The Taliban attack that claimed the lives of nearly two dozen members of the elite and secretive unit called SEAL Team 6 places a huge burden on the Special Forces community.
Officials say with a roughly 10 percent loss, they may have to rotate SEALs in before their downtime is complete, or pull SEALs from staff and training positions. Longer term, it will mean juggling the new SEAL Team 6 members with veterans.
Currently, there about 2,500 active Navy SEALs, and they go through some of the toughest training in the military to reach that elite level. The even more exclusive SEAL Team 6 numbers little more than 200 members, so the losses in Afghanistan amount to about 10 percent of their force. Those team members will be hard to replace.
"You can't just take 20 guys that haven't done this before," says Ryan Zinke. He served as a SEAL Team 6 member, hunting down Balkan war criminals in the 1990s. "The nation has lost some great men and great warriors, but we haven't lost the capability. It will take some time to sort it out."
The typical length of time it takes to train SEAL Team 6 members is about five years. They're chosen from a select group of Navy SEALs who have already spent years conducting combat missions. Of that group that tries out for SEAL Team 6, about half wash out.
Howard Wasdin served in SEAL Team 6 and took part in the "Black Hawk Down" fight in Somalia in 1993. Wasdin told NPR in May — after the bin Laden raid — that the team members are known for their smarts, not just their shooting skills. "These guys are trained not to just to go out and kill, [which sounds] indiscriminate, but to use that judgmental use of deadly force," Wasdin says.
Military officials tell NPR that the immediate issue of the loss is how to fill the void in Afghanistan. SEAL Team 6 members often go after what are called high-value targets — senior Taliban commanders or al-Qaida fighters.
Zinke, the former SEAL Team 6 member, said the command will have to juggle to fill vacancies in Afghanistan.
"There are a lot of capable and qualified SEALs that are not presently there that could be called back there to fill that team," Zinke says.
Zinke says that might mean shortening the rest period for SEALs now at home from a deployment in Afghanistan or pulling Team 6 members doing training or staff work, called shore duty.
"There are options," he says. "None of them are great, but all of them are doable."
Rebuilding In The Long Term
The other issue is long term. How does SEAL Team 6 rebuild for years of more fighting?
One officer with Special Operations headquarters says recruiting team members, and finding a way to mix them with veteran team members for operations, might be the real challenge.
Adm. Eric Olson, who until Monday was the head of the Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., told the Aspen Institute last month he was already struggling to meet the Pentagon's demands for more special operators. He said he was wary of growing too fast.
"We should probably grow about 3 percent a year to meet the nation's growing need, but not more than 5 percent a year because we will lose our soul along the way," Olson said. "We are a community that depends on knowledge of each other. We do grow up together. People I've worked with I've known for 15 or 20 years."
Olson — himself a former Team 6 leader — recalled at his change of command ceremony the men who lost their lives in Saturday's helicopter crash in Afghanistan. Men he knew.
How SEAL Team 6 rebuilds will be up to Olson's successor, Adm. William McRaven. He knows Team 6 well too — he's the man who sent Team 6 to take down Osama bin Laden.