FAYETTEVILLE, NC — A dozen or so men with close-cropped haircuts, American flag ball caps, and T-shirts tucked neatly into jeans nurse beers around a U-shaped bar. Ranging from service age to well into their 70s, the men sip from bottles and occasionally steal a glance at the wall, which is covered by 5-by-7 pictures of soldiers in uniform.
The bar, Charlie Mike’s Pub, sits just a few turns outside of Fort Bragg, tucked into the corner of a parking lot. For years, the bar has been where Special Forces soldiers from Bragg and retired veterans in the area gather at the end of a long day.
The framed pictures behind the bar are of every Green Beret who has died in combat since 9/11, along with soldiers who died supporting their missions. Each year, on the day of a soldier’s death, they take down his picture and put it on the bar for the day.
On the ceiling are dozens of tiles, each with a hand-painted insignia.
Some, like the POW/MIA flag and the Army Special Forces logo, scrawled with de oppresso liber, or “to liberate the oppressed,” are well known. Others, like the “golden unicorn” patch of the 13th Airborne Division, date to World War II and are mostly forgotten.
The bar on a recent night is lined with Green Beret vets, but at two front tables, a handful of clean-shaven active duty soldiers look slightly nervous as they sip their beers. Most are Special Forces students, not quite Green Berets, but close. They have passed the early trials of selection and spent a year studying combat medicine in the Special Operations Combat Medic course, the pipeline that turns soldiers into Special Forces medics.
But they aren’t yet Green Berets. Most have months of field training still ahead. But they are far enough along to be invited to this Wednesday night mentoring course that Charlie Mike’s regulars call Whetstone.
This particular mid-August Wednesday, the back door swings open and the two bearded men who run the group — one tall and bald, the other short with shoulder-length hair — walk in, beers in hand.
The two created Whetstone in 2018, named for the fine-grained stones that sharpen blades.
“We’re sharpening our skills,” says Rick Hines, the shorter of the two.
“Shaping a knife like we’re honing steel,” Mike Jackson, the taller man, adds.
Both are retired from Special Forces, Jackson in 2015 as a sergeant first class after 27 years, and Hines a year later as a master sergeant after 29 years.
Both Jackson and Hines served as Special Forces medics, or 18Ds, and together they now run Whetstone, a weekly mentorship group for the next generation of SF medics.
“You want a drink?” Jackson asks the students. “You know the deal: It’s on us. Drinks are on me, or I’ll fight you naked in the parking lot.”
No one takes up his offer and, Jackson says, no one ever has.
The atmosphere at Whetstone meetings is intentionally casual, so students aren’t afraid to ask questions. “They show up, and they do the right Army thing, ‘Well, sir. Well, sir,’” Hines says. “Shut the fuck up. I’m not a ‘sir.’ I’m Rick. If you call me sir, I’m going to pants you. I’m going to pants you in front of everybody.”
As they do most Wednesdays, Jackson and Hines sit down at the reserved tables and pull out typed notes as stragglers filter in. Between the two of them, they’ve canceled only three Whetstone meetings since the group started in 2018.
Each week, Jackson and Hines rotate through a list of about nine or 10 subjects that make up the core curriculum of their Whetstone meetings. The topics come from their own careers and suggestions from an unofficial advisory group of retired medics. They include situational awareness while downrange, what good and bad leadership look like, and the keys to medical logistics, like creating an order for supplies.
For a previous Whetstone exercise, Jackson asked students to come up with a list of supplies that could be bought at a local hardware or automotive store that could be repurposed as medical equipment on a mission.
“Then I went to Lowe’s, dumped a whole lot of money on stuff, and came back and said, ‘This is what we said might work. Let’s see if it works,’” Jackson says. “Some of it did. Some of it didn’t.”
Tonight, Hines and Jackson drill the basics, quizzing the younger soldiers about the history and missions of operational detachment alphas, or ODAs, the 12-soldier elements that are the central make-up of all Green Beret teams.
“Where did they come from?” Hines asks, meaning ODAs.
One student, sitting right beside Hines, chews his lip, then tentatively raises a hand. “OSS?” he says, referring to the Office of Strategic Services, a World War II organization that collected intelligence behind enemy lines. The legendary service is widely viewed as the predecessor to nearly all modern special operations units. But not all the questions are so easy.
“Anybody know the first group that was activated?” Hines asks. The students stay quiet, but an older soldier sitting with the group pipes up: 10th Special Forces Group.
The soldier is no student, but a senior 10th Group medic on TDY — temporary duty — to Bragg.
When the Army launched Special Forces, the man says with a smile, they called the first team “10th Group” hoping Russian spies would believe there were nine other units.
The ODA history lesson is one of Hines and Jackson’s regular topics, but they occasionally improvise, depending on where the candidates are in their training on Fort Bragg.
“If we have a group of guys that most of them are getting ready to go to tac skills, and they’re like, ‘Hey, can we cover tac skills prep?’” Hines says. Tac, or tactical skills, is a full month of training late in the Green Beret pipeline focused on small-team combat tactics like patrolling, setting up ambushes, and assaulting targets.
“The guy that asks the question, ‘How do I become successful at this?’ is the guy that’s going to put that extra effort in. That’s the guy you want to succeed and be on the team,” Hines says. “It’s not cheating. It’s asking for help.”
In their day jobs, Hines and Jackson teach special operations medical courses on Fort Bragg. “Bragg is the center of gravity for all SOF medicine,” Hines says.
The two met in 2015, and two years later worked together to launch a new medic refresher course for current Green Beret medics that includes surgery and anesthesia. “They were looking for idiots to be foolish enough to stand up a new course,” Hines says.
But the process of starting the formal course convinced the two that an informal group, like Whetstone, could add a level of mentoring that is often missing from strict traditional courses.
“When you go to a team, what are the systems in place?” Hines says. “Who do you talk to? Where do you go to get information for this, that, and the other?”
“We were great at medicine. We just spent a year in the medic course,” Jackson says. “What did we wish we would have learned getting to group? With all the experience we had, we still didn’t know jack or shit about a lot of different things.”
Jackson was stationed at 5th Special Forces Group in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and Hines served at 7th Special Forces Group when it was still located at Fort Bragg (it is now at Eglin Air Force Base).
“All those things we didn’t know, all those ‘Oh my God, I was so stupid I could’ve gone to jail I did this so wrong, by the grace of God, I didn’t get caught’ moments because I was ignorant,” Hines says. “How do we fix that?”
That’s what Whetstone is for.
The group has grown by word of mouth and now medics from other parts of the Army like Civil Affairs and even the Navy and Air Force occasionally show up, though the majority of attendees every Wednesday are still 18D candidates.
As Whetstone has grown, says Hines, an alumni network has sprung up. The two now oversee a group chat of over 1,000 special operations medics. Occasionally, a medic in the field will text a picture of an unusual injury or condition, asking for advice.
“Not only do we have people in the course show up now, but we have people who showed up when they were in the course, and now they’re at groups,” Hines says. “And when they come back to Bragg on TDY, they come back. So we have current relevant guys that are mentoring the next guys coming out of the shoot.”
“We love when the current guys show up because we’re has-beens at best,” Jackson says.
“Never-was-beens,” Hines chimes in.
“Pretty irrelevant in the scheme of things,” Jackson says.
The two retired Green Berets speak with near-constant self-deprecation. But at least one current senior Green Beret thinks Jackson and Hines have created a vital learning experience with Whetstone. According to the medic, who has been a Green Beret for 15 years, “Whetstone is doing more for the Special Forces regiment than anyone out there.”
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