“As instructors, they took our power away,” said one recent former instructor. “We would kick a guy out because he’s lying to the cadre, he’s drinking, or he’s doing x, y, z, [or] he’s just a terrible student and not a guy I want to serve with on a team … like this guy is going to stab me in the back when I’m downrange.”
They said students leaving the course voluntarily — and even involuntarily — are being personally called and asked if they would like to come back and finish, even though past policy required them to be sent on an overseas assignment or to the 82nd Airborne.
In addition, they said an “open door” policy is essentially in effect, and students can walk into Sonntag’s office and appeal to him directly to be able to continue the course even if they fail.
Instructors said they began noticing shortly after Sonntag arrived that students who had either repeatedly failed phases of the course or failed the course were being recycled back over their recommendations and rules that dictated how soon a student could be put back in.
They said Sonntag also began punishing instructors whose students would fail, or were seen as too tough on the students.
In August 2017, Sonntag launched an investigation into a group of eight instructors after 18 students failed a 12-mile ruck march. One instructor said seven students had legitimately experienced heatstroke symptoms and were rushed to the hospital, but after word got out that if a test was failed for medical reasons, it would not count as a strike towards failing, 11 more students went to the hospital.
The students, the instructor said, “didn’t have what it takes. They didn’t prepare for it. They knew what they came here for.”
But during the three-month investigation, cadre could not be promoted, moved to their next assignment, or be eligible for any awards. It was, according to the instructor, “retribution” for having so many students fail the march.
In October 2017, one instructor asked his students to show up for physical training the Thursday before a four-day weekend. When only three students showed up out of 40, he called another mandatory training session that weekend. Two hours later, he was fired.
As anxiety among instructors grew throughout the summer and fall of 2017, Sonntag and his top aides began holding town halls, or “sensing sessions,” with cadre to discuss the changes. However, the town halls worsened tensions. At one town hall, SWCS Command Sgt. Maj. Curtis Arrowsmith told an instructor that he was just “angry.”
“I was not angry. I care about my work and the product that we put out because I will be the one taking these guys to war,” the instructor said.
Arrowsmith also said to another cadre member who voiced concerns, “What are you, a f-cking choir boy?”
Sonntag also held a town hall himself, which he declared was “classified” and prohibited anyone from recording it. But according to several witnesses, Sonntag told the roomful of about 150 instructors, “I have a client. I have a customer — the first Special Forces Command. They have a number set of missions, and I have to provide a specific number” of graduates.
Sonntag told them SWCS was graduating on average 380 to about 400 Green Berets a year, but that he needed to get it up to 580 in order for him to outfit all the Special Forces teams and groups. “I have to produce 580,” he allegedly told instructors.
At one of the sensing sessions, cadre were asked if they would rather have a team of eight or 12 guys on it. “Most of the guys in the room were like, ‘I’ll take eight good guys over 12 sh-tty guys any day,'” one cadre said.
Cadre were also told, “We are getting ready to go to Korea, and … we need numbers.”
Official Army documents obtained by Breitbart News show a sudden increase in graduates in 2017 from 2016, but a dramatic decrease in those being dropped.
In 2016, the number of students graduating from the Q-course was 348. That jumped to 547 in 2017 — a 57 percent increase.
At the same time, the number of those being dropped from the course in 2016 was 63 students in 2016 and 39 students in 2017 — a 62 percent decrease. In fact, 39 was the lowest number of students dropped in a year since at least 2010.
Dissension reached a boiling point in November 2017. The cadre felt they were being forced to mass produce Green Berets — something that goes against their code of ethics known as the “SOF Truths.” They also worried their teams back in the field were going to be hurt by having subpar graduates.
One instructor decided to write a scathing 6,399-word
anonymous email detailing everything happening at SWCS. He blasted it out to more than 2,000 members of the Army special operations community worldwide. It became known as the “night letter” among Green Berets. One called it the “email heard around the world.”
After the email was leaked to NewsRep, a news site started by special operators, and major news outlets reported on it, Sonntag pledged to look into the allegations in the email. What happened behind the scenes was much different.
Several days after the email was sent, Sonntag called a formation of instructors, both civilian and military. According to several witnesses, he took off his Army combat uniform top and challenged those who disagreed with him to step forward and fight him.
“He took his top off,” one witness said. “He said, ‘If anybody had any problem with me … my rank just came off, I will fight you guys one-on-one.'”
According to another witness, Sonntag also said the email author could be punishable by “death.”
He then began a hunt for the author of the email. After a two-week battalion-level investigation found nothing, a general officer-level investigation began.
One morning, students and cadre were told to leave SWCS by 2:00 p.m. Cadre lingering in the parking lot witnessed military police going into the building and confiscating all the computers.
“We’re sitting there thinking, ‘This general, instead of addressing what the real issue is, he’s going on a witch hunt because he got his ego hurt. Because somebody hurt his pride,’” one former cadre said.
Sonntag narrowed it down to seven suspects from the Alpha Company, 4th Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group, allegedly based on details from the email and from those who had expressed dissent during the town halls. He also allegedly asked students and staff members to report back to him what was being discussed among cadre in private.
In December 2017, one of the suspects felt he was being unfairly targeted and filed a complaint with the SWCS inspector general. The investigation lasted only two days and found nothing, but the action allegedly angered Sonntag.
Around January 2018, the suspects were pulled from the company and “flagged” for investigation, which also suspended their security clearances. Army investigators questioned the suspects and examined their email records.
Cadre, out of desperation, began reaching outside the chain of command for help. Approximately 15 cadre members reached out to retired Green Berets and senior military leaders for help. Sonntag allegedly began looking into whether he could revoke retired Green Berets’ Special Forces tab.
At one point, the governor of Alabama allegedly had to come to one instructor’s aid.
In January 2018, Sonntag went after the Alpha Company’s executive officer for several different infractions, including being overweight. After the officer said he wanted to retire, Sonntag allegedly tried to prevent him from retiring and began the paperwork to revoke his Special Forces tab. Through personal connections, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) got involved.
She allegedly called SWCS but was hung up on by one of Sonntag’s aides. She then reached out to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Mille, who then immediately summoned Sonntag to the Pentagon to answer questions. After that, cadre said the hammer really began to drop.
“He was like a lion that got released from the zoo,” one former cadre member said. “All of us went underground.”
In the spring of 2018, Sonntag began a purge, using a slew of administrative, non-judicial punishments that included firing, reassignment, negative evaluation reports, and other actions.
Around April 2018, Sonntag fired the Alpha company’s first sergeant, who looked after the enlisted cadre. Sonntag began investigating him in January 2018, after he had gone to the 4th battalion sergeant major with rumors that a female cadre was engaged in an extramarital affair with some of the students, including Sonntag’s son, who was going through the Q-course at the time. The female cadre alleged that the first sergeant had pulled a knife on her.
Also around April 2018, Sonntag fired the Alpha Company commander, a well-liked Green Beret major, without giving him any justification. One cadre said he was “one of the best company commander one could ask for.” Sonntag also gave him the most negative rating on his officer evaluation report, a 15 out of 15, a black mark on his career record.
According to one source, the major later suspected that Sonntag’s informants had reported him through a “shadow chain of command” as a person who did not support the reduced standards.
Sonntag also fired the commander of the 4th Battalion, a lieutenant colonel who was also well-liked.
Sonntag also went after the instructor who was fired for asking his students to show up to physical training on a Saturday morning. Even though he had already left SWCS and had made the list for his next promotion, Sonntag allegedly flagged him for consideration to be removed from the list.
By June 2018, Sonntag further narrowed down the email suspects to three instructors. He issued them all a non-judicial punishment under Article 15, alleging that they were likely behind the email as well as other things.
The author of the email — who was one of the three suspects — admitted to writing the email and accepted the punishment. He was stripped of his Special Forces tab and returned to the conventional Army, which cadre said is the biggest disgrace to befall a Green Beret.
The two other suspects said there was no evidence they had anything to do with the email, but Sonntag accused them of using their work computers to develop and launch an online application and using their positions as instructors to have students sign up for it.
The two instructors decided to fight the accusations and exercise their right to a court-martial, where they could plead their case in front of a military judge. It was a risky move that could have resulted in worse punishment if they were found guilty.
But Sonntag then withdrew the Article 15 non-judicial punishments and issued them both a permanent General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand (GOMOR), which are essentially letters of reprimand that can be career-enders but cannot be fought. The GOMORs then triggered a discharge for both instructors from the Army.
They reached out to the Army inspector general, but the IG concluded its investigation without speaking to either of them. Both then reached out to Breitbart News in December.
“I’m just trying to shed light into this nonsense because nobody is listening to us,” Army Sgt. 1st Class Micah Robertson, 33, said at the time. “No one’s been able to share our side of the story.”
“They could care less about what we’re going to do about our families and our jobs,” Sgt. 1st Class Michael Squires, 31, said. “They’re just going to kick us out, no money, no paycheck, on the streets, my kids with no food, no health care, nothing … They don’t care what happens to us.”
One source reached out to Breitbart News in January and said there are additional Green Beret instructors who wanted to speak out but are afraid to because of what is happening to Robertson and Squires.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Micah Robertson feeding a baby elephant while training in a foreign country. (Courtesy of Robertson)
Other supporters of the cadre have written to Army and Pentagon leadership for help, including then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, and Army Secretary Mark Esper.
On June 4, 2018, then-Commanding General of U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) Lt. Gen. Kenneth Tovo responded in a letter just four days before his retirement that said SWCS “has implemented changes over the last year to address a significant problem in training progression that was causing students to be needlessly dropped at high rates due to injuries.”
Current USASOC commander Army Lt. Gen. Francis Beaudette has also been contacted. Army Deputy Secretary Ryan McCarthy has allegedly spoken to affected cadre during a visit to Fort Bragg, but it is not clear if any actions were taken after that.
Breitbart News reached out to the Office of the Secretary of Defense but did not receive a response.
Army Lt. Col. Loren Bymer, spokesman for U.S. Army Special Operations Command, told Breitbart News that no Q-course standards have been lowered. Rather, he said, there have been changes to go from an “attrition-model” to a “training model.”
He said candidates selected for the Q-course already have the “right attributes.” “You want to train people. You don’t want to just break people down. The idea is to ensure you have the best quality soldier coming out of the Q-course,” he said.
Bymer refuted that land navigation is now just a practical exercise. He stated this is still a pass or fail event and that the language standard has changed in that it has actually a more challenging standard since he graduated the qualification course in 2007. He also refuted that the GT score standard has been lowered by saying, “it remains at 110, however, scores can be waived down to 107 on a case-by-case basis.”
Supporters of the cadre have also reached out to more than a dozen members of Congress. Breitbart News reached out to one member of Congress in February, who said Sonntag had already contacted him and told him there was “more to the story.”
Current instructors and recent former instructors say Sonntag’s policies are already having an effect in operational units out in the field.
They say units receiving newly graduated Green Berets are calling back to SWCS to request students’ files, to see what went wrong. One former instructor said, “They’re like, ‘Oh my God, what are you sending me?’ Stuff like that … everyone’s talking back at the group.”
There are also stories of more new graduates having their tabs revoked or having to
spend more time in a “Green Platoon,” where they can be trained further. Another instructor said those in the field “don’t have time to get guys spun up.”
And there is evidence Sonntag is having an effect on morale at SWCS and beyond as former instructors return to the field.
A September 19, 2017, climate command survey taken by instructors at the A Company, 4th Battalion, showed that 42.86 percent were dissatisfied with their job.
Survey respondents complained that leaders did not care about the quality of students but about meeting numbers. “As instructors, we will be going back to teams with these students, where our lives are put in their hands. but the higher level leadership forgets that, and only worries about the output,” one said.
One current instructor told Breitbart News that Sonntag was “one of the most toxic commanders I’ve ever had.”
“He keeps order by threats. He’s a hundred percent toxic. He leads by threats and intimidation. He’s ruining people’s careers because he can. He needs to retire out of this job,” the instructor said.
One former instructor said, “Guys — they’re getting out [of the Army] at eight, 10, 12 years. They’re like, ‘Screw this, I’m getting out.’ Why? Because they don’t care about us. And it shows.”
Current and retired Green Berets say they are worried about the effect lowered standards will have in the future and say it will worsen a downward trend in the quality of Green Berets.
They say the source of the problem is too many missions and not enough Green Berets, leading to lowered standards, less training, and failed missions. They point to mounting negative stories involving Green Berets in the news, such as the failed mission in Niger that resulted in four deaths, as evidence that the force is breaking.
They say Green Berets have been overstretched for the past decade and have been increasingly plagued with “ghost teams” — teams of 12 men that are only half full. They say commanders have been creating “composite” teams from two teams to form one whole team.
They say the shortage worsened after the Obama administration decided to cut 40,000 from its ranks in 2015. “They got rid of a lot of infantry, stopped giving infantry bonuses, where we get a lot of our guys from,” said one recent former instructor.
In October 2017,
USA Today reported that the Army, amid recruiting challenges, was accepting more low-quality recruits.
“You have a leadership and a moral and an ethical failure to do the right thing,” said a retired Green Beret. “This is a very, very serious problem, because what they’re doing is passing the buck.”
But as the Army works out its recruitment problems, there has been little recourse for those being hammered at the bottom, including the two Green Berets, Robertson and Squires, who will soon see their more than a decade-long career in the Army come to a halt.
Mattis had called for commanders to get away from using non-judicial punishments and to rely on the military justice system more, but resigned before anything took hold.
This is not the first time Sonntag has found himself in controversy.
In early 2018, an Army chaplain under Sonntag’s command told a soldier he was not able to perform a marriage retreat sponsored by the 1st Special Warfare Training Group for her and her same-sex partner based on his denominational authority but provided another chaplain who could.
The chaplain and his assistant were charged with unlawful discrimination and dereliction of duty and faced the ends of their careers and prison time.
told the Fayetteville Observer in April 2018: “We take every discrimination claim seriously and afford all members of our community the right to equality. The command embraces the diversity of each individual in our organization and welcomes the responsibility to create an inclusive workplace.”
Both the chaplain and his assistant sought outside legal help. Represented pro bono by First Lady Institute, Sonntag eventually dropped the charges. The case, however,
caused the chaplain’s assistant to lose her place in a highly selective program to attend college and become an officer.
Griffin’s lawyer said in a statement at the time, “There can be no other explanation for this indecision except for an anti-religious bias that has no place in the U.S. Army.”