They have achieved cult hero status for their exploits since 9/11, but their success on the battlefield is taking a personal toll on Navy SEALs and members of other US special operations elite forces.
Reports of rampant illicit drug abuse by special operators — while on deployment and at home — have prompted congressional lawmakers to call for an accountability review of the "culture" inside special operations units.
Drug and alcohol use by some members of special operations units is nothing new to the culture within the teams, who see such behavior as a coping mechanism in response to the unforgiving tasks these soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines have been asked to carry out.
"They are pretty much out there on a daily basis in very dangerous situations and working with [partners] who you don't know if they are going to put a bullet in your back," one former team member with knowledge of personnel issues told The Washington Times. "The level of stress these people are experiencing is off the charts," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
USAF photo by Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson
The unprecedented pace and tempo in which US special operations forces have been used in the post-9/11 global war on terrorism, beginning with al Qaeda and the Taliban and now encompassing Islamic State, Boko Haram, and other groups, has exacerbated those stress levels, leading to even riskier coping behaviors.
"Kill/capture" missions by US special operations units combined with clandestine drone strikes formed the backbone of the Obama administration's counterterrorism doctrine. Six months into his term, President Trump has shown little sign of abandoning that strategy. Defense Secretary James Mattis said in May that the United States is entering an era of global conflict defined by protracted small wars with extremist militant groups.
"This is going to be a long fight," Mr. Mattis said.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley.
Aside from deploying hundreds of special operations military advisers to the front lines of the Islamic State fight in Syria and Iraq, the Trump administration has ordered the expansion of US Special Operations Command's mission in Africa, battling the Somali-based terrorist group al-Shabab.
"You see our forces engaged in that from Africa to Asia. But, at the same time, this is going to be a long fight. And I don't put timelines on fights," Mr. Mattis told CBS News.
'Something has to give'
The operational tempo for Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces and other "Tier One" US special operations forces units, which spend a majority of their time overseas on deployment, is a vicious cycle but a prerequisite for the job, the former team member said.
"We're not talking about 18-, 19-year-old kids. You have to have a level of resilience to get where they are," he said. But even with the most seasoned and battle-hardened veterans, "something has to give" from the relentless demands to deploy.
Photo credit Tanjila Ahmed
A pair of random, command-wide drug screenings conducted from November through February uncovered a total of 59 cases of illicit drug use among sailors serving in Naval Special Warfare Command.
Seven command members tested positive for illicit drug use from among more than 6,300 subjected to a sweep of random tests late last year, according to figures that command officials provided to The Times. The command also uncovered 52 cases of illegal drug use among 71,000 tests carried out since August 2014.
Of the 52 command members who tested positive for illegal drug use during the most recent round of tests across the Navy command, 10 were SEAL team members. Command officials could not confirm how many SEAL members were part of the seven positive drug tests found during a round of testing in November and December.
Drug abuse, domestic abuse, or other behaviors tied to the seemingly constant rotations to conflict zones are "endemic of what these people are going through," the team member said. "These are your franchise players. They want to be the best of the best. It's a quality you need but also makes it hard to disengage. A lot of it is just coping just the physical toll [the job] takes on you. You have to find an outlet."
USAF photo illustration by Senior Airman Chad Strohmeyer
The problem of drug use within the special operations community gained unwanted attention in April when news leaked of a closed-door speech by Capt. Jamie Sands, head of all East Coast-based Navy SEAL teams. The captain warned all 900 Navy special operators in the command about cracking down on the use of illicit drugs — including cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, marijuana, and ecstasy — among the SEAL teams that went public.
One active-duty SEAL attached to the East Coast teams told CBS News at the time that a number of his team members had tested positive for illegal drugs multiple times but remained on active duty since the Navy was unable to monitor their drug usage on a regular basis. Their frequent, extended deployments overseas allowed team members to avoid regular drug screenings.
Capt. Sands said that would no longer be a loophole in the command.
"We're going to test on the road," the officer said. "We're going to test on deployment. If you do drugs, if you decide to be that selfish individual, then you will be caught."
DoD Photo by Maj. Will Cox
Rep. Jackie Speier, California Democrat, in June pushed for legislation requiring US special operations command and the head of the Pentagon's special operations directorate to conduct an accountability review of the military's elite units amid reports of heavy drug abuse within the teams.
The review was included in the House draft version of the Pentagon's spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year, which sets aside $696 billion for military programs and operations. The full House overwhelmingly approved the defense spending package this month.
The measure would require Mark Mitchell, acting assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, as well as top brass from Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida, "to provide a briefing regarding culture and accountability in [special operations forces]."
USAF photo by Airman 1st Class Ashley Gardner
Critics say the Pentagon's policies do not properly address the problem of illicit drug use among special operators, a claim US Special Operations Command officials vehemently deny.
"No one has turned a blind eye to the challenges special operations forces face after a decade and a half of continuous combat operations," command spokesman Kenneth McGraw said in a statement to The Times.
Command officials and their counterparts in the services' special operations directorates formed a task force to address issues such as drug use and other symptoms related to prolonged deployments of the elite US troops. The task force takes a "takes a holistic, integrated approach" to post-deployment issues unique to Special Forces units "designed to maximize access to treatment and minimize any stigma associated with seeking help," Mr. McGraw said.
USAF photo by Tech. Sgt. Nadine Barclay
Despite the command's task force and other associated efforts, lawmakers are pressing command officials on the problem of drug use inside the teams.
Ms. Speier's office declined repeated requests for comment on the legislation and the level of cooperation House members are receiving from command officials and the Pentagon. But her characterization of the need for accountability within the special operations teams to address drug use is the wrong way to view the problem, the former team member said.
"I do not know if this is an accountability issue. It is not just about bad people. I think a lot of it is just what they have been through," he said. "You have to realize you are not going to eradicate this [problem]. You cannot eradicate those experiences" of war.