AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Nearly 18 years after the U.S. began fighting in Afghanistan, special operations forces remain in high demand. These elite troops are deployed around the globe, and the strain may be showing. A handful of special operators have been charged with drug trafficking and violent crime. Six Navy SEALs will be on trial this year for war crimes.
And all of this has military leaders and some members of Congress questioning whether special operations forces can keep up the pace. Steve Walsh reports from member station KPBS in San Diego.
STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Ed Hiner retired from the SEALs in 2010 after nine deployments. Sitting on a couch at his home in San Diego, Hiner rattled off a list of combat tours.
ED HINER: Iraq, Afghanistan and even in the Philippines.
WALSH: Post-9/11, that operations tempo, as he calls it, isn't unusual. Hiner also says it's not sustainable.
HINER: And the OPTEMPO - we're going to have to figure that out. And we're going to have to mandatory put people away for a couple years and let them take a breather from it. You can't keep letting them do this.
WALSH: Active duty and even veterans of the tight-knit special operations forces often shy away from talking openly about their service. Some have become more public as a series of negative headlines threatens to tarnish the reputation of these elite fighters. Hiner is convinced most Americans really don't understand the crushing demands of their jobs.
HINER: You have to look at the context. They're in combat to kill people. Their missions were to kill ISIS people. And they were fighting street to street, house to house.
WALSH: Hiner is a supporter of Eddie Gallagher, a San Diego-based Navy SEAL accused of killing a teenage ISIS fighter in his custody in 2017. Gallagher is one of six SEALs scheduled to go on trial this year for war crimes. Aside from Gallagher and his commander, there's the case involving three more SEALs and their commander, who are accused of abusing prisoners in Afghanistan in 2012 and then covering it up.
The headlines don't stop there. Two East Coast SEALs are charged with murdering a Green Beret in Mali. An Army Special Forces operator and a National Guard Special Forces operator pleaded guilty in January to smuggling cocaine.
DAVID MAXWELL: There's been a number of incidents. And, you know, they're tragic, and they're a stain. But we've got to address them.
WALSH: That's David Maxwell, a senior fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former Army Special Forces colonel. He stresses these incidents represent a tiny fraction of the special operator community. But then there's the suicide rate among special operators, which has tripled to 22 in the last year.
MAXWELL: What we're seeing in suicides is another manifestation of the stress on the force.
WALSH: With a total of 70,000 people spread among the services, special operations forces are roughly 2 percent of the U.S. military. For 18 years, their central mission was fighting al-Qaida, and then ISIS. Beginning in 2016, special operations became the lead command to counter weapons of mass destruction. Increasingly, they're also deployed to train special forces in other countries.
MAXWELL: They come home. They go to another deployment. They come home. They have to train. And, you know, they might get a certain amount of, you know, what we call block leave, where they'll be able to take 30 days off. But, you know, that's hardly enough to spend with your family. And, you know, they'll go right back into the rotation.
WALSH: Maxwell was still on active duty in 2006 when the Pentagon tried to dramatically increase the number of special operators at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Army Special Forces never made its quota.
MAXWELL: We can't mass produce special operations. That's one of the problems. By trying to increase the force, even though we pledge never to reduce standards, you know, it often happens that people will slip through the cracks - people with personality defects that might lead to these incidents.
WALSH: The stress isn't limited to when they're on deployment. David Charbonnet was seriously injured after graduating in 2008 from the famously grueling SEAL basic training outside San Diego.
DAVID CHARBONNET: When I graduated, I thought that, you know, I'd feel a huge sense of, like, completion. But, you know, the job - you're always preparing and always training, so it really felt like less of a milestone than I had expected.
WALSH: The day before his first deployment, Charbonnet's parachute malfunctioned about a hundred feet from the ground.
CHARBONNET: When I looked at my legs, they were laying different than how I had expected. And I touched my knee, couldn't feel it. And I knew exactly what had happened. And I knew that I wasn't going to be going on deployment.
WALSH: Charbonnet now lives in a wheelchair. He's president of a physical therapy nonprofit which has other medically retired SEALs among its clients. He tried to describe the special forces mindset.
CHARBONNET: It's drilled into your head so that when, you know, these impossible situations come up, it doesn't deter you mentally and you're able to push through. So I don't know if I could've been prepared better for, you know, breaking my back, in that sense.
WALSH: The Pentagon is beginning to acknowledge the strain. At a change-of-command ceremony in March, the former head of special operations command General Ray Thomas, went through a list of combat locations.
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GENERAL RAY THOMAS: Right now, as we sit here, our teammates are on point for the nation in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq.
WALSH: The general remarked that 430 special operators have died since 9/11, and another 2,900 have been wounded, including in Niger, where four Americans died in an ambush in 2017, three of them Green Berets.
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THOMAS: This has been an extraordinary period of time in terms of operational tempo and transformation. The word relentless comes to mind.
WALSH: Thomas says the number of operators deploying every six months came down under his watch. The Pentagon is considering longer breaks between deployments. And the head of the Navy, Admiral John Richardson, whose responsibilities include the SEALs, says the special operations force has pulled back.
ADMIRAL JOHN RICHARDSON: Right now, we're paying a lot of attention to make sure that we don't run that team at the red line, so that sailors can come back, get some rest and relaxation and get all of that sort of sustaining type of support that allows them to, you know, restrengthen, recenter themselves.
WALSH: Last year, Congress ordered special operations command to review the state of ethics and professionalism in the force. In its report, still not public, the Pentagon said it is assessing, quote, "the cumulative effect of over 17 years of continuous combat." One telling detail - special forces are researching the impact of PTSD and traumatic brain injury on the quality of decision-making in the field.
Hiner, the 9/11 retired SEAL with nine tours, has grappled with issues from his career in the past, but he's never sought counselling.
HINER: Most of us, you know, we get together. Friends get together and kind of talk it through and - if you have an issue, you know, because we can talk to each other with no shame, no - there's no guilt - anything. We have issues. We - like, we say what it is and say what we did and why we feel that way.
WALSH: Working alongside paralyzed former SEAL David Charbonnet is Brandon Myers. He's a medically retired SEAL lieutenant who was also paralyzed during a training accident before his first mission.
BRANDON MYERS: It's the only thing I've ever wanted. It's still the only thing I ever want.
WALSH: In Myers' case, the 30-year-old fell from a 40-foot wall during an obstacle course.
MYERS: Every day that I still fight - I know it's a long shot, but that's what I still have as my ultimate goal. I mean, I don't care if I'm 45. You know, if I can get my legs going again, I'm going immediately back to the teams and doing everything I can to pick up where I left off.
WALSH: The leaders of special operations now have to figure out how to manage all of that drive in a way that's sustainable into the future. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego.