What’s the difference between Army Rangers and Green Berets?

It’s more than just the color of their beret.
Joshua Skovlund Avatar
Joe Kent Travis Denman Army Ranger Special Forces
Joe Kent (left) during his time in Special Forces, and Travis Denman (right) during his time as an Army Ranger. (courtesy photos).

The U.S. Army Special Forces, or Green Berets, and their tan beret-wearing brothers — Army Rangers — have proven their grit on the battlefield over decades of war. But their roles have been skewed so much during the War on Terror that many have a hard time understanding how they are different and what they have in common.

Today’s Rangers and Green Berets have a diverse portfolio of capabilities and the missions they take on can be similar in many ways, but with very different strategic outcomes in mind.

Joe Kent and Travis Denman served long careers in America’s special operations, spending time in both the 75th Ranger Regiment and Special Forces. They both started as Rangers pre-9/11, but their careers in Special Forces that followed gave them a good look at how the two units are different and how much they’ve changed over time. 

Modern Rangers trace their history back to World War II and Special Forces to the Korean War, though both claim lineage that goes back much further. The Rangers’ initial purpose was a direct action infantry role. Special Forces began with the mission of combating the North Korean covert guerilla attacks behind the front lines, often using similar tactics to defeat them. 

Still today, each unit’s primary mission remains the same, though updates have been implemented. 

“I think the mission of the Ranger Battalions is fairly simple. You’re the country’s premier light infantry,” Kent said. “No one does raids better than the Ranger Regiment, especially on the scale that they do them.”

Green Berets can carry out direct action raids but under much different scenarios. 

Kent explained that a Green Beret must “immediately transition from a raid mindset, or even simultaneously, have cultural awareness and speak a foreign language, be deeply immersed in the cultures and traditions of whatever country you’re working with.”

Pre-9/11 vs Post 9/11

Kent and Denman agreed that Rangers and Special Forces were more distinguishable before 9/11. Denman was a Ranger fire team leader in 1995 when the U.S. planned to invade Haiti. 

“I’m on the plane. I’m rigged up. I’m ready to jump into combat like my old man did in Grenada,” Denman said. “I got my dad’s fucking K-bar on my LCE, bro. I’m ready to get down, you know? And then the bird turned around and parked.”

The mission was scratched, leaving the Rangers disappointed. As they were breaking down gear to head back to their compound, they saw other — different — soldiers loading the plane.  

“Who the fuck are those guys? Oh, that’s a bunch of 3rd Group dudes, and they’re going to Haiti,” Denman said. “Like, how are they going to go there when we didn’t even take the country? I don’t know. That’s SF dudes.”

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Like many Rangers of the era, Denman sought a career in Special Forces, thinking that was how he would get into the fight. But after 9/11, everything changed. Both Rangers and Green Berets deployed nearly non-stop throughout the War on Terror. With a focus on hunting high-value targets and direction raids, at times the only difference between a Ranger mission and a Special Forces mission was whether the guys had a beard or not. 

Rangers were given additional responsibility and saw their standing in the world of special operations elevated, so “going SF” became less appealing — though it was not unheard of. Many Green Berets still worked by, through, and with partner forces to accomplish raids and build special operations units from the ground up in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both units were very busy.

Ranger and Green Beret missions

Comparing the two isn’t about who’s better or worse but how they are different

“I think people look at a commando, whether he’s a tier one guy or an SF guy or a Ranger, and they think they’re the same,” Denman said. “But they have different jobs. They just don’t do the same things. So they’re not the same people.”

“If I pick the Super Bowl champions to play in the World Cup of Soccer, they would fucking lose. It’s not to say that the Cowboys are better or worse than Real Madrid. They’re just different,” Denman said. “It has nothing to do with what unit is better or worse.”

Kent said the structure of the Ranger Regiment and Special Forces was very different during his time at both. New Rangers were typically younger and lower ranking, where fire team leaders control your everyday tasks, and their squad leader tells them what to do, and so on. But when he arrived at Special Forces, it was a different atmosphere. 

“Most of my team had been NCOs in the infantry before they came to SF,” Kent said. “They said this isn’t Ranger Regiment, like no one will tell you what you need to do every hour of the day. If you mess up, we’re just going to put your shit in the hallway.”

The Rangers have a rigid hierarchy, from the senior private on the fire team to the Command Sgt. Major of the 75th Ranger Regiment. Young Rangers are molded into leaders from day one and are tasked with leadership duties early on. 

Kent said you have to be in Special Forces for a while before leading other Green Berets, whereas while deployed, a Green Beret will lead entire sections of partner nation militaries. The Special Forces atmosphere is a more mature, self-managing environment within the 12-man operational detachments they typically work in.  

The culture in Special Forces is different from Rangers

It’s as simple as Rangers are typically young bachelors and live a barracks life while almost all Green Berets live off base and have families. Kent and Denman recalled the hardcore pace of training all day in the Ranger Regiment and then going hard with booze and shenanigans after work. 

“I think Ranger battalions are like an armed frat because most guys still live in the barracks,” Denman said. “When you’re a private, you practically live in the squad room or whatever. So, you get off work, or you’re cleaning guns, and you grab a beer. The camaraderie and the party culture — really it’s Viking culture — at the forefront.”

Denman said some of the young, single Green Berets might go and party it up, but most NCOs would head home to be with their wife and kids when they weren’t working. A  beer in the team room before heading home for the night was a tradition in Special Forces, but team gatherings outside work were often family-friendly barbecues. 

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