Forces under stress: Special Ops Command fighting to retain seasoned warriors.

Author:Kennedy, Harold

The Special Operations Command is struggling to retain its most experienced personnel while it moves to fill a growing role in the U.S. war against terrorism,

Special operators--including Army Special Forces, Rangers, psychological operators and civil affairs experts; Navy sea, air and land teams, and Air Force special-tactics aircrews--have been on the front lines in much higher numbers since 9/11, in Afghanistan and then in the invasion of Iraq, and anti-terror missions in the Philippines and the Horn of Africa.

Traditionally, SOCOM personnel have conducted missions that were requested and planned by U.S. regional commanders. In 2003, however, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered the command to take the lead in planning the war on terror and even to rtm some of-the operations itself.

As a result of these changes, "special operations forces are employed in greater numbers today than at anytime in our history," said Army Col. Kenneth Cull, SOCOM's deputy personnel director.

Special operators could become even busier if the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States gets its way. It has recommended that SOCOM take on responsibility for directing and executing the paramilitary operations now conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Tb help keep up with its expanding missions, SOCOM has received a series of budget increases, 35 percent in fiscal 2004 and another 50 percent in 2005, l-or a current total of $6.5 billion. The command also has been authorized to add 5,100 troops over the next five years, which would bring its total force to about 52,000 active-duly and reserve personnel.

Recruiting new special operators over the long haul, however, will not "provide immediate relief [for the heavier operational tempo], because special operations forces cannot be mass-produced," SOCOM's chief, Army Gen. Bryan D. Brown, told a congressional comMittee.

The problem is especially significant now, with SOCOM losing some of its most experienced personnel in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. In April, for example, Army Sgt. Maj. Michael B. Stack, the senior enlisted man in Company C, 2nd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), died when his convoy was ambushed near Baghdad.

SOCOM also is beginning to lose many of its veterans not to combat, but to the lure of civilian jobs, and Brown wants to change that. It is "critically important that we are able to retain those individuals who have vast expertise and experience...

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