TAMPA -- The nation's most elite fighting forces - celebrated this
year in film and best-selling books - are under more emotional strain
after a decade of war than commanders realized, according to the senior
non-commissioned officer for special operations.
A tragic part of that is record suicides this year, says Command Sgt. Maj. Chris Faris.
to Pentagon data, there were 17 confirmed or suspected suicides this
year among commandos or support personnel through Dec. 2, compared with
nine suicides each of the past two years.
That's a suicide rate
among these troops of about 25 per 100,000, comparable to a record rate
this year in the Army and higher than a demographically adjusted
civilian suicide rate.
"What we're struggling with is, OK, what the heck is going on?" Faris says.
guys have been under tremendous pressure," says Kim Ruocco, who assists
families of special operations troops who commit suicide. They "have
given over and over again without complaining ... and then, when they do
have issues, spend a lot of time hiding it."
The problems arise
as popular media showers attention on these troops, particularly the
famed SEAL Team 6 whose killing of Osama bin Laden led to best-selling
books and the film, Zero Dark Thirty.
A report last month
by U.S. Special Operations Command - which oversees 66,000 troops
including the Army's secretive Delta Force, Navy SEALs with SEAL Team 6,
Army Green Berets and Rangers - cites "an increase in domestic and
family relational and behavioral problems, substance abuse and
self-medication problems, risk-taking behavior, post-traumatic stress
Faris says, "It's worse than we thought." But he
added that despite signs of strain, this select category of troops
remains capable of meeting any missions they are given.
director at Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), says she
has worked with the families of a Green Beret and a Navy SEAL who
killed themselves this year.
"These guys have worked so hard to
get to the level they are, to get to the skill level and respect level
and the loyalty level, that help-seeking becomes really something that
they avoid," Ruocco says.
In some cases, help isn't sought until
something goes terribly wrong such as a marital separation or a drunken
driving arrest, she says. "All of the sudden, the guy's so sick, it's
almost too late because their world is falling apart," Ruocco says.
pace of training and war, with "operators" deploying a dozen or more
times to combat since 9/11, left troops and their families losing faith
with commanders who appeared insensitive, according to an internal
review of the stress issue.
Demand for special operations forces
is expected to remain high even with the end of the Iraq War and the
Afghan conflict winding down.
In response this year, commanders
have created new programs, directives and resources aimed at easing the
strain, and worked to ensure that troops know their leaders care about
"I hear you!" Navy Adm. William McRaven, head of Special
Operations Command, wrote to troops early this year. He later issued a
directive guaranteeing them, in a two-year period, at least 250
unrestricted days with their families, free of war, training or other
A waiver to reduce the promised time off can only
be approved by a general officer. The program will be fully in place by
2014, says Faris, McRaven's senior enlisted adviser.
Navy commanders held more group sessions to speak with SEALs about issues such as alcohol abuse or suicide awareness.
centerpiece program, first reported by USA TODAY in April, were visits
to commando bases across the country by Faris and his wife, Lisa. A
former Delta Force operator who spent a cumulative six years at war in
Iraq or Afghanistan, Faris talked openly to troops and families about
his own marital crisis. His wife, Lisa, told her side of the story.
relate to it very well," says Steve Gilmore, family support director at
Naval Special Warfare Command, of the sessions held before Navy SEALs
and their spouses. "You'll see heads nodding all over the room and
elbows in the ribs."
Chris and Lisa Faris have done more than six
dozen events for special operations troops in the Army, Navy, Air Force
Lisa Faris says spouses e-mail her or servicemembers
walk up after a session ends and discuss their own dire marital
circumstances and ask whether it is too late to fix them.
tell them it's never too late," she says. "For them to share their
stories and personal relationships with me is a door opened."
Chris Faris says that he believes the problem of a fraying special operations force is turning a corner.
the first time, I see hope," he says. "I definitely see hope for our
families, and it's hope in the fact that, yes, (the problem) is
recognized and two, it's going to change."