Maintainers across the military take pride in keeping aircraft, vehicles and weapons systems well-oiled and ready to go whenever the mission calls. A major initiative is underway at U.S. Special Operations Command here to better maintain what Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, the Socom commander, calls the most important system of all: the operator.
"Humans are more important than hardware" is the first of the "truths" McRaven espouses for the nation's special operations forces. This fundamental recognizes that what makes the "tip of the spear" so sharp is the education, rigorous training and experience of the operators themselves.
But shortly after arriving at his headquarters in 2011, McRaven received sobering confirmation that the special operations community was in trouble. An extensive study directed by the previous commander, Navy Adm. Eric T. Olson, found "the SOF force as a whole was frayed," McRaven told a forum of defense industry representatives and special operators who gathered here last month.
The study revealed that the current operational environment has been more difficult than operators and their families expected, leaving little time for them to adjust to the daily strains of perpetual absences. The study noted troubling consequences, with increases in domestic and family problems, substance abuse and self-medication, risk-taking behaviors, post-traumatic stress, and even suicides.
With continued high operational demands, the fraying continues, McRaven lamented. "I would say, in the last 20 months, the force is fraying at a rate I am not comfortable with at all," he said at the SOF Industry Conference.
So as McRaven implements his Special Operations Forces 2020 vision to posture Socom for the future, he has made "preservation of the force and family" one of the key pillars.
"That is my No. 1 mission," he told the forum. "It is a moral imperative that we do all that we can to preserve the force and care for their families."
While seeking ways to increase predictability in special operations forces' schedules, McRaven has charged what he renamed the "Preservation of the Force and Family Task Force" to come up with innovative, holistic approaches to deal with the pressure on the special operations community.
The task force is working to build performance across four interconnecting domains: human, psychological, spiritual and social, explained Navy Capt. Thomas Chaby, the task force chief. The idea is not to duplicate programs already being provided through Defense Department and military services, he emphasized. Rather, it builds on them, filling in gaps and increasing accessibility for operators and their families.
"If there was one word you would say the [task force] is all about, it is readiness," Chaby said. "It is all about being ready for our battlefield requirements, and taking care of our people helps them be as ready as possible."
Building resilience in the force helps to set operators up for success, Chaby said, adding, "It's all about building their capacity. It is readiness, readiness, readiness."
Yet the special operations community didn't always recognize that. Chaby remembered his first visit to SEAL Team 3's fitness center in 1990 after graduating from basic underwater demolition/SEAL training. Despite requirements to work in challenging and often unforgiving environments, the SEALs had limited fitness equipment and were basically on their own to figure out the best way to physically train for it.
As a result, many SEALs were injured during missions or while training for them. Chaby has had eight operations since becoming a SEAL, and considers himself fairly representative of his contemporaries.
"Is that the best way to prepare the primary weapon system? Probably not," he said. "There was no thought, science or planning put into [physical training]. The [Preservation of the Force and Family Task Force] is changing that."
Today, Socom has a human performance program designed to meet special operations forces' unique physical needs. It includes training that aims to prevent physical injuries through strength and conditioning, nutrition and physical therapy.
The program also looks at other ways to maintain the body: teaching operators how to mitigate the effects of operational demands through everything from hydration to psychological and social support.
"Putting some thought into it, applying some science, and backing it up with resources is just common sense," Chaby said. "This is a small investment that I believe will reap itself two-, three-, four-, who-knows-how-many-fold benefits."
While paying more attention to operators' bodies, the task force is committed to boosting their psychological strength and resilience, too.
Chaby noted the mental and emotional strain of more than a decade of continuous operations, and the need to do everything possible to mitigate the stressors. So in addition to helping operators develop positive ways to cope, Socom has joined the rest of the military in working to take the stigma out of seeking help.
Gone are the days when operators had to fear getting flagged or having their security clearance revoked if they sought out psychological help.
"It is not like that any more. Now, it's not help against you if you go seek help, and leadership is setting the example," Chaby said. "It's not a negative any more, like it used to be."
Ready access to mental health experts is particularly important in light of Socom's consistently high operating tempos, he noted. "We are so dynamic in our deployment cycles and our work-up cycles that by the time [a scheduled] appointment comes up, you could well find yourself back on the battlefield or training somewhere else and have to cancel it," he said.
So to make services more available and to encourage operators to take advantage of them, the command has started embedding mental health professionals attuned to the needs of the special operations community directly into its units. "The idea is, ‘Let's give [the operator] somebody he trusts and feels he can talk to, and let's give him for better accessibility,'" Chaby said.
And to ease operator's transition from the battlefield to their homes and families, Socom now typically sends them to alternate sites so they can talk to a chaplain or psychologist and "decompress" before returning home.
Meanwhile, the Preservation of the Force and Family Task Force is helping operators get in touch with their spiritual sides as well.
Chaby emphasized that what Socom calls "spiritual performance" isn't necessarily about religion. "It could be for some, but that's not what it is about," he said. "It is about spirituality," which he defined as core spiritual beliefs, values, awareness, relationships and experiences.
These elements affect how operators live, the choices and decisions they make, the quality of their relationships and their overall ability to find meaning in life, Chaby said. All ultimately affect their mission performance and their ability to deal with the challenges of serving in special operations.
So the task force has turned to chaplains and the wealth of programs they lead or support to help special operations forces members address their spiritual needs. This, Chaby said, helps to round out a holistic program while directly supporting initiatives to build physical and psychological resilience.
Meanwhile, the task force is exploring ways to boost operators' "social performance" -- the ability to establish and maintain healthy, meaningful relationships, particularly within their families.
The typical special operator is 29 years old for enlisted members and 34 for officers, and is married with two children. Chaby remembered the days not so long ago when Socom gave little thought to family needs. "The mentality was obvious: ‘If it's not in your sea bag, it's not our responsibility,'" he said.
That's changed 180 degrees, he reported. Socom now understands that family members have a big say in whether a highly trained, experienced operator will remain in the military. But even more importantly, command leaders recognize that problems at home can distract operators, potentially putting them and their buddies at increased risk and directly affecting the mission.
As a result, the Preservation of the Force and Family Task Force has made a concerted effort to help build "social performance" within special operations forces families. The goal, Chaby said, is to strengthen communication skills and overall resiliency to better deal with the challenges of multiple, extended separations, many that involve sensitive, high-risk and secretive missions.
"We are looking for opportunities to bring families into the equation, because we have found that the more you do that, the stronger they become," Chaby said. "This is empowering them to be part of the team, which in turn increases and improves the readiness of that soldier, sailor, airman or Marine."
Adding up these elements -- improving operators' physical, psychological, spiritual and social performance -- can only result in a better force, Chaby said.
"If each element gives a 1 percent advantage, you end up with a 4 or 5 or 10 percent better operator, capacity-wise, resiliency-wise, readiness-wise" he said. "You start adding these things together, and it makes such a difference."
It all comes back, he said, to the special operations forces truism that people -- operators who are ready to be effective and respond to the demands of the job -- are more important than hardware.
"If you take care of your people, that is the foundation of everything we do. Without them, the hardware doesn't matter and we are going to have mission failure," he said. "You have to have your people ready to go, for whatever the battlefield calls for."