For elite US troops, a never-ending war
Daniel Winschel of Peabody has seen more of war than most ever will. Over eight deployments, he dropped from Special Forces helicopters onto mud-brick homes, ran through doors breached by explosives, and hunted the enemy night after night in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Winschel has been steeled by combat, but he cried when he heard that Sergeant First Class Eric Emond, a friend and the father of three young girls, had been killed in Afghanistan by a roadside bomb.
Emond, a native of Fall River, died with two other Special Forces soldiers in the Nov. 27 explosion. His death came on his seventh deployment overseas, a testament to his patriotism and the military’s unprecedented reliance on Special Operations Forces.
As America’s longest war drags into its 18th year, the burden is falling heavily on a small number of elite fighters who are being sent into battle over and over, leaving loved ones behind each time. This year, 7,500 Special Operations Forces were deployed in 133 countries around the globe, and many have been deployed a dozen times or more.
“Nobody wants to send in large conventional forces, so the brunt of this war has fallen on the infantry and these Special Operations guys who are in there day in and day out,” said Stuart Bradin, a retired colonel in the Special Forces and president of the Global SOF Foundation,which advocates for Special Forces.
“Being with their team is everything — you don’t want to leave your people. They will self-destruct their personal lives because they want to be with their teams,” he said. “For the Special Operations world, this is not going to end any time soon.”
The relentless pace of deployments has raised fears that elite forces are stretched too thin, and that career members — and their families — are sacrificing too much for conflicts with no clear end.
“We’re using and abusing the ones we have, rather than saying, ‘If we’re going to be engaged in all these different fights, we need to take the political hit of asking for more troops,’ and hopefully forcing a conversation with the American people about whether these wars are really worthwhile,” said Representative Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Salem who served four tours in Iraq as a Marine officer.
Last week, President Trump ordered the withdrawal of 2,000 US troops in Syria, ending the military presence there. The president also said he would halve the troop force in Afghanistan in the coming months, to 7,000.
The Afghanistan conflict has largely receded from public consciousness, dispiriting some service members and veterans who believe their sacrifice deserves fuller recognition.
“Nobody cares. That’s the reality,” Bradin said. “It’s definitely not on the front page. It’s on page nine in the metro section. It’s a joke. Nobody cares.”
The United States has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, a huge drop from the 100,000 stationed there in 2011. The plan had been to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, but the deadly resurgence of the Taliban changed those expectations.
As conventional forces dwindle, the Special Operations Forces — Army Rangers, Green Berets, and Navy SEALS among them — bring world-class fighting skills and years of experience to one of the most austere, hostile environments on the planet. Many of the tough missions in Afghanistan — combat, stalking the enemy, and surveillance — are increasingly performed by Special Operations, according to more than a dozen active and retired members of these units who spoke with the Globe.
Officials at US Special Operations Command would not disclose how many service members are based in Afghanistan. But that country is one of their leading battlegrounds, along with Islamic State, or ISIS, territory in and near Syria, and terrorist incubators in Africa, according to Linda Robinson, a senior researcher at the RAND Corp. who has studied Special Operations.
“There is a substantial amount of time away, and it does put stress on the service members and their families,” Robinson said. “But of course, it is a volunteer force. This is what they signed up for. There is not a morale problem.”
Special Operations Forces are not alone in facing multiple deployments. On May 31, nearly one in four of the 69,837 active-duty service members deployed under Central Command — whose responsibility includes Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq — had been sent abroad four or more times, according to the Pentagon.
The mission motivates these troops — even the danger can be an adrenaline high — but they also crave the intense camaraderie that is impossible to replicate in civilian life.
“We fight through the night and sleep through the day,” said Winschel, who has served as a Special Forces medic. “This was what God sent me to do — to take care of these guys. It was the highest honor to be their doc.”
The 54-year-old Winschel, a major, has spent nearly four years away from his wife and four children over 32 years of service. He has suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, serious injuries to his shoulders and knees, and lost 17 percent of his lung capacity, a disability linked to toxins he inhaled on the battlefield.
“I was really good at taking care of other guys, but I wasn’t as good at taking care of myself,” he said.
Eight military friends have been killed, Winschel said. After the death of one, Winschel became so distracted while thinking of his friend that he crashed his car near Fort Bragg, N.C., breaking eight ribs and two bones in his back.
At home one day, Winschel dived for cover in his backyard when he heard the sound of a nail gun nearby.
Through all the hurt — physical and psychological — he couldn’t shake the desire to return overseas and rejoin his team.
“After six months at home, you get the itch again,” Winschel said at his kitchen table. “For my first deployment, I asked my son Justin to be the man of the house at 5 years of age. When do you say you’ve done enough?”
Details of Special Operations missions are hidden from the public, as well as from families back home, as covert troops have confronted a mercurial enemy from Mali to the Philippines, and from Yemen to Iraq. When four Green Berets were killed in an October 2017 ambush in Niger, many Americans did not know the elite Army unit had deployed to the West African nation, along with 800 other US soldiers.
Even Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, was caught off guard.
“We don’t know exactly where we’re at in the world, militarily, and what we’re doing,” Graham said at the time.
Increased reliance on these widely dispersed missions has raised concerns about discipline, rogue behavior, and possible war crimes.
A Navy SEAL is charged with murdering a wounded Islamic State fighter in Iraq in 2017; two SEALs and two Marine Raiders have been charged in connection with the murder of a Green Beret in Mali last year.
Earlier this month, Special Operations commander General Raymond Thomas ordered a 90-day review of training and education.
“A survey of allegations of serious misconduct across our formations over the last year indicate that [Special Operations] faces a deeper challenge of a disordered view of the team and the individual in our culture,” Thomas wrote Dec. 11.
“Left unchecked, a disordered value system threatens to erode the trust of our fellow comrades, our senior leaders, and ultimately the American people,” he added.
Thomas added the command will “pursue additional research into the connection and correlation between operational trauma and behavioral health.”
The physical and psychological effects of multiple combat deployments can be staggering, specialists said. Geoff Dardia, an Army master sergeant attached to Special Operations, said suicides and cancer are rising alarmingly among his comrades. In a single year, Dardia said, he lost five close friends to suicide.
“It’s not Al Qaeda, it’s not ISIS, and it’s not training accidents” that are killing Special Operations troops, Dardia said. “It’s suicide and cancer. The problem is not getting better. It’s getting worse.”
US Special Operations Command did not respond to a question about deaths from suicide and cancer, information that Dardia said is classified. But Dardia said his personal experience tells him the “cancer rate is astronomical.”
“It’s metabolic dysfunction — overworked, under stress, and bombarded with toxins,” said Dardia, who was raised in Kennebunkport, Maine, and is preparing for his eighth deployment. “And there’s all the exposure down-range — burn pits, radiation — and sleep deprivation and poor nutrition. It’s the environment.”
Dardia, 42, is a leader of Task Force Dagger, a nonprofit foundation that has helped Winschel and addresses the physical, mental, and other needs of Special Operations members and their families.
The divorce rate is sky-high, behavioral therapy is often shunned, and readjusting to family life between deployments can be nearly impossible for some service members fresh off the high-wire challenges of unconventional combat.
“They don’t fully reengage with their families,” said Jack Hammond, a retired Army brigadier general who was deployed four times to Iraq and Afghanistan. “You have one eye on your family and one eye on the door. You think, ‘There’s a war going on, and I should be over there.’ ”
Hammond is executive director of Home Base, a partnership between the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital whose mission is to address the “invisible wounds” of veterans, service members, and their families. The Boston-based program has seen an increase in Special Operations Forces seeking help, and Hammond said he expects the number to climb higher still.
“There’s this mindset that you can overcome any obstacle,” said Hammond, who has struggled with PTSD. “That probably becomes their greatest adversary when they come home because they can’t admit they have a problem.”
Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University, said that the heavy reliance on elite soldiers is an indictment of US policy.
“I think it’s a testimony of our failure,” he said. “The fact that these soldiers are deploying into combat again and again and again says that their efforts are not producing success. The failure is not their fault.
“If we’ve got soldiers who are doing seven and eight tours and they are being killed on the seventh tour, people should be posing questions to those who are responsible for the policy,” Bacevich said. “The basic question is: How long is this going to go on?”
The closest historical comparison to the military campaign in Afghanistan, Bacevich said, might go back as far as the 19th century, when Army “bluecoats” scattered across the West were fighting Native Americans for decades.
Some soldiers are near a tipping point.
Michael Stuppa, a staff sergeant and medic in the Army National Guard, has seen parts of the world many people can’t find on a map — Tajikistan, Kosovo, Iraq, Bosnia, Kuwait, and South Korea. Seven deployments in all, a total of five years spent overseas.
He narrowly escaped death in Iraq in 2004, when a mortar shell exploded above his head as he tended to dozens of dying and bleeding victims of a suicide bomber. In November, Stuppa returned home to Spencer, Mass., after 10 months in Kosovo, a longtime Balkans tinderbox.
“This last one was the hardest,” said Stuppa, 39, a firefighter in Southbridge who has served 21 years in the regular Army and National Guard.
A father of two small boys, Stuppa said another overseas assignment might destroy his marriage, and he won’t let that happen.
“If I hear a rumor, I’ll probably retire or switch units,” he said. “My family is more important than another deployment.”
For other troops, though, the pull is difficult to resist.
“When I look back, my closest relationships outside of family relate to my experiences serving in Special Forces units. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced as intense feelings or strong cohesiveness as I did during my combat tours,” said Donald Greenwood, 51, a Quincy police sergeant who recently ended a 28-year military career that included more than a half-dozen deployments.
“I felt like I was a part of something bigger, an experience that was larger than me, and I felt I could be a small part of doing something meaningful and special for the nation.”
When Aaron Kazarian, a Northeastern University student, was dispatched to Afghanistan for a second tour, the Army Ranger was excited to go, even though it meant 16-hour shifts and no days off for four months near the remote Pakistan border.
“We were proud that we were at the tip of the spear,” said Kazarian, who analyzed intelligence and identified targets. “The operational tempo was pretty insane.”
At times, Kazarian wondered, “What are we doing? Is this really going to be a benefit in the long run?” he said.
“I don’t think anyone can set a clearly defined mission for this area. There really is no long-term solution there,” Kazarian said. “But on the flip side, what’s the alternative? This is going to be the future of warfare.”