WASHINGTON -- More special-operations personnel left the military last year than at any time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Government Accountability Office reported this week.
The effect, noted the study, was that younger and less-experienced special-operations personnel were being promoted to leadership positions more quickly than in the past.
The increase in departures last year followed the Pentagon's relaxation of "stop-loss" rules that prevented military personnel from leaving the services and the recruitment by private security firms working in Iraq and Afghanistan of former commandos, said the report.
The loss of skilled commandos, known as "operators," has been a top-drawer concern for officials at the Pentagon and Special Operations Command in Tampa, which oversees Army, Navy and Air Force commando, psychological-warfare and civil-affairs units. Special-ops forces have been used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The significance of higher attrition, said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst, is "if there's a shortage of Navy SEALs or Green Berets, you have the option of not doing the mission or sending the wrong people."
Detailed statistics were not released, but the report said attrition rose among Army Special Forces, referred to as Green Berets, and Naval Special Warfare personnel, known as Navy SEALs, during 2004.
Nearly 13 percent of Army enlisted commandos left the service in 2004, compared with about 6 percent in 2003, the report showed.
By another measure, 116 experienced Army enlisted commandos with 14 to 19 years of service left last year - nearly 10 percent of 1,237 sergeants in Special Forces with that level of experience. In 2003, while stop-loss was in effect, 31 left.
Not since 2000 had the Green Berets lost so many similarly experienced personnel. By leaving before 20 years' service, the men are ineligible for pensions.
Why are commandos leaving the military? Many officials say the cause is the hiring of skilled operators by private security firms that are protecting contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Companies, such as Blackwater Security Consulting, based in North Carolina, pay up to $33,000 a month for three- or four-month assignments, the GAO report said. Some former operators have earned $200,000 or more in a year.
In the military, an experienced Army sergeant first class or Navy chief petty officer might earn nearly $70,000 a year in pay, housing allowance and various special-duty payments.
In January, special-ops officials approved a bonus plan for veteran enlisted personnel re-enlisting for up to six years. Those operators are most sought after by private companies because they have supervisory skills and are the most experienced.
The lump-sum bonuses for re-enlisting range from $8,000 for one year to $150,000 for six more years. Since the program began, 544 soldiers, sailors and airmen have pocketed bonuses, said Ken McGraw, a spokesman for the Special Operations Command.
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