US strike force takes shape

Amid a buildup of conventional forces, the elite units brace for frontline duty.

As US aircraft and warships begin massing in the Persian Gulf in the first deployments of America's war on terrorism, much is resting on the professionalism, determination, and sheer gusto of men like Navy SEAL Mike Curtis.

"When we get the opportunity to play, it gets us motivated," says Curtis, a 23-year veteran of the Navy's elite special forces. As for the terrorists who devastated America last Tuesday, "we will seek them out and make them pay for it," he says.

As it readies itself for a new type of unconventional 21st-century combat, America is counting heavily on Curtis and the rest of the military's 46,000-strong Special Operations Forces to carry much of the burden of rooting out and destroying terrorist cells.

When the call comes, quick thrusts from these elite units will likely be interspersed with punishing airstrikes in a type of joint operations much different from the massive division-and-corps maneuvers the US military prepared for in the years of the cold war.

The conventional buildup is on full display. In recent days, the US has started moving nearly 100 aircraft - heavy bombers as well as attack fighters - to within striking distance of Afghanistan. The buildup includes the dispatching of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and its accompanying ships to the region.

But behind these high-profile deployments, the nation's elite forces are also preparing for the frontline role they will play in America's longterm war on terrorism.

Legendary for their toughness and bravery, the predominantly male special forces operate in small teams, poised to carry out rapid, covert, targeted actions in hostile, politically sensitive regions.

Two of the nine "principal missions" that special forces constantly train for are combating terrorism and unconventional warfare, ensuring them a core role in today's campaign.

Their ranks include 30,000 Army personnel, such as the famed Rangers, Green Berets, Nightstalker aviators, and secret Delta counterterrorism forces, headquartered at Fort Bragg, N.C. The Navy has a 5,500-strong special force of Sea-Air-Land (SEAL) teams and specially trained boat drivers, headquartered in Coronado, Calif.

Complementing these are the 9,500 members of the Air Force Special Operations Command based at Hurlburt Field, Fla.

A grueling duty roster

Highly trained yet lightly armed, some 5,000 members are deployed in about 70 countries around the world in any given week, on missions ranging from hostage rescue to intelligence gathering to "psychological operations" - or PSYOP - designed to "demoralize the enemy."

Skilled in high-tech communications and foreign languages, as well as ground combat, special forces members are known for their flexibility and for "thinking outside the box." For each stage of a mission, they plan for numerous contingencies.

Yet the defining trait of the special forces, members say, is a focused determination to get the job done - and an utter unwillingness to give up.

"You have to be a driven, goal-oriented person," says former Sgt. Mike Goodale, an Army Ranger awarded a Bronze Star for his role in the fatal October 1993 raid on Mogadishu, Somalia. "You have to be willing to sacrifice everything you have to get the job finished," says Mr. Goodale, who was wounded in the firefight in which 18 fellow Rangers perished.

Frank Hoagland finds it difficult to put into words the intensity of his 17 years as a Navy SEAL, or "frogman." "Being a 'frog' every day of my operational life was very physically and mentally demanding," he says. SEALs must be "hard men who are willing to do hard work for the good - under any circumstances."

Indeed, Curtis says it is pure motivation that blots out fear during the most dangerous missions. For him, that has involved parachuting into triple-canopy jungle in darkness, and swimming three miles at night to an island after being "compromised" - detected by the enemy - on a mission.

"It never becomes a scary situation until you get back and are debriefed - at the time, you are just too focused," says Curtis, now serving a stint as a recruiter in Idaho.

Still, the likelihood of casualties in a protracted war on terrorism is sobering to some in the special forces. "I feel some trepidation," says Goodale, now a high school teacher in Naperville, Ill. "Unfortunately, I know more than most that, yes, people will die."

In recent years, special forces have operated in hot spots such as Rwanda, Somalia, and the Balkans. One high-profile operation was the harrowing 1998 rescue by Air Force special-operations teams of two downed pilots in Kosovo.

The increasingly heavy use of special forces led Congress to increase the budget for the force to $4 billion for this year, up from $3.3 billion in 2000. The forces are also expected to receive a significant chunk of the military portion of the $40 billion Congress approved last week for rebuilding and fighting terrorism.

Be more than you can be

Still, the military faces an ongoing challenge in recruiting, training, and retaining the elite troops - essentially in keeping the special forces "special."

And although Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld hinted this week that he may seek to add to the force, special forces leaders stress that this kind of soldier cannot be factory-made in a crisis.

"Special Operations Forces cannot be mass produced ... [or] created after emergencies arise," warns an official publication of the Special Operations Command (SOCOM), based in MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.

In its 2000 "posture statement," SOCOM states that "SOF [Special Operations Forces] operators require extensive training, often years in duration. They cannot be replaced quickly and their capabilities cannot be expanded rapidly."

Moreover, it warns against "squandering scarce SOF resources ... early in a conflict."

Relatively few military recruits test high enough on aptitude tests to qualify to become Navy SEALs or Army Green Berets. Even fewer graduate from the physically grueling, mentally strenuous basic-training courses - ranging from three weeks to six months.

Attrition from the six-month SEAL training is 75 to 80 percent, recruiters say.

Once on duty, burnout is a risk. Special-forces teams must regularly spend months at a time in hostile environments overseas, away from their families who do not know their whereabouts.

"You have to have a special wife, who won't break down when you are gone and lose herself," says veteran SEAL Matt Kelm, adding, "I have one."

Leaving for other jobs

Special-forces veterans also often depart for higher-paying work at government agencies such as the CIA, FBI, and State Department, where they are attractive candidates, says an Army officer with 14 years of experience with special forces.

"It is very difficult to keep them once they are trained," he says, requesting anonymity. "These are your middle- and senior-ranked noncommissioned officers, and they can go a lot of places and do a lot of things."

Still, special forces are likely to get a boost from an apparent upswing in military enlistees since last week's strike.

"We've had a 15 to 20 percent increase [in enlistees]," says a Navy recruiter in Steubenville, Ohio. Older men in reserves are also calling to ask about being activated, says another recruiter in Oklahoma.

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