THERE'S nothing quite so revered, or feared, in the Australian military as the special forces. The Special Air Service and commando regiments have a reputation like no other, even if very few of us know the full extent of their operations.
Missions remain shrouded in secrecy and usually involve placing troops in highly precarious situations. Even how many serve remains unknown, although it is said to be about 500.
What we do know is that the SAS most recently served in Iraq and Afghanistan, then closer to home in East Timor. It was also the first unit to board the Tampa when it entered Australian waters in 2001.
It's a risky business but it remains the pinnacle for a soldier. It still attracts the cream of the corps, even if the selection process is as ghastly as it is gruelling. Extraordinarily, it has lost more soldiers in training than in combat.
With a motto of ''Who Dares Wins'', taken from the British regiment of the same name, the selection process is all about testing personal extremes.
All candidates must pass a psychological and medical examination before being subjected to the entry test. It's here where candidates are really pushed: push-ups, swimming, long-distance running and marching are all scrutinised.
Yet while 64 per cent get through that stage, only 16 per cent get through the next stage, known to all simply as ''selection''.
It's three weeks of near torture, and those in charge show little mercy. They deprive applicants of food, sleep and humanity, usually while pushing them on ridiculously long treks or forcing them to scale seemingly impossible terrain. This is most often done while carrying a pack, leaving those who don't make it, and sometimes those who do, with serious injuries.
Former professional footballer Andrew Packer quit the Brisbane Roar last year to try to break into the special forces.
Having already been identified as an elite athlete, Packer said he was ''lucky'' enough to be fast-tracked through the earlier stages.
''I still had to go through basic training and then infantry training, which essentially qualified me to serve as a rifleman,'' he said. ''They then took us to the Special Forces Training Centre in Singleton, and we stayed there for about 10 weeks just to prepare for the commando training course.
''I got through to the fourth week but then the Board of Studies made me withdraw [Packer was studying a property management course at TAFE], which was shattering.''
However, Packer will suit up again for a second chance when the next round of selection begins in February. ''I was recommended to come back and have another go, and I'm keen to make it in with either with 2 Commando [2nd Commando Regiment] or the SASR,'' he said. ''I've been training with elite athletes all my life, but now I'm keen to be the best soldier I can, and the special forces is the final step.''
If he gets through, he will have achieved his life-long ambition of a sandy beret - and be rewarded with a $100,000-plus pay packet.