For Elite U.S. Troops, War's End Will Only Mean More Fighting

Even as the U.S. winds down in Iraq and Afghanistan, some special forces have done 10, 12, even 14 tours, and are only likely to do more as the conventional troops go home

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Members of the 320th Special Tactics Squadron exit an MC-130P Combat Shadow / Reuters

Army Ranger Kristoffer Domeij was killed in Afghanistan on Saturday while on his 14th combat deployment, highlighting a dispiriting fact of life for some of America's warriors: conventional forces are leaving Iraq and Afghanistan in large numbers, but the sky-high demand for special-operations troops like the Rangers won't be changing anytime soon.

The strain on the highly-trained forces will only increase as the Obama administration expands its shadow war against high-ranking militants in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, all of which have been the scene of targeted raids by elite troops in recent months.  Senior Pentagon officials have also made clear that Special Operations troops will be used to conduct counter-terror raids in Afghanistan even as overall U.S. troop levels there begin to decline.

Elite forces like the Navy SEALs and the Army's Delta Force don't deploy for as long as conventional Army and Marine units, which usually spend six to 15 months in the war zones per tour of duty. But they deploy far, far more often.  Many conventional troops have done four or five deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. By contrast, Special Operations troops have done 10, 12, and even 14 tours.

"We're getting real close to double-digit deployments across a number of different formations," Lt. Col. Tom Bryant, a spokesman for the Army Special Operations Command, said in an interview.  "Those numbers are becoming increasingly common and will be even more the norm down the road."

The Special Operations world is the most secretive and insular component of the military.  The Pentagon maintains several units and taskforces whose work - typically hunter-killer missions designed to track and eliminate militants around the globe--is so secretive that Washington won't disclose their names or formally acknowledge their existence.

Despite that customary veil of secrecy, however, the non-stop deployments are raising alarms throughout the Pentagon.  Top officials from the U.S. Special Operations Command, which oversee the elite troops, have been increasingly vocal about their concerns that the highly-trained forces are beginning to buckle under the strain of such request-deployments to war zones around the world.

In February, for instance, Adm. Eric Olson, the then-commander of SOCOM, warned that his forces were "beginning to show some fraying around the edges."

"As we have essentially doubled our force over the last nine years [and] tripled our budget over the last nine years, we have quadrupled our overseas deployments over the last nine years," Olson said at the time. "We are doing more with more, but the more we're doing it with doesn't match the more we've been asked to do."

Olson, a longtime Navy SEAL, noted that the "insatiable" demand for Special Operations troops has remained constant even as overall troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan sharply declined.

"We saw 100,000 American troops come out of Iraq; we only saw about 500 special operations [members] as part of that," he said in the February speech, noting that mid-career operators were beginning to leave the military because of the grueling pace.

Olson's concerns have been echoed by his successor at the helm of SOCOM, Adm. William McRaven, another veteran SEAL.  In the run-up to his June confirmation hearing, McRaven told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the "new normal" for elite troops is to be "persistently engaged" around the world.

"The pace of the last 10 years is indicative of what we expect for the next 10 years," he wrote in comments submitted to the panel before the hearing.

In practice, that means there will likely be more troops whose lives mirror those of Domeij, a 29-year-old Ranger who spent virtually his entire career in the special-operations world.

Domeij enlisted in the Army in 2001 and was selected for the 75th Ranger Regiment, one of the Army's most elite forces, the following year.  Ranger units have been continuously deployed to Afghanistan since 2001, frequently taking part in ferocious, close-quarters fighting there.

The young Ranger survived 13 prior deployments, but his luck ran out on his 14th.  He and two other troops--Lt. Ashley White, a 24-year-old from the North Carolina National Guard, and PFC Christopher Horns, a 20-year-old from the 75th Ranger Regiment--died in southern Afghanistan on Oct. 22 when "their assault forces triggered an improvised explosive device," according to a military release.

Col. Mark Odom, the commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment, said Domeiji was the "proto-typical Special Operations" non-commissioned officer whose tactical and technical skills "had the value of an entire strike force on the battleground."

Homs, the other dead Ranger, was on his first overseas deployment; he is survived by his parents and sister. White, who was also on her first tour to either war zone, is survived by her parents, brother, twin sister, and husband, a fellow Army officer.  Domeij, the oldest of the three fallen troops, was stationed in Washington state with his wife and two daughters.  He's also survived by his mother and brother.