Mattis on recent US military deaths: 'They're not part of a life-insurance corporation'

A US Navy SEAL was killed and two other special-operations troops were wounded while advising and assisting a Somali-led mission about 40 miles west of the country’s capital earlier this month.

The SEAL, 38-year-old Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Kyle Milliken, was the first American to die in combat in Somalia since 1993.

The mission he was attached to came under fire during a mission against extremist group al-Shabab.

Milliken’s death came just a few weeks after dozens of regular US troops were deployed to the country, and his presence in the country was part of a special-operations and counterterrorism deployment the US has dispatched to Somalia in recent years.

Milliken’s death comes after several others that took place during counterterrorism operations, including the April 29 death of a US Army platoon leader in Mosul, the April 8 death of a US Army Green Beret in Nangarhar, Afghanistan, and the January 28 death of a Navy SEAL during an operation in Yemen.

Asked about such counterterrorism operations during a Friday briefing at the Pentagon, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford said the “broad guidance” given to US forces working with partners on the ground in Somalia and elsewhere — “that they stay at the last cover and conceal position short of the objective, in that they don’t actually close with the enemy” — hadn’t changed.

Air Force special operationsUS Air Force photo/Senior Airman John LinzmeierAirmen from the 320th Special Tactics Squadron gather around their team lead outside a shoot house as he discusses details of an upcoming mission November 19, 2015, at Camp Hansen, Japan.

When pressed by CNN’s Barbara Starr about Milliken’s position with partner forces at the time of his death, Defence Secretary James Mattis said that despite the guidance given to and precautions taken by US forces, risks in such operations could not always be negated.

“When you’re on patrol, you can’t always be in a safe position,” Mattis said.

“The lads know they’re not part of a life-insurance corporation. They’re trained for this, and they go out and they do their job the best they can,” he added. “I’m confident that our military forces are carrying out the intent, which is they do not put themselves forward to do the job that partnered forces actually want to do but they need our support in doing.”

Marine Special Operations TeamSgt. Pete Thibodeau/US Marine CorpsA Marine Special Operations Team member fires a M240B machine gun during night-fire sustainment training in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

US special operations forces have been tasked with a high operational tempo in recent years, as the war on terror and related operations, especially those against ISIS in the Middle East, have dragged on.

Special operations commanders have acknowledged the strain placed on their forces by the increased operations, but they have emphasised that they are capable of meeting emerging threats around the world.

Others, however, have sounded warnings about how such deployments are eroding special forces units.

“We’ve mortgaged the future in order to facilitate current operations that has impacted readiness and it’s also impacted development of force for the future,” Theresa Whelan, principal deputy assistant secretary of defence for special operations, said during a House Armed Services Committee session this month.

“And as the threats grow, this is only going to get worse.”

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