WASHINGTON — The Navy never had to look too hard to fill its elite SEAL force. For years, eager recruits poured in to try out for naval special warfare teams — but they were overwhelmingly white.
Now, Naval Special Warfare Command leaders are trying to turn that around, developing programs to seek out recruits from more diverse regions of the country.
“We have been passive in the way that we recruit, We’re SEAL Team. Come find us,” said Rear Adm. H. Wyman Howard III, top commander for Naval Special Warfare, in an interview with The Associated Press. Now, he said, “we have to go where diversity lives."
Army leaders have been doing some of the same things. Lt. Gen. Fran Beaudette, head of Army Special Operations Command, said they have loosened some restrictions on who can try out for special forces units — which included requirements on the amount of time in the service or in rank a soldier had done. And the Army has created new, specialized teams to better reach out to more diverse populations.
The effort comes as the military — and the nation — struggles with racism, extremism and hate crimes. Leaders see greater diversity as a way to combat extremism in the ranks, even as they increase other training and education programs.
Commando forces — particularly the officers — tend to be far less diverse than the military as a whole. While only a small percentage of those who try out eventually pass the grueling, years-long training for special operations, leaders hope that bringing in a wider array of recruits will lead to a more diverse force.
As of March 2021, a full 95% of all SEAL and combatant-craft crew (SWCC) officers were white and just 2% were Black, according to Naval Special Warfare statistics provided to the AP. The officers corps of Army Special Forces is 87% white, and also 2% Black.
The enlisted ranks are only slightly more diverse. About 84% of the Navy SEAL and SWCC enlisted troops are white, and 2% are Black. The greater diversity comes in the number of American Indian, Alaskan Native and those who say they are “multiple” races. The Army’s enlisted special forces are also 84% white, but the percentage of Blacks goes up to 4.
When all members of Naval Special Warfare and Army Special Operations Command are included — which would add combat support, civil affairs and psychological operations personnel — the diversity grows slightly. But it still doesn’t match the overall Army and Navy statistics. For example, 40% of the Navy’s enlisted force and 24% of it’s officers are non-white.
Senior leaders have few answers when asked why minority recruits haven’t gravitated to special operations jobs in larger numbers. Some suggest that minority youth in urban areas may not be exposed to troops who do the more elite jobs, or that they tend to go where they see a greater ethnic mix.
For the SEALs in particular, leaders say young minorites may have less access to pools or be less focused on swimming and may not be attracted to jobs that require high levels of water expertise.
Most troops who join SEAL teams or Special Forces want to concentrate on combat missions, not recruiting. With fewer minorities overall, that leaves a tiny number that can be recruiters.
That will be changing. Howard has set up an outreach command that will send troops to cities like Chicago and Detroit to reach out to populations that otherwise may not think about special warfare as a potential choice.
Meanwhile, Beaudette said Special Forces Command has “supercharged” its marketing. “We’ve become less shy about advocating for ourselves and explaining what it is we do and how we do it, ” he said.
One of the more effective efforts, he said, is having a diverse group of young non-commissioned officers go to Army posts and stations, talking about their experiences.
Already, he said, he's seen results from loosening some application requirements and boosting recruiting. For some of the special operations jobs, as much as 20% more applicants have expressed interest in going through the selection process. The standards for passing the course haven’t changed, he said, but at least the applicant pool is more diverse.
More broadly, Army Recruiting Command has set up two nine-member teams representing various ethnicities, ranks, jobs and gender to reach out to a wider array of recruits online and through community outreach. Their job is to tell their stories, so that others understand the opportunities in the military.
Maj. Gen. Kevin Vereen, who heads the command, said Army and special operations leaders are “all in agreement that diversity is good. It’s not necessarily what you look like — we do agree that that’s important — but it’s also diversity of thought and experiences that really add to making the Army so much better.”
Howard and Beaudette say they hope that attracting a wider pool of applicants will eventually expand diversity, and help build a more inclusive force that can better protect America.
“I think, in a republic, it’s a foundational point — you have to reflect the people you defend,” Howard said.
One of his first moves when he took command was to change his recruits' initial military experience.
For years, when SEAL and special warfare recruits arrived at boot camp they were quickly funneled into a separate training group to hone their skills. But that specialized training had an unintended result: The mostly white recruits had little interaction with a more diverse force.
The separate training was designed, Howard said, to quickily build the special operations force during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and better prepare recruits as they moved into the selection process for special warfare. But as he looked around, he realized it also enclosed them in a nearly all-white bubble.
“It made sense at the time. Doesn’t make sense now,” said Howard, who took command last September and had eliminated the separate training by December. Now, all special warfare recruits go through boot camp with the other sailor-trainees.
Sitting in the Pentagon recently, Howard reflected on the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and the racial discord that has wracked the nation. A number of former and current military members were among those who stormed the Capitol.
He pulls a small, red, hard-bound copy of the U.S. Constitution from his pocket. After the riot, Howard bought 10,000 copies, and he and Navy Master Chief Bill King have been giving them to troops. Inside is a card with a message to his force.
Serving the nation, it says, “requires we remain strictly apolitical and non-partisan to maintain the trust and confidence of all our fellow citizens.”
Handing out the books, he said, reminds troops of their oath, and that “we have an obligation to be inclusive, it's how we solve problems. And that's what we're doing.”