Congress Examines Special Ops Retention Issues
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jul. 20, 2004 Retaining special operations personnel is crucial to the global war on terrorism, special operations senior enlisted advisers told Congress today.
Special operations personnel are deployed around the world in greater numbers than at any time in history, officials said. These senior advisers responsible for assessing the morale of special operations troops said they are concerned about a possible experience drain from the force.
The enlisted leaders testified before the House Armed Services Committee's Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee.
To a greater extent than the conventional forces, special operations forces depend on "a mature and operationally experienced population," said Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Robert Martens Jr., the senior enlisted adviser for U.S. Special Operations Command. The command is following retention trends carefully, because the loss of such experience will create an unacceptable level of risk within the force, the chief said.
The retention problem also is the special operations strength. Special operators are "independent thinkers who are routinely expected to make tactical level decisions during the execution of sensitive and dangerous missions which can have strategic impacts," Martens said. "These attributes also make them highly valuable to the civilian world."
The senior enlisted advisers all said the USSOC component commands are capable now, and are keeping an adequate percentage to lead the force, but they are concerned for the future. "The challenge is to retain these service members in the face of a heavy optempo, rising demands on the home front, and opportunities in the civilian community," Martens said.
And the opportunities are there for special operations personnel. Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Hall, the senior enlisted adviser for the Army Special Operations Command, told the House panel that trained special operators can move to contractors and make up to $200,000 a year overseas. They can also step into government service as civilians at the GS-11 to GS-13 level.
Hall said Army Special Operations Command by far the largest provider of special operators has noticed a drop in retention past 20 years of service.
Training a special operator takes time and experience. Special operations personnel go through 18 months to two years of specialized training before reporting to units. Once at the units, they are at the entry level. It takes between six and eight years for people to be fully competent, officials said.
The Army and Air Force are seeing a decline in the number of those who want to stay on past the 20-year retirement mark. "At the 20-year mark, you're about 38 years old, 40 years old. If you want to start another career where you want to get some retirement, that's about the decision time," Hall said. At the 20-year mark, service members with children are looking at trying to afford college and paying off the mortgage.
The sergeant major said the pay raises over the past four years have made a "significant difference" in keeping people on board, "because base pay turns into retirement pay, and retirement pay is security for your family."
The Navy is concerned about retaining special operators at the eight- to 12- year mark. "For those over 20, we're retaining about 45 percent," said Master Chief Petty Officer Clell Breining, the senior enlisted adviser for Naval Special Warfare Command. "The Navy average is about 25 percent. Where we're seeing the problem is about the 10-year mark where guys are making the decision as to whether or not to make the military a career."
Breining said he had lunch with three Navy special operators who decided to get out at the 10-year mark. "I asked them if they were getting out because they don't like the Navy, or you don't like being a SEAL," he said. "And the answer was absolutely not they loved the work, but they are looking at their futures and looking at the money."
Martens said that the military can never pay service members as much as they can get on the outside. "But that's not what drives our people to do the job and missions that they do," he said. "We do owe to them to make them and their families as comfortable as possible."
The senior enlisted advisers said there must be some way to make staying in past 20 years more attractive to special operators. The committee members asked them specifically what would be needed. Hall said some combination of increased retirement, increased educational benefits and increased family support is going to be needed. Another big factor, he said, is worthwhile work.
"The way the armed services have been treated the last couple of years the respect, the money that we get to be properly manned and trained that goes a long, long way to keeping folks in there," Hall said.
He said educational benefits go a long way in helping, because "if you have that degree in your pocket, you're not as worried" and won't jump at the first job opportunity that presents itself.
Special pays could be a solution, according to the Air Force Special Operations Command senior enlisted adviser. "We've been successful in our aviation incentive pay programs for our aviators, and that answered the problems we were having with pilot attrition a few years ago," said Chief Master Sgt. Howard Mowry. "I would like to see us work a similar program that would compensate our pararescuemen and combat controllers."
This would mean that when special operations specialists go through years-of- service gates, their pay and incentives would increase.
But all of the senior enlisted advisers urged the representatives to look at retirement pay. "Retirement pay is what you hear time and again from the young guys," said the Navy's Breining. "When they are making that 10-year decision one of the things they are considering is what is my retirement pay going to be."
SEALs receive several hundred dollars a month in special-duty assignment pay and selective re-enlistment bonuses. "They would like to see those as part of the formula for retirement pay somehow," he said.
Martens said Special Operations Command is looking at a number of packages designed to keep people in the service. He said some conclusions will be ready for discussion in 60 to 90 days.