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5 Things You Didn't Know About U.S. Army Special Forces

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In hot spots around the globe, the Green Berets are often the first in and the last out. Experts in direct action and masters of unconventional warfare, Special Forces soldiers infiltrate foreign countries, provide humanitarian aid, raise armies, and train them for combat effectiveness. Here are a few things you might not know about them.

1. The ending of Dr. Strangelove wasn't so strange after all.

During the Cold War, there were contingency plans in case the Soviet Union attempted to roll their tanks across Europe. The goal would be to stop them at all costs, and this would require obliterating key highways, tunnels, airfields, and bridges. While conventional explosives might do the job, it would take hours to achieve, and only slow the Soviet advance by days at best, when weeks were needed. Project GREENLIGHT sought to address this problem.

The fastest, most effective, most surreptitious way to target enemy infrastructure would be to parachute bomb-toting Special Forces soldiers to their objectives. But there was a catch. In his autobiography, Sergeant Major Joe Garner described his work with the project. There was a heavy rucksack attached to him when he test jumped from a military helicopter. The landing was rough, but he walked away from it. It was proof-positive that the plan would work, but it wasn't until much later that he learned what GREENLIGHT was. "It was a man-carried nuclear device. That's when the realization hit me. I was probably the first soldier to free-fall strapped to an atomic bomb."

In addition to destroying infrastructure, carefully placed atomic blasts would make enemy forces "bottleneck," where they could be destroyed with other nuclear weapons. Three hundred backpack nukes were made. They were called Special Atomic Demolition Munitions, and most were assigned to 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) in Germany. In a worst-case scenario, their job was to strap on one-kiloton nuclear weapons and parachute behind the Iron Curtain. They would commit nuclear suicide in an apocalyptic war to stop the Soviets from conquering Europe.

Thankfully, of course, the weapons were never used.

2. The green beret came from a British commando school.

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During World War II, select U.S. Army Rangers and U.S. Office of Strategic Services personnel volunteered for an intense commando course in Scotland. The pace was relentless and the physical requirements were demanding. Exercises were conducted with live ammunition and real explosives. The soldiers were trained in field survival, mountaineering, snow warfare, small boat operations and river crossings.

British Commandos wearing distinctive green berets conducted the school, and those American soldiers who successfully made it through the course were awarded the same beret. The U.S. Army didn’t authorize it for wear, but the hardened American commandos didn't worry too much about that. They secretly wore it while out in the field and away from conventional forces.

3. John F. Kennedy is institutionally revered by Special Forces.

The army eventually established its own Special Forces school, and the quiet tradition of the green beret continued. When President Kennedy visited Fort Bragg in 1961, General William Yarborough, father of the modern Green Berets, ordered his men to wear the unauthorized beret proudly. Kennedy was so impressed with the training and capabilities of Special Forces that he issued the order permitting the green beret to be part of the uniform, calling it "a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom."

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When President Kennedy was assassinated, Special Forces soldiers didn't forget the trust he placed in them, and the legitimacy he bestowed upon them. Members of 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) took black markers and drew black borders around the flashes of their berets in remembrance. (Flashes are distinctive shields sewn onto the front of the headgear). This wasn't authorized, but again, that didn't concern the Special Forces soldiers too much. It would later gain formal approval, and the black border remains part of the 1st SFG(A) flash today. Meanwhile, the unit charged with training prospective Special Forces soldiers was renamed the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center, and every year, Special Forces lay a wreath at the fallen president's gravesite.

4. Special Forces Medics are walking hospitals.

When most people picture Special Forces soldiers, they imagine commandos kicking down doors and taking down bad guys. While such direct action missions are part of their job, so too are humanitarian operations. In many ways, Special Forces are soldier/ambassadors, and gaining the trust of locals is a crucial aspect to unconventional warfare. No one better embodies this ethos than the Special Forces medic.

They are among the best-trained and most respected medics in the military. They're trained to treat battlefield injuries, but they're equally capable of walking into a village and establishing a medical clinic. They can perform physical exams, diagnose the textbook of diseases found in the Third World, and prescribe medicine for treatment. They can vaccinate villagers. They can perform minor surgery, deliver babies, treat infants and children, bandage wounds, and set broken bones. They're trained in parasitology to identify nasty bacteria found in water wells. They can even perform dentistry.

If that weren’t enough, these guys are trained veterinarians, which makes sense when you consider the importance of livestock in far-flung lands. Taken together, medics from a Special Forces team can make a real difference in the lives of a lot of people, and that goes a long way toward establishing a common bond.

5. Popular culture has been mining Special Forces lore for decades.

In many ways, Special Forces have become a shortcut for screenwriters to give characters inexplicable, almost superhuman fighting abilities. Accordingly, such soldiers have shown up in places expected (John Rambo, John Matrix, and Jason Bourne) and unexpected (Martin Riggs and Dex Dexter). On The Simpsons, Springfield's own Principal Skinner was a Special Forces soldier during the Vietnam War.

We've all heard of the A-Team (“Framed for a crime they didn’t commit...”), but what does that mean, exactly? Special Forces Groups are made up of battalions and companies, most of which consist of Operational Detachment-Alphas (ODAs), or A-Teams. These are 12-man teams containing weapons sergeants (who can fire anything with a trigger), medics, communications sergeants (who are trained in everything from Morse code to establishing secure links with satellites), and so on. They are self-sustaining and autonomous, speak multiple languages, and are able to operate in the middle of nowhere for extended periods. (Notably, it takes longer to train a Special Forces soldier than it does to train a fighter pilot.) Each ODA also has an insertion specialty. Some focus on the air, by way of HALO (high altitude low opening) free-fall parachuting. Some are highly trained in mountaineering, while other specialize in vehicle infiltration or combat diving.

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15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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18 Tea Infusers to Make Teatime More Exciting
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Make steeping tea more fun with these quirky tea infusers.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

1. SOAKING IT UP; $7.49

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That mug of hot water might eventually be a drink for you, but first it’s a hot bath for your new friend, who has special pants filled with tea.

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2. A FLYING TEA BOX; $25.98

There’s no superlaser on this Death Star, just tea.

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3. SPACE STATION; $9.99

astronaut tea infuser
ThinkGeek

This astronaut's mission? Orbit the rim of your mug until you're ready to pull the space station diffuser out.

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4. BE REFINED; $12.99

This pipe works best with Earl Grey.

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5. A RIBBITING OPTION; $10.93

This frog hangs on to the side of your mug with a retractable tongue. When the tea is ready, you can put him back on his lily pad.

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6. ‘TEA’ ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW SUBMARINE; $5.95

It’s just like the movie, only with tea instead of Beatles.

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7. SHARK ATTACK; $6.99

shark tea infuser
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This fearsome shark patrols the bottom of your mug waiting for prey. For extra fun, use red tea to look like the end of a feeding frenzy.

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8. PERFECT FOR A RAINY DAY; $12.40

This umbrella’s handle conveniently hooks to the side of your mug.

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9. AN EGGCELLENT INFUSER; $5.75

cracked egg tea infuser
Amazon

Sometimes infusers are called tea eggs, and this one takes the term to a new, literal level.

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10. FOR SQUIRRELY DRINKERS; $8.95

If you’re all right with a rodent dunking its tail into your drink, this is the infuser for you.

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11. HANGING OUT; $12.85

This pug is happy to hang onto your mug and keep you company while you wait for the tea to be ready.

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12. ANOTHER SHARK OPTION; $5.99

If you thought letting that other shark infuser swim around in the deep water of your glass was too scary, this one perches on the edge, too busy chomping on your mug to worry about humans.

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13. RUBBER DUCKIE, YOU’RE THE ONE; $8.95

Let this rubber duckie peacefully float in your cup and make teatime lots of fun.

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14. DIVING DEEP; $8.25

This old-timey deep-sea diver comes with an oxygen tank that you can use to pull it out.

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15. MAKE SWEET TEA; $10

This lollipop won't actually make your tea any sweeter, but you can always add some sugar after.

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16. A SEASONAL FAVORITE; $7.67

When Santa comes, give him some tea to go with the cookies.

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17. FLORAL TEA; $14.99

Liven up any cup of tea with this charming flower. When you’re done, you can pop it right back into its pot.

Buy on Live Infused.

18. KEEP IT TRADITIONAL; $7.97

If you’re nostalgic for the regular kind of tea bag, you can get reusable silicon ones that look almost the same.

Buy on Amazon.

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