“Never shall I fail my comrades” and “I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy” are moral truths that every special operations soldier lives by. They are part of a creed, a promise, and a guarantee that we all live by, regardless of circumstances. When you think about this promise, you may conjure up images of fighting the enemy to the death, maybe a vision from the movie “Blackhawk Down,” or even a platoon of Rangers going to rescue some Navy SEALs. Sorry my trident-wearing brothers, I couldn’t resist. You know I love you.
These promises and many others are some of the reasons special operations soldiers are different, and one of the reasons most civilians can’t understand our mindset. If you buy into these promises—and if you are in SOF, you’d better—then isn’t it a logical extension to follow these promises not just while wearing a uniform into battle, but for the rest of our lives?
Twenty-two veterans a day commit suicide. Every day, every week, every month, and so on. Maybe this number does not grab you. Think of it this way: If you served in a Ranger battalion and had a company formation every day for a week, at the final formation, there would be no one there. If you served in a Special Forces group and did the same thing, you would be down a battalion in about the same time. Now the number should have your full attention.
If you asked a stranger why the number is so high, the immediate answer would likely be because they saw and did so many horrible things in war. This thought is not uncommon, but PTSD is not the only issue faced by so many veterans today. Don’t get me wrong, PTSD is an issue, but it is by no means the only issue. One of the main issues that leads to veterans contemplating or committing suicide is their inability to transition from military service to civilian life. How many of us have sat in a job interview knowing the job we are trying to get requires nowhere near the responsibility or talent level we are capable of? Compared to what we might have been doing only months ago, it may even seem insignificant.
If we are going to put a dent in the number of veteran suicides, we can’t only look at trying to interject when the situation reaches crisis level. You only need to look at basic military strategy to know this. If you are going to conduct a raid, you don’t want to wait until the enemy has had months to fortify their position. When it comes to attacking veteran suicide, we must look at solving the problem well before it comes to a desperate Facebook post or text in the middle of the night. The way to attack veteran suicide is to start with veteran transition.
This strategy or theory led me to Karl Monger and GallantFew. Karl is one of the founders and leaders in GallantFew; he was gracious enough to sit down with me and talk about what GallantFew is all about.
Karl, thank you for your time. Tell us a little about your military career.
Well, I started out in ROTC at Wichita State, and when I graduated I was commissioned as an infantry officer. After all of the customary fun courses you do as a new infantry officer, I was stationed in the 9th Infantry Division. I was placed in all the standard leadership positions for a young infantry officer, and then transferred out to the 25th ID, where I got my company command time and a little more staff time. While at the 25th, I put my packet in and was accepted into the Ranger Regiment. I found my way to 1st Ranger Battalion in 1990.
So how was the reception and in-processing into Regiment in 1990?
It is funny you mention that, because I was the first infantry captain to report to 1/75 that did not have a CIB and a mustard stain on his wings. So you can imagine finding a way to relate was a challenge. To make matters worse, when I arrived, Desert Storm had just kicked off. I was informed by the battalion commander that when the battalion deployed, I would be the rear detachment commander; it worked out differently than we all thought, but my reality at the time was obviously a little frustrating. So I spent about three or so years in Regiment and then transitioned out of the Army, did a little time in the Army Reserves and made major. Then I just went ahead and got out of the military altogether.
When you transitioned out of the active Army, how was the process?
The whole decision and process had a number of ups and downs, and was probably very similar to some of the things that are happening now as the military draws down again. When I decided to leave the Army, the president had opened up the voluntary separation window for captains in my year group, and I decided that leaving the service was the best thing for me. Initially, I was slated to take command of B Company, and when the new battalion commander came in, he had his own guy. Having a company command taken away from me probably had an impact on my decision, which was really made in a two-week window, so it was a hasty decision.
So your transition time was almost non-existent?
It was, and there were many things going on that had an impact on me, so I had no real plan. I spoke with a military head hunter and I was told that a captain from Ranger Regiment with a TS clearance would have no problem getting a job. The catch was, once the job was offered, I had to take it. There was no negotiation or anything. My family was important to my decision. Not knowing anything other than “here is a job,” I just wasn’t comfortable with that, so I decided to just handle my own transition.
In my first interview, which was with a very large, privately held company, the human resources officer looked at my resume and said, “Army officer? Well you guys are good at doing what you’re told and following orders. At this company, we like guys that can think outside the box, take initiative, work on their own and don’t need constant supervision.” I was floored, because I thought that was what I had been doing the majority of my career. So I did what I think many people who get out of the military do: I took the first thing I was offered that paid enough to take care of my family.
In an interview with a local family-owned business, the owner’s son was a veteran and he didn’t even have a position, but he asked me what it would take to hire me. I blurted out a number and was hired, and very quickly learned another valuable lesson about transitioning out of the military. As you might be able to see, many of the things I learned about transitioning out of the service were firsthand lessons, which I guess are good because you remember them. They’ve helped with what we do with GallantFew.
What position did they create for you?
Well they made me the safety and training manager, but the problem was I had no authority. To back up a bit, when I left the Ranger Battalion, I was Joe Votel’s assistant S-3 and had in-processed him when he arrived at 1/75, so having a position like that and a relationship with someone like that, followed by basically becoming a guy that walked into an area of a civilian company to try to improve things with no authority to do so, was very hard. I struggled with that because when you give an order in the military, especially the Ranger Regiment, it happened and it happened quickly.
Was there anything you learned in that situation that has had an impact on what you do now for GallantFew?
Absolutely. The biggest thing was, even though I had received two promotions in two years and had some success at this company, my values and the values of those I worked with were not lining up. I could not figure out how to align the two. My initial thought was to quit and find something different, and if I had not received some great mentoring from a friend from ROTC, I probably would have quit or been fired. This is where I saw the biggest issue with veterans transitioning; they start a job and it does not pay enough, the work is not really satisfying, the values they learned in the Army and live by are not the same as those around them or the company they work for, then they quit or get fired. This happens several times in a four- or five-year period. Now the veteran has a resume listing three or four jobs in a short period of time, and no one will hire them because it looks like they can’t keep a job.
Another thing that had a big impact on me was the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. When I was around four or so, my father walked out on my mom and our family. She was pregnant at the time as well. A law enforcement officer mentioned to my mom about this new program called Big Brothers and that she should put me in this program, so she did. The mentoring from the Big Brothers program had a huge impact on my life. When I got older, I joined Big Brothers and did the same thing as far as mentoring young people. I’d really seen the value of mentoring for me as a young person, and I wanted to return that to other young people. I think it really goes to show that even in the 1970s, having those who have had similar life experiences provide guidance makes a huge impact. That is really the goal of GallantFew.
What is the history of GallantFew and organizations like The Darby Project?
In 2003, I think, I decided to start the first Army Rangers networking group on Linkedin and Facebook. One of the things that lead to this was I was now a single dad, and Facebook was getting huge, so I made my daughters “friend” me on Facebook. I quickly realized how many Rangers were on Facebook. I had also taken a position as an executive director for Big Brothers/Big Sisters, which was very helpful in seeing how a non-profit worked, and how to approach case work and mentoring. This turned out to be very helpful when it came to forming GallantFew. After forming these networking groups, I learned how important and powerful social media was; platforms like LinkedIn were just amazing avenues to reach out and not only help other Rangers, but to stay in touch or rekindle previous relationships that, without social media, would have been really difficult to do.
How have some of your previous military relationships helped grow GallantFew?
When Joe Votel had his regimental change of command, he invited me back to Ft. Benning and I had a chance to reconnect with many old friends from my time in the Regiment. This was about the time that there were many stories about veteran suicide, homelessness, etc. and the more questions I asked, the more I found out that this was something that Rangers were also going through. I realized that having a network of over 1000 Rangers available through networking sites, we might be able to have a positive impact on some of these issues facing Rangers. That is really how GallantFew was formed; we became a non-profit in 2010, I believe. There is a little more to the story, though.
My industry was hit hard by the recession, and I ended up being laid off. As I was using my network of contacts to find work, I realized that there was a lot more we could do to help Rangers. This now became personal to me, as I was also looking at ways to find work, start a business, and use the VA or other veteran organizations to find employment. I ended up spending all my time using our Ranger network to help other Rangers, and ended up writing a white paper on transitioning and sent it to several people I knew in the Ranger community—one being Mike Hall, who had just retired. Mike was very interested in helping and asked what he could do. Now he is on the GallantFew board of directors. So we had formed GallantFew with my ROTC buddy and another guy, who was in Special Forces. Since the other two founders weren’t Rangers, they wanted GallantFew to help any veteran, regardless of where they served, so we established the Darby Project as a sub program to help just Rangers while GallantFew covered the rest.
The Darby Project is really about helping Rangers transition out of the military. When you think about it, guys get stationed in one of three places when they serve in the Ranger Regiment, and it is pretty likely they didn’t live there prior to joining the military. So they will get out of the military and go to another city. Well, our focus and goal is to link them with a mentor—we call them guides—to help with that transition. This may include getting a job, providing information about a career field they are interested in, helping them through the college application processes, whatever the veteran needs to move toward their goals.
The other thing that really helps is whoever the mentor/guide is from the city the transitioning Ranger is going to already has an established network, and taking advantage of those networks is where those Rangers get the most help during their transition process. When you think about it, a person who is 40 and has lived and worked in a certain part of the nation for, say, 10 years, may belong to rotary clubs, Kiwanis clubs, church groups, etc., and they can bring an enormous level of support to a transitioning soldier. The other thing that happens is the guide gains a level of pride in helping a young Ranger and showing them off to the community. It really is a two-way street.
How are GallantFew and The Darby Project different than just going through out-processing and the services that the VA or DOD provide?
One of the issues right now is who’s responsible for helping the transitioning veteran; right now it is the federal government’s responsibility. Currently, we are almost using the same replacement system we did in Vietnam when it comes to transition, where you give a veteran a couple of weeks of reverse boot camp and then send them on their way to a place they haven’t been to or seen in several years. Their friends are gone, their town is different, and they are at a different place in their lives with completely different life experiences. It is not working.
I am not saying there aren’t good people running these programs, but it is a national program that really has no reach into locations that transitioning soldiers are going back to. Here is an example of what I am talking about: You have a soldier who was in an elite unit, they have put their bodies through very difficult training and, like most soldiers in these types of units, they don’t go on sick call every time they get banged-up or injured, so there is no history of all the medical issues they have had for years.
Fast forward. This soldier gets out of the military and they have an issue, so they go to the VA. Well, there is no history of any issues when they were in the military. This type of problem steamrolls: Because the soldier has difficulty maintaining a job, they can’t get the help they were told was there for them, and now you have a much larger issue that can result in drug dependency, alcohol abuse, or even worse, suicide. This is really why GallantFew was formed and why we believe that doing a better job at the point of transition is the solution. GallantFew was formed so that a transitioning soldier has someone who they can talk to, who has had similar experiences, and can assist in putting the soldier on a path that will ensure they never get to the point where they have serious stressors because they were willing to serve their nation.
Is there an idea or solution that you can think of that would help improve the transition issue, and in turn, maybe help prevent this high suicide rate among veterans?
If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing about how the transition process works, I would ensure that the veteran does all his transition briefings and the whole process in the town they will be moving to when they leave the military. If you think about it, if you had the veteran do all of their military transition work in the city they plan on living in, you could incorporate the welcome-home projects, BBQs, job fairs, etc., in an area that the veteran will actually be living in. As an employer, what value is there for me to have a job fair in, say, Killeen, Texas, when all my employees are in St. Louis and no one at the presentation is moving to St. Louis?
What do you think makes GallantFew and The Darby Project so successful?
One of the things I have always said about GallantFew is that it has to be of the community, by the community, and for the community. We really try to put a veteran with someone in the organization that has had similar service, so if you are a Marine, we try and put you with a Marine. One of the things that really helped with this was when I went to SHOT Show, I met a former MARSOC veteran there named Nick Koumalatsos who had heard what we were doing at GallantFew and wanted to get involved.
Nick stepped up and was willing to assist in getting the Raider Project up and running. He really focuses on the SOF/combat-arms element of the USMC, and we use GallantFew to assist with the other career fields in the USMC. Some other USMC veterans I knew wanted to name it the Jarhead project, but Nick didn’t think that would work and we went with The Raider Project. He was probably right in the end.
I want to backtrack a little to the Darby Project. How was that organization formed?
When the Raider Project took off and had such success I realized that we needed the same focus on Rangers and The Darby Project, so Grant McGarry—a former 1/75 guy—stepped up and wanted to lead this project. Grant had the idea of having chapters so that we could really help the Ranger transitioning within their local community, and that fell in line with what I thought was the best practice for any veteran transition. I really think that having a fellow Ranger, or any SOF group for that matter, assist you if you served in that field is key, because regardless of when you served in the Regiment or SOF, you have a commonality that can only be understood if you served in those types of units. The same goes for any other branch or any other career field, for that matter. Everyone relates to what they know and what they did in the military, so putting guides with likeminded or similar veterans is really the key to a positive transition.
I wanted to talk about Chris Bemiss; can you tell me a little about him?
When I heard about Chris and got involved, all I knew was here was a Ranger going through a tough time, making some concerning posts on Facebook, etc. I had no idea about how bad things were, so we had a few guys start texting him and reaching out. If you have watched the movie “The Ranger,” you know what unfolded and some of the details of his story. Chris has some real-life burdens both physical and emotional, and continues to face incredible challenges every day. If you look at the GallantFew mission statement, we state, “Every veteran needs purpose so they have hope.” The thought here is if the best thing you ever did was serve in a Ranger Battalion or some other SOF unit five years ago, it doesn’t make you want to get up in the morning. This is where Chris comes in, because if you are in a tough spot and having some real difficulties, Chris will show up and just talk to you.
When Chris or another guy that does this, Mike Schlitz, who is a double amputee, show up and talk with you, they can give you a perspective that few other people can. When you see the situation they are in, you can’t feel sorry for yourself; they really help people change their perspective. When we talk about “having purpose so you can have hope,” this is what Chris and Mike are doing. This is not without peril to Chris or Mike, because when they open up to people, they take a little piece of their situation and put it in their rucksack, so to speak. That rucksack gets really heavy, and Chris and Mike are realizing that. There does come a point when you go from having the purpose of helping others to taking on more than you should.
Do you think that veterans coming from the SOF environment have a more difficult time with transition or reaching out?
I think there are some issues there that most people don’t understand. When you serve in a SOF unit, the mindset is “I can do anything or I can solve any problem.” This can really lead to not wanting to reach out and ask for help or share things that are going on. Often, guys will know that they are drinking too much or making bad decisions, but having a problem or needing help is something that guys in the SOF environment have a hard time understanding.
What can compound this is they will know they have a problem, they don’t want to reach out, they can’t find a way to solve the problem, and now the whole situation is compounded. “My problems are not someone else’s problems” is a very typical mindset in the SOF environment. I think that part of the mindset that makes a successful SOF soldier successful can also lead to problems they might have after leaving the military. If you think about it, who can relate to what it takes to serve in the Ranger Regiment, Special Forces, or the SEALs other than guys who have done that or something very similar? When your standard is 100 percent success in everything you do, and one day you have a hard time getting a decent job or whatever it might be, admitting that you need help or maybe even failed at something is very difficult, and if the solution is to hold that in, it can turn into a very bad situation very quickly.
What’s the best way that other veterans can help a group like GallantFew, The Darby Project, or the Raider Project? I would imagine that many people think they need to have money or something unique in order to make a difference.
We get that a lot people will call and want to make a donation or just ask how they can help, and really the biggest thing that matters is getting the veterans in your area connected. At some point, a veteran will come into your area and need some help, and what the veteran may need will likely vary, but if there is some level of a support group of veterans already established in the community, then it is very likely that whatever that transitioning veteran needs will be available.
The other thing that is important is to get the community involved. One example of this: We had a small community of less than 15,000 people, and there was a guy whose house had burned down. Someone reached out to me and said, “Hey, the house that burned down? The guy who owned it was a SEAL.” My first reaction was, “Yeah, sure he was,” but we were able to verify it and as it turned out, he was a SEAL. Long story short, he was not connected to anyone in the community, and we were able to put him in touch with some other veterans and we are helping him out.
All this would not be possible if there was not already a group of veterans in the community who stayed in touch and were able to bring their networks together. The census told us that about 10% of the population were veterans, with 1% of those being post 9/11 veterans. That means in every community there should be nine veterans able to help one new veteran. Where are we? We’re not rallying around those veterans that need help, and we should be!
What are you guys working on to get the word out and get veterans involved in helping veterans?
One of the things that we are doing is putting the word out on social media about once-a-month breakfasts where veterans can get together and just interact. I know that there are Rangers- or Special Forces-specific breakfasts going on in many communities, as well as other specific units getting together. We are really just trying to use all the available resources to get veterans together.
Karl, I really appreciate your time and all the information you have provided. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Yeah, I would like to give you one example I think that every veteran can identify with, and it really sheds light on what GallantFew and all our organizations are trying to do. Transition is a lot like night land navigation when you don’t have a GPS. You follow an azimuth, a little needle and a couple of glowing dots, you’re counting steps, and if you are just a little off at 100 meters, it is not a big deal. However, if you are a little off at 10,000 meters, good luck finding your objectives. Transition is the same way.
You get out of the service, you are starting your transition and maybe you are having a few problems. If we can get that veteran with a guide in the first 3-6 months, we can put them back on azimuth. But if no one connects with that veteran and they are off azimuth for three, four, or five years, then the problems are magnified and much harder to figure out. It really boils down to lessons learned. Someone once figured out how to survive an ambush and we put that into doctrine. There is no point in having other people figure out how to survive an ambush when we already know how. We need to take the lessons learned from others that have transitioned and use their experience and knowledge to assist a veteran transitioning today.
You know one other thing I really never touched on was that we understand how important it is to provide a level of privacy. GallantFew doesn’t showcase veterans we help; we don’t do commercials with crying veterans. Your problems are private, and we will keep them that way. If someone comes to you for help and they can’t keep a job, they might have family issues or whatever, we know that no one wants that info made public or discussed. We want veterans to know we only really care about helping them, and that is the real purpose of GallantFew.
Karl, again, thanks so much for your time, and I hope to write more about these issues and GallantFew in the future.
(Featured image courtesy of huffingtonpost.com)