Q: How much of every donated dollar goes to support the SOF wounded couple?
A: One hundred percent. Unlike many not-for-profit organizations, OHF Founder Gary Markel and his brother, Tony Markel, personally pay for the overhead for Operation Healing Forces. That allows 100% of every contribution to support the special operations wounded couples’ participation. This is a unique and tremendous bonus to allow our non-profit to serve as many SOF as possible.
Q: How often are SOF deployed?
A: The end of major combat operations and a shift to nontraditional missions is placing new and unique pressure on the Special Operations community. While the Pentagon’s planners are studiously avoiding large-scale deployments of ground troops, the small teams of highly skilled fighters, including Army Special Forces, Navy SEALS, Rangers, and others are working harder than ever. “We’re very exhausted from a very high ops tempo,” said an Air Force lieutenant colonel who now serves as a doctor with the special operations forces. He fears that 13 years of breakneck pace has worn down the Nation’s elite warriors. “Special operations are for limited scope, limited time, high-threat, high-risk activities, but not repeated deployments over and over. And that’s how we’re being used,” he said. Today, special operations troops make up a large percentage of dwindling number of U.S personnel on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are also deployed in dozens of other countries, many in operations that are classified. The doctor said he worries that if special operations forces are ground down and decide to leave the service, it’s going to be incredibly tough to replace those highly trained troops. He said he already has seen “more than a few” extremely talented special operators leave, because the operational tempo has been too strenuous and placed too much strain on them and their families.
*Excerpt from Chapter 3 of: http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/2014/12/14/americas-military-deployment-tempo-troops-families/20191377/
Q: Is this just a vacation for Special Operations couples?
A: In the words of one Special Operations wife, “Absolutely not!” While there are some features that a typical family would equate with a vacation, such as time away with a loved one at a beautiful location, there are extremely important factors that certainly don’t quantify OHF as a vacation.
We don’t think a typical vacation includes discussing IED explosions, gunshot wounds, fallen friends, surgeries, and medical assistance options. These couples have undergone years of warfare since 9/11 with the special operator having multiple combat deployments and the spouse having to survive effectively as a single mom, balance the checkbook, take care of the home, and often work as well. When the kids are in bed, nights are often spent watching the TV intently listening for their husband’s unit or about the country he’s operating in wondering if he’s okay.
These SOF couples have not been able to spend much if any time together and their marriage has deteriorated and suffered as a result of their service and love of our Country. They need an opportunity to reconnect. Second, service in special operations — whether deployed to war, on humanitarian missions, or home but not home because you’re gone for training — has put marriages at risk. SOF currently has the highest divorce and suicide rate in its history.
As a Special Forces spouse stated, “The reason I came on OHF was to see if my marriage was even worth saving.” On OHF, unlike vacations, the few people around the SOF couple have experienced many of the same hardships from multiple deployments, hospitals, and wounds that are physical, mental, and emotional. Wives finally have someone they can speak to and lean on who is also trying to figure out, “What happened to the man I married? He’s not the same.” And, spouses learn from each other how to cope, try to understand, and help their husbands. Likewise, SOF warriors rarely speak of their experiences, especially to someone outside the community. Yet in these small groups where all come from similar backgrounds, the special operator can share and unload burdens among this family brotherhood at his own pace whenever he feels ready with no pressure and not have to worry about any reprisals either real or imagined.
Spouses have learned a great deal just by listening to their husband finally share experiences with a fellow operator. And, the SOF couple finally has time to also be alone together as well as participate in activities to once again enjoy life and each other for a change. OHF has had numerous participants state the experience literally helped save their marriage.
On an OHF program, there are tears shed, smiles created, and positive memories stored. These memories are intended to help heal past hardships and save for future trials. For some SOF will return to the battlefield while others will possibly face their most difficult task of all, how to leave special operations and fit successfully into society again.
Q: Who’s eligible for the retreat program?
While we continue to serve our SOF wounded, ill, and injured and their significant others, we also welcome any SOF couple that has experienced the stress of deployments, trainings, family illnesses, and the unique stressors of being family that serves our country.
We recognize that military life presents unique challenges to the spouses and significant others and we are always grateful for a chance to appreciate them through our retreat program.
If you are looking for the chance to reconnect with your spouse, we hope you won’t hesitate to contact us at Billy.DeLong@ophf.org.
Q: Why can’t we do bigger groups?
A: Most people have a natural tendency not to speak in front of large groups, especially if they are asked to share something extremely private and sensitive. Special Operations Forces are used to operating in small teams, in remote areas, and rely on themselves and a few very close teammates. Can they speak in front of a very large group, absolutely, and they’d be very articulate. However to share very close personal and emotional, physical, mental, and emotional trauma, special operators have learned to hide it for fear of reprisal. A SOF member cannot show weakness out of concern for being removed from his team or thought less of.
While attempts have been made to change this culture, it still exists. Yet on OHF, we have SOF members from different services and their spouses in small groups where they naturally feel more secure. And, once they realize that the only other members of the small group are just like them, it promotes an atmosphere of camaraderie and willingness to discuss topics they would not broach elsewhere.
Q: Why don’t you use the participants’ real names?
A: Special operations are often classified or very sensitive in nature. As a result, if we were to use our participants’ real names, it could potentially threaten their safety as well as that of their families. Hence, we also do not utilize photographs or videos on our webpage that show the faces of our active duty participants.
Q: Why don’t you have a ‘licensed’ counselor on OHF programs?
A: Our very first programs had a licensed counselor as part of the program; however, we had mixed results. We ask every SOF wounded couple as part of the screening process if they would want a licensed counselor as part of the program. Ninety-nine percent of our couples said they did not want a counselor present.
Many of our SOF wives have stated that their husbands will not speak or open up if an “official” counselor is present. They feel it would make the situation more awkward and do more harm than good. The SOF couples want and need time to themselves without third party intervention. Furthermore, the SOF couples have articulated that they do not want to meet a counselor for a week and then never see that person again. As one of the Special Forces wives stated, “We make our own best counselors.”
In sum, the SOF couples do not want someone who has not walked in their boots to try and tell them what they should or should not feel. However, if we ever have SOF couples ask for a licensed counselor, we will establish a program with a counselor specifically from the SOF community used to dealing with and knowledgeable of these unique wartime marriage issues.
Currently, on every OHF program, either the OHF Director or Program Manager not only arranges the entire program’s schedule but also serves as the SOF wounded couples guide, host, Sherpa, and facilitates their experience from therapeutic activities to personal and group conversations.
No one is directed to share but can and do so at their own pace when they feel they are ready. Given the Director and Program Manager are from the SOF community, participants are much more willing to share and exchange information and experiences. If a “counseling” moment or advice is ever needed, both the Director and Program Manager have over 40 years of military and SOF experience where they’ve served in numerous leadership positions where counseling was an inherent part of the job.
On an OHF program, peer counseling is what truly takes place and not in a directive sense but one of sharing and understanding.
Q: Where do you find candidate couples? How does your selection process work?
A: We work directly with the United States Special Operations Command’s (USSOCOM) Care Coalition. The Care Coalition tracks and assists all wounded, ill, or injured special operators from all branches.
When OHF receives a donation of time at a resort, home, or yacht, if the “healing platform” and location are not known, either the OHF Program Manager or Executive Director conduct a site visit. The purpose of the visit is to verify what level of wounded SOF can the site support (handicapped accessible, stairs, elevators, etc.), become familiar with the surrounding area, speak with potential therapeutic activity and meal donors, line up logistical and backside support, and plan a detailed itinerary for the SOF wounded couples.
As dates for the OHF program are set and the schedule is finalized, coordination is made with USSOCOM’s Care Coalition. The Care Coalition then conducts a screening of SOF couples that are available to participate (in between surgeries, pending medical board outcome, can take leave, etc.) and who are in marital discord, who would benefit most from the OHF program.
Next, Care Coalition nominates these couples to the OHF Program Manager who then immediately contacts the couples to verify their interest and ability to participate. The OHF Program Manager discusses the OHF program and its objectives. The Program Manager then goes through a process to further screen the SOF couples to make sure OHF will be a good fit for the couple and not place a couple in a program where it would make them uncomfortable.
On each OHF event, we have between four to five SOF wounded couples. OHF has found that by keeping small team numbers, just like on special operations missions, couples are more inclined to share their hardships and experiences with one another from similar backgrounds and an informal healing on their own timeline takes place. Members of the SOF community normally do not share such close held feelings with those outside the community nor with large groups. Likewise, the spouses are able to confide in each other to share hardships, gain strength from one another, and share resources for assistance.
Strong bonds are formed between spouses, shared between brethren special operators, and re-built between couples.