STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The U.S. military will have to make up the losses of some of its most elite fighters. The Taliban shot down a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan over the weekend. The remains of the Americans killed will return to Dover Air Force Base today. And those 30 American dead include 22 members of SEAL Team 6. Other members of that same elite unit killed Osama bin Laden. Now the SEALs must replace some of their number, which is not easy, as NPR's Tom Bowman reports.
TOM BOWMAN: To get a sense of how elite SEAL Team 6 is, consider this: There are about 2,500 Navy SEALs who go through some of the toughest training in the military. SEAL Team 6 is even more exclusive - it numbers just over 200 - so the losses in Afghanistan amount to about 10 percent of their force, and they'll be hard to replace.
Mr. RYAN ZINKE (Former Navy SEAL): You can't just take 20 guys that haven't done this before.
BOWMAN: That's Ryan Zinke. He served as a SEAL Team 6 member, hunting down Balkan war criminals in the 1990s.
Mr. ZINKE: The nation has lost great men and great warriors, but we haven't lost the capability. But it will take some time to sort it out.
BOWMAN: Because it takes a lot of time to train a SEAL Team 6 member - about five years. They're chosen from a select group, Navy SEALs who have already spent years conducting combat missions. And of that group of Navy SEALs who try out for SEAL Team 6, about half wash out.
Howard Wasdin served in SEAL Team 6. He took part in the Black Hawk Down fight in Somalia in 1993. Wasdin told NPR in May - after the bin Laden raid - that the team members are known for their smarts, not just their shooting skills.
Mr. HOWARD WASDIN (Former Navy SEAL): These guys are trained not just to go out and kill - it sounds like it's indiscriminate - but to use that judgmental use of deadly force.
BOWMAN: Military officials tell NPR that the Team 6 deaths in Afghanistan are sure to have an impact. The immediate issue is how to fill the void in Afghanistan. SEAL Team 6 members often go after what are called high-value targets - senior Taliban commanders or al-Qaida fighters.
Ryan Zinke, the former SEAL Team 6 member, said the command will have to juggle to fill those vacancies in Afghanistan.
Mr. ZINKE: There's a lot of capable and qualified SEALs that are not presently there that could be called back to that team.
BOWMAN: Zinke says that might mean shortening the rest period for SEALs now at home from a deployment in Afghanistan or pulling Team 6 members doing training or staff work, what's called shore duty.
Mr. ZINKE: You know, that means that you're going to have to, you know, rotate guys quicker. You're going to have to look at your pipeline. You're going to have to look at guys that are on shore duty, at other teams, and bring them back. I mean there are options, you know, out there. And none of them are great, but all of them are doable.
BOWMAN: The other issue is long term. How does Team 6 rebuild for years of more fighting? One officer with Special Operations headquarters says that may be the real challenge - recruiting team members, finding a way to mix them with veteran team members for operations.
Admiral Eric Olson was the head of the Special Operations Command in Tampa until yesterday. He told the Aspen Institute last month he was already struggling to meet the Pentagon's demands for more special operators. But he was wary of growing too fast.
Admiral ERIC OLSON (Special Operations Command): We should probably grow about 3 percent a year, but we ought not grow more than 5 percent a year because we'll lose our soul along the way. We are a community that depends on knowledge of each other. We do grow up together. Almost everybody I work with at my level I've known for 15 or 20 years.
BOWMAN: Yesterday, at his change of command ceremony in Tampa, Olson, himself a former Team 6 leader, recalled those he knew, the men who lost their lives in Saturday's helicopter crash in Afghanistan.
How SEAL Team 6 rebuilds will be up to Olson's successor, Admiral William McRaven. He knows Team 6 well too - he's the man who sent Team 6 to take down Osama bin Laden.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
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