When I entered the special services community in 2003, “non-profit veterans services” meant sharing cheap beer and drunken war tales, courtesy of Veterans of Foreign Wars, a charity with more than 120 years of existence. Today, the term conjures up other images: An obscure, tax-exempt industry fueled by public frustration with the Department of Veterans Affairs and manipulated to favor officials within the armed forces.
Most Americans share the same view of the veteran community. Mostly, we are a sensitive, homogeneous group of heroic victims. That is, unless we fall under tangible categories like “military pilot” or “Navy SEAL,” and are therefore deified in movies and books. This has far-reaching implications: For decades, Hollywood and the publishing industry have aided the military in its recruiting efforts. However, the privatization of special forces within the military has also contributed to the distribution of philanthropic donations to organizations intended to assist veterans with health care (in areas where the VA is deficient) and a shift to the private sector.
In short, these “elite” groups, especially those that enjoy the most attention in popular culture, attract and absorb the well-intentioned donations of the country’s veterans.
For example, I come from the Air Force Pararescue community, also known as PJs. To become a PJ, a pilot must first complete years of training that is among the most rigorous in the military. The resulting gang of trained PJs is a highly focused, agile, and loosely aligned tribe of operators who can perform the most complex rescue operations with a small team. There are conflicts with other groups within the military that are similar in their operations, such as the SEALs, the Green Berets, and others you’ve heard of and many you haven’t. Each of these mission-specific organizations can be reduced to a collection of highly effective, highly motivated individuals with the ability to get what they want through creative and aggressive means.
We are well-functioning networks—but not all of us know how to market ourselves and this is reflected in the funding of the nonprofits we associate with them. The Pararescue Foundation costs just under $400,000, which isn’t much, even in a small community like ours (there are about 500 active PJs at any given time, plus an equal number of family members and students). Compare that to the Navy SEAL Foundation, which serves SEALs and SWCCs (Special Warfare Combat Crewmen), an estimated population of about 3,300 active duty members and an equal number of family members and alumni—whose current assets sit comfortably just under 135 million dollars. And just to balance those numbers against a broader organization that serves all service members, veterans, and family members, the legacy of the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides physical and emotional health services to all veterans, is just under $450 million. (The Department of Defense’s 2021 demographics report puts the number of active duty, reservists, and family members at 4.7 million and the US Census puts the number of living veterans at 18 million in 2018.)
Numbers tell part of the story but miss the details. Although the Pararescue Foundation is underfunded compared to the Navy SEAL Foundation, I am still part of the “team” as I am a veteran of the special operations community. Doors are open for me and where there aren’t I can whisper the wonderful words, “I was a PJ,” and the cord is pulled back. But my combat experience wasn’t too bad and, in most cases, it was much less than the regular soldiers–called Grunts–who had no active non-profit organizations to their name or anything more than patriotism.
What doesn’t come into the equation is that everything veterans need the help of non-profit organizations to fill the VA’s most open vacancies. These are ways to access personalized mental health care, a bridge to a high-quality job, strong family support, and focused counseling on how to navigate the VA’s labyrinthine disability system, which can mean the difference between spiraling into financial ruin or jumping into a free zone with monthly government payments. It is clear why equal access to these services is important.
America looks up to the heroics of special operators, especially those who have established a genre—those represented over and over again in countless movies and books. And while much of the country remains ignorant or unconcerned about who is—and isn’t—a beneficiary of their aid, their charitable giving favors the most visible veterans, not those who may be most in need.
So, if you want to help a vet in need, focus on those who have been silenced by their trauma and silenced by the magic of marketing. The real heroes aren’t the ones who get book deals—and sometimes, even the health services they need most.
Pat Gault is a retired Air Force Pararescueman (PJ) and lives in Anchorage, Alaska.
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