Training for the command is legendary. More than 70% of volunteers fail. Recruits learn to survive for weeks in hostile environments, eating bugs and rodents to survive. They scale oil rigs carrying 100 pounds of gear, parachute from 30,000 feet and learn to operate without sleep for up to a week.
Various Units Operate Under Single Command
Members of these units have skills ranging from foreign languages to bomb-building to hot-wiring trucks.
"Even in training we use real bullets and real bombs," said Moleda, who was shot in the back during the Noriega raid and was paralyzed from the waist down.
Even within the military, the loyalty and commitment in special operations is unparalleled, former members say. "It has the highest divorce rate in the military," Messing said. "That speaks volumes."
Moleda said he has one thought as he watches preparations for military action: "I would hope for a miracle so I could stand up and walk and go back in."
Though covert operations date back to the American Revolution, modern-day special operations began to emerge in the 1960s under President John F. Kennedy. Today the various units operate under a single command, based at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. Much of the training still occurs at John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Ft. Bragg.
Smith, the former Army intelligence officer, predicted that the importance of such units will continue to increase.
"I wouldn't be surprised when this is over that there will be more interest in the special operations community," he said. "We are forecasting a continuing decline in the kinds of conventional encounters we saw in the Gulf War and more along the lines of [the current action] or Vietnam."
Some Friction With Mainstream Military
A larger role for special operations could stir controversy within the ranks, according to some experts. Though special operations relies heavily on conventional forces and intelligence agencies, there has historically been friction between the mainstream military, which receives the bulk of the money, and special operations, which enjoys an elite status.
Still, a higher profile is something such units are unaccustomed to.
"Special operations is known as the quiet professionals," Messing said. "They are not the chest-beaters. But they are a heroic bunch."