Navy SEALs ride in a Navy Special Warfare humvee to provide security for a simulated prisoner escort during an exercise. (U.S. Navy)
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Special operations forces could soon enjoy more time at home with their families as part of a sweeping effort to take care of and preserve a force that has shouldered a relentless operational tempo over the last decade of war.
These troops — including Army Rangers, Special Forces and aviators, Navy SEALs, Air Force pararescuemen and combat controllers, and Marine special operators — have been turning and burning for the past 10 years. Many are deployed more than they're home, leaving for six or seven months at a time with shorter periods home between tours.
The move is being undertaken by U.S. Special Operations Command's Preservation of the Force and Families Task Force, which formed after former SOCOM commander Adm. Eric Olson sent a team to talk to troops and their families about the state of the 66,000-strong special operations community.
Findings from the "sensing session" came back to SOCOM leaders as Olson turned over command to Adm. William McRaven.
"Preservation of the force is a much more holistic look because it encompasses training opportunities, education opportunities, and all the things that keep the special operations force intact," said Command Sgt. Maj. Chris Faris, SOCOM's senior enlisted service member. "This isn't about a higher quality of life. This is about trying to find those aspects of our service members' lives that are lacking quality and trying to do what we can to instill quality in their lives."
Special operators are expected to continue playing a key role around the world even as the military draws down in Afghanistan.
"Since 9/11, we have doubled in size, our budget has tripled, and the number of deployed special operations forces has quadrupled," McRaven said during testimony March 6 in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "It is clear the demand for special operations capability will remain high."
SOCOM has forces in 78 countries, and it will be necessary for the force and their families to remain strong, McRaven said.
"A decade of war … has exerted a physical and emotional stress on our force and their families," McRaven said. "I am committed to … the preservation of the force and their families. The demands on special operations forces will not end in the foreseeable future. We will continue to sustain a world-class special operations capability."
The task force began surveying troops and their families in October 2010.
Senior SOCOM leaders received feedback from more than 400 focus groups consisting of more than 7,000 service members and more than 1,000 spouses from 55 special operations units at home and overseas.
Their concerns, Faris said, boiled down to three major themes: predictability, resilience and communication.
Predictability was a top concern shared by troops and their families, said Faris, who is no stranger to this challenge, having spent his career in special operations beginning with the Ranger Regiment before moving to Special Forces, then Delta Force, known officially as 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, and later Joint Special Operations Command.
The Defense Department measures a service member's time at home based on combat deployments, and the guidelines call for a service member to get at least one day at home for every day he is deployed, or a 1:1 dwell-to-boots-on-the-ground ratio, Faris said.
"That only accounts for your overseas deployments," he said. "If you're going to go to Afghanistan or some place like that, those are very predictable. The force knows when they're going into theater. We have a lot of commitments outside the combat zones, and we also have commitments here in the U.S. for training. All that training time means they're not placing their heads on their own pillows at night."
Special operations deployment lengths vary across the services, but the average is about six months at home for every seven-month deployment.
"But that doesn't count training or pre-mission train-up," Faris said. "At the end of the day, what the Preservation of the Force and Families [task force] has to encompass is the ability to do the mission, but we've got to achieve a better work-life balance."
To give troops more time at home, the task force is looking to measure dwell time using a personnel tempo system versus simple BOG-to-dwell, Faris said.
"What do you do with white space on the calendar?" he said. "You fill it up. What we're trying to do is create black space on the calendars so the service member can go home and [be with his family]. The measure of success is your head on your pillow that night with your family."
The task force is still in the "formative phases" of the personnel tempo policy, Faris said.
"We've got to look at the training cycles and the deployment cycles. Are we going to do it for a 12-month period in terms of measurement, or a 24-month period?" he said. "The thing we're trying to fix is to give more predictability, that it's not an immediate turn and burn."
The issue of predictability becomes increasingly important after 10 years of war, Faris said.
Increasing the force's resilience has been critical to retaining the highly trained and skilled troops, he said, and now the task force wants to also focus on resilience training for families.
"This is 11 years that this force has been at it, and what we're starting to get back from the families was … ‘The resiliency training was really designed for [the service member], and as we go into 11 years of supporting my spouse and this war, I've got my own issues. Where's my own resiliency training?'" he said. "We're having to look at how do we focus something very specific to the families and their needs, something that's not just in the context of their military spouse."
In terms of communication, that effort also is predominantly focused on the families, Faris said.
"There are a great many programs to help them, but we're not doing a very good job as a force communicating what those programs are," he said. "You would almost take for granted that they would know these things, but we're a bit guilty in assuming that. As [Adm. McRaven] and I traveled around, the message was received loud and clear. We've got to communicate with them about what is available."
As a first step, the task force will unveil a Facebook page to better reach service members' families, Faris said. The goal is to have the page up by the end of March.
The task force is studying other initiatives including standing up interdisciplinary teams at bases that are home to special operations forces.
These teams would offer everything from social workers to chaplains in one place, giving service members a one-stop shop for whatever they might need, Faris said.
"A lot of times, if you need help and you've got to work too hard at it, you just don't go," he said. "One of the things we have to overcome in our culture is a stigma that's placed on people through peer pressure or whatever the case might be that seeking help is bad."
Faris said he and senior SOCOM leaders are working to remove the stigma against getting help.
"SOF has this myth about it, that they're not supposed to have any chinks in their armor, but at the end of the day, that's an absolute fallacy," he said. "You're still a human being, and a human being can only have X amount of capability for coping with the things going on in their lives, especially as we enter the 11th year of war."
The task force also is studying professional and personal development.
"The majority of the force is enlisted, and we spend most of our time in training vice education," Faris said. "It's OK to take a break from the line. This is another stigma, and there's a bit of guilt for that soldier who does that."
Taking a break to attend professional military education, or education in general, is part of a natural career progression, Faris said.
"We've got to give them real opportunities to set them up for success when they get out of the military," he said. "SOF is a career, and those of us who enter SOF spend the majority of our military careers in it. The commander's intent is we're going to create opportunities for you, but it's your choice if you want to enter into those opportunities."
For example, instead of sending a soldier to the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School to be an instructor for 36 months, maybe he could teach for 24 months and spend the remaining 12 taking college classes and working toward a degree, Faris said.
As the task force, which is led by Air Force Brig. Gen. Tim Leahy, continues its work, Faris said retention across the force remains high. For example, Army Special Operations Command exceeded its retention goals for the past three years.
"At the end of the day, job satisfaction, satisfaction with the mission is a constant daily reinforcement that what I'm doing is making a difference for our nation," Faris said. "If there's tension, the tension comes up with quality of life with the family."
In the spring and summer, the task force will have a series of best practices seminars, Faris said, to learn about various programs in each of the services that could be adopted by the others.
"SOCOM is not doing this alone," he said. "We're completely vested, reliant and thankful for the programs the services provide, for both the service members and the families. They're the backbone, they're the building blocks upon which we can take to meet the unique requirements of SOF."
Faris said he wants to ensure that members of the special operations community know their senior leaders are working hard for them.
"They've got to know that the chain of command has not broken faith with them," he said. "We've got to learn how to fight smarter as we enter 11 years of war, and preserving the force is about that balance that needs to be achieved within the force so that SOF can accomplish the mission."