The first Special Forces Noncommissioned Officers (NCO) Professional Development Course took place March 4–April 3, 2019, at Tolemaida Military Fort in Colombia. The Colombian Special Operations Joint Command (CCOES, in Spanish) coordinated the U.S. Special Operations Command South- (SOCSOUTH) sponsored basic and advanced courses. Three instructors of the Joint Special Operations University’s NCO Academy of U.S. Special Operations Command contributed.
“The date was set a year ago  when we jointly designed the syllabus based on the needs of noncommissioned officers,” retired U.S. Army Special Forces Command Sergeant Major Amil Álvarez, course instructor, told Diálogo. “Colombia supported the initiative, which shows its interest in promoting education.”
A total of 45 Colombian NCOs of all ranks and branches took part in both courses. “Nowadays, the Army includes mission-like commands that leaders give subordinates to exercise discipline and make decisions,” said Colombian Army Sergeant First Class Juan Carlos Hernández Daza, member of the Urban Counter-terrorism Special Forces Group and a distinguished student in the basic course. “The U.S. Army developed this doctrine; we had the opportunity to receive vital information,” he told Diálogo.
The academic initiative seeks to train students to be instructors. SOCSOUTH provides specialists during the first two years of the course. CCOES will then take over with its own instructors.
“The challenge is to dig deep into the information received. We study subjects that train us to understand and operate better,” said Colombian Marine Corps First Sergeant Juan Alexander Espitia, one of three NCOs in the first course with access to both levels. “Delving into critical thinking will make us better NCOs.”
Passing on experiences
U.S. instructors are experts in leadership training, among other courses. “They also know about Colombia,” said Colombian Army Lieutenant Colonel Jorge Andrés Henao García, commandant of the Special Forces School and in charge of the new educational process. “We took on the challenge of raising our NCOs’ standard to a university level, a process that wouldn’t have been possible without U.S. Southern Command’s help. But we must make it continuous and extend it to all special forces NCOs in our Army, Navy, and Air Force.”
Before the final exam, basic course students had to plan a fictitious mission in non-controlled areas between Colombia and Ecuador. The plan involved locating the areas, establishing contacts with Ecuador, identifying criminal gangs, analyzing the conditions of the population, determining the economic and military operation, and analyzing threats and origins, among other tasks.
“The result was a document that makes me proud,” said retired U.S. Army Special Forces Command Sergeant Major Francisco Melendez, course instructor. “I wasn’t expecting such focus on the situation.”
“This course transitions from tactical to operational to develop plans and execute special operations,” Colombian Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Devis Díaz Vanegas, field analyst for special operations development, told Diálogo. “Methodology helps me think strategically to understand the commander’s intent and transmit the message correctly to subordinates.”
Colombian Air Force Staff Sergeant Manuel Molina Garzón, a course participant, told Diálogo that two topics caught his attention: military counseling and operational analysis. “The former allows NCOs to [learn to] counsel their personnel; the operational helps us analyze information to understand the process that should end in successful special operations.”
After tackling thought patterns and leadership conditions, the course offers information about strategy, planning, and operations. Its emphasis is on doctrine; operations; tactics, techniques, procedures, and tasks; military decision-making, and troop leadership, among others. Effective communication processes and military counsel complement the course.
“We provide a lot of information combined with daily objectives. We use what they learned from their own experiences,” retired U.S. Army Special Forces Command Sergeant Major Orlando Ramón, course instructor, told Diálogo. “I connect the counterinsurgency class with the Colombian reality; that makes learning easier.”
“[The course] is for future generations, for corporals and staff sergeants who are starting their careers, also for those who are halfway through,” Colombian Army Sergeant Major Rigoberto Carvajal Mahecha, of CCOES, told Diálogo. “We are service members with exceptional technical training, but I recognize that this course is at a different intellectual level. We are committed to be multipliers of this knowledge.”
The three instructors agreed that although change won’t happen overnight, it won’t be difficult either. Colombian students have the high levels of education, discipline, motivation, and analytical capacity to make it—all they need is some practice.
“Practice doesn’t make perfect, but practice sharpens [skills],” said Sgt. Maj. Álvarez. Now, NCOs have the opportunity to put into practice what they learned, and lessons learned will be part of their daily decisions and actions. The challenge they will face is passing on their knowledge to their counterparts and practicing vertical communication until they reach perfection.