Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Special Forces and Drug Use

In February 2014 Jeffrey Reynolds and Mark Kennedy, both ex-US Special Forces Operators in their mid-40s, were found dead in their berths aboard the merchant ship Maersk Alabama, then docked in Port of Victoria in the Seychelles Islands. The two were working onboard the ship, made famous from its 2009 hijacking by Somali Pirates and the subsequent rescue of its Captain, Richard Phillips, as personal security guards responsible for warding off any future pirate attacks. At the time, their deaths aroused suspicions of foul play, for why else would two perfectly healthy and fit men be found dead if not for some nefarious reason. In late April autopsies revealed the two had died from respiratory failure and heart attack resulting from overdoses of alcohol and heroin consumed in a night of partying.  An all too common occurrence among former special forces members. 

Brandon Webb, a former Navy SEAL now writing for SOFREP, a website dedicated to all things special forces, stuck at the heart of why substance abuse seems to be so endemic in Special Forces operators when he wrote in an article that came out shortly after new broke of the deaths of Reynolds and Kennedy: 
The recent incident with Trident’s [the company Reynolds and Kennedy worked for] former SEAL maritime security contractors provides the uninitiated observer a peek down the rabbit hole when it comes to the Special Operations community and its history with illicit substance abuse. And before you judge a person, first walk a mile in their shoes. Back-to-back-to-back combat deployments and a broken marriage have claimed many a good man in over a decade of sustained warfare. Some guys dig out, and some fall deeper into the darkness, never to return as their former selves again, casualties of war.

Extended deployments, troubled family life, and problems related to PTSD, all factor into why substance abuse is having a disproportionate effect on Special Forces operators. While programs have been put in place (one need only look at the litany of support programs listed on USSOCOM's website) and money has been budgeted to address these problems, they will only work if the culture within which Special Forces operate changes.

Again as Webb notes in his article, Special Forces subculture is "more Sons of Anarchy than American hero." Within this subculture, Special Forces members protect and care for one another. Webb says that often members of Special Forces units will cover for a team member who battles substance abuse by saying "He's a good operator, and the unit can't afford to lose him." Instead of receiving the help they need, operators suffering from substance abuse are often shuffled around until they can be honorably discharged. However, upon being discharged, the support group which they had while in service disappears. As Webb rightly notes, "The men from the Special Ops community leave behind a world, experiences, and a culture that no Department of Veterans Affairs representative or childhood best friend can come close to understanding."

The question becomes then, how can special forces subculture be changed to address this problem? Perhaps the biggest thing that can be done is to have Special Forces teams recognize and officially seek help for members that are suffering from substance abuse. In doing so the team must be assured that their member will be allowed back in the unit after successfully completing rehab, instead of being pensioned off to some remote part of the military bureaucracy until he can be discharged.

Additionally, another problem Webb notes as a cause of the machismo subculture is the fact that Special Forces are pushed to the limit in everything they come into contact with. He notes that he has seen fights break out between special forces operators over things as trivial as a ping pong game. While the military and special forces especially cannot get rid of its intensive training programs without suffering from combat inefficiencies, it should be possible to roll back on some areas of intensive training. 

Overall, perhaps the best thing we can do to combat this growing problem in Special Operations Forces is to recognize it exists. Although we will never fully understand what it means to be a special forces team member, only by actively engaging with them will we be able to begin to discover how best to help them. 

1 comment:

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