TAMPA — Speaking before a packed room full of commandos and industry leaders, Adm. William McRaven repeated his concerns about the stress on the force, called on industry to do what it can to help the health of operators and their families and talked about the "fabulous" relationship with Afghan special operations partners.
Unlike in early speeches, McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, did not repeat his statement that commandos are taking their own lives at a record pace, but he did say coping with the issue of suicides is his "No. 1 combat priority."
But perhaps the biggest news came afterward, in off-the-cuff comments made by retired Army Maj. Gen. Barry Bates, director of operations for the National Defense Industry Association, which put on the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference being held this week at the Tampa Convention Center.
He said the 2014 SOFIC conference "might be the last" for McRaven as commander of SOCOM, which is headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base.
It was the first public acknowledgement that McRaven, who took command in August 2011 from Adm. Eric Olson, may soon be leaving.
SOCOM commanders typically serve about three years, though his two predecessors, Army Gen. Doug Brown and Olson, served slightly longer. Brown served almost four years, and Olson served a little more than four years.
McRaven has not publicly talked about leaving. Neither the White House, which decides who is in charge of the command and nominates a replacement, nor the Pentagon, which would announce that nomination, has announced any decision on when or if McRaven is leaving. McRaven's press office says no decisions have been made.
Afterward, Bates said that he wanted to thank McRaven for his service.
"I wanted to thank him for his willingness during his tenure to communicate with industry," Bates said in an interview. Frequently asked to speak with industry leaders, "he never said no," Bates said. "I wanted to thank him very much for the leadership he provided for (special operations forces) warriors and families."
Prior to SOCOM, McRaven served from June 2008 to June 2011 as the 11th commander of Joint Special Operations Command, where he developed the plan that resulted in the May 2011 death of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden during a raid by Navy SEALs on his compound in Pakistan.
The SOFIC conference is being held this week along with the fourth International Special Operations Conference, which brought commandos from 84 nations to Tampa and will culminate with a training exercise outside the convention center Wednesday afternoon.
During his question-and-answer session, McRaven talked about the importance of physical well-being to commandos.
In an apparent reference to a recent Washington Post story on how Congress wants to redirect some funds the command wanted to invest in physical well-being, McRaven explained his rationale for the Human Performance Program, one of the main components of the Preservation of Force and Family effort to help commandos.
"It seems to me self-evident that if you keep a person healthy, if they feel good physically, they are less inclined to commit suicide. If they feel good, they are less inclined to be depressed. If they feel good, they are more likely to do their job well."
McRaven said the command is still "working on the metrics" for that program and said he "faults myself" for not doing a better job of explaining his intent.
McRaven also took pains to say that he did not think commandos are superior to general purpose troops.
Commandos, he said, "are not better than soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in the general purpose force....part of my job is to make sure my force is ready to support combatant commanders downrange."
As for Afghanistan, McRaven said that even special operations forces are drawing down, adding that at this point, with no mutual security agreement in place with that country, no one knows exactly what the future will hold.
U.S. special operations forces will "continue to partner at appropriate levels," said McRaven, adding that it is not known whether that would be at the tactical, corps or ministerial level.
During a later panel for Theater Special Operations Command leaders, Army Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, the commander of Special Operations Command Central, said the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is both making things harder and easier.
The hard part is that as the U.S. continues a massive effort to move materiel out of Afghanistan, it is hard to provide equipment to the Afghan National Security Forces, said Nagata, whose command is also headquartered at MacDill. The easier part, he said, is that the Afghans are realizing that the end of major U.S. involvement there is drawing to a close, and they are increasingly coming forward to seek help.
"They know their opportunity to ask for it is dwindling," Nagata said. "Not that we don't intend to continue to keep a force there and continue to assist them, but the scale of it is obviously getting much smaller."