SOG - Sons of God info
One false move... |
They are called the 'Sons of God'. But members of the Special Operations Group must first go through purgatory to make it into our most elite police squad. Words by Andrea Petrie. Pictures by Craig Abraham.
Two figures circle each other warily, silhouetted by the yellowish halogen glow of headlights. Dust eddies and swirls around their shuffling feet. A circle of backlit, dark human shapes surrounds them.
An arm snakes out. A fist drums against a chest. The other counter-punches and they close, hurling full-force blows into each other's upper body. Hooks and rips and short, sharp jabs. They wheeze and grunt and the watchers snarl encouragement.
The fighters separate and begin to circle again, beads of perspiration dripping into the dust. For a moment no one speaks, the only sound the chirrup of crickets from the surrounding blackness. Someone barks an order and they crash together again in a flurry of punches. But they are tiring now, their shoulders are drooping and the blows are round-armed and unfocused.
They collapse against each other gratefully, dragging in deep raspy breaths. They break, pat each other on the shoulder and move into the surrounding ring of shapes. Another pair of boxers take their places.
"Display controlled aggression," they are instructed and it begins again. It is a brutal, almost primitive scene, late at night, in a secret spot in thick bush, 40 minutes outside Melbourne: fight club for Victoria Police.
The brawlers are candidates for what many consider the force's most elite squad, the Special Operations Group. They are supremely fit, highly motivated and skilled and most have been training for at least a year for this. And most of them will fail.
Tonight they have been shouted awake after two hours' sleep, dragged out of their hootchies - weather-proof sheets stretched overhead for shelter in the bullant-infested scrub - and told to box on. They fight two rounds, one lasting a minute, the next 30 seconds. They wear gloves, helmet and chest padding and cannot punch above or below it, though punches go astray and one candidate gives up part of a tooth and another collapses, clutching his groin.
When the session is over they are sent back to their sleeping bags. Five instructors - all serving members of the SOG - huddle for a while comparing notes. They will do this at the end of every day of selection.
This "milling" session is the last in a day of tests. It began with a warm-up of hundreds of sit-ups, push-ups, squats and lunges, followed by a circuit of one of Melbourne's toughest cross-country courses. A bus trip brought them close to here, but to reach their base camp they had to sprint several times up a hill so vertical it sucked their breath away. An eight-kilometre, double-time forced march followed along a hilly dirt track, dodging fallen trees and other obstacles. At times their legs gave way and the muscles in their dirt-covered faces spasmed with the effort. But they carried on. And tomorrow, before first light, they'll go at it again.
SOG hopefuls face a gruelling set of tests that many liken to a torture camp. Those who fail often return to try their luck again.
SOG hopefuls face a gruelling set of tests that many liken to a torture camp. Those who fail often return to try their luck again.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the Sons of God." - Matthew 5:9.
Sometimes, peace comes at a price. And few people know that as well as the Sons of God - the nickname given to Special Operations Group members.
In April, Mohamed Chaouk paid that price. During a dawn raid on his home in Melbourne's west, the suspected criminal - wanted over a stolen car racket, burglaries, drug trafficking and attempted murder - was shot and killed by the SOG. Police allege the 29-year-old attacked an SOG officer with a sword and was threatening to strike him again when he was gunned down. The coroner is yet to release his finding on the death.
Chaouk was one of two people shot and killed by the SOG this year. There have been others since the squad was created but the force does not release the numbers.
For most of its 28 years, the squad's emblem was telescopic crosshairs superimposed over a balaclava-clad head. It was a chilling image and one that, belatedly, police command decided it did not want: the apparent promotion of the use of fatal force. So, in 1995, it was banned - officially at least, though more than a few recalcitrants still have T-shirts and caps bearing the motif.
But killing has always been a last resort. SOG members know they can be put in harm's way at any time and are trained to react in such situations, up to and including lethal force. They also know that those who kill pay a price, living with the consequences and the memories.
The Sons of God, who prefer to be known as the peacemakers, are the force's most highly trained and disciplined tacticians. They are experts in explosives, ordnance and overt and covert reconnaissance. They arrive at jobs in dark four wheel drives, windows tinted, carrying the latest high-powered weaponry. They dress in distinctive black uniforms - tactical overalls, bullet-proof vests, gloves and military boots. Their faces are hidden behind helmets, goggles and balaclavas to protect them from occupational hazards such as glass, fire and chemicals - and to obscure their identities.
Security at the SOG and the safety of its members is paramount. They shun publicity and do not discuss the details of their work with their loved ones. Few of their neighbours would have a clue about the type of police work they do. Set up by then chief commissioner Mick Miller under a veil of secrecy in October 1977, the SOG was formed to conduct special counter-terrorism operations. Miller broadly defined these operations as "politically motivated criminal activities as well as other forms of criminal activity which terrorises innocent persons".
So as well as escorting and protecting visiting dignitaries, SOG members also carry out high-risk raids and arrests, responding to siege, sniper and hostage situations and bomb threats.
Despite the associated danger - or perhaps because of it - many of their police brethren aspire to join the SOG. Very few make the grade. Of an average 60 police applying each year, between five and 10 are accepted. Women are encouraged to try out, but so far there are no Daughters of God.
The selection process is a long, demanding series of trials aimed at weeding out all but the best. Those who show an inability to work as a team member, those who are too slow to master tactics and training and those who wilt physically are quickly and ruthlessly weeded out. It is survival of the fittest in both mind and body.
"We give them every opportunity to show us that they've got the mental and physical attributes to make it to the SOG," says one of the squad's 10-year veterans, a senior sergeant. "But we need people who will not falter under pressure. Our line of work is highly dangerous, with lives at stake - ours and the public's - so we can't afford anything less."
So those who want to become Sons of God must first pass through purgatory.
For some, it's all over before they've even begun. Monday, February 28, 8am. Day One - and a quarter of the prospectives have not turned up at the Glen Waverley Police Academy. Of the 60 who applied, only 45 are gathered in the cavernous gymnasium. The rest have either failed the strict medical or succumbed to injury. Others may have simply backed out, daunted by what they know will follow - in the macho parlance of some coppers they've "pulled a heart muscle".
Muscles don't appear to be a problem for those who remain. In running shorts and singlets - and a gallery of tattoos - they look more like professional athletes than policemen. Their names are ticked off and they await the first instructions from the senior sergeant in charge of selection.
"Sit-ups," he orders, and row by row they begin. Two minutes of sit-ups, two more of push-ups and another two of chin-ups. For the next fortnight it will be routine. They wake to the exercises, begin every other task with them or cop them as "positive reinforcement" for not reaching some required standard. Sit-ups, push-ups, squats.
Today they must achieve a minimum number of repetitions within 120 seconds - they're just not told how many. And they've got to do it right. The chief instructor paces up and down the ranks. Others squat beside each applicant with a clenched fist on the floor beneath them. If their chests don't touch it, the push-up doesn't count.
The candidates get up and record their score, making way for a new group. As one moves to the back of the hall his legs buckle and the colour drains from his face. Almost blindly he feels his way to a waiting bench. The instructors have a muttered discussion. Putting it down to nerves, they let it go this time. But they'll be watching this one.
Within minutes though, their attention shifts. A recruit has only managed 40 sit-ups, well below the required minimum. The selecting inspector calls the instructors in. "We can't let him through. No more exceptions at this early stage. That's not good enough."
The senior sergeant approaches the recruit for an explanation. His gaze drops to the floor and he shakes his head. He turns and disappears down a flight of stairs into the change rooms.
"What a waste of a year," he says when he re-emerges, shoulders stooped, tears welling in his eyes.
"Well, not really. I'm the fittest I've ever been and I'm healthy and now I've got more of an idea of what standard they expect if I want to try out again."
Others attract attention for the opposite reason. In the 3.2 kilometre run, one recruit laps the field, crossing the finish line in 10 minutes and 54 seconds and looking like he could do it again. Later he admits that he is one of several in this year's selection who invested in the help of an expert fitness trainer who specialises in pushing his clients to their limits and then beyond.
Four others clearly did not. Two fail to complete the distance and the others miss the 13.5 minute time limit. With a 300 metre swim the final test, one of the latter pair begs for a second chance: "Excuse me boss, I was only about 30 seconds out, can I make that time up in the pool? I won't disappoint you."
He is told no. As the others grind through lap after lap of the 50-metre pool, he leans against a wall watching on. Twenty minutes later, as the last man of the last group hoists himself from the water, he is still poolside, his head in his right hand.
No one makes eye contact with him. He drags up his bag and walks away without a word.
On day two they take their names away. Each candidate is given a blue, red, green or yellow numbered bib which from now until the end of the course will be their only identity. So this one becomes Red Two and this one Green Three. They are told this is to remove any suggestion of bias, but the dehumanising effect also loads another layer of stress.
They have arrived at first light, carrying packs full of food, torches and wet weather gear for what many dub a four-day "torture camp" - after a stop-over at a cross-country course dubbed the Kokoda Trail.
When they arrive at Kokoda, in the hills to Melbourne's east, each is handed a pair of house bricks and ordered to carry them to the top of a steep, five-kilometre hill track. Veins bulging in their necks and forearms, gasping for breath, they are harried all the way by bellowing, sarcastic instructors. "Are you up to the challenge, Blue Three?" "C'mon Red 10, the fun's just beginning."
"At first I was just blocking it out, but after a while, as they kept hassling and hassling us, it made me think twice about whether I wanted to put up with more of it," one recruit recalls. "In the end I didn't because I didn't know if my body could handle it - let alone my mind, with all that b******t as well - so I pulled out."
By lunchtime, 12 more have surrendered and the attrition rate climbs through the next four days of camp. Halfway into the eight-kilometre forced march to get there, two more drop out, one on the advice of an accompanying doctor.
This is the beginning of an interesting dynamic. From the moment anyone drops out or is kicked off the course, the gap between selector and unsuccessful applicant dissolves. They get their names back, their welfare is inquired after. "At the end of the day they're one of us - we're all police officers," explains someone. They are invited to meet the selectors later for feedback and their workplace supervisors are notified to keep an eye on them, considering their disappointment.
There's a touch of that on the second leg. Yellow Five begins to fall off the pace. "I'm crampin' boss," he explains.
But they don't give up on this one. "Come on men, are you a team?" says an instructor. "Help your mate out. Encourage him, help him along." The two lines coalesce into a huddle, sweeping up Yellow Five and pushing him along, shouting encouragement.
By week's end they haveclimbed hills, marched and been shaken awake to batter each other in a late-night milling session. They have lost count of the squats, lunges, sit-ups and push-ups. They have been sleep-deprived and held standing at rigid attention, in one case with their full packs hoisted above their heads for eight minutes as their faces ripened to a deep red.
"We make no apologies for how physically demanding and mentally challenging the selection process is," says an instructor. "The reality is that successful applicants will be responsible for performing operations to arrest the most dangerous criminals in our community. In addition, these police members will be the ones required to resolve terrorist incidents. It takes a unique person to perform these tasks and it is our responsibility to select and train the right people, the best people for the job."
"Struggling". That's how Blue Three best describes himself. He couldn't have imagined it would be this way. A three-year veteran of the force, after seven in the army as an infantryman - including a tour of East Timor - he has trained for 16 months for the course. But he says he's physically wilting and doubts are creeping into his mind.
Green 10 says he has suffered through "the hardest week of my life - again". This has been his second attempt. "I've found this time more mentally challenging because I knew how long the two weeks could be. There were times when I didn't know if I had it in me, but will and determination outweighed those thoughts. But you'd be a liar if you didn't have feelings of wanting to quit."
Even elite AFL footballers who have attended an SOG-run fitness camp found it more challenging than anything they had experienced before. Western Bulldogs midfielder Scott West says he "still has nightmares" about what the SOG officers put the players through during a three-day training camp in December 2004. "Physically and mentally it was the most difficult thing I have ever done," West says.
On the second week the camp shifts to a secret coastal location, where recruits sprint across sand, wade through freezing water and climb sand dunes. Living on too little sleep and too much exhaustion.
Here, though, the emphasis is on teamwork. "If you see someone falling down then it's really important you help them back on their feet and complete the task," says Yellow Eight.
But they keep dropping. After the initial two weeks only 19 remain. For several weeks more they are put through a barrage of psychological testing and board interviews which winnow out another six. Now, the survivors are told, they face the real thing: what went before was a "selection", nothing compared to what they will undertake during the next three months of "training".
In fact, says the instructor, the training component is "more of a learning environment". It is also very different to how it used to be. Changes were introduced after a former squad member travelled the world studying selection processes for similar tactical response police in 1999. In June of the same year Detective Senior Constable Ted Hubbard, 28, was in the final stages of selection when he died during a 90-minute pool session. The coroner later ruled that he suffered a cardiac arrest after he had failed to disclose a pre-existing asthma condition.
Another factor was the realisation that with so few successful candidates left standing at the end, the course could be seen as less than cost-effective.
So the remnants of the original 60 spend 12 weeks on weapons training, scenario-based exercises and bookloads of theory. They train in boats, helicopters and vehicles and, once, must push a bus up a hill. The Sunday Age is not allowed to see any of this. When it is over, there are only nine.
In a sense, the survivors remain Sons of God-in-training. While they have become operational, and some are sent on jobs within days of graduating, they must put in several months of study, completing courses in advanced first aid, communications, use of night-vision and four-wheel driving among other things. They must perfect their knowledge and use of weapons and explosives, practising forced-entry raids and counter-terrorism techniques.
But already they have been changed forever, they say. (And not just professionally: in total, the training has stripped more than 30 kilograms from their bodies and one, Red 10, has shed 10 of those.)
"It's all a bit surreal," says Green 10 at the end. "You set out and train for so long to get to one of the hardest offices to get to, so it's going to take a while to sink in that we've made it through."
Green 10 has reason to smile. That hot February morning when the course began, he had tried to explain the allure of the Sons of God. It would be a lifetime achievement, something not many people had done, he said. "Achieving something like this, you couldn't put a price on. Whether you're rich or poor it doesn't matter, you have to work really hard to achieve it and earn the privilege of wearing the black uniform. Everything about them and the work they do interests and inspires me."
They can smile when the senior sergeant, who just a few months ago was riding them mercilessly, says: "I speak for everyone at the squad when I say I will gladly work alongside these men and trust them with my life as I do every other member of the team."
When that time comes, another group of optimists will be putting themselves to the test. At least one of the applicants who crashed out in March will be among them. By May he was back in training. "Because it is a real dream of mine, I wasn't willing to give up that easily," he says.
"It's hard and it is frustrating training so much and there are times when you just feel like going to the pub with your mates instead of going to the gym after work or going for a run. But that's the sacrifice you have to make if you're going to do something as big as this."
taken from The Age
If I am asked what we are fighting for, I can reply in two sentences. In the first place, to fulfil a solemn international obligation . . . an obligation of honor which no self-respecting man could possibly have repudiated. I say, secondly, we are fighting to vindicate the principle that small nationalities are not to be crushed in defiance of international good faith at the arbitrary will of a strong and overmastering Power.
Author: Rt. Hon. Herbert Henry Asquith
Source: Statement, to House of Commons, Declaration of War with Germany, Aug. 4, 1914