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Pentagon Sees Special Ops Veterans Drawn To High-Paying Private Sector

By Eric Schmitt

and Thom Shanker

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

Senior American commanders and Pentagon officials are warning of an exodus of the military’s most seasoned Special Operations forces to higher-paying civilian security jobs, just as those troops are playing an increasingly pivotal role in combating terror and helping conduct stability operations worldwide.

Senior enlisted Army Green Berets or Navy Seals with 20 years or more experience now earn about $50,000 in base pay, and can retire with a $23,000 annual pension. But private security companies, whose services are in growing demand in Iraq and Afghanistan, are offering salaries of $100,000 to nearly $200,000 a year to the most experienced of them.

The CIA is also dangling such enticing offers before experienced Special Operations forces that the Pentagon’s top official for special operations policy, Thomas W. O’Connell, told a House committee this month that intergovernmental poaching “is starting to become a significant problem.”

Evidence of a drain of seasoned special operators, including elite Delta Force soldiers, is largely anecdotal right now, but the head of the military’s Special Operations Command, Gen. Bryan D. Brown of the Army, is so concerned about what he is hearing from troops in the field that he convened an unusual meeting of his top commanders in Washington last week to discuss the matter. “The retention of our special operating forces is a big issue,” Brown said.

Last December, he gathered 20 senior enlisted Navy Seals, Army Green Berets and Air Force commandos and their spouses, at his headquarters in Tampa, Fla., for a weeklong session to discuss career-extending sweeteners, like special pay bonuses and educational benefits. A task force is now reviewing those recommendations.

“The kind of people we’re training today, that are culturally aware, able to work overseas, experts with handguns and rifles, physically fit, hand-selected guys that also speak a foreign language,” Brown told the Senate Armed Services Committee last Thursday, “these kind of people are very attractive to those kind of civilian private industries that provide security services both at home and abroad.”

Brown and other senior officials acknowledged that the lucrative offers by outsiders present a rare opportunity for career soldiers to provide financial security for their families.

“They’re not leaving out of disloyalty,” said Gen. Wayne Downing, a retired head of the Special Operations Command who recently returned from Iraq. “The money is just so good, if they’re going to be away from home that much, they may as well make top dollar.”