The U.S. Special Operations Forces held a changing of the guard Monday, and it should have been a moment to recount triumphs, like the raid that killed Osama bin Laden just three months ago.
Instead, the long-planned change of command in Tampa, Fla., was a somber day as military leaders paid tribute to the 30 American troops who died in Afghanistan in a helicopter crash Saturday.
Nearly two dozen were members of the unit responsible for killing bin Laden — Navy SEAL Team 6.
Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
Adm. Eric Olson, former commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, testifies before the House Armed Services Committee in 2009.
Adm. Eric Olson, former commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, testifies before the House Armed Services Committee in 2009. Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
"This is a reminder that we remain a nation still at war," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at the ceremony. "One that has seen its share of triumph and tragedy. Special operators have been at the heart of many of those triumphs. And, as we all know, that comes oftentimes at a very high cost."
Adm. William McRaven is the new commander of the Special Operations Forces, taking over as scheduled from Adm. Eric Olson.
Olson rarely spoke publicly during his tenure, but he did so two weeks ago at the Aspen Institute Security Forum in Colorado. He offered a rare glimpse into the Special Operations Forces community, and its elite and secretive culture.
"I'm certainly not going to break faith with my own community at this point now or ever in terms of what it would mean to them to talk to much about it," Olson said.
He conspicuously avoided talking about the raid deep inside Pakistan back in May that killed bin Laden and put SEAL Team 6 in the spotlight.
"For the special ops community I would say the 15 minutes of fame lasted at least 14 minutes too long," he said. "They really just want to get back in the shadows and do what they came in to do."
Still, Olson agreed to shed a little bit of light on a force that includes Army Rangers and Green Berets, in addition to the Navy SEALs and other units.
"Most people, when they think of the special operations community, they've either been exposed to a book or movie or a headline about something spectacular," he said. "But it's a far more nuanced community than that."
The U.S. Special Operations Command was started 25 years ago as a response to the failed attempt by the United States to rescue hostages held in Iran several years earlier.
The Special Operations Forces are used primarily to train foreign militaries around the world. Olson said that's happening in more than 60 countries right now, including places like Yemen, Somalia and Uganda.
"We are developing long-term relationships; we are learning the language; we're meeting the people; we are studying the histories; we're learning the black markets; we're learning how things really happen in those places," he said.
But at its core, this is a group of warriors trained to carry out the most dangerous operations. And during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, they have been extremely busy.
Olson said that the Special Operations Forces carried out between 3,000 and 4,000 operations last year.
"This is now routine. Every night, dozens of times, ground forces get in on a helicopter and fly in against a target to do something on that target," he said. "In many cases knock on the door and invite someone to give themselves up."
Other times, these night raids target specific insurgent leaders. It was one of those missions that went wrong over the weekend.
According to the military, those who died were called in to help a smaller force that had come under fire.
And while Olson said these raids are now "routine," there was nothing routine about this loss. In his speech two weeks ago, the admiral told the audience that after 10 years of war, the special operations community was starting to fray.
The fabric was strong, he said, but the demands were huge on the members of the force and their families.
The remains of some of those special operations forces killed in Afghanistan over the weekend will be flown to Dover Air Base in Delaware on Tuesday.