If special operations leaders are serious about ending a troubling trend of bad behavior in the ranks, they must be transparent about the ongoing ethics review and allow troops a break from their never-ending deployment cycles, operators and those who study the command say.
Army Gen. Richard Clarke, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, last week called for a sweeping review of the community's culture and ethics following several high-profile events he said threaten the trust Americans place in their military's most-elite forces. The review will not only look at what's going on across the command's units, he wrote, but also how they're recruiting, building leaders, training the force and addressing ethical failures.
"Recent incidents have called our culture and ethics into question and threaten the trust placed in us," Clarke wrote. "... This is about making us better."
The review is scheduled to run until the fall and will not only draw on sources from inside the command, but those outside it with expertise as well. Clarke also pledged to make the results public, an important step that has not occurred with past ethics reviews, said Jonathan Schroden, a research program director for CNA who has spent years studying special operations.
With a Navy SEAL platoon being booted from the war zone, reports of drug use in the ranks, a sentencing following a hazing attempt-gone-bad that led to the death of a soldier, and other charges of bad behavior downrange, Schroden said it is in the command's best interest to publish the full results of the review.
"I think it would help restore trust both publicly and on [Capitol Hill]," he said. "It would demonstrate Gen. Clarke's commitment to this cause and also help ... demonstrate inside the enterprise how serious this is, how seriously he's taking it."
Clarke's letter followed a call from the head of Naval Special Warfare Command for Navy SEALs to clean up their behavior. Rear Adm. Collin Green told his troops late last month that they "have a problem," and ordered his commanders to develop a plan to restore discipline.
Lawmakers have for years questioned whether the U.S. has leaned too hard on its special operators to fight the seemingly never-ending war on terror. Operators say there's serious evidence of burnout in the ranks.
"They're overworked for sure," said one recently retired special operator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity since he still does contracting work overseas. "When I got out, I had more than a dozen deployments. You can only call on guys to go so hard for so long."
That kind of operational tempo creates a lot of stress, he said. Marriages suffer, people hide depression and some self-medicate.
"I got less level-headed the longer I was [in], due to the stress," he said. "I started making worse choices and less responsible decisions."
Schroden and one of his colleagues, Margaux Hoar, recently wrote about the stressors facing the spec ops community. The pair studied the effect high operational tempo had on a number of units, and many often had more work than they had time to do it. Their research showed that problematic behaviors -- driving under the influence or using illegal drugs -- "correlated positively with the extent of the time constraint," they wrote.
Most special operators want to deploy a lot, which is why they chose the job, Schroden said. But for years, they've largely been operating in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where overall U.S. strategy isn't working, he said, despite operators carrying out tactical wins on the battlefield every day.
"I can imagine how frustrating it must be to conduct continuous deployments, rack up those tactical victories, and yet still see the likes of [al-Qaida] and ISIS in more and more places with the prospect of ever more deployments on the horizon."
That could be especially tough, Schroden added, for those whose friends were hurt or killed along the way.
For those who need a break though, there's a real fear that speaking up comes with a price. The operator who deployed more than a dozen times said sitting out a rotation brought out a fear that you'd never get chosen for the more elite missions again.
Leaders must take steps build break periods into operators' careers, he said.
"Give back to your unit in a training capacity, go learn a language, work on your education or degree," he said. "There's got to be a longer break -- a reset period -- in between these years of high stress deployments."
Prime Hall, a former member of 1st Marine Raider Battalion who served in Afghanistan and the Philippines, said he saw signs of that improving before he left the Corps in 2017. Some of his best leaders were open about their own challenges, he said, and he began seeing Raiders share information about different treatment options or approaches to dealing with stressors.
Leaders who are open about their problems might be less likely to see disciplinary problems in the ranks.
"Special operations units are built around bottom-up planning with merit-based and character-led leadership," Hall said. "... A little vulnerability is needed if they want it to be reciprocated."
But some SOCOM leaders have in the past been reluctant to look at problems in the ranks, Schroden said. Results of previous reviews, not unlike the one Clarke announced last week, have remained under wraps.
Without opening the command up to a detailed study of what's happening in the community by outside experts, Schroden said it's going to be impossible to truly determine where things are breaking down.
Half a dozen members of SEAL Team 10, for example, were recently booted for using cocaine. There's no sense of whether a problem like that is contained to just those individuals or is widespread without proper research, he said.
"Is it all an optemp issue or is it a leadership issue, et cetera?" Schroden said. "We just don't have the ability to disentangle those factors without really getting into the data of what's happening."
Fixes that come from any review must be not be a one-size-fits-all approach across the command. Each organization has a unique culture, and what works for the Navy SEALs, for example, might not work for Green Berets, Hall said.
It shouldn't be a top-down approach, he said, and every leader must be mindful of who they're recruiting and keeping.
"Raiders, SEALs, [Air Force special operators], or any other unit will tell you that there are good teams and bad teams in every organization," Hall said. "If there are bad leaders in charge of those teams, it is because they most likely attracted, selected and on-boarded the wrong ones."