Military Works to Retain In-Demand Special Forces

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Increasingly, the military is losing Special Forces personnel to the private sector. Many head to contracting jobs that offer high-paying security positions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Defense Department is addressing the problem by offering them new financial incentives to extend their service, and the incentives seem to be having a positive effect.


US Special Forces are in greater demand than ever in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. But they're being lured away from military service by lucrative security jobs in the private sector. The Defense Department is addressing this problem by offering new financial incentives to extend their service, and NPR's Vicky O'Hara reports this morning on the program's early results.

VICKY O'HARA reporting:

Members of Special Forces units, such as the Green Berets and Navy SEALs, have highly developed skills that make them a valuable commodity in the war on terrorism. They're trained in urban combat, intelligence techniques, foreign languages and foreign cultures. Military officials say the cost of that training is about $350,000 a person. And the more experienced the operative, the more valuable he or she becomes. Lieutenant Colonel Alex Fenley(ph) is in the personnel office of the Special Forces Command in Tampa. He says that special operations personnel usually like their work in the military and are more likely to make a career of it than members of the other services.

Lieutenant Colonel ALEX FENLEY (Special Forces Command): When you come into the Special Forces community, you know you're going to be deployed for a longer period of time, the demands are going to be a little bit different and maybe more arduous. Because that is a known entity, I think people make a sounder decision and then, therefore, make it a career.

O'HARA: But since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the type of work offered by the Special Forces now is being offered by many other employers who pay a lot more money than the US military. Again, Colonel Fenley.

Lt. Col. FENLEY: The world security situation has drastically changed obviously since 9/11. And across the economy globally, obviously there is a huge requirement and a huge need for Special Forces-type individuals from all sectors of the economy.

O'HARA: Private contractors have hired away experienced special operations officers, especially for work in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fenley says that in the military, special operations personnel make anywhere from 40 to $70,000 a year; whereas in the private sector, they can make 2 or 300,000.

Lt. Col. FENLEY: We know we can't compete, but we can provide good faith.

O'HARA: People don't usually enter Special Forces for money, but the Defense Department thinks that more money might convince them to stay in the service longer. Last winter the Defense Department approved retention bonuses of up to $150,000 for people with critical skills who renew enlistments for various lengths of time. Also, additional incentive pay of $750 per month for people with more than 25 years of experience who agree to stay on active duty for an additional year.

The Defense Department report said as of July 27th, 544 special operations personnel had signed up for one of the incentive packages. Colonel Fenley says the military won't know the overall impact on retention until the end of the year, but the numbers, he says, are encouraging. Special Forces recruitments remain strong, but it takes several years to train new operatives. The incentive packages, Fenley says, give special operations command some assurance that it will have experienced personnel in the field for the immediate future. Vicky O'Hara, NPR News, Washington.

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