- Miguel Flores-Perez is a seminarian for the Diocese of Austin. Having served for nearly nine years in the U.S. Army, he decided to join the seminary, with the goal of serving in the military chaplaincy. A good friend for years, he recently took some time to talk to Cream City Catholic.
When and why did you join the Army?
While in college (Christendom College), the calling to the priesthood was always in the back of my mind, but I was also open to marriage which I knew to be a special vocation as well. Since I had come from a military family, I also grappled with a desire to enlist in the U.S. Army and serve my country as my father and two brothers had done. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 sealed the deal for me as far as military service, but did not put an end to the calling to the priesthood that I still felt at times. The eight and a half years that I served in the U.S. Army gave me the opportunity to see life in a different light and to continue to discern God’s will while at the same time serving my country.
What were your first impressions as a new soldier? Any surprises?
I was taken aback by the lack of freedom a soldier has and how immorality is unabashedly flaunted in everyday life by some soldiers. I guess that comes with the job and is certainly nothing new. Infantrymen train and play hard. As one of the older guys around (I was 24 at the time of my enlistment), I was constantly reminded of how immature young men can be. It was a big step back for me and I found myself having to deal with the high school mentality all over again. That’s something that I never got used to and one of the reasons why I wanted to try out for Special Forces, to be around older, more mature soldiers.
When were you deployed to Iraq? How long were you there? What were your main responsibilities?
My first duty station in the U.S. Army was at Fort Drum, New York, where I served for three years and was assigned to 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division. While with 1/32 INF, I served as an infantryman in the capacity of a grenadier, M-240 gunner, and Fire Team Leader of an infantry fire team. I was deployed to Iraq with 1/32 INF from September 2003 until September 2004. That year in Iraq was an experience that I will never forget.
Needless to say, I attribute getting through that year unscathed to the ardent prayers of my loving family and friends. Since I had what I considered to be a strong Catholic faith, nurtured and developed at home and while in college, I was able to see God’s will even when faced with many hardships. Although most of the men in my infantry platoon weren’t Catholic, I became good friends with a handful and we supported each other when times got rough.
After returning from Iraq, you faced some decisions with your next step in the military. What did you decide to do and why?
After redeploying back to the States, and after being promoted to Sergeant, I tried out for and was accepted into the Special Forces Qualification Course (Q-Course) in May 2005. The Q-Course is the training pipeline/program for becoming a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier. While in the Q-Course, I studied medicine since I was training to become a Special Forces Medical Sergeant (everyone on an A-Team has a specialty). I figured since I was already trained as an infantryman, which basically entails the use and employment of various weapons to kill the enemy, I could learn a skill to help treat casualties from similar weapons of war. After two very demanding years of training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, I graduated from the Q-Course in March 2008 and was assigned to 7th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
How would you describe the Special Forces, more commonly referred to as Green Berets? What makes you different?
The U.S. Army Special Forces is the military’s premier unconventional warfare unit. By unconventional warfare I mean going behind enemy lines (by land, air, or sea) to equip, train, and fight along indigenous forces, e.g., Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. They also have four other primary missions: foreign internal defense, special reconnaissance, direct action, and counter-terrorism. They also conduct humanitarian missions and maintain relationships with the host countries they are in, hence the nickname “soldier-diplomats.” In the U.S. Army Special Forces there are five Active Duty Special Forces Groups and two National Guard Special Forces Groups. Each group is assigned and covers a certain area of the world. They are fully immersed in the language and culture of the region(s) they operate in and almost always have a presence on the ground in some capacity. Within a group you will have either three or four battalions, and within a battalion you will have three companies. In each company there are five to six Operational Detachments Alphas or A-Teams. These ODA’s have different specialties, e.g., an ODA may specialized in Combat Diving, Military Free-Fall, Mountaineering, etc.
An ODA consist of 12 men. There are four specialists within an ODA: Weapons Sgt, Demo/Engineer Sgt, Communications Sgt, and Medical Sergeant. There are two of each on an ODA, e.g., a Senior and Junior Weapons Sgt. The nickname ‘Green Berets’ comes from the green beret worn by graduates of the Special Forces Qualification Course (Q-Course). Upon graduating from the Q-Course, the soldier is authorized to wear the green beret and Special Forces tab on his shoulder.
Special Forces soldiers are the “Quiet Professionals” in the Army. They tend to be more mature and experienced than the regular GI. They have specialized skills and are called on to perform missions that can be sensitive in nature. They receive better training, are better equipped, and are asked to think “outside the box.”
What is Special Forces training like? Can you describe the hardest parts/days?
The first step on the road to becoming a Special Forces (SF) soldier is the Special Forces Assessment and Selection Course (SFAS). SFAS is the door into the Special Forces Qualification Course (Q-Course), which is the “school house” for the SF soldier . You first have to be selected in order to begin training. SFAS is a three week selection course where they test both body and mind. Lots of runs, long distance treks with a 65lbs pack, obstacle courses, psychological tests, etc. When I went through, around 450 showed up and around 120 were selected. Once selected it was not all downhill nor were you automatically in Special Forces. You were just given the opportunity to begin training and nothing more. I know of several guys who were selected and were dropped from the Q-Course. Once selected and chosen for one of the four specialties (weapons, demo, commo, medical), you are sent to Airborne school if not already airborne qualified, then to Camp Mackall (in the middle of nowhere) for the Small Unit Tactics Phase (SUT). SUT was the hardest out of the five or six phases of training for me. The instructor made it a living hell for us!! The Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape phase (SERE) was one of the best phases for me. The Medical Sergeants candidates were sent to the Joint Special Operations Medical Training Center (JSOMTC) where they studied tactical medicine alongside SEALs and Navy Corpsman. It’s a year long course that is very academically challenging and makes college feel like elementary school. Depending on what job you were chosen for, the Q-Course could last between one to two years. Sometimes you have to repeat a phase and that adds more time. For me, SUT and the JSOMTC were the hardest parts for me in the Q-Course.
After you successfully completed Special Forces training, you were deployed to Afghanistan? Can you tell us about this experience? What were your day-to-day responsibilities?
I was deployed to Afghanistan for seven months with my Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (A-Team) in 2008. While in Afghanistan, one of our main tasks was to train, equip, and lead a battalion of indigenous Afghans who had been specially selected to become part of the new Afghan Commando Force. The Afghan Commandos would serve as the ‘Special Operations Force’ (SOF) for Afghanistan. I came to really enjoy working with these Afghans as well as the other SOF units of allied countries, especially the French Navy Commandos.
I had complete trust in God’s will for me and had family and friends praying for me constantly. Once I returned to Fort Bragg after Afghanistan, I served on a Special Forces Operational Detachment Bravo (B-Team) from 2009 until being honorably discharged from the U.S. Army in 2010.
While deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, I imagine the availability of Catholic Mass was sparse. Is this pretty accurate?
In Iraq, unfortunately, the opportunity to frequent the sacraments was almost nonexistent. I honestly do not remember having the opportunity to go to confession or assist at Mass the whole year I was in Iraq! At any rate, I continued to ask God for His protection and guidance.
As for Afghanistan, the opportunity to frequent the sacraments was possible whenever we were near Kabul. Apart from those times, and due to the nature of our missions, it was difficult to find a Catholic military chaplain during those seven months.
How long were you in the Special Forces? What did you appreciate the most about life as a Green Beret? What disappointed/surprised you?
I was in the Q-Course for two years since I was training to be a medical sergeant, and 7th Special Group for almost three years. I liked the respect you received from your superiors. You were treated as a professional and not as a know-nothing private. In Special Forces, you are part of a team and not just a number that can easily be replaced. There is a hell of a lot of money spent on your training and it takes a lot of time to produce a ‘Green Beret.’ You are treated as a valuable part of the team and not just as another ‘joe.’ I remember coming back from Iraq and being present at an awards ceremony where the leadership (Officers and senior NCOs) received awards, but hardly any of the lower enlisted were recognized. They arbitrarily picked three or so guys from every thirty-man infantry platoon and gave them an award. Not being recognized for a hard year’s work in Iraq was an eye opener for me and left a very bitter taste in my mouth. In contrast, my seven months of work in Afghanistan was recognized by my Team Sgt. and I was given an award I thought I didn’t really deserve. The leadership in my ODA took care of me and that’s something that impressed me very much.
I was a bit surprised, to some extent, to find some of the same b.s. you would find in an infantry unit, but in a more nuanced way. As the new guy in my ODA, I received my fair share of ‘fun and games’ and my team was very welcoming and gave me a rundown of what was expected of me as a junior 18D. I was fortunate to have both a great Team Leader and Team Sgt. while on an ODA, and also a great Company Commander, Company SGM, and Ops Sgt. while on an ODB.
How would you describe the culture of the Special Forces? I imagine it’s a tight-knit group…
It is a “tight-knit group” and SF guys tend to convey that quiet professionalism that the regiment is known for. That whole ‘Green Beret’ mentality does get to people’s heads at times, and there have been a few SF guys that have made fools of themselves, but that’s the exception and not the rule.
Most SF guys don’t like to boast or be in the spotlight. Afghanistan is a perfect example: A few ODAs working with the Northern Alliance were able to drive the Taliban out of the country and into Pakistan in a matter of weeks. They were able to keep a low profile and the MSM hardly ever mentioned it being Army Special Forces/Green Berets. It wasn’t until recently that their heroism was official recognized by having a larger than life statue of a Green Beret on horseback unveiled on ground zero of the World Trade Center to commemorate what they accomplished in Afghanistan.
After nearly a decade in the military, you decided to join the seminary, with the goal of serving as a chaplain in the United States Military. Why this path?
Well, to put it in context, in January of 2011, I resumed my undergraduate theology studies at the University of Saint Thomas in Houston, Texas and earned my bachelor’s degree in Catholic Theology in August of 2012. While at the University of St. Thomas (and after much prayer and discernment), I came to the conclusion that I had to give the priesthood/seminary a chance and to seriously discern if this was where God was calling me.
The year and a half I spent finishing my undergraduate degree at the University of St. Thomas gave me the opportunity to improve and develop my spiritual life. Frequent, if not daily, attendance at Mass and reception of the Holy Eucharist became pivotal to my relationship with our Lord and His Church. The frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance began to play a big part in my spiritual life as well. I came to appreciate the Word of God, as the reading and studying of scripture became an important part of my spiritual life. My love for our Blessed Mother also increased and I once again started to recite the Rosary daily. I was reintroduced to the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and came to love its simplicity. I also became a strong believer in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and its importance in the spiritual life.
My desire to become a seminarian for the diocese of Austin is twofold. Not only am I discerning a calling to priesthood for the Diocese of Austin, but I am also discerning a calling to the Military Chaplaincy. I contacted the Vocations Director for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, Fr. Kerry Abbott, OFM Conv., and explained to him my desire to enter the seminary for the specific purpose of serving the Archdioceses for the Military Services. Since I live in central Texas, Fr. Abbott advised me to seek out a Diocese to which I had familial ties, and to which I could return after my tour in the Archdiocese for the Military Services. Fr. Brian McMaster, the Vocations Director for the Diocese of Austin, was gracious enough to hear me out and presented my case to His Excellency, Bishop Joe Vasquez, who was open to the idea of allowing me to participate in the Co-Sponsored Seminary Program for the Archdiocese for the Military Services.