In the past year, special-operations troops have died in greater numbers than have conventional troops — a first.
By nearly every measure, Chief Petty Officer William Ryan Owens was exceptional. The 36-year-old, who was killed by enemy fire during a raid in Yemen last week, was a team leader in the Navy’s most elite commando force, SEAL Team 6, and had earned numerous awards for heroism under fire during a dozen deployments.
He was, one former SEAL Team 6 official said, “a blooming star.”
But on the moonless night when gunfire erupted as he approached a suspected terrorist compound, hitting him in the chest, he joined a group in which he was suddenly more typical. Two-thirds of the troops killed in action in the past 12 months served in special-operations units. Like Owens, they were the cream of the military’s crop, older and more experienced than the vast majority of troops, better trained and more decorated. Many were veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who survived the official end of combat operations only to find themselves still fighting in the same countries.
In the past year, special-operations troops have died in greater numbers than have conventional troops — a first. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they made up only a sliver of the dead. That they now fill nearly the whole casualty list shows how the Pentagon, hesitant to put conventional troops on the ground, has come to depend almost entirely on small groups of elite warriors.
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“We’ve moved out of the major-combat-operations business,” said Linda Robinson, a counterterrorism expert at the RAND Corp. In recent years, she said, the military has effectively outsourced rank-and-file infantry duties to local forces in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, leaving only a cadre of highly skilled Americans to train troops and take out high-value targets.
“This counterterrorism model is much more efficient,” Robinson said, noting that it avoids the economic entanglements of a yearslong occupation, and eliminates the need for complicated exit strategies.
But the flip side, she said, is that the U.S. troops left in harm’s way are some of the most experienced and valuable.
To be sure, the number of U.S. troops killed in combat has plunged in the past five years, as President Obama brought home more than 200,000 troops. In 2010, more than 500 service members were killed in action. Since the beginning of 2016, 18 have died. But 12 of them were elite trainers and commandos serving with the Army Special Forces or the Navy SEALs. Special-operations troops make up about 5 percent of the military.
Owens enlisted in the Navy in 1998 and a few years later passed the grueling SEALs selection course. Like other special operators, he spent years learning combat diving, parachuting, close-quarters combat and other skills.
He was deployed a dozen times to conflict zones, including Afghanistan, where he earned three Bronze Stars, two for valor while engaging the enemy.
The former senior Team 6 official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Owens was highly respected and “a really squared-away dude.” He was married and had three young children.
The official also noted that Team 6 operators of Owens’ generation have been deployed at a grueling pace since they entered the unit. With the exception of a stint as a trainer, “He’s been doing this nonstop for about 10 years,” the official said.
The Pentagon has more than doubled the number of special-operations troops since 2001 and has offered generous re-enlistment bonuses to keep valued members from leaving, but many say the demands on special-ops units are hard to sustain.
“These are the most impressive guys you’ll ever meet in your life,” said Jim Moriarty, a trial lawyer in Houston who served three tours with the Marines in Vietnam. “They are extremely competent.”
His son, Staff Sgt. James Moriarty Jr., 27, was killed in November with two other Green Berets in Jordan, where they were training Syrian rebel fighters with the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group.
Like many enlisted special-forces troops, the younger Moriarty graduated from college, but instead of becoming an officer, he chose the more kinetic life of an enlisted Green Beret. A weapons expert, he spent years getting special training, including foreign-language instruction, before teaching rebels to fight the Islamic State group.
He was killed on his third deployment.
At the funeral, Moriarty spoke to other members of his son’s team and found them showing the wear of constant deployment. Many were divorced; others talked about getting out of the Army.
“I worry all this reliance on them is really using them up,” he said.
Many of the troops killed last year had been deployed to war zones for the better part of a decade. Elijah Crane joined the Navy in 2001 and left the military in 2014. One of his best friends, Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Charles “Chuck” Keating IV, 31, stayed. He was killed last spring fighting Islamic State fighters in Iraq.
“He was an absolute warrior,” said Crane, 37. “There was nothing he was afraid of and nothing he couldn’t do.”