I started this site over eight years ago. Sketched it out on a napkin in a San Diego diner called Coffee Cup.
Jack Murphy and I were both writing for Military.com, but both of us wanted to stretch our editorial legs beyond what the staff would let us.
So I got to work getting the site coded on Word Press with the help of Cris our developer. He’s still with us! A few months later we had a site that was ready to go and about a month’s worth of articles to give us a content buffer.
I would go on to be the first Editor of the site while keeping my day job as a defense company executive until two things happened: I finally sold my book “The Red Circle” after being turned down by most publishers; and we landed our first large advertising campaign from USAA.
These two things gave me the confidence to leave my job and go full time with SOFREP.
Many copy cats would follow but, SOFREP was the first of its kind. The site would quickly branch out from offering military interest pieces to providing an unvarnished, insider look, into the Special Ops, military, and foreign policy apparatus.
In brief, the guys writing for the site were tired of the mainstream media getting it wrong in parts of the world most couldn’t find on a map or pronounce correctly and I soon found us breaking major stories ahead of the main stream media.
The site became an instant hit with millions of users in the first few months.
It was also instantly unpopular within active duty leadership circles that no longer hide behind their public affairs officers and get away with bad leadership, corruption, or negligence.
Did we make plenty of mistakes along the way? You bet, but we always owned up to them, and got better as a result. I’m proud of this fact almost a decade later.
Some of the biggest issues the site has gone through have affected me very deeply. I’ll get to them in a bit.
One of the most controversial thing we’ve done outside of breaking the first transgender Navy SEAL was the video we ran on the Special Forces Niger ambush. Can you believe that I had no idea Jack was publishing that piece until I noticed my social media blowing up? It’s true. I called Jack and had to ask what the heck did we just publish! It was clear that we didn’t take the care and respect required to publish that video until after the backlash.
After that, I put a publishing board and procedures in place to ensure we followed strict guidelines when it came to reporting on sensitive topics.
On to my own experience with the site.
Probably the two biggest things that have affected me personally since started the business have been hiring veterans and reporting on war crimes related to the Navy SEAL community.
Let’s look at the first, hiring vets.
We didn’t have good hiring practices and we didn’t do deep reference checks or drug testing. This would lead to one of my biggest personal challenges since getting through SEAL training in 1998 with class 215. I’ll talk honestly and openly about both here, for the first time.
More than a few writers who contributed to SOFREP or SOFREP radio in the past had major alcohol and drug problems.
They were credible, and accomplished in the military but their lives unraveled when they transitioned to civilian life.
When they came to us we naively welcomed them with open arms. I wanted to hire vets; we all did and still do. We just didn’t understand what we were getting ourselves into by not having good hiring practices.
Everyone paid for this, me, the staff, and the membership.
How and why did this happen?
I’m not a mental health professional but I can guess that most of the issues these guys faced were attributed to combat trauma, lack of military to civilian transition support (one week of half-day classes we get are just not enough), and very poor policy at the Veterans Administration (VA). I hear, and hope, the VA is getting better. To throw hardcore prescription drugs at men and women suffering from combat trauma is tragic.
From my own recent experience with the VA, I’m concerned it’s still an endemic problem and largely contributing to veteran suicide. Guys like myself who adapted to life outside the military have the patience to suffer through the bureaucracy. Most of those that need help take an easier way out, unfortunately.
Within a year of getting out, I was prescribed two forms of opiates and three-four additional prescription drugs by different doctors across two VA hospitals in San Diego (Mission Valley and La Jolla branches). I remember feeling so out of it taking opiates for my back pain that I flushed all my drugs in the toilet and started yoga and a pescatarian diet. The yoga did fix most of my back pain issues.
Back to bad hiring…
The issues with writers caused me, Jack, and the guys a lot of pain. This is because once we identified the issue there was no easy fix other than just cutting them loose. The results were messy. Our membership was sad to see a writer go, confused as to why, and adding to the confusion was a bitter and very public break up on social media. Everyone loves drama.
After a while the pattern was clear to us. Veteran needs a job, comes to us hat in hand. We give him a job or opportunity. He goes unhinged at some point, the money stops, and then publicly blows up at me and the site. “Brandon’s a bad person.”
Rinse, and repeat.
To give you a specific example that shows you just how real and painful it is, here we go.
One veteran writer turned Crate Club employee was confronted with a drug issue in 2018. He admitted the problem, and I let him go immediately. However, compassionate to his case I gave him two months severance pay with outreach to his wife to offer support and help him get counseling.
He proceeded (after his severance was up) to trash-talk me and the company and was dead by suicide within a year. This is the real messy stuff nobody wants to talk about. I heard his funeral was not well attended. Like most who struggle with addiction, they leave a trail of bodies behind.
Personally, it’s been really tough to want to help veterans, and then see the very people you help turn on you and trash you in public.
It’s now why I don’t easily endorse or hire veterans into our organization unless they are vetted, and can pass a drug test and background check.
Have other good writers gone their way because of personal and professional goals that no longer align with SOFREP or my own standards? Yes, and this happens in other organizations all the time. Usually, this is a good thing for all parties involved; it’s just time to move on.
Our previous Editor, Nick Coffman, did an incredible job and after two years we both parted on good terms. Nick did great things to professionalize our writing staff and boost traffic but, it was clear to both of us that it was time for him to turn a new chapter in his career. He’s left SOFREP much better off. I wish him the best and he’ll always have a home at SOFREP.
We’ve got a lot better at hiring really good people who know how to behave off air. I just wish it would have happened sooner but you live and you learn.
On to the next topic. War Crimes.
Not an easy thing for anyone to talk about or come face-to-face with.
People ask me all the time on social media why I’m not popular within the SEAL community after I left. Try running a site that peels back the curtain on some really bad stuff, be asked to come on major tv news media as a commentator, and have several bestselling books. This combo is not a move that will make you popular among a group that desperately wanted only the attention they carefully dished up through movies like, Act of Valor, video games, and movie appearances. This was serious stuff being talked about and many were rightfully afraid, especially when many would face the UCMJ or jail time for their actions.
This also came at a time when most of the American public wasn’t prepared to face some really bad things happening inside the military, especially the darlings of media, the Navy SEALs.
The country was still celebrating their heroes, and didn’t want to hear about war crimes. Now, two decades later, after endless wars, over deploying our military, and trillions of tax payer money sunk into Iraq and Afghanistan, I think people are finally ready to listen.
But, I found myself and SOFREP thrust into the fray when multiple sources, guys I served with, came to us as sources regarding things I couldn’t possibly believe were true. Until they presented hard evidence. Then it just freaked me out.
“How could the SEAL community, a community I loved, let so many bad things happen?” I thought to myself.
The answer is clear. Really bad leadership.
Over two decades this had allowed the community’s culture to fell into something resembling more of a Hells Angels biker gang than professional Special Operations unit. I’ve written about this extensively and painfully in the past because it helped me with my own trauma and I still believe the actions I took below was the right thing to do given the circumstances.
Good and bad examples drive any organization to excellence or the opposite.
Example: Enforcing a zero-tolerance drug policy. This sends a clear signal that the behavior will not be tolerated. Send the opposite signal by covering up a drug problem because “he’s a good operator,” and you set the stage for how a community falls into performance and drug issues. The latter example happened to a senior chief I worked for. The command covered for him, his theft of pharmacy grade drugs from a trusted friend who was a doctor, and we just tucked him away until retirement. I heard he ended up dead a few years later.
The issues around drugs were also clearly documented and written about in the bestselling book, “Fearless”. The book showcases how a former convicted felon, went on to become a SEAL, a very charismatic one. Then his crack addiction returned while he was on active duty, his teammates hid it, and he ended up successfully screening for SEAL Team 6. Let that sit with you for a bit. The Nations top counter terrorism unit.
So what did those sources in the SEAL community start talking to SOFREP about?
Embezzlement of taxpayer money (I’m not talking about fudging on your travel claim: I’m talking hundreds of thousands of dollars and forged overseas receipts); killing innocent people,: drug abuse (cocaine, crystal meth, and more); smuggling money and goods back to the U.S.; taking body parts as war trophies; and much more.
”I can’t possibly bring this up to leadership or my career is over, please help us get this out.”, was a common theme among the few with the guts to come forward.
I honestly didn’t know what to do. So I asked for help.
The Editor of a big local newspaper was a friend and confidant of mine. He said, over coffee one morning: “You don’t want to touch most of this with SOFREP. Go to the military and let them know, point them in the right direction and let them deal with it.”
So that’s what I tried to do, only it didn’t work out so well. SOCOM just wanted the names of who was talking to us.
I didn’t realize the backlash that would follow for me and SOFREP and I really haven’t talked about it much until now.
I would ultimately find out that it was impossible to do this quietly or have it be a popular move for me in the community.
I saw a spotless military career, being meritoriously promoted as the number one ranked SEAL at training command torn down viciously inside the community overnight. Mostly out of fear and jealously. It sucked but in a way it’s easy to understand, especially since I had a bestselling book, and was doing ok financially. They saw it as a betrayal and I saw it as the same.
The next thing I knew, SEALs I served with and thought were my friends, turned against me. The late-night text message threats, trash-talking on social media. Guys who were pieces of shit in the community were coming after me! Some I personally kicked out of the Team for drugs or performance issues as a Chief Petty Officer. I still cringe at the SEALs with terrible operational reputations who have social media followings and are now self-proclaimed, “keepers of the community.”
It’s easy to identify most because their accounts are far from professional, filled with hate, jealously and drama. Nobody who’s living a good life has time to shit on other people, period.
Then NCIS wanted to talk, and reporters from big outlets were reaching out to me and members of the site for background on other sources who were coming forward. I’m really condensing the events, but to say it was a shit show would be putting it very mildly.
Then a few bad actors tried to take me (and the site) down publicly by stating that I embellished my combat service in The Red Cirlce, which is well documented in my military record and other first hand accounts and publications.
Did I make mistakes writing that book? Write about people by name that I wished I could change later? Did it ruffle some feathers? Did people get famous for stuff they didn’t want to get known for in that book? For sure! Do people experience events in life differently with different recollections? Yes, even my own father and I had to reconcile on some of what was in the book. The Red Circle is fundamentally true, and represents the best of my recollection back to when I was a scared teenage kid working on a dive boat to my combat deployments.
I still remember getting a call from my friend at one of the major news media outlets warning me that a story was being shopped about me to try and take away my credibility. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It comes across as pretty unhinged.” But, few reporters these days will let facts get in the way of a good story that has Navy SEAL in the headline and will surely draw the clicks.
I survived the story. They ended up redacting the wrongly reported facts but the damage was done, and they got their headline.
So where does all of the bumps and bruises leave SOFREP and me eight years later?
Stronger, and wiser.
Plus the regular members at the site could see through the BS and stayed with us.
So what now for SOFREP?
Editorially we are in great shape. I have always liked that we are a place where different viewpoints are expressed. That’s what pushes us all to be better in the world.
Our new Editor, Jacob, is a top-notch writer and manager. He’s proven he can operate within a professional civilian organization and excel, long before we brought him into the role of Editor in Chief. Jacob and I both share a great vision for what SOFREP can become as we reach almost a decade in business.
E-sports are also on the horizon for us, not only the coverage of military video games, I’m talking about a SOFREP sniper game.
Our e-book publishing is off to a solid start as well. We’ve got over a dozen books in production.
This year the company and I signed with WME agency for film/tv/gaming rights (they also own UFC). Our goal is to streamline our publishing business for our writers and readers, and take the really great books and feed them into film and tv-series with the help of WME.
Events! More member events hosted by our writers. Live online and in-person meetups are coming!
I have a lot of people to thank for this: mentors, friends, and teammates who stuck with me through all the bullshit. The real gift of any adverse situation is that you see who truly has your back. It’s why I keep a small circle of friends and don’t let too many into the fold.
Something that has also helped me personally and professionally is going back to business school. Harvard Business School (HBS) has been transformational for me, as has joining several professional networks, including the Young Presidents Organization (YPO).
The global network at HBS and YPO, the professors, new friends, and exposure to best practices in business has been massive for me.
SOFREP continues to evolve and grow. I’m proud of the community we’ve built with our readership over the past eight years.
I hope this honest assessment helps fill in some of the blanks for the seasoned and our newest SOFREP members.
At the end of the day, it takes ALL of us, writers, and members, to make the site the special place it has become.
Thanks for listening.
Note: The author edited and added to the original article on 9/1/20.