At a time when the Pentagon is preparing itself for a clash with a well-funded and equipped military power, lawmakers are warning that support for special operations deployments should not go away, and even more investment should be made in mental health care for special operations forces as well as other troops and veterans.
Special operations forces do a lot more than kick down doors, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday, and they’ll need to stay strong to keep playing that role, whether the next great conflict is with an insurgency or a great power.
“We’ve more than doubled the size of the SOF force in the last 10-to-12 years, and it’s become an enormous part of our foreign policy and our defense policy,” he said on a panel at the New America Foundations’ SOF Policy Forum in Washington.
Special operators build partnerships, train local forces and are sometimes the first on the ground to see changes in a country’s stability, he added, and none of that changes despite the National Defense Strategy’s focus on countries like Iran, Russia and China.
Congress needs to “make sure we provide funds and support so the people who have to perform that mission can do it,” he said.
That funding should include support for mental health and for the families of those troops, said Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., a Green Beret and current lieutenant colonel with the Florida National Guard.
“Even when the operators are not deployed and they’re back here, they’re not really here,” he said, describing a training, certification and pre-deployment preparation cycle that notoriously grinds on SOF troops.
For their efforts, he added, operators are also bearing the brunt of the casualties in Afghanistan, where the emergence of a local ISIS faction has increased the counter-terror mission.
“We just buried a fifth Green Beret in two weeks, on Sept. 11, and just lost another one yesterday,” he said.
In March, Waltz introduced the SFC Brian Woods Gold Star and Military Survivors Act, which would allow re-married surviving spouses access to on-base facilities for their children, provide financial assistance for childcare for children of survivors and require the Pentagon to pay for fallen service members to be transported to their hometowns, as well as a national cemetery, after they are flown home through Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.
There are often no good options when SOF troops come home, Waltz said. When they survive, it might be at the cost of a severe physical injury, or more commonly, a mental one.
A co-sponsor of that Gold Star family bill, Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a former Marine officer, has also introduced legislation to require annual mental health evaluations for all service members.
He saw a small victory this year, he said, when the House Armed Services added a provision to the next defense authorization bill to require troops returning from combat deployments to be seen by behavioral health specialists after two weeks back home.
“If we don’t show America that we take care of veterans when they come home ... people aren’t going to volunteer,” Moulton said. “Families aren’t going to sign up for this. And we’re not doing a good enough job.”
Moulton, who has been getting his health care at the VA in order to speak more intelligently on how it serves veterans, said he’s also concerned for post-service support as well.
“Let’s just put it this way: I could tell you some stories,” he said. “I have a great primary care physician. There are some things they do really well. I had surgery a few years ago, and they sent me home with the wrong medication.”
It’ll be necessary to pay attention to the health of operators, Waltz said, because the tempo they’ve been keeping may not be likely to ease up.
“I think this is only the beginning of a generational war on extremism, despite multiple administrations wanting to wish the problem away,” Waltz said. “If the families start truly breaking, the force starts to break.”
Swinging the pendulum
So what can SOF forces expect in the future, with this shift away from counterinsurgency?
They’ll still be on the ground, getting a picture of conflicts before they explode, Smith said.
“The future of warfare I see – yes it’s great-power competition, but it’s not like 200 years ago, you know, when you built up for the great war you were going to have with your rival ― it’s great-power competition happening in smaller competition in a different way," he said.
It won’t be huge fields of battle, he added. It’ll be about deterring adversaries with close relationships with allies on the ground.
And SOF is perfectly suited for that role, Waltz said, so it shouldn’t be left behind in the shift.
“I am worried that the pendulum will swing too far, a la the 1980s, back toward great power competition,” he said. “I think that’s the Pentagon and the industrial base’s comfort zone.”
Learning languages and understanding cultures aren’t big jobs creators, he added, “but it is absolutely critical and we cannot walk away from that.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT