WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has paid more than $100 million in bonuses to veteran Green Berets and Navy SEALs, reversing the flow of top commandos to the corporate world where security companies such as Blackwater USA are offering big salaries.
The retention effort, started nearly three years ago and overseen by U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., has helped preserve a small but elite group of enlisted troops with vast experience fighting the unconventional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Defense Department statistics.
Overall, more than 1,200 of the military's most specialized personnel near or already eligible for retirement have opted for payments of up to $150,000 in return for staying in uniform several more years.
The numbers gathered by The Associated Press and other Pentagon research indicate there has not been an extended exodus of commandos to private security companies and other businesses that value their talents.
"Back in 2005, we saw quite a few exits," said Rear Adm. Michael LeFever, director of the Navy's military personnel plans and policy division. "What we're seeing lately is just the opposite. We've become very aggressive."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates remains so concerned over the lure of high salaries in the private sector that he has directed Pentagon lawyers to explore putting no-compete clauses into contracts with security companies that would limit their recruiting abilities.
While special operations forces are by no means the only candidates for security jobs in Iraq that can pay hundreds of dollars a day, they are the most attractive because of the unique training they receive.
In addition to being proficient with weapons, many of these troops have advanced education, the ability to speak the languages of the Middle East and other regions, and the cultural awareness that comes with living among the local populations.
For those same reasons, the military wants to hold on to them as long as possible, and at the same time demonstrate to younger enlisted troops that there's a financial incentive for an extended career.
The stress of repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and the opportunities for financial stability outside the military have heightened the urgency of the military's retention efforts.
Gates said Wednesday the Army must focus more on training foreign militaries and fighting insurgent groups — methods essential to success in the type of irregular warfare U.S. forces now face. Troops with these skills "need to be retained," Gates told the annual convention of the Association of the U.S. Army.
With the Pentagon expecting to spend an additional $43.5 million on commando bonuses in fiscal year 2008, which began Oct. 1, statistics show the military is building a more mature special operations force.
In addition to retention bonuses, enlisted special operations personnel ranging from corporals to sergeants major also qualify for a special duty pay of $375 a month above their normal salary.
The Special Operations Command bonus program was approved in late 2004 and targeted noncommissioned Army, Navy and Air Force commandos with 19 years or more of service. After 20 years, military personnel are eligible to retire at half pay and have lifetime access to military medical care and other benefits.
At the 19-year mark, an Army sergeant first class earns about $63,400 annually, a figure that doesn't include what the Congressional Budget Office calls "noncash" benefits available to military members such as subsidized child care, lower grocery costs at base stores and free access to recreational facilities.
The "critical skills retention" bonuses work on a sliding scale and are offered to senior enlisted personnel and warrant officers who form the backbone of the force.
Those agreeing to stay an extra six years receive $150,000; five years is worth $75,000; four years, $50,000; three years, $30,000; two years, $18,000; and one extra year, $8,000.
Since January 2005, 2,326 have been eligible and more than half took bonuses, statistics show.
Those who didn't opt for an extension may have retired, or they may be waiting for the right time to take the bonus: accepting it during a battle-zone deployment makes the payment tax free.
Within the Army Special Forces, the largest U.S. commando branch better known as the Green Berets, more than 900 have traded time for money. More than a third of these troops agreed to six-year extensions.
Overall, at a cost of $75 million, the Pentagon bought an average of 3.3 additional years from Green Berets with nearly two decades of experience in combat engineering, communications, intelligence and field medicine, figures show.
Just over 300 Navy SEALs — Sea, Air and Land commandos — have signed up for longer tours at a cost of $27.6 million. More than half agreed to six additional years.
The Air Force pool of combat controllers and pararescuemen with at least 19 years of service is the smallest; 32 of these troops opted for bonuses costing $3 million. Half took the six-year package.
While Special Operations Command officials view the results as positive, retention figures probably will do little to settle the heated debate over recruiting tactics used by private security companies.
"The disgraceful cycle works like this: Contractors hire away military talent. The military finds itself short of skilled workers, so contractors get more contracts. With more money, they hire away more uniformed talent," wrote Ralph Peters, a retired Army officer and a frequent commentator on military issues, in a recent opinion piece in the New York Post.
Blackwater USA has a large contract with the State Department to guard U.S. diplomats in Iraq. Since a Sept. 16 shooting in Baghdad that left 17 Iraqis dead, the company has been sharply criticized for the way it operates.
At an Oct. 2 congressional hearing, Democratic lawmakers accused the company of poaching from the military's ranks. Erik Prince, Blackwater's top executive, defended his company, saying not every one wants to stay in uniform for 20 years.
"At some point they're going to get out after four, six, eight, whatever that period of time is, whatever they decide, because we don't have a draft. We have a voluntary service," Prince said. "Yes, a lot of them come to work for companies like us, but not at any higher rate than they ever did before."
Chris Taylor, a former vice president for strategic initiatives at Blackwater, said Prince's claim is backed by a July 2005 study from the Government Accountability Office that said attrition levels within military specialties favored by contractors were about the same as before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
More recently, Chris MacPherson reached a similar conclusion in a research project he conducted over the summer in the Pentagon's special operations directorate.
"I found no evidence that (private security companies) have increased the number of U.S. special operations forces leaving the military," said MacPherson, a graduate student at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Of the estimated 25,000 security personnel working in Iraq, only about 2,000 are Americans and they earn between $350 to $500 a day, said Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association.
That means there aren't that many high-paying security jobs available even if a service member leaves the military, said Brooks, whose organization represents many companies doing business in Iraq.
"There's no drain on the military," Brooks said. "This is way overblown."