WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has paid more than $100 million in bonuses to veteran Green Berets and Navy SEALs, reversing the flow of top commandos to the corporate world where security companies such as Blackwater USA are offering big salaries.
The retention effort, started nearly three years ago and overseen by the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., has helped preserve a small but elite group of enlisted troops with vast experience fighting the unconventional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Defense Department statistics.
Overall, more than 1,200 of the military's most specialized personnel near or eligible for retirement have opted for payments of up to $150,000 in return for staying in uniform several more years.
The numbers gathered by The Associated Press and other Pentagon research indicate there has not been an extended exodus of commandos to private security companies and other businesses that value their talents.
"Back in 2005, we saw quite a few exits," said Rear Adm. Michael LeFever, director of the Navy's military personnel plans and policy division. "What we're seeing lately is just the opposite. We've become very aggressive."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates remains so concerned over the lure of high salaries in the private sector that he has directed Pentagon lawyers to explore putting no-compete clauses into contracts with security companies that would limit their recruiting abilities.
Although special operations forces are by no means the only candidates for security jobs in Iraq that can pay hundreds of dollars a day, those service members are the most attractive because of the unique training they receive.
In addition to being proficient with weapons, many of these troops have advanced educations, the ability to speak the languages of the Middle East and other regions, and the cultural awareness that comes with living among the local populations.
For those reasons, the military wants to hold on to them as long as possible, and at the same time demonstrate to younger enlisted service members that there's a financial incentive for an extended career.
The stress of repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and the opportunities for financial stability outside the military have heightened the urgency of the military's retention efforts.
Gates said Wednesday that the Army must focus more on training foreign militaries and fighting insurgent groups -- methods essential to success in the type of irregular warfare U.S. forces now face. Troops with these skills "need to be retained," Gates told the annual convention of the Association of the U.S. Army.
With the Pentagon expecting to spend an additional $43.5 million on commando bonuses in fiscal year 2008, which began Oct. 1, statistics show the military is building a more mature special operations force.
In addition to retention bonuses, enlisted special operations personnel ranging from corporals to sergeant majors also qualify for special duty pay of $375 a month above their normal salary.
The Special Operations Command bonus program was approved in late 2004 and targeted noncommissioned Army, Navy and Air Force commandos with 19 years or more of service. After 20 years, military personnel are eligible to retire at half pay and have lifetime access to military medical care and other benefits.
At the 19-year mark, an Army sergeant first class earns about $63,400 annually, a figure that doesn't include what the Congressional Budget Office calls "noncash" benefits available to military members such as subsidized child care, lower grocery costs at base stores, and free access to recreational facilities.
The "critical skills retention" bonuses work on a sliding scale and are offered to senior enlisted personnel and warrant officers who form the backbone of the force.
Those agreeing to stay an extra six years receive $150,000; five years is worth $75,000; four years, $50,000; three years, $30,000; two years, $18,000; and one extra year, $8,000.
Since January 2005, 2,326 have been eligible and more than half took bonuses, statistics show.
Those who didn't opt for an extension may have retired, or they may be waiting for the right time to take the bonus: accepting it during a battle-zone deployment makes the payment tax-free.
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