I’m a veteran of the special operations community. Here’s how Hollywood glamorized us–and deprived most troops of lifesaving donations

When I entered the special operations community in 2003, “veteran nonprofit services” meant partaking in cheap beers and drunken war myths, courtesy of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a charitable organization that has been around for more than 120 years. Today, the term conjures other images: An obscure, tax-exempt industry that is fueled by the public’s frustration with the Department of Veteran Affairs and is leveraged to favor the elite within the armed forces.

Most Americans share a similar view of the veteran community. By and large, we are a sentimentalized, homogenous group of heroic victims. That is, unless we fall under recognizable categories such as “fighter pilot” or “Navy SEAL,” and are therefore deified in movies and books. This has broad ramifications: For decades, Hollywood and the publishing industry have aided the military in its recruitment efforts. However, the idealization of specialty groups within the military has also impacted the distribution of charitable donations to organizations aimed at helping veterans with healthcare (in areas where the VA falls short) and with the transition to the private sector.

In short, these “elite” groups, especially the ones who have enjoyed the most attention in popular culture, are attracting and absorbing a disproportionate amount of the country’s well-meaning donations to its veterans.

For example, I come from the Air Force Pararescue community, also known as the PJs. To become a PJ, an airman must first complete years of training which is among the most difficult in the military. The resulting gang of qualified PJs is a hyper-focused, agile, and subconsciously aligned tribe of operators who can carry out extremely complex rescue missions with a small team. There is a smattering of other groups within the military that are similar in their effectiveness, such as the SEALs, Green Berets, and others that you’ve heard of and many you haven’t. Each of these job-specific organizations can be distilled down to being a collection of highly effective, highly motivated individuals with a knack for getting what they want through creative and aggressive modalities.

We are ready-made networks of high performers–but not all of us are good at marketing ourselves and this is reflected in the funding of our associated nonprofits. The Pararescue Foundation is worth just under $400,000, which is not a lot, even for a community as small as ours (there are around 500 active PJs at any given time, in addition to a proportionate number of family members and living alumni). Compare that to the Navy SEAL Foundation, which serves SEALs and SWCCs (Special Warfare Combat Crewmen), a population estimated to be around 3,300 active members plus their proportionate family members and alumni–with current assets sitting comfortably at just under a staggering $135 million. And just to measure those numbers against a broad-spectrum organization serving all service members, veterans, and family members, the assets of the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides physical and emotional health services to all veterans, are at just under $450 million. (The Department of Defense’s 2021 report on demographics put the number of Guard, Reserve, active duty, and family members at 4.7 million and the U.S. Census put the number of living veterans at 18 million in 2018.)

The numbers tell a part of the story but they miss the details. While the Pararescue Foundation is poorly funded compared to the Navy SEAL Foundation, I am still part of “the club” since I’m a veteran of the special operations community. Doors are left open for me and where they aren’t I can whisper the magic words, “I was a PJ,” and the latch is pulled back. But my experience in combat was no more severe and, in many cases, less severe than conventional troops–collectively referred to as the Grunts–who neither have effective nonprofits to their name nor a brand beyond being the targets of patriotic sympathy.

What doesn’t come through in the numbers is that all veterans need the help of non-profit organizations to fill in the gaps left wide open by the VA. These are the avenues for accessing personalized mental healthcare, top-level career bridging, robust familial support, and focused counseling on how to navigate the VA’s labyrinthine disability system, which can mean the difference between transitioning into financial freefall or hopping into a comfortable cadence of monthly governmental stipends. It’s obvious why more equal access to these services is critical.

America obsesses over the heroics of special operators, specifically those who have developed a brand–the ones represented over and over again in countless movies and books. And while most of the country remains either unaware or apathetic to who is–and isn’t–the beneficiary of their help, their charitable contributions favor the veterans who are most visible, not the ones who might be most in need.

So, if you want to help a vet in need, focus on the ones silenced by their trauma and muted by the magic of marketing. The true heroes aren’t the ones getting book deals–and sometimes, not even the healthcare services they desperately need.

Pat Gault is a retired Air Force Pararescueman (PJ) and lives in Anchorage, Alaska.

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