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.
According 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.
"These 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 and suicide."
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.
Ruocco, a 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.
The 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 them.
"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 interruptions.
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.
A 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.
"People 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 and Marines.
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.
"I just 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.
"For 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."