WASHINGTON - The Pentagon is offering bonuses of up to $150,000 to keep elite commandos, such as Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs, in the military and prevent them from being lured away to higher-paying jobs by private security contractors in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, defense officials said.
For more than a year, officials with these Special Operations forces have been concerned about losing their highly trained and long-serving servicemen, who have combat and language skills that take years to develop. In the coming weeks, officials are expected to unveil a variety of incentive packages designed to entice the commandos for up to six years of additional service.
The commandos, who are being overworked in the war on terrorism, sometimes with back-to-back deployments, are finding that they can quickly triple their government salaries by working in the same overseas locations for private security companies.
"We've got highly trained people with a wealth of experience," said one Army officer, who requested anonymity. "We want to maintain our force. We don't want an exodus."
Army officers and Pentagon officials had no immediate information on how many of these commandos are leaving the military, but one defense official said, "People are leaving at a higher-than-average rate."
It was also unclear how many would be offered the bonuses, though the money is being offered to enlisted, active-duty personnel with 19 years of service who are willing to sign up for at least two years. The sliding scale would offer $18,000 for two years of active-duty service and up to $150,000 for six years, officials said.
"They're very worried about senior noncommissioned officers going to security firms," said Michael Vickers, a former Green Beret officer who is a defense analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank in Washington. "There's a huge investment in these folks as far as training them. You get a real qualified operator after five to six years."
Retroactive to Jan. 1
Officials said some of the bonuses are expected to be offered retroactive to Jan. 1 of this year, and the entire price tag for the effort is expected to be about $168 million over three years. The incentives are being targeted at those within a core group of some 6,000 special operators, who include 4,200 enlisted Green Berets, 1,500 SEALs and 325 Air Force combat air controllers and pararescue specialists.
The Air Force controllers are trained to set up rough airfields and guide aircraft into remote locations, while the pararescue specialists, also called PJs, for pararescue jumpers, are skilled medics trained to parachute in and rescue downed aircrews.
Ken McGraw, a spokesman for the U.S. Special Operations Command, the umbrella organization for special operators, based in Tampa, Fla., said he expected incentives to be announced soon but offered few details.
"There is a policy being developed that will affect certain Special Operations career fields in the Army, the Navy and the Air Force," said McGraw. "It's a retention incentive package."
The military's Special Operations Command, which include the Army Rangers, the service's crack infantry soldiers, numbers about 50,000 active-duty and enlisted forces as well as Defense Department civilians. Historically, the legendary commandos have dropped behind enemy lines or assisted and trained foreign militaries, and are used to long tours.
But since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks they have been busier than ever, linking up with Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan in 2001 to spearhead the defeat of the Taliban government, slipping into Iraq's western desert in the days before the invasion of March 2003 to attack Iraqi forces and hold airfields, and scouring the entire region for Osama bin Laden and top terrorists.
Other special operators have been using their civil affairs skills steadily over the past three years, working with tribal leaders and other local officials to help develop new governments.
"Back-to-back tours. They're not getting as much rest as they did back in the 1980s," said Andy Messing, Jr., a former Green Beret major who served in Grenada and El Salvador in those years.
While the military is offering retention bonuses of up to $15,000 for active and reserve soldiers, the higher payout for Special Operations forces reflects their elite status and the difficulty in selecting, training and retaining them.
Of those who train to be Green Berets, about 65 percent don't make the final cut. The attrition rate for Navy SEALs is 75 percent. Training for some of these special operators lasts up to two years.
Recruiting goes well
But there is some good news in recruiting special operators. The U.S. Army Special Forces recruiters at Fort Bragg, N.C., announced that they exceeded recruiting goals last year and are ahead of schedule for this year. The 2004 goal was 1,600, and 1,628 soldiers were recruited to begin Green Beret training.
Paychecks for special operators can range from $50,000 to $80,000 per year with benefits. Meanwhile, contractors such as Blackwater Security Consulting, a North Carolina company founded by a retired Navy SEAL, which has the personal security contract for U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte in Iraq, offers its contract employees a scale of $450 to $800 per day.
Chris Bertelli, a Blackwater spokesman, said the "vast majority" of its contractors have Special Operations backgrounds, though he declined to discuss the number of its employees. "The money is an incentive for a lot of people," said Bertelli, who cautioned that the company does not recruit from the active-duty military and said most of its workers "have been out for a number of years."
McGraw, the spokesman for the Special Operations Command, said the command has been working with its members and their families for more than a year and sponsored a town hall meeting in December 2003 to talk about their concerns.
Besides the bonus plans, McGraw said, the command is also helping special operators and their family members earn college degrees, partnering with online universities as well as the University of South Florida.
But Messing, the former Special Operations officer who is the executive director of the National Defense Council Foundation, a nonprofit think tank that studies low-intensity conflict, the drug war and energy security, called the retention bonuses "chump change."
Messing said the Pentagon must do more to increase the size of Special Operations forces and decrease the repeated deployments. Special operators with extensive time overseas should be rotated into better assignments, such as instructor positions in the United States, which would provide family stability for a time, he said.
"At some point, they have to spend time with their kids, pay for the second divorce or get their truck out of hock," said Messing. "They are racehorses that have been run ragged."
McGraw said there are plans to increase the number of special operators by adding another 400-soldier Army Special Operations Aviation Battalion to the existing three aviation battalions and two additional SEAL teams to the current structure. Each team has 170 sailors.
He also said that the special operators' repeated operational deployments, known in military parlance as high op tempo, is closely monitored by the command. "Op tempo is always something that's under review," said McGraw. "And people are always looking at ways to mitigate that."
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