Army Rangers with the 1st Infantry Division arrive on site for a simulated injured soldier during the Ranger first responder course at Fort Benning, Ga., in April.(Photo: John David Mercer, USA TODAY Sports)
(USA TODAY) -- Marriages among many of the nation's elite troops - Navy SEALs, Green Berets, Rangers and others - are so damaged after years of war that one in five commandos say that if given the chance, they would have married someone else or not at all.
The results of a first-ever survey of special operations forces, troops drawn from all four branches of the military, show a highly trained force where small sectors are struggling with alcohol abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, anger and emotional numbness. As many as one in four admit sleeping five or fewer hours each night.
The elite troops have conducted the most secretive combat missions of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, including the 2011 raid where Osama bin Laden was killed.
An executive summary of the survey results was provided to USA TODAY.
They echo concerns raised in recent years by Navy Adm. William McRaven, who leads the nation's 66,000-member Special Operations Command, that his force has become "frayed" after more than a decade of persistent conflict.
"I think that's a gentle way to articulate what's happening," says Navy SEAL Capt. Thomas Chaby, appointed by McRaven to lead an effort to restore the force. " 'Frayed' I don't think captures how dire some of the findings are."
Chaby says he is particularly concerned that the percentage of troops seeking therapy -- 4% -- is only a fraction of those suffering from PTSD, alcohol abuse and other emotional issues, leaving potentially thousands untreated.
Suicides also have increased among special operations personnel, nearly doubling from 2011 to 2012 from 10 to 19, including the death of a SEAL team commander who killed himself shortly before Christmas while deployed to Afghanistan. So far this year there have six potential suicide cases through May, says Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ligia Cohen, a spokeswoman for Special Operations Command.
In response, Special Operations Command is spending up to $300 million over the next five years, hiring the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm to broaden staffing for behavioral and physical health, nutrition, family assistance and data analysis. Chaby characterizes the program as temporary until existing military medical programs for all troops are expanded.
Part of the program provides mental health counselors "embedded" in special operations units and more accessible to troubled servicemembers, he says.
The contract with Booz Allen allows the flexibility to spend up to $475 million on the program if necessary, but Chaby says that is highly unlikely.The program is designed to augment services provided by various military branch surgeons general. Chaby says special operation forces and their families need care tailored to their unique needs.
Between combat deployments and training trips to rugged far-flung areas, special forces may spend eight or nine months each year away from their families. The pace has wreaked havoc on marriages, Chaby says.
"If we don't address (the strains) now, we're going to have major problems," Chaby says. "That's all we ask of the nation is give us a chance to implement this program."
A University of Pittsburgh study shows the annual injury rate among special operations troops is as high as 46% compared with 24% among conventional troops.
"We beat our guys up in training, frankly, because we have to, to see if they have what it takes to succeed on the battlefield," Chaby says. "We can't wait until they're up in the mountains of Afghanistan to see how they're going to respond. We have to find it out now."
He says this is one reason why nearly 300 athletic trainers, rehabilitation specialists, dietitian-nutritionists and sports psychologists are being hired to help treat and prevent these injuries.
The survey was conducted late last year online; about 12,000 troops and spouses participated. Among the biggest issues they cited: the need to improve medical, dental, child care, mental health and educational services for these elite troops and their families.
About 10% of those who responded showed signs in their answers of alcohol abuse or dependency. Eight percent showed signs of PTSD and 11% said they suffered from emotional numbness.