National Security

MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris. In Tampa, Florida today, Admiral William McCraven took over as Commander of U.S. Special Operations. But what was supposed to be a routine ceremony struck a somber note. Top military leaders paid tribute to the 30 American troops who died in a helicopter crash Saturday in Afghanistan. Nearly two dozen were members of SEAL Team Six, the unit responsible for killing Osama bin Laden. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke at today's ceremony.

LEON PANETTA: This is a reminder that we remain a nation still at war, 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.

NORRIS: The outgoing commander, Admiral Eric Olson, didn't talk a lot about special operations during his tenure, but he did make a rare appearance recently at a security conference and NPR's Rachel Martin was there.

RACHEL MARTIN: Admiral Olson's remarks at the Aspen Institute Security Forum offered a glimpse into the special operations community, its elite and secretive culture.

ERIC OLSON: And 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 too much about it.

MARTIN: What he's consciously not talking about there is the raid against Osama bin Laden that put SEAL Team Six in the spotlight.

OLSON: For the special operations community, I would say that the 15 minutes of fame lasted at least 14 minutes too long and they really just want to get back into the shadows and do what they came in to do.

MARTIN: Still, Olson agreed to talk at the Aspen Institute Conference to shed a little bit of light on a force that includes Army rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALS and other elite units.

OLSON: Most people, when they hear about the special operations community, they've either been exposed to a book or a movie or a headline about something spectacular, but it's a far more nuanced community than that.

MARTIN: U.S. Special Forces Command was created 25 years ago in the aftermath of the failed attempt by the United States to rescue hostages held in Iran. Primarily, the Special Forces are used to train foreign militaries around the world and Admiral Olson said that's happening in more than 60 countries right now in places like Yemen, Somalia, Uganda.

OLSON: Most of our forces doing that, on most days, we are developing long term relationships. We're learning the languages. We're meeting the people. We're studying the histories. We're learning the black markets. We learning, you know, how things really happen in those places.

MARTIN: But at its core, this is a group of warriors trained to carry out the most dangerous raids. And during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, they have been busy.

OLSON: There were somewhere between three and four thousand operations of this nature conducted in 2010 alone. This is now routine, every night, dozens of times. The ground forces are getting on a helicopter and flying against a target to do something on that target. In many cases, just knock on the door and invite somebody to give themselves up.

MARTIN: Or other times, these so-called night raids target specific insurgent leaders. It was one of those missions that went wrong over the weekend. According to the military, the Americans 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 is nothing routine about this loss.

Even two weeks ago, the admiral told the audience that after 10 years of war, the special operations community is starting to fray. The fabric is strong, he said. The weave is tight, but we're asking an awful lot of our people 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 tomorrow. Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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