After getting years of training and experience in the military, they leave for other government jobs or for what defense officials said Tuesday has been an explosion in outside contractor work.
"What makes them so valuable to us makes them highly marketable on the outside," said Chief Master Sgt. Robert V. Martens Jr., senior adviser at the U.S. Special Operations Command (search), which also oversees equipping and training elite Army Rangers and Air Force special operations commandos.
Better salaries, retirement benefits and educational opportunities are among incentives that might help stem the problem, defense officials said as they met with lawmakers to discuss ways to keep forces who have become so crucial to the war on terror.
A soldier, sailor or airman gets $60,000 per year at 18 years of service — a figure that includes housing allowance and some types of special duty pay. Troops who go to work for civilian contractors can make up to $200,000 a year, one official has said.
The military command that oversees the covert forces "is the nation's single best weapon in the global war on terror," said Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J. Saxton opened Tuesday's session before his House Armed Services Committee terrorism subcommittee, saying he fears the military is losing such troops faster than they can be replaced for a counter-terror war that "has no foreseeable end point."
Officials from the command based in Tampa, Fla., didn't give specific numbers but said the Army, Navy and Air Force are all seeing an increasing trend in which senior people are retiring at their 20-year mark, though they could remain on active duty for several more years.
Force Master Chief Clell Breining, senior adviser at the Naval Special Warfare Command, said there has been a decline in people staying beyond the 10- to 14-year mark since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
"We are not looking to retain every single person to their 30-year tenure, but we are looking to retain a key experience base to lead our younger, less experienced troops out into the field into combat," Martens said.
It can take four years just to train a special operations soldier and another few years of field experience before he or she is top-notch.
Martens said troops are taking "the skills that we have trained them with" and starting second careers in the civilian sector or moving into other government agencies.
The special operations command has been working with the services and the office of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to identify incentives to keep senior people, Martens said. Worse retention problems can be averted, he said.
To some extent the government has helped create the growing market outside its doors. Both the Defense Department and the CIA have hired private contractors to cover their own manpower shortages, especially in skills such as linguistics and prisoner interrogation.
The military has contracted out some chores to save troops for soldiering duties. There are some 20,000 private security guards watching over U.S. officials, convoys and private workers in Iraq — some under government contract and some hired by private companies.
The CIA often uses independent contractors who are hired for short-term assignments. While they sometimes are recruited by and work through a private company, they can also be contracted directly by the agency.
Some of the private companies have been started and are led by retired generals, other military officers and former CIA employees.
Overall spending on federal contracts increased about 42 percent from 2000 to 2003 — from $205 billion to $291 billion — according to a report issued in May by Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the senior Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee. The Army, Air Force and Navy accounted for 55 percent of all federal contract spending in 2003, he said.
The work of the military's special operations forces has greatly expanded in recent years, with them playing a central role in efforts to hunt down, capture or kill terrorists and help train other nation's forces in the counter-terror fight.
Special operations forces played a crucial part in helping local Afghan forces topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001 and have figured prominently in the war in Iraq.
Since the war on terror started, the Pentagon has gotten extra money to fund additional equipment for special operations as well as to train more forces.
There are currently under 50,000 such troops, including reservists, and there are plans to increase the total by a few thousand over the next several years.