Friday, March 18, 2011


I was recently asked:  

Which is "proper" or preferred by these men when referring to them, "Green Beret" or "Special Forces"?

It is a very insightful question, and the answer is long & complex. Each one of the following paragraphs is the subject of at least a chapter-long essay; but it is my tribe, and I am the teller of the tale, so here goes:

As I recall, the "Green Berets" label became popular during the sixties, with the song, the book and the movie:

The green beret itself, as a piece of headgear for elite forces, dates to WWII and the French Underground. The Royal Marine Commandos were already wearing it, and it was picked up by the OSS Jedburghs (direct predecessors of modern day US Army Special Forces).

45 Royal Marine Commando, WWII

I don’t know exactly when French Foreign Legion paratroopers started wearing green berets - sometime after WWII when they acquired Airborne capability within the French forces, and before Dien Bien Phu - where they wore the green beret in combat.

Foreign Legion Soldiers in Algiers, 1957

Beret of the 2° Regt Etrangere Parachutiste (French Foreign Legion)

Early U.S. Army Special Forces in Europe adopted the beret as an unofficial headgear, worn only in the field. By the time of General William Yarborough’s famous First Formation in front of John F. Kennedy the beret was being worn openly (and unofficially) on post at Fort Bragg by Special Forces personnel.

President Kennedy granted official recognition & Presidential award of the headgear.

Then came the song, the book, and the movie, and from that point we were designated “Green Berets” in the popular lexicon.

Then something happened in the late 70s / early 80s. Everyone knows the Army can ruin a wet dream. The beret was officially sanctioned by no less than Presidential Executive Order, and so the Army, in it’s wisdom, determined that EVERYONE assigned to a Special Forces unit should wear the uniform (to include distinctive headgear) of that unit. Hence the phenomenon of pregnant female office clerks seen walking around Fort Bragg wearing green berets.

This sacrilege was finally put to rest when Special Forces became it’s own branch, MOS; 18-series Career Management Field. Nowadays only Special Forces qualified personnel wear the green beret; non-SF qual’d personnel assigned to Special Forces wear maroon berets (indicating airborne unit status).

For the longest time during the 70s and 80s it was almost taboo amongst Special Forces soldiers to refer to ourselves as “Green Berets”. This was how Hollywood described us, and of course there was that whole thing about the pregnant personnel clerk walking around the PX at Bragg wearing a green beret. We were and ARE Special Forces soldiers. Likewise, there is no such thing as “Navy Special Forces” or “Air Force Special Forces”. These units are designated “Special Operations Forces” (SEALs are Navy SOF, Para-Rescue are AF SOF, etc) to differentiate from the “Special Forces” designation, which has belonged to the Army since World War II.

World War II-era jump wings of the OSS (Office of Special Services)
"Special Forces"

Nowadays however a certain pride and ownership has come of the label “Green Beret” and we once again refer to ourselves as “The Green Berets”. You will see it on web sites, chatrooms, certain YouTube clips, etc. We are still not quite yet comfortable with the monicker, given the Hollywood over-usage in the past, but I have heard the term used even in Tactical Operations Centers (TOCs) and Joint Operations Centers (JOCs) by Special Forces soldiers, when discussing order of battle, to differentiate between Special Forces soldiers out there on the battlefield and other Special Operations Soldiers (Rangers are Army SOF, Marine Force Recon are MARSOF, etc).

Of course, I am (semi) retired now – I refer to myself as EX-Special Forces (“ex;” being Latin for “out of”) but NEVER “former” Special Forces; on the grounds that there is no such thing as a “former” Special Forces soldier (with the possible exception of the guys drummed out in disgrace – I’ve seen a few of those). I work and hang out with a number of colleagues from my former life, and recently a retired Sergeant Major said to me (in front of everyone), “You’re a Green Beret, Linnane – get yerself out there and KICK SOME ASS ! ! !”

Hope this answers your question for now . . . SEAN LINNANE SENDS

Today's Bird HERE



  1. FWIW, family friend is a retired full bird, AF-SOC. He and his friends refer to themselves as "Air Commandos", or "Commandos", not as any variant of special forces or special operation forces. Saves anybody getting confused, I reckon.

  2. I love that song man. We used to listen to it a lot when it was popular. Thought the John Wayne movie was a little bogus. He is a fat man...enough said.

  3. Great article. I learned something, thank you. And as always, thank you for your service!!

  4. The beret itself, as military headgear, goes back at least to the French Chasseurs Alpins, organized 1888. I have a 1916 book with an illustration of bereted Chasseurs Alpins swooping down on skis towards a trenchful of Germans in pickelhaubes. The beret is supposed to have entered British service thanks to a suggestion that "Chink" Dorman-Smith, military intellectual and unsung architect of the El Alamein victory, made to Arch Gatehouse of the Tank Corps well before WWII.

  5. As a 20 yr+ one of those NAVSOF guys you reference in your excellent, as usually post, I can say that the term of reference I heard and employed over the years was always "SF" when referring to our ODA brothers-in-arms.

    Of course, when the whole issue of the manliness of specific head gear was raised, which usually surfaced after a few beers, then all bets were off.

  6. Gramps // Mar 18, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    Back in the “sixty’s” our air crews used to refer to us as a load of “Sneaky Pete’s”. I became rather enamored of that label.
    The young arse “Greenhorns” today; like to refer to us, as olde, “Shaky Jakes”. I’m sorta proud of that too…

    Damn, that brings a tear to my last eye…!
    Cross posted from the

  7. Gramps // Mar 19, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    Special Operations guyes are like a big fraternity without a frat house…

    It sorta works like this… Some Staff General rings up an olde Spec. Ops. Colonel that once served in his command… He informs him that he requires a group of consultants or technical specialists. Then the Colonel rings up some Master [Team] Sergeant he served with earlier; between some, “rock and a hard spot”.

    The Master [Team] Sergeant in turn…rings up a selected few consultants or technical specialists he’s served with earlier, [normally in combat] with whom he has complete confidence, faith and trust…

    HOOAAH…Sean is no longer, semi-retired…
    These are normally “short timer”, gigs; but the pay is good…!

  8. check out this post, too ... as it provides some additional info in the footnotes, as well as a book of peotry by JFK's daughter, Carolinem to help the SF community.