"Simply the best." That's been the matter-of-fact description of the Army's elite Green Berets force since its inception in 1952.

Eligibility for the fabled group had been restricted to already enlisted Army personnel since 1988. But in January the Army resurrected rules that allow civilians to apply directly for special forces upon enlistment.

Recruiters are charged with finding 400 civilians to join the prestigious force by October, and hope to achieve that goal ahead of schedule. Seventy-nine civilians had signed up for the force as of March 7 and with the mission almost a fifth complete, recruiters are hopeful the quota will be filled by July.

"It's not hard to find candidates who are willing to try," said Captain David P. Connolly, an Army spokesman. "It’s a great opportunity if you’re motivated enough, want a mental and physical challenge and want to be one of the best soldiers around."

Officials decided to re-open the Berets to civilian recruits following years of declining overall numbers in the Army and the retirement of several senior Green Beret commanders before Sept. 11.

Maj. Robert Gowan, who called the Berets "the best soldiers in the world," said, "We need to man the force and still maintain a standard of quality, well-trained people."

The group, which has roughly 7,700 members deployed around the world, has certainly had its successes in the war on terror. Special forces like the Berets have seen extensive military action in Afghanistan, infiltrating deep into enemy-held territory, linking up with anti-Taliban forces and directing air strikes.

Meeting the group's lofty standards isn't easy. Civilian recruits must undergo an average of more than 80 weeks of intensive, demanding military training, in addition to meeting the usual top-quality Army enlistment criteria. The training program takes two years, with a minimum enlistment term of five years.

Candidates must be male U.S. citizens, aged 18 to 29 years old, with a high school diploma. They must also be able to pass a security clearance check, qualify for airborne training and score at least an 85 on a defense language aptitude test.

Despite all the qualifications and risks involved, Connolly said the task of finding 400 civilians recruits is just a "drop in the bucket" of the 79,000 recruits the Army is charged with finding by October.

But confidence runs high. The Army met its goal last year with 75,855 soldiers, 55 more than the target of 75,800.

Army officials said they would rely on traditional recruiting policies to bring in the new personnel, and don't see the need for any special recruitment drives. "We’re using the same methods ... like going to high schools, and developing relationships within their communities," Connolly said.

Anyone interested in knowing more can visit www.Goarmy.com, where prospective soldiers can chat with recruiters. "It’s just like walking into a recruiting station," said Connolly.

"People that pursue a career in special forces are highly committed and want to be a part of the best," said Gowan. "It’s a very exciting lifestyle. You travel a lot, and meet people from all over the world," he said. "There is an allure of being in the special forces that calls to people."

Or, in the words of a Green Beret at last week's memorial service for Chief Warrant Officer Stanley Harriman, who was killed during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan: "You don't choose special forces, special forces chooses you."