The elite of the elite: trying to become an SAS soldier

Luke and Jenna

Luke and Jenna

Who Dares Wins. The motto of the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) is widely recognised to signal that one needs to demonstrate grit and courage to find success. But Corporal Luke Conners, 26, his family and friends – including me, his younger brother – have learnt over the past four years, the word ‘dare’ and the concept of displaying ‘courage’, don’t always encapsulate the sacrifice and strain that it takes to become the best of the best, a ghost in the dark, a ‘snake-eater’ – a member of the SASR.

Luke’s journey began in 2010 after completing the Australian army initiation course at the Army Recruit Training Centre at Blamey Barracks in Kapooka. At the age of 18, Luke’s desire to test himself against the greatest challenges possible was sparked and it led to a larger passion to serve and protect those who cannot fend for themselves.

“Initially at a young age, it was for the challenge and to see whether I could cut it at that level,” Luke said.

“But when I got older, I wanted to help people. The greatest goal from the pursuit was to get an opportunity to serve overseas as a Special Forces soldier and help people in countries that really couldn’t help themselves.”

Whilst learning his apprenticeship as a carpenter in Newcastle, NSW, at the age of 20, Luke was deployed to the Solomon Islands for six months and when he returned, that spark burned into a flame. He now wanted the iconic sandy beret issued to the most elite soldiers in Australia. He aimed toward the 2016 SASR trials that were held in Perth, Western Australia.

The physical training Luke undertook was extensive – early morning and late night gruelling training sessions, combined with his job of running his own carpentry business – in order to turn his body into an unfaltering weapon.

“Most of the time it was two training sessions a day, and five or six days a week with one or two rest days in there,” Luke said.

Luke with his father and the author Quentin Connors

“It was high intensity, like 30 minutes to an hour with burpees, push-ups, body movement, bear crawls, lifting bars. There were also two swimming sessions a week as well as one back-pack march a week which was about 30 or 40kg for about 15-20kms.”

As Luke delved deeper into the harsh environment of SAS training though, the people closest to him, especially his long-term girlfriend Jenna McInerney, weren’t allowed in.

“The first time he trialled he had this mindset that it was his journey and only a few people were allowed to be a part of it. I was definitely someone that he pushed away,” Jenna said.

“I wanted to go on pack marches with him and just be there to support him through it, but he wouldn’t let me do any of that because he wouldn’t get the ‘real-sense’ of what doing the course would be like if he had company.”

Focused on the path to success, Luke felt ready. But as the date of the trial neared, the pressure and nerves of the challenge grew.

“I got dropped at the airport by Jenna, and it was a massive case of the unknown. I had no idea what bombshell was about to drop,” Luke said.

Luke on the plane on the way to the trial

“I remember on the plane reading my notes over and over again. I was just trying to pile as much information into my head as I could. I remember having a huge headache once we got over there. I felt exhausted before I even started.”

For Jenna though, the future seemed much clearer.

“When he left for the first course, I had come to the idea that our relationship would be over if he made it,” Jenna confessed.

“The goodbye we shared really did feel like the last goodbye.”

With his everyday world behind him, Luke began one of the toughest tests he will face in his life.

Legendary SASR soldier Stuart Bonner, narrator of Redback One: The True Story of an Australian SAS Hero, describes the SASR selection courses as “the first step into that dark place in the mind where PTSD planted its seed.”

Bonner told The Australian that there “have even been a couple of TV documentaries over the years about it – but they don’t convey just how gut-wrenching an ordeal it really is. That’s something only the survivors know.”

Despite an initial struggle, Luke powered on and as each day passed his confidence rose.

“The first eight or nine days are hectic, but they’re days with the boys and once it hit day 9, it’s about five or days of self-navigation and wandering on your own [Happy Wanderer],” Luke explained.

“When I got onto Happy Wanderer, days on end navigating on my own, that’s when the weeds of doubt started sprouting through my head.

“I came to a sense of the killing, moving to Perth, going to places in the world with two or three guys and living with limited resources, and at 23-years-old, well for anyone really, that was pretty daunting.”

It was there, in the early hours of day 14 that Luke made the decision to pull out of the course and return home. It was a considered decision, but one he grew to regret.

“Initially I felt I had made the right decision. I felt a bit of pride for where I had gotten up to and there was a bit of relief about it all…but after I spoke to a mate that had made it in, a feeling sunk in that maybe I hadn’t made the right decision.

“I had a lot of anger towards myself for selling myself short and I think I quickly forgot about the reasons why I pulled out.”

Jenna admitted Luke’s disappointment was evident and as a result, affected certain parts of Luke’s life – including their relationship.

“The first few days of him being home were nice. He seemed happy with his decision and to be back. But that didn’t last for long,” Jenna said.

“He started to feel really down on himself and like he hadn’t achieved what he was meant to achieve. It was like he was looking for something else and some kind of purpose and that took a real big strain on our relationship.”

Contrite and confused, doubtful and broken, Luke began a tumultuous search to rediscover his passions and life goals. He travelled to Malaysia for the army to test whether the ‘army-life’ was the journey he wanted to follow. It was after his time there that he decided to give his dream another shot.

Luke once again commenced his training, however this time there was a difference – he exclusively trained with his friend and mentor, Jason Thomson.

Luke on promotion day: Corporal 

“I did the same kind of physical training and preparation but this time I only really spoke to Jason [Thomson] and gave him all my time. I gave him all my trust with my body and mind.”

Luke’s new approach to training with Jason led to greater improvement and readiness, but also to a more inclusive style – one that seemingly mended the cracks that Jenna and Luke had once experienced.

“After he begun working with Jason, I could see a change in him. When he trained, he begun to let me in a lot more and he let others help and support him,” Jenna revealed.

“He trained just as much, but it didn’t seem like it had as much of an effect on him. The first time, it was almost like he changed as a person and we was trying to be this ‘soldier person’, but the second time he was himself throughout it all.”

Jason helped shape Luke into a spirited-bodied and strong-minded individual in an attempt to mould him into the SAS soldier he needed to be.

“Coming back from that first time, mentally he struggled really hard in understanding who he was because he was identifying himself so much with being that SAS person,” Jason said.

“You could see from the first time he went away, to the second time, his mental state was different, he changed in maturity, and he had this sense of not being anxious.”

Luke credited Jason as one of the people who not only developed his physical attributes and readiness for the course, but completely altered and corrected his sinking feelings of self-worth to open up a whole new outlook.

Jason Thomson, Luke’s mentor

“He’s broken down heaps of walls and egos in my personality and helped me to become open minded to new things,” Luke said.

“He’s changed my perspective on so many areas. He’s definitely one of the people I needed to find heading into the trial.”

Renewed and refined, Luke headed back for his second-time round in May 2018 as a relaxed, confident and prepared man on a mission. However, this time he was met with a different selection course. A much, much tougher one.

“The second course was held in a completely different area – somewhere they haven’t held it for a very long time. It was hilly, rough terrain and it made it very hard. They just ‘upped’ everything from the first time.

“I remember them waking us up after about an hour’s sleep, putting us in the ‘mogs’ (Army trucks) and dropping us in the middle of nowhere. There was all this wire, tank tracks, water jerries, massive poles, plus all your pack and your webbing, which is about 50kg, that we had to carry from about 2am, to 4 in the afternoon.”

Despite the extreme toughness of the course, Luke was pleased with how he was travelling up until he reached an old nemesis – Happy Wanderer. There, alone, Luke had time to deeply think of what his future may hold.

“I knew I was doing well on this course and my body was doing well. But the reality began to set in again. My mind started saying to me, ‘you’re only six or seven days away from finishing this selection course and you’re not coming back from Perth’ and it started making me realise what was truly important to me.

“It dawned on me that this wasn’t the place where I was going to change the world and I realised that I wasn’t going to change this regiment, they were going to change me.”

It was day 12 when Luke made the gruelling call to leave the course and his dream behind with the intent of never returning.

For Jason, it was a moment he expected.

“To be honest, I never thought the SAS was Luke. I see him as such as a kind person and a lover not a fighter, and he was training to be a killer, so it didn’t really fit well with me,” Jason confessed.

Jenna’s reaction however, was quite the opposite.

“When he came back from the second course, I was in absolute shock. My first reaction was to burst into tears because I had no idea what was going on,” Jenna divulged.

“I think I took it harder than he did because I had put so much into it in helping him prepare and I was ready to move to Perth and put my whole life behind.”

With that, a plan, journey and dream that had been five years in the making quickly withered away, but it’s a path that has only enlightened Luke.

“I was finally able to realise that my self-worth wasn’t locked up in the SAS and making it into the regiment, it wasn’t going to control my life as it once did. I have peace and clarity in my decision and I’m not looking back.”

As Luke faces the next chapter in his life, no one in our family – not even him – are sure of what is next to come. Jason believes though, the challenges he’s faced are only bricks that have built the foundations for an exceptionally bright future.

“I think it’s been a great journey for him. I believe he’s going to make an incredible impact and leave an incredible legacy in helping other people and he’s going to be known for that…I’m really excited for what’s to come for Luke.”