A special soldierHe came to see some action, but stayed for the brotherhood and sense of duty. Meet LTC Brian Anthony Thomas, CO of the Special Forces Leadership School.
// Story by Benita Teo
// Photos by Kenneth Lin & courtesy of LTC Thomas
If you've walked past Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Brian Anthony Thomas when he's not in uniform, you probably wouldn't have taken a second look or realised that he has a very particular set of skills. Skills he has acquired over a very long career. Skills that make him a nightmare—
"Aiyoh, we're not like that lah!"
The soft-spoken 42-year-old is amused by the stereotypes surrounding the Special Forces, the Singapore Armed Forces' (SAF's) elite fighting force. But there's no doubt that behind his unassuming demeanour is a fighting machine trained to take on the most challenging of security operations.
Part of the brotherhood
LTC Thomas has indeed honed his skills over a very long career. He signed on with the SAF in 1999, while still in polytechnic.
Although he knew early on that he wanted to don the red beret, joining the Special Forces never crossed his mind. In fact, he knew nothing about this covert team of soldiers.
All he remembered was watching them from his bunk window when he was a recruit. "Their training was very secretive. Whenever they caught us looking, they would tease us by challenging us to join them," he recounted.
It was only when he attended the SAF Ranger Course in 2003 that he finally met these mysterious troopers, who left an especially deep impression.
"I was inspired by the way they carried themselves and treated others – they were very competent and always ready to help others out. There was also a camaraderie and team spirit that I resonated with. I wanted to be part of a team like that where everyone was so united.
"That was when I decided to sign up as a Special Forces operator."
Always ready for action
Little is known about the work of the Special Forces. One of the roles they perform is standby operations for major events such as the Trump-Kim Summit in 2018, the International Monetary Fund-World Bank meetings in 2006, and the annual National Day Parade.
What we do know is that Singaporeans can sleep peacefully at night because they are keeping a tight watch.
"In my time as a 'door kicker' (slang for trooper) in the Special Forces, there have been a few close shaves. I remember an incident where we were called back to camp and did our force preparations. And then we were told to write a will on the spot, because there was a high chance we would be 'seeing action'," said LTC Thomas.
"Eventually, the situation de-escalated, and we were able to stand down."
Duty to protect and serve
LTC Thomas understands the importance of a strong defence: He was studying for his exams at Changi Airport when he saw the news of the September 11 attack. When he enlisted at the end of 2001, the SAF had begun to step up its capabilities to deal with the emerging terror threat.
"I remember the training tempo increasing drastically. The number of security ops we had to do increased almost ten-fold because the security atmosphere was very tense.
"We would train, go for standby ops, then do it all again. At the same time, we were developing new capabilities. It was a rough period."
However, he has never looked back on his decision: "This was the reason I signed on. As Special Forces operators, we joined because we want to protect and serve Singaporeans."
Now married with two sons aged eight and 14, he feels an even stronger sense of duty: "We never know when this peace and stability that we usually take for granted can be compromised. And looking at how things are unfolding in the world today, it can happen very fast – without a strong defence, we can be put in harm's way very easily."
Mind over matter
It takes a special breed of soldiers to join the Special Forces; only those who possess both physical and mental strength will make the cut.
LTC Thomas admits that he, too, struggled through the notoriously gruelling Special Forces selection. Although he was physically adept as a dragon boater in school and as part of the Commandos, the mental game proved to be a challenge.
"There was always the element of uncertainty. For instance, we have 'endless PT', where we do physical training without knowing when it will end. Sometimes the instructors would surprise us by making us think it's over, and then start again," he explained.
As the Commanding Officer (CO) of the Special Forces Leadership School (SFLS), he highlighted that mental resilience was an essential part of being in the elite force. And while attempting the Joint Special Forces Selection may sound daunting, he hopes interested candidates will take that step and challenge themselves.
"If you've ever thought of joining the Special Forces, just come and try. Today, we have the Army pre-Joint Special Forces Test Preparation Programme (or AJPP in short) a month-long programme that provides thorough training for all pre-selection candidates. Previously, you had to train on your own; now we'll train and prepare you for the selection.
"As long as your mind is set, you can do it."