When Adm. William McRaven took over command of U.S. Special Operations Command in August, one of the first things to land on his desk was a report, commissioned by his predecessor, showing that the force of some 66,000 and their families was under increasing stress.
Troops, McRaven said, were "fraying at a faster rate than we have seen in the past."
One indicator of that, McRaven said, is the increasing number of suicides.
The suicide rate among special operations forces is "on step to pass anything we have had in recent years,'' McRaven said. "That is not a good indicator."
McRaven, speaking on the opening day of the annual conference of Socom's Care Coalition, said there is no "single common denominator" as to why it is happening. The Care Coalition is an advocacy program designed to increase troops' quality of life and mission-readiness.
"You would think some of the guys in combat who had traumatic situations would cause it to jump, but that is not the case,'' McRaven said. "We don't find that as a common factor. A lot of the folks didn't have what we consider serious combat experience."
The increase in suicides – the command was not able to produce statistics on Wednesday – is just another example of how Socom has to preserve the force and families, McRaven said.
"As we look at the pressure on the force, how do we preserve the force?" he asked. "Care Coalition is a key part of that."
About 250 business and community leaders, benevolent organization heads, health providers, wounded and special operations leadership are attending the conference, which runs through Friday at the Davis Conference Center at MacDill Air Force Base.
McRaven said the Care Coalition is "my top priority … because at the end of the day, you can't get anything done in this command unless you take care of the warriors and families."
One of the coalition's new challenges will be how it deals with women serving in special operations.
Gunnery Sgt. Tiffany Hudgins, the Marine Corps Special Operations Command's Cultural Support Team program manager, suffered traumatic brain injury from an improvised explosive device explosion in Afghanistan in 2010. She was part of a team created to show cultural sensitivity in a society where it is not always appropriate for male operators to deal with women and adolescents.
"What are we doing for women in special operations?" she asked McRaven during a question-and-answer session. "We are a new entity in special operations. As a wounded warrior, I don't feel like we get the attention that we deserve. My spouse never was contacted about my injuries or how he was coping with my treatments. The focus is always on males in special operations."
McRaven said that, as a woman, Hudgins shouldn't be treated any differently than her male counterparts.
"We are not going to give you special treatment, but we are going to give you the same treatment," he said. "If that isn't happening, you made us aware of it and I guarantee that I'll get it fixed today."
McRaven went on to say that despite rules against women in combat – rules he said he supports – the reality is different.
"When a woman gets on a helicopter with a platoon of Rangers, flies from a forward operating base in Nowhere Province, gets on patrol for 10 kilometers, in the course of operations talks to females there, gets on a patrol back and gets on the helicopter and flies back, that sounds an awful lot like combat," he said.
The audience heard a success story from an active duty operator, who flew in to talk about a new treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder being studied at the University of South Florida College of Nursing.
The operator, who did not give his name, was treated in the private practice of College of Nursing military liaison Carrie Elk, who is conducting a study on veterans.
The operator said that after 10 years of combat, he was able to sleep only with the help of medication or alcohol. After one treatment earlier this year by Elk, the operator said, he was finally able to sleep unmedicated.