TAMPA -- Special operations forces such as the Navy's SEALs and the Army's Green Berets are often the only Americans around for hundreds of miles, operating in small teams of between five and a dozen people.
Their team leaders do more than oversee action against enemies. These senior enlisted personnel -- sergeant majors, senior master sergeants, senior and master chief petty officers -- also negotiate with village elders, meet provincial governors and even dine with ambassadors. They have come to be known as the military's "warrior-diplomats."
To help them build the unique skills this dual role requires, U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base has created a military academy offering coursework similar to what officers receive.
This month at MacDill, nearly 40 of the command's senior enlisted leaders received their diplomas from the Joint Special Operations Forces Senior Enlisted Academy.
After six months of distance learning, often while deployed, they spent two months in Tampa, away from the battlefield, studying subjects as diverse as the book "Art of War" by Sun Tzu, the elements of grammar and what fork to use for which course at a fancy dinner.
The goal is to ensure these enlisted leaders "are better equipped to think critically and lead successfully," said Brian Maher, president of the Joint Special Operations University, which runs the academy.
"Special operations guys often find themselves in very unique environments," said Doug Brown, a retired Army general who oversaw the creation of the academy when he ran Socom.
"They have to understand the strategic environment as well as the tactical. The decisions they make on their tactical missions have strategic impacts." Two former senior enlisted leaders who helped create the academy watched in pride from the audience during the recent graduation ceremony.
It was the ninth class since the November 2009 creation of the academy, the brainchild of Tom Smith, a former Socom command sergeant major -- the enlisted liaison between the troops and the four-star commander.
"This is probably the biggest contribution I have made to Special Operations Forces, and in my own personal opinion, what I am most proud of," said Smith, who served under Brown and his successor, Adm. Eric Olson. "I can't be more proud of having been part of that."
Smith saw a need for senior enlisted leaders to get training specific to the unique mission of special operations.
"I was very, very surprised at how little we understood irregular warfare and how long it took to address counterinsurgency tactics, techniques and procedures," said Smith, who retired in March after 35 years with the Army Special Forces. "Our education, especially for special operators, was lacking across the board."
Smith said his observation wasn't a knock on education programs already under way in the service branches.
"We realized that SOF forces needed to fix our own education system, because of the world we live in. It's very different than the way the rest of the services operate."
After thinking about the idea, Smith said he sat down with Brown and had "long discussions" about a new academy.
"He was 100 percent supportive and said, 'Go for it and put a plan together.' "
But to take his idea from conception to reality, Smith needed buy-in not just from Socom's commander but from fellow senior enlisted leaders as well as others.
Among those he turned to was Kent Dolasky, a Green Beret master sergeant who had developed an online course for noncommissioned officers at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Like Smith, Dolasky also attended last week's graduation, sitting behind Adm. William McRaven, Socom's commander. Dolasky, who retired from the Army this month, became the first academy commandant, serving in that position from 2010 until October.
Dolasky helped design a program "that would give them more of the strategy piece."
"We took it from the national security strategy all the way down to why a guy is filling sandbags in Somalia," he said.
Backers of the academy had to persuade the rest of the military that a separate special operations academy was worth pulling troops off the battlefield during a busy time overseas, Smith said.
During the first class, assigned to the training by their superiors, there was skepticism among some attendees.
"One student said, 'I am a graduate of the sergeant major academy,' " Dolasky said. "I worked operations for the 5th Special Forces Group. I don't know what kind of moonman talk you are talking here, but we don't use that stuff around 5th Group."
Dolasky said the sergeant major was educated on the need for the academy.
"He wound up being our first distinguished honor graduate," Dolasky said. "But he was a heavy resister at first."
The academy is highly competitive and considered a plum assignment because of the opportunities for advancement afterward. The curriculum for the recent academy class included sessions on strategy, organizational management, joint communications and joint leadership. Among topics studied were "Intro to Sun Tzu," "Intro to Clausewitz" and "Grammar and Mechanics."
There was even something called "Dining Like a Diplomat."
"The past few classes have gone to the Columbia Restaurant," Dolasky said, "so the guys can know which fork to use, when to toast, what to do with your napkin. Your hands. The last class went to a SOF tribute dinner with three stars. You need to know how to conduct yourself at that level and not embarrass the force."
The instructors teach at a graduate level, Dolasky said. Each class includes a national security study and assessment that attendees have to hand in the week before graduation. The studies are written at a master's level, he said.
The academy has the backing of Socom leadership.
"Education is an absolute priority, especially to our noncommissioned officer corps," said Socom Command Sgt. Maj. Chris Faris. The academy "is a tough, critical thinking course."
Faris pledged the command will "increase the capability of our operators out there on the battlefield because they know something more about the world than just training."