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Who Are The Navy SEALs And What Is Team Six?

The training and operations of the Navy SEALS are top secret.
The training and operations of the Navy SEALS are top secret.
U.S. President Barack Obama's meeting with some of the commandos who raided Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan and killed the Al-Qaeda leader has shone a rare public spotlight on one of America's most secret special operations forces.

Obama will reportedly greet members of Team Six on May 6 in private at Fort Campbell, a U.S. Army base in Kentucky, where he will also speak with soldiers recently returned from duty in Afghanistan.

Team Six is the most elite unit of America's Naval Special Warfare Development Group. That larger group is more familiarly known as the SEALs, an acronym that stands for SEa, Air, and Land – the three theaters of the commandos' operations.

The presidential thanks will cap a week during which members of the SEALs' Team Six have become national heroes, even though most people know very little about the force itself. Former members of the SEALs have appeared on U.S. television talk shows and sales of books written by former SEALs before the bin Laden mission have soared.

The insignia of the Navy SEALs
But even as the former commandos speak, they reveal only a minimum of details about what kind of missions the SEALs undertake, and how.

That is, and will likely remain, top secret.

As a SEAL spokesman, Captain Duncan Smith, told ABC News this week: "A lot of those missions, a majority of those missions, are ones that the public will never know about…and that's a good thing."

What is known about the SEALs and their most elite unit is only what emerges after a front-page raid like that in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2 and a handful of other high-profile operations over the past decades.

Among the previous visible operations of Team Six are the rescue of the governor of Grenada in the 1983 U.S. invasion of the Caribbean island to reverse a communist coup, and the liberation of the captain of an American ship, the "Maersk Alabama," from Somali pirates in 2009.

The elite squad also helped hunt down war criminals in the Balkans and was widely reported by U.S. media as leading the 2010 operation to free British aid worker Linda Norgrove from Afghan insurgents. Norgrove died in that attempt.

Created In 1980

Team Six was created in 1980 in the wake of the failed U.S. effort to rescue American diplomats held hostage in Iran. That effort, under then U.S. President Jimmy Carter, also intended to use helicopter-borne commandos in a covert operation but had to be aborted due to equipment failure in the rescue helicopters.

The first commander of Team Six, Richard Marcinko, says no expenses were spared in forming the elite unit.

"With 75 shooters when I started, the training allowance for SEAL Team Six for training ammunition was more than the whole Marine Corps," he told Reuters.

Marcinko, who has recounted his experiences in a book titled "Rogue Warrior," says the name Team Six was chosen as a ruse to fool the then Soviet Union into believing there were more elite commando squads than actually existed at the time.

The SEALs attempted to destroy their damaged helicopter before leaving bin Laden's compound but only partially succeeded.

He also has told the press that this week's Abbottabad mission was a perfect example of the team operating flawlessly.

"When the bird (helicopter) goes down, a back-up bird came in. The pilots that were there destroyed the bird, while the SEALs were getting Osama bin Laden," he says. "There was no hiccups, there was no pause to refresh. We know what we're doing. That's why we're here. That's the difference. Now, what does it do to us? Well, I'm a proud papa today."

Five Years Of Training

According to varying media estimates, the number of Team Six members is around 200 to 300. They are selected from among the most capable of the larger SEAL force, which numbers some 2,300.

The SEAL force itself is composed of commandos who have trained for about five years before earning the right to go on missions. Among their skills are parachuting from high altitudes, submarine operations, and underwater demolition.

Most of those who volunteer for the SEAL force fail at some time during the grueling training process. Captain Kenneth Klothe, a SEAL and director of the irregular warfare course at National Defense University in Washington, D.C., told the French news agency AFP that psychological stress even more than physical duress is the deciding factor.

"A lot of the guys mentally can't stand it," he says. Only about one-third of recruits reportedly finish the training process.

As many former members told American media this week, the commandos do not only carry out missions as needed, they perform training simulations every day in between. The challenge is to constantly be at peak performance in what, in fact, is a lifestyle as much as a profession.

Delta Force Competition

The Navy's SEALS are not the only famous U.S. special force; another is the U.S. Army's Delta Force. The distinction between them, theoretically, is that the SEALs carry out marine operations, while Delta Force does land operations.

But the use of the SEALs' Team Six for the Osama bin Laden mission shows the line between America's so-called "Tier One" units can be blurred.

Much speculation has surrounded the question of why Team Six was chosen for Abbottabad, rather than Delta Force. In Washington, one line of thinking is that it may simply be due to inter-service rivalry. The current top U.S. military commander is Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, himself a Navy man.

Whatever the reasons Team Six was chosen for the mission, its success in removing Bin Laden has made it a household word. All this week, Americans have celebrated the team's success and they are likely to continue doing so for a long time to come.