choose and take a career path within the Army.

High school is also an option but more so what we’re seeing is the younger generation is continuing in their education. Access to those high schools has become a little bit difficult. Any kind of sporting event, collegiate or professional, we’re trying to present those capabilities like, “This is ARSOF. This is a day in the life of ARSOF.” In addition, we’re trying to reach out to those individuals like yourself who have a large social media following in presence that can send a narrative, “What does it mean to become an ARSOF operator or part of the team here at ARSOF?”

What it means is if you want to be part of the best, you better pack your shit and get out there. That’s what it means to me.

There’s that piece as well. We have not changed the standard. The standard is the standard set. We try to publicize, whether it be on our outward-facing website or through YouTube, “Here are the minimum standards. Here’s how to pack a rucksack. Get out there. Get miles on your feed. Get it under heavy weight and load.” We indicate what the minimum is but we also indicate that if you show up for the minimums, there is a very slim chance that you are going to be one of the ones selected.

Next Generation

It’s because you have to be able to do it over and over again. Anyone can do something once. When you look across the force and even if you look at the cadre, who’s coming into SWC to train the next generation, what I’ll call the GWOT generation of operators is retiring. I went to a retirement ceremony for one of the guys who was a lieutenant colonel in the 7th group. We went to basic training together, and he’s out in his twenty-year mark. You’re seeing guys who are retiring. What effect is that having on the force? More folks who are coming into the organization don’t have the combat patch. How do we close the gap?

The experiential gap closure is defined through a shared interest. The younger generation needs to be somewhat inquisitive of the older generation, ask a lot of questions, and be able to conduct realistic training. The older generation understands what missions, whether it be GWOT-based. As we transition to peer-based competition, they understand some of those scenarios. From my lens, seeing the generations that are coming through the course, hands down, they are incredibly intelligent. They’re physically fit and arriving at the operational force prepared to execute with little guidance.

The greatest challenge is we have a lot of 18 X-rays straight off the street that comes in through assessment and selection and perform better than the active duty population. They are somewhat overwhelming the operational force somewhere between 40% to 50% of a unit of action. The challenge to that is they don’t understand necessarily the Army and how the Army operates. They’re able to advise two levels up in a deployed scenario. An ODA is required to advise a battalion command. How do they do that? Oftentimes, some of those individuals fall short. They don’t understand the staff systems and processes of how the Army functions.

That takes time on task and in the Army. What are you most excited about as you look at this next generation? You see them coming up and you speak highly of them. You’re excited to see what they’re going to bring to the table in a very complex operating environment. We operate in a complex operating environment but as you look across the threats that exist, it is extremely dynamic. It’s also very politically charged as it always is. Whenever we’re elevating from fighting terrorist organizations to being at odds with superpowers, it ups the stakes. What are you most excited about when you look at the next generation of ARSOF operators?

CW5 Gary Ostrander, Command Chief Warrant of USAJFKSWCS joins Fran Racioppi on the Jedburgh Podcast.

As I see them, whether it’s from one qualification course to another, the RFF, at our snapshot of little engagements, there’s one fine thread that remains the same. Whether it’s Donovan, Aaron Bank, or anybody else, the common thread is the willingness to serve, meet a challenge face-on, and be able to adapt to that challenge to accomplish their mission. The generation like yourself or when I went through are motivated. They understand. They want to do you by, with, and through a partner force or an ally to achieve strategic objectives. That common thread has woven itself.CW5 Gary Ostrander, Command Chief Warrant of USAJFKSWCS joins Fran Racioppi on the Jedburgh Podcast.

One of the most important things I believe you take away from being a Green Beret is the importance of habits and foundational skills. I’ll tell people all the time that there’s nothing special about being Special Forces. You’re like everybody else except you do the fundamentals better. You do them to a defined standard. You don’t negotiate and compromise on that standard.

I got one more question for you and it’s the test question. The Jedburghs of World War II had to do three things every day to be successful. They had to shoot, move, and communicate. Those are foundational habits and skills. What we know from training and doing foundational tasks repetitively over time is that the more you train them, the more they become part of your daily routine and the less you have to think about them, which means you can focus your attention on other things that may be foreseen or unforeseen. What are the three things that you do every day to set the conditions for success in your world, either personally or professionally?

I get up in the morning every day. I’m proud to be an American here. I’m still able to put on this uniform. As I look at three things that I do, one is to get up and challenge myself nearly each and every morning in that standard-setting parameter of, “You got to do physical fitness.” Secondly, it is to be able to engage with my family. You divorce yourself from the family when you depart for work and sometimes it’s often for long durations. The family is who’s going to support you there on the back end. Engaging the family is the second one, which creates clarity and defines purpose for you throughout the day. The third is I try to be myself, contribute, and get back to the regiment. That’s my defining piece. At any point in time that I’m not providing credible feedback to the regiment, that’s the day that I need to take off this uniform and transition to the next job.

CW5 Gary Ostrander, Command Chief Warrant of USAJFKSWCS joins Fran Racioppi on the Jedburgh Podcast.

Get up in the morning and challenge yourself, engage with your family, and make sure that you are yourself. Be yourself and give back to the regiment. Three great ones. Luckily, you have more to give back. We have an exciting opportunity ahead. People outside of the regiment may say, “What are you going to do now that we’re not at war?” I argue with those people and say, “We are at war.”

You don’t see it in the news anymore because it’s not this direct-action war that we may be in, but this time is where SOF excels. This is where Green Berets and Special Operations Forces do their best work. This is where they prevent peer-to-peer competition. It’s these moments that we sit in in time where the utilization of the force is most critical. That’s an exciting opportunity.

As I sit here and speak with you, the commander, the sergeant major, and everyone else within the Special Forces Regiment, I get more excited about what’s on the horizon and how we are going to go out and seek the opportunity to do something other than direct-action but know that when called upon and if needed, we will conduct those types of activities. There’s nobody better prepared. You sit here in the Special Warfare Center and School to prepare the next generation. It’s an honor to see you here. I know that everybody else feels that way too. Keep up the good work. Let’s get those guys out there because we have a lot of work to do.

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