Military offers special perks in bid to retain special forces

Pentagon plans unusual bonuses totaling $160 million to keep elite troops from retiring.

In a bid to stanch an outflow of elite US troops skilled in combatting terrorism and insurgencies, the Pentagon has approved an unusual incentives package aimed at retaining Special Operations Forces such as Green Berets and Navy SEALs.

Facing stiff competition from private security firms, the CIA, and other government agencies that are luring the seasoned commandos with six-figure contracts, the Pentagon plans to budget over $100 million a year for bonuses and special pay for junior and senior Special Operations Forces (SOF) members who agree to stay in the force, according to senior defense officials and military sources.

In an unusual departure, the package approved Dec. 22 offers lump sum payments to keep the most experienced special operators in the force past the military's traditional 20-year retirement mark.

The policy underscores the urgency with which the Pentagon needs senior noncommissioned officers to maintain high standards as the 49,000-strong force expands its ranks to meet heavy demands around the globe and has become a more integral part of the war on terror.

"We are offering handsome rewards to agree to substantial service beyond 20 years. That's a new objective," says David S.C. Chu, under secretary of Defense for personnel and readiness. "We're reaching a point ... where we're going to want more Special Operators to stay past 20 years of service than has been true historically, and particularly to be successful in the war on terror."

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Special Operations Forces have faced their biggest deployments in history, playing central roles in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan and overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. They've also conducted smaller campaigns against terrorist and anti-government groups in a number of other regions, including the Philippines, Colombia, and the Horn of Africa.

Trained and equipped by the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) based in Tampa, Fla., the forces include Army Green Berets skilled in mentoring indigenous forces, Navy SEALs and Delta Force members specialized in quick strikes and raids, and Air Force experts in directing airstrikes from the ground.

How stretched elite units are

Today, demands on the force are growing as the Pentagon moves to shift its strategy in Iraq to focus on training Iraqi forces, while expanding secret efforts to track down terrorist groups beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.

For example, US commanders are planning to bolster the role of Army Special Forces (Green Berets) in Iraq, embedding them as mentors in an effort to strengthen Iraq's fledgling security forces.

Nevertheless, the back-to-back deployments with only a few months at home in between are straining the elite troops and their families. At the same time, a large percentage of SOF members are becoming eligible for retirement, a looming "bow-wave" problem that SOCOM officials fear will deplete the force.

Finally, since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, demand for the highly trained troops has soared among private contract security firms such as Blackwater Security Consulting of North Carolina, as well as the CIA and agencies involved in homeland security, such as the Transportation Security Administration.

"Security companies are looking for these guys: They are proven, battle-tested, almost all have a combat tour under their belt," says Frank Antenori, a Special Forces senior noncommissioned officer who recently retired to work for the defense industry.

"So they [private firms] throw this money in front of him, and he can pay off his house, invest in a mutual fund, and sock money away in a 401(k) - and he'll have a better portfolio when he hits the 20-year mark than if he stayed in the military."

"You can stay in the military if you are patriotic, but then your ideals are outweighing your pocketbook," Mr. Antenori explains.

The Pentagon's new incentive package aims to tip such calculations in its favor, both by keeping in junior personnel who have completed the rigorous and expensive qualification courses to enter SOF units, and by enticing the most senior SOF members to stay on.

"What we are trying to ensure is that those whom we've just recently trained stay with us for a reasonably full career. That's the big pot aimed at the 5- to 10-year group," says Dr. Chu in an interview. "And we want those who might leave after 20 years of service to reconsider that decision and stay with us, perhaps through 23 or 25 years of service," he says.

Some officials wanted more

Funds for the package will come from the fiscal 2005 supplemental and the fiscal 2006 Defense budget, Chu says. SOCOM leaders want to fund the program starting in January, meaning some of the bonuses could be offered retroactively, military sources say.

Originally, SOCOM sought a larger incentives package, but complaints from the regular service branches led the Defense Department to approve a scaled back version.

"We asked for what we needed and they met us halfway," one source said. Chu acknowledged that there were concerns that an overly generous package could lead to charges of "favoritism" and cause other forces to demand extra compensation too. "We shouldn't overdo it," he said.

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