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Navy confirms addition of 272 new Navy SEAL slots

Senior Chief Petty Officer Richard Sanchez

By MATTHEW DOLAN, The Virginian-Pilot June 13, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH, VA -- While Navy fighter pilots owned the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan, it was a different kind of elite sailor fighting down below.

Among them was Senior Chief Petty Officer Richard Sanchez of Chesapeake, who led a SEAL platoon that killed 40 members of the Taliban and al-Qaida and wounded another 100 in Afghanistan.

``It's still a combat zone,'' said Sanchez, 38, who returned home in April. ``We were still calling in airstrikes.''

Now the military intends to add more commandos like Sanchez to its ranks.

Navy officials confirmed that 272 slots -- the equivalent of two SEAL teams -- will be added to Naval Special Warfare over the next five years, a 5 percent growth.

``It's a small investment for a large payoff,'' said Cmdr. Alan Oshirak, the outgoing commanding officer of SEAL Team Eight at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach. He leaves his command today for a new post at the Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla.

It will take some time before the new teams are ready. Some 70 percent of all applicants wash out of the SEAL screening process.

``It takes six years for a SEAL to go through all of the training that's out there,'' Oshirak said.

Naval Special Warfare units, the home of the SEALs, include about 5,000 people. Oshirak said that the Pentagon's budget for special forces is still less than 2 percent of the nation's military spending.

The Navy's top leaders see a chance to increase the use of SEALs while continuing to bolster the capabilities of special operations forces.

``Is it fair to say it is likely that there will be new and different missions and applications in the future? I think the rational response is yes,'' Adm. Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations, said in an interview with reporters in Washington, last week.

He continued: ``Do I know how? No, I don't. Do I believe that this kind of capability needs to be exploited in the 21st century? You bet.''

The Navy divides its special forces between the East and West coasts. SEAL Team Eight and three others call Little Creek home. Another four are in Southern California.

In Iraq, SEALs -- an acronym for sea-air-land -- covertly stormed and took control of offshore oil terminals to prevent their destruction. They also captured sites along the northern Persian Gulf.

In interviews with Oshirak and three of his SEALs at Little Creek on Thursday, a sketch could be drawn of a small but highly trained force dispatched to far-flung corners of the world.

One SEAL hunted war criminals in the Balkans. In South America and Central America, another trained local armies in drug interdiction.

The challenge for these ``operators,'' as SEALs are known, lies in doing their clandestine jobs faster and with lighter equipment, Oshirak said.

During the interview, Oshirak took out a piece of candy one of his SEALs had brought back from Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden's face was on the wrapper.

``If this is out there,'' he said. ``we still have a job to do there.''

The New York Times contributed to this story. Reach Matthew Dolan at mdolan@pilotonline.com or 446-2322.