For Carlos Lourenco, serving in Special Forces was a way to say thanks to a country that gave his family part of the American dream
Many Americans glued to their TV sets on Sept. 11, 2001, experienced feelings of hopelessness, dejection, fear, anger, powerlessness. But when Carlos Lourenco watched TV that day, he knew he was actually in a position to do something about it, to be the “tip of the spear.” That’s because Lourenco was part of the United States Army Special Forces, better known as the Green Berets, and he knew that his life wouldn’t be the same after that day.
Lourenco is director of materials and logistics for Yale-New Haven Hospital and, until 2003, a member of 19th Special Forces Group. For 15 years, he lived in two worlds – that of healthcare supply chain management, and that of counterterrorism, search and rescue, disaster relief and unconventional warfare. On a Friday he might be in one part of the world saving the lives of bombing victims; then on Monday, he might be in New Haven handling a complaint about office supplies from a hospital customer. To this day, he isn’t free to discuss the details of his missions, but his experience in Special Forces taught him lessons about life, work and survival, which he’ll never forget.
Even as a kid growing up in Connecticut, Lourenco enjoyed reading military history. For example, he remembers reading about the Roman legion, those elite, conquering soldiers of the Roman Empire who would march 20 miles or more a day, with heavy loads on their backs.
After graduating from high school in 1977, he enlisted in the Army. Some of his friends talked about becoming paratroopers. Lourenco did more than talk. He went through the training and became part of the 82nd Airborne Division. Its mission? To conduct forcible entry parachute assault and to secure key objectives for follow-on military operations. With the 82nd, Lourenco saw the world. Training exercises were carried out in Alaska, Panama and elsewhere.
For approximately six months while with the 82nd Airborne, Lourenco was attached to a Special Forces unit, accompanying them on deployments. “I thought, ‘This is the way I’d like to go. They don’t get wrapped up in how they look. It’s all about what they do. It made a favorable impression on me.”
Lourenco was discharged from the Army in 1981 and enrolled in Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, from which he ultimately got a degree in history and political science. Soon after enrolling, he got a job in the storeroom at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and started working his way up there. To help finance his education, he enlisted in a National Guard reserve unit, the 76th Training Division, working as a drill sergeant. A couple of years later, he joined 1st Battalion, 102nd Infantry Regiment, Connecticut National Guard. Then he made a discovery in late 1987 that would change his life.
“I found out there was a Special Forces unit in Rhode Island, so I went up there to interview,” he says. “And I got in.” It was the 19th Special Forces Group, one of two National Guard groups of the U.S. Army Special Forces.
“Getting in” to Special Forces isn’t an event. It’s a journey. A grueling one. The initial selection process (called Special Forces Assessment and Selection, or SFAS) and subsequent training period (Special Forces Qualification Course, or “Q” Course) are designed to help Special Forces identify those people who have what are referred to as “Whole Man” attributes, and then to cultivate them.
Physical fitness is one of those attributes. In the situations in which Special Forces find themselves, being in top physical shape is essential for survival. “Weightlifting has nothing to do with it,” says Lourenco. “It’s endurance – endurance to operate in pain, without sleep, that kind of thing.” Motivation is another attribute. To endure the abuse heaped on them, Special Forces candidates and trainees “have to really want” to be part of the organization, he adds.
Other Whole Man attributes include:
Trustworthiness. “They want to know you’ll do the right things when no one is looking,” says Lourenco. That’s important, because unlike regular Army, Special Forces operate on their own, or in small groups, usually behind enemy lines, without supervision. “They want to know, ‘Are you responsible and accountable for your actions?’” he says. Will the trainee take short cuts in land navigation drills, for example? If so, that person probably can’t be trusted in battle. Can the soldier be trusted to do the right thing when he’s in a combat zone with an expensive piece of technology, which, if it gets in the wrong hands, could lead to the deaths of many people?
Intelligence. “Nothing comes out of the manual,” says Lourenco. Special Forces soldiers have to think on the fly. For example, if they are running low on munitions, how can they convince the locals (or even other U.S. or allied forces) to give them what they need?
Teamwork. Special Forces soldiers often have little to rely on except themselves and their small team. “Everybody has to come together to accomplish a common goal under stress,” says Lourenco. “How you talk to others, how you communicate and get your point across is important.” Thus, a training exercise might involve assembling a team to move a Jeep with three wheels 10 miles in a couple of hours. “It’s the kind of thing you see on [the TV show] ‘Survivor,’” says Lourenco. Only in Special Forces, you might have to walk 15 miles in the middle of the night to find the Jeep. “So you’re looking at, ‘Can the team come together? Can the guy in charge do it?’”
Stability. Because Special Forces usually operate in stressful and physically punishing environments, they have to have the ability to think under pressure. “Everybody is stable when things are going fine,” says Lourenco. “But in the middle of the night, who’s going to blow a gasket?”
Decisiveness. “Sometimes it’s more important to make a quick decision than to wait two hours and make the right one,” he says. “If you’re being ambushed, you have to make one right away.” That would explain the following training scenario, as described by Lourenco: “You’re on patrol; there’s no sleep; guys are tired; there’s an ambush 10 miles away; you have to make decisions even when you can’t think; and there’s a guy standing over you yelling, ‘What are you going to do?’”
The three-week assessment and selection process is grueling. Candidates must navigate over land with a map and a compass. “It’s a difficult thing to master, especially in the swamps of Camp Mackall at Fort Bragg [North Carolina],” he says. And the selection process ends with a monster road march, some 25 miles in eight hours, with candidates lugging 80 pounds on their backs. “They’re trying to see, ‘Can this guy operate by himself, do the right thing when no one is looking? Can he do the physical work? Your feet are going to get torn up. Can you handle that?”
Those who pass SFAS begin the three-phase “Q” Course. Phase 1 involves basic training in patrolling, water operations, survival skills, etc. In Phase 2, the candidate focuses on a particular specialty. When Lourenco was in training, the specialties included communications, weapons, engineering and medicine. Phase 3 is what’s called the Robin Sage exercise, a training exercise in unconventional warfare in central North Carolina, now in its 50th year. Those who make it through Phase 3 take a test and are finally issued their green berets.
Lourenco’s specialty was communications. “I had to learn Morse code in eight weeks,” he says. “You sit around doing Morse code all day long until you’re dreaming it. Now it’s all satellites; but then, Morse code was the most reliable way to communicate.” (The weapons specialists learn just about everything there is to learn about U.S.-made weapons as well as those used by potential enemies. Meanwhile, the engineers learn about building and demolition, while the medical specialists spend the better part of a year learning medical techniques.)
The last phase of “Q” Course is Robin Sage. The exercise lasts roughly 10 days, and spans 15 acres in central North Carolina. Students infiltrate a fictional country called Pineland, and are tasked with helping freedom fighters liberate the country. To add realism to the exercise, auxiliary forces consisting of civilian volunteers throughout the state act as role-players. In addition, approximately 200 service members from units across the military provide realistic opposing forces and guerilla freedom fighters.
Training doesn’t stop with Robin Sage and graduation, however. The new Green Berets receive more training in survival and language skills. “I have a knack for language,” says Lourenco. Both of his parents emigrated from Portugal in the 1950s, so he was fluent in Portuguese. He can also speak German, and after spending some time in Haiti in 1995, became fluent in Creole. “If you speak Portuguese, you can pick up French, Spanish and even Italian,” he says.
Where the two worlds meet
After training, Lourenco went back to work at Yale-New Haven. He would be called periodically for training exercises or deployments, some lasting as long as six months. After Sept. 11, he was gone for almost a year and a half. “I was involved in counterterrorism activities,” he says. And though he can’t speak in specifics, he will go so far as to say, “It hasn’t been an accident that Al Qaeda hasn’t been able to effectively operate for years” outside certain areas. Toward the end of his Special Forces career, he was a team leader, doing a lot of work in close-quarter combat, akin to SWAT training.
Through it all, he had to juggle Special Forces with his civilian responsibilities of being a supply chain executive. “For instance, just before going to Haiti, we were implementing a just-in-time delivery system. It went live while I was gone. But I had written everything up, and I had good subordinates. Everything went fine.
“You have a lot of leaders who micromanage or who don’t give up much authority,” he says. “But I focus on subordinate leader development. It’s Army leadership training.”
He is grateful to Yale-New Haven’s management team, without whose support he could not have served his country as he did. “The people I worked for felt, ‘This is something we can do for our country,’” he says. “If it hadn’t been for that environment, I wouldn’t have progressed as far as I did on the military or hospital side.”
And of course, he is grateful to his wife, Natalie, for making it all possible. “We had a little boy at the time, and I have to say, I probably missed half his life as he was growing up. But [Natalie] was self-reliant; she made things happen.”
Gratitude for his American dream
His Special Forces training has helped Lourenco keep his cool in situations where other contracting executives might lose theirs. And every day, he draws on his experience in planning missions. “Strategic planning is stuff you learn to do on every Army mission.”
Although training in close-quarter combat probably doesn’t translate to supply chain management, other skills do. “In Special Forces, you’re not living on a base. You’re living out in a village. Many times, you are the eyes and ears [for other forces]. Your ability to get the locals to trust you is critical. They will let you know if something is going to happen. A division of troops would never get that kind of information by kicking in doors.”
In 2003, at the age of 43, Lourenco decided to leave Special Forces and the military, drawn by the desire to be closer to his family and his work. “And I wanted to go out at the top of my game,” he adds. “I was holding up slots for some of the younger guys.
“I thought I would miss the Army, but basically, I haven’t looked back,” he says. He is enjoying his two kids – Miles and Dexter. He coaches hockey and he plays hockey himself. “I still keep in touch with my buddies. I’m very proud of what we did.
“My parents were not big military people,” he says. “But my dad came here with nothing; my mom too. Through hard work and ability, he made a life for himself; he was a landscaper. He paid to have all his brothers and sisters come over [to the United States]. He managed to make all that happen, and he put me in a position to do what I did. It is the ultimate American dream.
“I think everyone should do something for their community and country. That could mean being a teacher, whatever. For me, it was being in the military. I felt I owed it to my country, because of what the American dream meant for my parents.
“That was a large part of why I stayed in as long as I did. I do believe in that stuff.”