By nearly every measure, Chief Petty Officer William Ryan Owens was exceptional. The 36-year-old, who was killed by enemy fire during a raid in Yemen last week, was a team leader in the Navy’s most elite commando force, SEAL Team 6, and had earned numerous awards for heroism under fire during a dozen deployments.
He was, one former SEAL Team 6 official said, “a blooming star.”
But on the moonless night when gunfire erupted as he approached a suspected terrorist compound, hitting him in the chest, he joined a group in which he was suddenly more typical. Two-thirds of the troops killed in action in the last 12 months served in Special Operations units. Like Owens, they were the cream of the military’s crop – older and more experienced than the vast majority of troops, better trained and more decorated. Many were veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who survived the official end of combat operations only to find themselves still fighting in the same countries.
Over the last year, Special Operations troops have died in greater numbers than have conventional troops – a first. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they made up only a tiny sliver of the dead. The fact that they now fill nearly the whole casualty list shows how the Pentagon, hesitant to put conventional troops on the ground, has come to depend almost entirely on small groups of elite warriors.
“We’ve moved out of the major combat operations business,” said Linda Robinson, a counterterrorism expert at the Rand Corp. In recent years, she said, the military has effectively outsourced rank-and-file infantry duties to local forces in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, leaving only a cadre of highly skilled Americans to train troops and take out high-value targets.
“This counterterrorism model is much more efficient,” Robinson said, noting that it avoids the economic entanglements of a yearslong occupation, and eliminates the need for complicated exit strategies.
But the flip side, she said, is that the U.S. troops left in harm’s way are some of the most experienced and valuable.
To be sure, the number of U.S. troops killed in combat has plunged in the last five years, as President Barack Obama brought home more than 200,000 troops. In 2010, more than 500 service members were killed in action. Since the beginning of 2016, 18 have died. But 12 of them were elite trainers and commandos serving with the Army Special Forces or the Navy SEALs. Special operations troops make up about 5 percent of the military.
A culture of quiet professionalism keeps most special operations troops from speaking publicly, and the Navy has released very little information about Owens. His family and colleagues, and many relatives of other men killed, did not respond to interview requests, but details that have emerged about the soldiers who died recently show how fighting has shifted.
Their average age is 31, while the average age was 26 for U.S. casualties during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Vietnam, the average age was 23. While most of the troops killed in previous conflicts were ranked below sergeant, casualties in the last year have nearly all ranked above staff sergeant. Many, like Owens, were senior noncommissioned officers who had spent years climbing to the top of their field.
Owens enlisted in the Navy in 1998 and a few years later passed the grueling SEALs selection course. Like other special operators, he then spent years learning combat diving, parachuting, close-quarters combat and other skills of his craft.
He was deployed a dozen times to conflict zones, including Afghanistan, where he earned three Bronze Stars, two of them for valor while engaging the enemy.
The former senior Team 6 official, who spoke under the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the unit, said Owens was highly respected and “a really squared-away dude.” He was married and had three young children.
The official also noted that Team 6 operators of Owens’ generation have been deployed at a grueling pace since they entered the unit. With the exception of a stint as a trainer, “he’s been doing this nonstop for about 10 years,” the official said.
The Pentagon has more than doubled the number of Special Operations troops since 2001 and has offered generous re-enlistment bonuses to keep valued members from leaving, but many say the demands on Special Operations units are hard to sustain.
“These are the most impressive guys you'll ever meet in your life,” said Jim Moriarty, a trial lawyer in Houston who served three tours with the Marines in Vietnam. “They are extremely competent.”
His son, Staff Sgt. James Moriarty Jr., 27, was killed in November with two other Green Berets in Jordan, where they were training Syrian rebel fighters with the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group.
Like many enlisted Special Forces troops, the younger Moriarty graduated from college, but instead of becoming an officer, he chose the more kinetic life of an enlisted Green Beret. A weapons expert, he spent years getting special training, including foreign language instruction, before teaching rebels to fight the Islamic State.
He was killed on his third deployment.
At the funeral, Moriarty spoke to other members of his son’s team and found them showing the wear of constant deployment. Many were divorced; others talked about getting out of the Army.
“I worry all this reliance on them is really using them up,” he said.
Many of the troops killed last year had been deployed to war zones for the better part of a decade. Elijah Crane joined the Navy in 2001 and got out of the military in 2014. One of his best friends, Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Charles “Chuck” Keating IV, 31, stayed. He was killed last spring fighting Islamic State fighters in Iraq.
“He was an absolute warrior,” said Crane, 37. “There was nothing he was afraid of and nothing he couldn’t do.”
Between training and deployments, SEAL team members are often away from home 280 days a year, Crane said, and the pullback of conventional forces has made the job that much more hectic. But, he said, the retention rate for the units is still one of the highest in the Navy.
“Guys like Chuck, they are doing what they want to do. It’s not about money or recognition, it’s about making a difference,” he said. “It can be a strain, but as SEALs, we know the deal. There are a lot of people out there that want to hurt Americans. If it comes down to us over there or someone’s grandma over here, we’d rather it be us.”