Special Operations Forces volunteer to answer the call to protect our nation and its people in every corner of the world. They look out for us so we can live our lives in freedom and liberty. Daniel Elkins founded Special Operations Association of America to give a voice to our Special Operators in policy and legislative affairs.
This episode is our lead up to the first Veterans Day in two decades in which our nation is not in a declared war. However, brave men and women stand ready to serve – and take action – each and every day. Daniel joins host Fran Racioppi to discuss the founding of SOAA and their work supporting Special Operators, displaced Afghan refugees, those affected by burnout and Operator Syndrome, as well as to share his personal story of service as a Green Beret.
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About Daniel Elkins
Daniel is a Green Beret and proud recipient of multiple military awards and decorations including the Combat Infantryman Badge, Parachutist Badge, Special Forces Tab, Military Free Fall Parachute Badge, and the Afghanistan Campaign Medal with Campaign Star. Daniel is a founding member of SOAA. He has a strong military and Veteran policy background with over ten years’ experience directing, managing, and staffing Veteran Service Organizations.
Special Operations Forces volunteer to answer the call to protect our nation and its people in every corner of the world. They look out for us so that we can live our lives in freedom and liberty but who looks out for them? Who makes sure their needs are taken care of? Who protects them with the same diligence and dedication that they protect us? I’m joined in this episode by Daniel Elkins, Founder of Special Operations Association of America, an organization he founded to give a voice to our special operators. Dan himself earned his Green Beret. He’s also served in Afghanistan, experiencing firsthand the challenges faced by our nation’s most elite service members.
Together, Dan and I discuss why he founded SOAA and how his unique past working to fight human trafficking motivated him to dedicate his life to serving others and living the Special Forces motto, “De Oppresso Liber – to Free the Oppressed.” We dig in Afghanistan, how the war evolved since 9/11, so his efforts to evacuate thousands of Afghans, and what comes next as we look to resettle Afghan refugees across the United States.
We also break down the mental health struggles of all elite performers through a conversation about Operator Syndrome, something we have spoken about in past episodes, and so as leading the research and legislative initiatives behind Operator’s Syndrome to get not only special operators but all affected the help they need.
This episode is our lead-up to the first Veterans Day in decades in which our nation is not in a declared war. However, brave men and women stand ready to serve and take action each and every day. This show’s team and I remember and pay tribute to all those who fought our nation’s wars to protect their dream of America without compromise and excuse.
Daniel, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me.
This show is born out of the lineage of the Special Forces and Special Operations. Certainly, this is dear to my heart, having spent twelve and a half years as a Green Beret, active duty, and Special Operations. You are a Green Beret, too. It’s always wonderful to get in the same room with one of the brothers from the Legion and have a conversation but we have been so fortunate on the show to have such great military leaders.
We had General Hutmacher, Commander of the 160th Special Operations Regiment. We had Lieutenant Colonel Lisa Jaster, the third female to graduate at Ranger School. We have General Stanley McChrystal coming up. We have General Chiarelli, former Vice Chief of the Army. General Weldon is also coming up soon. We also had two very important members of the Special Operations Association of America.
It’s great to be able to talk to you because we have talked around SOAA so many times where we had Chris Miller on No One Left Behind on our 9/11 episode, former Secretary of Defense, who’s your Chairman. We also had Dr. Chris Frueh in Episode 18, where we talked about Operator Syndrome. They spoke so highly about the organization, what were you doing, and how can we tie in. To have you on, for you to take time out of your busy schedule to sit with us, I’m so appreciative. I look forward to having the conversation and learning more about you, the organization, and how we continue to support it.
Thanks. I appreciate that. I’m looking forward to sharing the story here with you. I’m so glad that you were able to interview both of those guys. They are amazing.
Let’s start with the organization, Special Operations Association of America. You say that, “It is the only organization that engages in policy and legislation advocacy on behalf of the men and women in the Special Operations community. We are committed to identifying solutions and making recommendations that best serve Special Operations Forces on and off the battlefield.” Can you talk a bit more about the goal of the organization?
The idea was formed around being a voice for the Special Operations community and solely advocating for all members of the SOFT community. It’s not just one specific issue. That came about by my work here in DC within the larger VSO, Veteran Service Organization, and MSO, Military Service Organization, community, where there are a lot of advocacies for all service members. I found there to be a complete absence of advocacy for members of the SOFT community.
There are a lot of competitions in this space, even in the stuff with Afghanistan. How did you jump in? We talked to founders and entrepreneurs all the time who found companies. I always ask the question, “How did you jump in? What were those first steps you took when you looked around?” He said, “How do I be competitive in this space?”
The history is segmented. It has been interesting to see in retrospect how the idea came together. I started my civilian career in this DC policy-based world for veteran advocacy. As I worked my way up in the policy world, I became intimately aware of a lot of issues that veterans face. Simultaneously, I was in the National Guard, and my career was progressing in the National Guard, and then into the SOFT community.
That’s when I started to ask questions, look around and realize that no one was playing in the space in the way that says the Wounded Warrior Project does for all wounded service members in the SOFT space. The first thing that I did was reach out to all the executive directors of the large veteran groups that operate in DC and meet with them. What I found was fascinating in that each of the organizations, at one time or another, had tried to start initiatives to focus on the members of the Special Operations community.
It seemed to have always fallen on deaf ears, and they struggled to get it up and running. The feedback that I’ve got, which made sense to me, was authenticity. It wouldn’t be authentic for someone from the American Legion, who is never deployed, served their country with honors but always remained stateside advocating on behalf of people from JSOC units. It doesn’t work. That made a lot of sense to me. I walked away from that thinking, “No one in the DC area is doing this.” I moved on to Phase 2, which was an in-depth market analysis.
You have had a tremendous amount of support in building this thing. You were on Capitol Hill.
We then transitioned. We, as a collective group of volunteers, wanted to engage in this space. This is circa 2018-2019, where we did an in-depth market analysis. We took about 2,000 nonprofits that seem to be relevant in the SOFT space. We whittled it down to around 184 that we felt had active websites and were engaging in some way or another within the SOFT community. What we found was the same thing across the board.
No organization was based in DC, solely advocating and engaging in policy discussions and getting what we have dubbed the Ground Truth. The goal is to get operators that have transitioned in people with the Ground Truth, have dirt under their fingernails, into the highest levels of policymakers and decision-makers to help them make better-informed policy decisions.
You brought up your early career. I wanted to dig into that a little bit. It’s a bit unique. You started your career in counter sex trafficking and anti-human trafficking in the nonprofit and non-governmental organization space. Can you talk a bit about those experiences? Why were you initially drawn to them? What did you learn about the nonprofit space that continued to draw you in?
It seems like a lifetime ago. Believe it or not, I worked overseas within a faith-based organization, a nonprofit that has an international presence in most countries around the world but I specifically gravitated towards anti-human trafficking. There has always been something that’s resonated in me that has to do with being willing to help those who need the most help or to free those who are in some captivity.
De Oppresso Liber, the motto of the Special Forces, “Free the Oppressed.”There are some people that need violence and only respond to violence because they themselves are unwilling to negotiate our response. Click To Tweet
I didn’t know about that motto for many years. I had some unique experiences happen to me in the early 2000s, 2000, and 2001, where I went overseas to some places where no amount of goodwill would have moved the needle. I was confronted as a young idealist with the reality of the world that we live in, which is some people only respond to one thing. That’s the stick, not the carrot. No amount of negotiation, concessions, and goodwill move the needle with these groups of people.
I, unfortunately, witnessed horrific levels of violence as a result of their oppression. It bothered me and jaded me because I felt like good-intentioned people could help change the world. I didn’t understand at that very early age was, some people need violence and only respond to violence because they are unwilling to negotiate or respond to anything else.
This is an interesting point that you bring up here. We see this in so many aspects of our careers in something like Special Operations, where you go to the most remote regions of the world. People ask me all the time, “What was Africa like?” I say, “Africa is 10,000 miles North to South. This is a massive place. This is a place where you fly East to West and it’s an eleven-hour plane flight.” You can’t go to one section of a place like Africa, and then have it replicate the rest of the continent.
Every country is different and has a different culture. We, as Americans, so many times think, “Everybody is like us. Certainly, they want democracy. They want to think like us. They want this idea that America brings.” We have spoken many times on this show and in my other work about what America is. America is an idea of freedom and liberty but how you get there in many regions of the world isn’t the way that we as Americans think that it has to be on some certain path.
This is an interesting segue into this general discord that is lacking or taboo in our culture. It’s talking about violence. We are taught at a very early age that violence is wrong. Generally speaking, that makes a lot of sense. That’s not how other cultures think about violence in a totalitarian manner. The process of violence is bad but then when you joined the military, you were systematically taught to be violent.
If you engage in violence and war, is that something that you should be proud of? Should you be happy about that? Should you be shamed? How do you feel interpersonally about that? Let’s say you become proficient at being violent. You transition out of the military, what’s the transition for that, now that work is cast in a negative light? How do you adjust to that? These types of issues are things that SOAA wants to address. The reason we started this organization was that there are some conversations within academia and the social discord that are beneficial. They only scratch the surface of what’s necessary to understand what keeps us safe.
There’s also the concept of, in foreign relations, diplomacy matters first and foremost above everything else but what we often fail to realize, and many people don’t understand, is that the military is often the final arm of diplomacy. Whatever side of the aisle you sit on, Republican, Democrat, somewhere in the middle, all administrations want to pursue diplomacy. It’s how quickly you escalate into that final line of diplomacy, which is military action.
The other side of that is they teach you in Special Operations, in the military. I remember from my earliest days in basic training in Officer Candidate School, when you are called to action in the military, act swiftly and deliberately. That’s where you have this definition of violence. You have no choice in some of these situations. If you are going to be called upon to act, you have to act with the utmost swiftness to complete this mission so it doesn’t get dragged out.
In the community, it’s often referred to as violence of action. The overwhelming use of force ultimately subdues or takes the will away from an adversary to continue to display levels of aggression. Also, there’s this piece after that of what does de-escalation looks like. What does going to that place respond swiftly and deliberately? The situation has been dealt with. How do we get it back to a level of normalcy where that is not constantly occurring?
We see that at the strategic level. We are also the only military in the world that will engage at the most tactical level. There are examples. Time and time again, I have been a man myself where you will get into a firefight or a gun battle with an enemy force. As soon as that is over, you will then try to save the life of the people that were shooting at you.
That what you described and the psychology behind it is something that most people don’t fully appreciate or have never had the conversation with someone who has been in that situation, which is eye-opening. Not only does it show the character of our nation and how we engage in combat but also, you focus on the service member.
For your readers, imagine the mental weight of engaging in some level of hostile acts being aggressed on you and having to defend yourself. Having people who you are very close with on your team injured or killed. After the situation has been subdued, render aid in saving the lives of those that took your friends’ lives. That is something that most people don’t understand has been commonplace over many years. I know many people and I’m sure you do as well that those situations have happened.
Humanity still lives in the American service member. That is so important never to forget. This episode is our Veterans Day episode. We are going to talk about this. That lives within our veterans and that transcends their military service into anything that they do, this sense of service. You entered into Special Forces and the Special Operations. It’s certainly different from what you described in your early days of being an idealist, traveling the world. What brought you into that? What made you excited about going to selection?
I was in my late twenties. I enlisted a little bit later than most. I was working in DC. I wanted to get back overseas to engage and assist people on the ground. I kept running into these problematic areas of hostility and wondering what the solution was. I remember very distinctively at the time I was working at a high-end restaurant in DC, I ended up waiting on and taking care of some people who were from the community. They talked to me about Special Forces and the National Guard. They had gotten to know me over a few months. They suggested I look into it. I started looking into it. I was instantly hooked.
The mission deeply resonated with me by, with, and through, working with local nationals on the ground, developing relationships, helping train, and being a force multiplier. I felt at that moment that this was what I’m supposed to do. I made a massive life decision and change. I remember talking to my dad. He’s a Vietnam veteran. He’s like, “Most people don’t make it through this selection.” I was like, “Yes.”
One hundred men will screen per day and only three will earn the Green Beret. You spoke about by, with, and through. It’s important. We haven’t dug into that in any of our episodes. We have talked a lot about the Jedburghs and how they parachuted into occupied France. They linked up with the French Resistance Forces. They were the first of the Special Forces. That organization went on to become the Green Berets eventually several years later.
When you talk about by, with, and through, the importance of it, you deployed to Afghanistan during your time. I want to dig into your experience there because you embedded with that with Afghans. You did work with them. I worked with Iraqi Special Operations Commandos for over three different deployments. My time in Africa, over the better part of two years, was spent developing Special Operations capabilities of African countries and militaries.
Developing those countries and personnel there and eventually solve their own problems. Giving them the resources, training, and capability to go out and fight their own wars initially alongside us and on their own is so special about being a Green Beret. It’s the only organization that does that in the military. In fact, solving a problem for ourselves as a Green Beret is the 2nd or 3rd resort when we look at a mission set. Talk a little bit more about that and your experience in Afghanistan. What does that deployment look like? What did you take away from it?
The thing that resonates most deeply within me from my Afghan deployment was the level of dedication and camaraderie that we had with the partner force, who we work with and interpreters. I had the unique privilege of working with the commando force and helping train them in the way you did. Their dedication and commitment to not only their nation but also to the United States and working with us were something that I hadn’t seen before. I will never forget specifically this interpreter whom we worked with. I believe he had saved countless American lives because of his knowledge of the customs, cultures and language. Unfortunately, Johnny was shot in the face while we were on a mission in Sangin, the South of Helmand Province.There was a vast disconnect between the ground truth and what policymakers and decision-makers were considering and why. Click To Tweet
I will never forget that day. He was fortunate in terms of where he was shot. It’s tragic but we stabilized him. He was medevac-ed out. I remember thinking, “I wonder what’s going to happen to Johnny.” Before the deployment was over, it was four months later, Johnny came back to the FOB. I found out through later rotations that he came back and started to work as a translator again and went out on missions. After four months, he came back to the FOBs, started talking with everybody. He went back out with follow-on rotations because he was committed. He felt like we were his brothers. I will never forget that. His commitment level to what we were doing is unbelievable.
You have spoken a bit about authorities and the ability to do your job. One of the primary initiatives within SOAA is to generate a conversation at the legislative level about rules of engagement and allow Ground Force Commanders to take more ownership and responsibility. As things have changed in any conflict, it becomes more restrictive. I went to Iraq in 2005. 2005 was the height of the Sunni-Shia insurgency and ethnic stripe. The war was at its peak. It was an all-out effort to try to end that war as quickly as possible. We spoke about violence and having the utmost leniency in terms of what we could do and couldn’t do out on the battlefront.
When I went back to Iraq subsequently, later on, I went back several more times. As you’ve got into 2009, 2010, 2011, you couldn’t do much. That’s something that we saw in Afghanistan for many years. Chris Miller, in our Episode 25, speaks about his early days in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. It was a complete effort to defeat the Taliban in conjunction with the Northern Alliance. There were no rules. It was a win at all costs.
You fast forward to now and your experiences where you can’t even go outside of the wire off the base, and there’s a long process to be able to do that. Can you talk a little bit about what you experienced in terms of the rules of engagement, the restrictions that have been on, and the detrimental effects that you saw? How did you see that change over your deployment? What is SOAA now advocating for?
What you have described is something that many people in our community have struggled to make sense of, which is why is there so much difference between our disparity, rules of engagement, and the ability to essentially fight the enemy from year to year, administration to administration. What is going on there? I have some thoughts on that. To answer your question, I was fresh out of the Q Course, volunteered for deployments, ended up deployed under the last few months of the Obama administration, as well as the first few months of the Trump administration.
This is not a commentary on either of them as politicians. This is solely what the ground truth was like. It was a night and day difference. The differences were so vast that it made me wonder what is going on. Do the people who are making the decisions for us understand how these massive swings affect operations? I realized when I’ve got back and gone back to work that there was a vast disconnect between the ground truth and what policymakers and decision-makers were considering and why.
Our rotation went from essentially a 2 to 3-week long operational approval process where we were very limited and restricted from doing anything to essentially two months of continuous operations in the last few months of the deployment. I believe all the teams that engaged in combat within Kandahar Valley fought and killed 986 ISIS fighters when a MOAB was dropped. I am not saying that there shouldn’t be checks and balances. I saw such a radical difference between the two that I had to pause and ask myself like, “What’s going on here? Why is it this way?”
Now, what’s SOAA advocating for?
The middle ground there is actively getting people who have the ground truth some type of feedback loop into the policy process. I feel like, case in point, we have seen disparate narratives. We saw the military highlighting how effective the Afghan Army would be at defending itself. That’s a narrative. We saw something different happen rapidly. The question is, “Why is it that at the tactical level, in the military, we have great after-action reviews?” We critique the situation, try and improve in the process. Where’s that happening at the Federal level and the strategic level? I’m not saying within DOD. I’m saying at the congressional and administration level.
Where is the conversation of, “How can we improve this? Could we have done a better job? What would it look like in the future?” Those are the types of questions that need to be asked. I believe that there’s a plethora of operators and people with ground experience that could offer valuable insight into that discussion that will help drive better policy, that allows DOD to be more effective, and ultimately protects the warfighter on the ground.
We talk all the time about humility, curiosity, the ability to be introspective and ask questions. You can only get better if, 1) You accept that you may not have been perfect. 2) You ask the questions as to, “How can I get better?” Let’s dig into Afghanistan a little bit more because SOAA has been very involved with the situation in Afghanistan since the summertime. We finally met in support of the Afghan evacuation efforts and the relocation of many Afghans who are now displaced.
You mentioned that SOAA and specifically yourself saw the writing on the wall in early August 2021 that this situation was going to come to a head as it did in the late days of August, early September 2021, where the US government was going to struggle handily in being able to get out that number of Afghans who had wanted to and had to get out as well as the American citizens. Can you talk about your involvement? What has SOAA been doing in August 2021? Where do you choose to inject the organization into this process?
This drawl down has been something that has been looming for a long time. In 2020, at this time, before the interpreter issue or the Special Immigration Visa issue was something that had elevated to mainstream media, SOAA I was involved. We worked very closely with another organization called No One Left Behind, as well as another organization, the Special Forces Association. We tried to engage at the Federal policy level to increase the effort underway to get more interpreters stateside.
That whole time, as we have been engaging in the media, the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, Fox, there has been a steady stream of people who have reached out to us via our social networks or even our website, interpreters, people who worked with US coalition forces that were struggling to get their applications in, felt threatened or requesting help. Mid-July 2021, we started to see this massive uptick. I went from about 1 or 2 a week in the middle of August 2021 up through probably the week before everything fell apart. I was getting hundreds a day. At the peak when the evacuation effort was going on, the team and I were averaging 1,500 to 3,500 messages a day.
From people inside Afghanistan trying to get out?
Yes. We saw that. This is where the beauty of the American spirit and the people who have served in this community was highlighted. I have hope for our democracy. I’m very optimistic. What we saw was a great example of that American spirit. We saw people who saw the writing on the wall. A lot of these people had served once, and then volunteered a second time to serve in Special Operations. For the readers, you go into the military, and you choose to serve. Less than 1% of the population chooses to do that. Most of the time, once you are in the military, you have to choose again to go to selection or go into one of the Special Operation pipelines. That’s 1% of the 1%.
There’s a third choice in there too and that is, you wake up every day and continue to go to work because any day in Special Operations, you can walk out and say, “This isn’t for me.” I talk about this now. I work with the lead athletes in coaching and development. I say that all the time, “When you complain that this is hard, your body and your mind don’t want to be here. I will remind you of what was always said to us when we were cold, hungry, tired, ‘You volunteered to be here.’”
That’s why I like our NSW brethren. Their mantra, “The only easy day was yesterday.” That’s a helpful mantra. We saw these people who had served nor volunteered once, twice, and then got out of the military volunteering a third time. There were countless people within our network, as well as other networks, people from the SOFT and the intelligence community who voluntarily took off work and united together to assist as many people as they could and get out of Afghanistan during the evacuation process.
SOAA got ahead of this by standing up a task force that was working in conjunction with DOD and the State Department. We were able to successfully get around 1,400 people out of HKIA. Mind you, at the time, we were standing this up. A few people from our team, myself included, were staged at Dulles International Airport, ready to go into HKIA to provide med coverage to the task force with DOD and State Department approval.
We had partnered with a group called GSMSG. They provide surgical coverage. They have a long history of working with JSOC and forward staging as well as training locals and field surgical techniques. These consist of a lot of former Special Operations medics, people who have gone on to get civilian licenses, PAs, MDs, surgeons and so forth. We are not only stood up a whole network that was focused on helping people get to the proper gates, engaged in coordinating proper bonafides, and getting people through the gate. We also were one of the only groups. There’s only a handful that I know of that mobilized to push forward.
Through events that were outside of our span of control, we were unable to fly into HKIA. We pivoted and went forward to some of the lily pad sites, specifically two in Qatar and the final lily pad site before re-integration or stateside resettlement in Germany. We saw this coming, this demand signal rapidly increasing. Hundreds of people are reaching out to us, saying, “This is going to be bad. You need to help us.” That’s where I think like, “How did we miss that ground truth?”
We have all seen the chaos that was there around the gates in those final days and people doing anything they could to get in. You have written some articles and spoken about it. I have certainly done the same in my efforts to support that cause. You had people who would have done anything to get out of there but there’s the complexity of having to keep security around the airport.The only easy day was yesterday. Click To Tweet
We, unfortunately, lost the group of Marines, soldiers and Navy Corpsmen. The unfortunate situation should have been foreseen, yet it wasn’t. It’s difficult to even now as we sit here and talk about it. The readers can’t see us but you and I are both looking at each other like, “We should have done more. We should have known.”
That’s this collective discussion that needs to happen. We are still in the midst of what I would consider the crisis. It behooves the United States and the people who govern to have a wider conversation about how to improve the process. I will be the first to say that I was very impressed with DOD’s response. I know it was a state-led effort. Working with DOD on the ground and HKIA, as well as going forward and working in Qatar and Germany, I saw one of the most amazing examples of DOD collectively working inner agency responding to something that is not in their wheelhouse.
It’s not one of their medal tasks. It’s what they are trained to do, evacuee response, humanitarian crisis response, not at this scale. There’s something to be said about airlifting nearly 100,000 people. I don’t know what the total count is but in a week, that is amazing. No other military would have been capable of doing that.
It was incredible logistically to see the Air Force in 24 hours bring in 70 aircraft. That is unheard of to be able to do that. It is important to give credit to the Armed Forces and US Air Force to be able to affect that airlift and be able to start getting it done. Job well done to them. Let’s talk about resettlement because we talked about this relocation. The relocation was the ability to get people out of Afghanistan and get them to, either a final destination or an intermediate destination. You spoke about the locations in Qatar or Germany. You are one of the few people who were even able to go there, especially in the early days. Those sites were very well protected and locked down.
There weren’t a lot of people who were not in the military and not coming out of Afghanistan who were allowed in those sites but there are now four different classifications of people. There are people, number one, with visas or they are US residents. They go into one bucket. They are expedited pretty quickly. They get out. Some people have pending visas and applications. They are put in a second bucket.
Some people have been airlifted out who have IDs but no visa status. Some people have been airlifted out who have no ID or anything. This process now of resettlement has to occur in all of these locations, all over the world, 10 or 14 sites or something like that. A lot of them have now come here to the US. What is going on now in these resettlement sites? What’s the next step? How do we now triage this and vet these people? What are you in SOAA doing in these resettlement efforts?
This is a wide conversation that needs to be had. There are a lot of buckets. The American people are uninformed as to the extent of the background checks and the screening that’s happened with these people as they have come over. During the HKIA process, there was vetting that went on at every lily pad site that we saw. There’s an elaborate vetting process that has happened. That’s cross-checked in Germany.
It’s done again when they come to a resettlement camp here in the United States. That general social awareness is lacking. There is this question of, “We let a bunch of people into our country that we didn’t know who they were.” That is a question that needs to be asked but there are legitimate answers. That’s different than having someone come in the country who we know is not on a watch list but doesn’t have the proper documentation.
I want to be clear on that nuance difference in long-form. A lot of times in short-form podcasts or soundbites, people skate over that. In the overall resettlement efforts, there are a couple of issues that need to be addressed. The biggest one that I see SOAA engaging in is the history of our military in working with foreigners and allowing them to serve in our military in exchange for citizenship. Look at World War II and the Lodge Act, and what transpired with our people from Vietnam or the Korean war.
We have always engaged the local population in giving them a chance to say, “We buy into these values. We want to serve the military for a certain time and get our citizenship.” Now, those types of programs are often limited to special immigration visa holders or people who were on the payroll of DOD or contractors. I want to highlight a difference there. We see a lot of people who we have resettled, who were in the Afghan National Army, in the Commando Force or these highly specialized military units.
They don’t have that status that we are talking about. There are barriers for them to enter the military. We have one of the largest recruiting pools for the United States military that we have ever seen. They are right here. Many of them want to serve. This is from our feedback. We have people who are working these camps as PAs, part of the SOAA team, and engaging with the Afghans daily. Many of the ones that serve in the military want to serve in our US military. That is something that needs congressional intervention.
In Episode 25, we had Chris Miller on, the former Secretary of Defense. We also had No One Left Behind, and you referenced No One Left Behind. We were fortunate in that conversation to have on one of their partners, Sonia Nawrooz. Sonia’s family was stuck in Kabul and unable to get out. She spoke to us from the heart about having to have those daily conversations at that time with her family, who is stuck there. What do we do now for the people who are still there?
Unfortunately, many private citizens that care about what to do in this situation have been put in this unfortunate place of ultimately having to choose who can help. There’s too much need and not enough time or resources to help. The way SOAA is involved in the situation is we have our task force and work in conjunction with another organization, Task Force Argo. We are chartering planes out of Afghanistan. We are working in conjunction with the State Department as well as DOD. We are doing everything by the numbers but we are actively hiring planes. We are submitting manifests and getting people out. We have done this a few times.
In addition to the 1,400 that we’ve got out of HKIA, I would probably say we have gotten out another 2,200 to 3,000 folks. All of which we have processed through the State Department. It has been very successful. There are the people on the ground who are fearful for their lives. We have an actively engaged network of safe houses that we have found a way of funding through all the proper channels. We are actively housing and feeding people who are fearful of their lives in the hope that we can get them out.
You have to understand that the process is not swift. It takes time. Often, we are finding now, some legislative hurdles need to be overcome. That’s going to be an enduring effort. That’s not something that’s going to change overnight. At least at our association, we imagine that this is going to be an enduring effort that goes well into 2022 to change properly some of the policy in legislation that needs to be changed to help those who served us alongside shoulder to shoulder for many years.
I would argue that if there were some finality to this whole thing in 2022, that would be the biggest win that we could imagine out of this. This is a 3, 5-year problem, at least. You are looking at the Afghan situation being decades-long. I want to transition to mental health. Mental health is a big part of some of what we talk about here on the show. The other massive initiative that SOAA tackles. We spoke with Dr. Chris Frueh in Episode 18 about Operator’s Syndrome.
Operator’s Syndrome is one of those topics that we talk about but nobody has ever put a name on it to clearly say like, “This is what you have.” That’s something that SOAA has been able to do. We saw this perfectly defined by Naomi Osaka, the number one tennis player in the world, and Simone Biles at the Olympics. It’s this feeling and situation where you have pushed yourself too far for too long, with no care and ability to look inward for yourself, mentally, physically and emotionally. You suffer from depression, sleep disorder, anxiety and hypertension.
There’s no ability to turn it off. In the worst cases, you suffer from suicidal tendencies or suicidal ideation. We see this in Special Operators throughout a twenty-year career where data will show us that, as somebody who serves in Special Operations, if they don’t have a debilitating injury, they will often wait. The average is thirteen years before they get seen for it. I had a central retinal vein occlusion in my eye. I had 2 back injuries and 2 disks that were herniated.
It was always, “Give me the minimum that I needed to get back to work.” Once I get back to work, I will solve this thing. After I’m out and have been out for years, and now, I’m in this confrontation with the VA as to what qualifies? What did you endure while you were in? All these stressors are put on people. This is also the same for Law Enforcement first responders, ER residents, and ER doctors who undergo this daily, who see more than some military personnel and see horrors daily throughout their career.
We talk about things we see in the military but you go to the military, you go to war, which also is fairly uncommon for a military service member. This is a point in time, six months a year. Maybe you go back multiple times. If you are an ER doctor, your job is to see some of the worst things that happen to human beings every single day for 40 years. One day, you wake up and say, “I can’t do this anymore.” Can you get into mental health Operator Syndrome? Why it’s so important to you? Where do we go? How do we get involved?
It’s near and dear to me. People often ask like, “What got you so connected to advocating for members of the community?” It was my involvement with someone on one of the teams I deployed with. When we’ve got back from Afghanistan in 2017, this gentleman had experienced a lot of the traumas that you described. Unlike most of the community that waits over a decade to self-select and say, “I need help,” he raised his hand when we were going through demobilization and said, “I’m broken. I need help. Not only physical help but something is going on mentally.”
He was brushed through the system, denied care, and we had to engage at the Federal level to get him the care he needed. As if that is not tragic enough, the mental anguish that this gentleman went through was debilitating. For me, as a person going through with him, I never forget getting calls from him. We are best friends now but I knew that every time he called, my whole night was ruined.Suicide is 30% higher in the SOF community than it is in the rest of the military. Click To Tweet
I had to cancel everything on my plate if he called me in the afternoon because that call might last 90 minutes or 15 minutes but I carried this weight that if I wasn’t there for him, no one would be. From day in, day out, I carried this stress on me of like, “What is going to happen to him? Is he going to make it?” If I missed a call from him, I would be nervous myself that, “Was that the final call? Was that the, ‘Daniel, I’m sitting here, the gun is next to me? I don’t think I can do this anymore, brother. I’m sorry?’ Did I miss that call?” It was horrible for him. It was equally stressful, not nearly as stressful but it was stressful for me as well.
At the time, we didn’t know what was going on, and this umbrella of Operator Syndrome was at play. This is a person who was highly functional, successful and had never deployed in a combat kinetic environment like that before. He had gotten blown up a bunch and been around repeated micro blasts and explosions.
There was not only neurological and endocrine disruption. There were a lot of mental things that he had to deal with. Walking with someone through that process galvanized me. I would be like, “If no one does this, who will?” He will be releasing a video where he talks about this. He literally says that if it wasn’t for our involvement, he wouldn’t be here. That’s the type of thing that I see a lot of groups engaging for all veterans but people don’t know this. Dr. Frueh talks about this. Suicide is 30% higher in the SOFT community than it is in the rest of the military.
We are talking about 22 veterans a day. In the SOFT community, it’s 30% higher than the regular force. These people aren’t coming into this program and these pipelines are broken. They are getting psychologically screened. They are being tested for extreme amounts of resilience. Something is happening to them. That is the problem that we must address. That’s why Dr. Frueh’s research is so imperative. It provides a different framework for treating these symptoms of TBI and PTSD where we are seeing people be restored back to functionality that existed prior to any military engagement.
Ryan is a perfect example of that because after figuring out what was going on, he went on this neuroinflammation protocol. He completely recovered. He is completely out of the woods per se, successfully graduated from PA schools as a licensed and practicing physician and is doing amazing. That’s the story that we need to talk about. That’s why we advocated it.
That brotherhood, I mentioned the Legion and that it’s always great to sit across from somebody who comes from your background. It’s so strong. The way you tell this story and watch you and your body language, the emotion that you speak about it. We have had these bonds with these people. You think about, “My phone is ringing. This is a call I have to take.” You don’t know, 15 minutes, 1.5 hours, 5 hours but it’s that one where you look at your wife, your family and you are like, “I can’t. I’m sorry.” This now takes precedence because we are so committed and devoted to each other. It doesn’t matter what we are doing. Our goal is to take care of people.
This is something that’s not easy to talk about. It’s not pleasant for the people who are going through it. It’s not a happy experience for the people who are involved that are offering support. It’s taxing but it’s the reality of the situation. Understanding what’s going on biologically and responding to protocols and neuroinflammatory treatments that alleviate some of these symptoms and bring the brain back to a state of not being inflamed. You see incredible changes in people’s psychology and physiology.
Where are you in gaining support at the legislative level for research?
That is one of our legislative priorities going into 2022. There have been significant amounts of congressional interest from both sides of the aisle with people who have served in the military and haven’t served in the military for this. We believe that in 2022 we will be able to secure funding for DOD to study this condition and some of the nascent innovative ways of treating it and reversing some of the symptomologies. Not only will it bring people maybe being chaptered out of the military for wounds of the mind or the body. What’s shown to be successful will prevent people from ever getting to the point where they may need to be medically discharged from the military.
We can have ongoing care. You have been in a combat situation. You have been exposed to blast trauma or a night cycle where your cortisol levels and hormone levels have created new homeostasis. It’s affecting your sleep and ability to concentrate. Let’s get you on this protocol that allows for those things to deregulate or normalize again. You never end up 5, 6 steps down the road. You were on nights and you have had all this stuff happen to you. Now you are like, “I’m taking a beer or two to go to sleep. I need that caffeine hit in the morning to wake up.” Things were snowball. We can get far enough upstream where those things don’t happen. I believe science is there to show it. We need the studies.
As a veteran service organization, your primary goal is to support veterans, whether or not the focus is on veterans. I bring this up because this episode is our lead into Veteran’s Day. What I often find and I have spoken to a lot of organizations about when they talk about supporting veterans, is that it becomes very easy to support veteran service organizations, causes, hiring initiatives, anything that has the word veteran in it, when it’s in the news. It dominates the news cycle.
In 2021, Veteran’s Day is very different from many years what we have known now as a way of life. This is the first Veteran’s Day in many years, where our country is not in a declared war. What will inevitably happen is that we will tend to forget because the focus in the news media will no longer be about our servicemen and women deployed what they’ ae facing, the good that they are doing in the world. The news cycle will be dominated by other stuff as we see now.
I want to ask you about Veteran’s Day and what it means to you. For me, it means a lot. It’s my daughter’s birthday, number one. I was deployed when she was born. I was fortunate enough to get home the night before. They sent me home. I came back. I was here for a few weeks. It happened on Veteran’s Day and was so exciting for me.
I had also had the opportunity to be the emcee of the Veteran’s Day Parade in New York City when I was the Treasurer for the United Veterans Council. There are exciting opportunities on Veteran’s Day. It’s a time to remember all those who have served. I’m wondering from your perspective how do you view Veteran’s Day? How do we, you and the Special Operations Association of America, keep veterans in the limelight as we move into this next phase?
We are in a unique place in history. Not only are we going to have a Veteran’s Day for the first time in a few decades without a named conflict underway in the way that it had previously been but we have also transitioned to a whole new military model. What do I mean by that? We have moved away from the conventional BCT full deployment. We have moved to irregular, unconventional and asymmetric warfare.
We had seen this transition, this handoff over GWOT in the last years from conventional units with thousands of people, full battle groups deploying to small, irregular, highly trained, highly mobile adaptive forces. What does that have to do with Veteran’s Day? There’s a thing that is called the Military-Civilian Divide. It’s well-researched in academia and one of the principles that SOAA was founded on. We’re never going to close it completely, but we need to do our part to keep it from widening.
As we transition away from predominant military-driven by conventional forces, which people have some understanding of but don’t always understand all the ins and outs of the military to a more highly-trained irregular force, that distance is going to widen unless people do their part to highlight the efforts underway and what Special Operations does. There may not be a named war going on but any given night, you can google it.
Common JSOC is operating in over 100 nations worldwide. That is to keep us safe. One thing I have learned is just because you don’t understand, it doesn’t mean you don’t need it. What do I think of Veteran’s Day moving forward? SOAA is going to do its best to highlight and honor the great work that people from this community have done, are doing, and showcase how highly functional and adaptive they are. I know plenty of people who have left the Special Operations community that are leading in Fortune 500 companies, innovating in tech and finance, doing amazing things in the nonprofit space, people who have started podcasts like yourself.
Veteran’s Day is about making sure that the Military-Civilian Divide doesn’t get too large. How do we do that? We have to become adaptive in telling stories, highlighting, and showcasing the great work that people have done and are continuing to do for Americans to be able to connect and understand. If they don’t understand something, how can they be supportive? That’s what our role is.
It’s not only to help the American population understand but it’s also helped to educate policymakers, legislators, and decision-makers, who may not fully understand what Special Operations can do. The only way to do that is to have someone from the community come in, talk to them and connect on a one-on-one basis. I feel like that is the importance of Veteran’s Day.
Your work is certainly cut out for you. In addition to Afghanistan and mental health initiatives, you are working on eligibility for benefits, burn pit exposure, which so many of us were exposed to the burning of trash in various conflict zones, and also increased support to ASD SOLIC, which is the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations in Low-Intensity Conflict. Many different initiatives within the organization. It’s great to be partnered with you and watch this come to fruition.Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean you don’t need it. Click To Tweet
As we close out, the Jedburghs in World War II had to do three things every day as foundational elements. They had to be able to shoot, move and communicate. If they could execute these three tasks with the highest level of proficiency, they could apply focus to other challenges that came their way. I ask every guest, and I will ask you the same thing, what are the three things that you do every day to be successful in your world?
I’m obsessed with the daily routines of world-class performers. I have distilled down the three most important things to be waking up early, and in the first 60 to 90 minutes of your day, doing some vigorous physical activity. It changes your brain chemistry. It activates your metabolism. You have dopamine that comes in. It wakes up your central nervous system for you to be focused. There’s great research showing that you are most creative and focused in the morning. Waking up early before the sun rises and engaging in physical activity is number one.
Second to that, having some mindfulness practice or journaling where you think about your day and you set goals. Most people, when they wake up, the first thing they do is look on their phone. This is the culture that we live in. Put your phone away if you are going to have some deliberate practice and learn something in the morning. That’s the third thing. Put your distractions away, and have some reflection, mindfulness practice where you identify the things that you want to do, the most important thing. If you could only do one task, what would it be? That’s what you should execute first. Before you get on social media or do anything else, what is the one thing you are going to do now to change the world, disrupt the space you are involved in or move the needle in your industry?
The third important thing is to learn something. How many people are lifelong learners? It’s not a lot but what you see at the highest levels of performance, people who are running Fortune 500 companies, Fortune 100 companies, military leaders, whether that be General McChrystal or General Clark. These people are avid consumers of literature and are lifelong learners. They never stop learning. To recap, get up early and do something physical, have some mindfulness practice or journaling where you deliberately focus on what you want to accomplish that day and learn something. Do all of this before you eat breakfast. That’s what you should do every day.
That sets the conditions. I love that you said that too that you enjoy and learning about the daily routines of elite performance because we talk about these in every episode. You are going to be Episode 33. There are 33 episodes of three people’s things. Some of those episodes have two people in them or even in Episode 25, there are 4 or 5 people in it. There’s plenty of you all to go back, make those lists and pull the best from.
I imagine after a while, there will be a trend that emerges. It’s my thought. I would be curious if you have seen that so far or some themes seem to constantly occur.
Some themes occur in their industry. If they are athletes, entrepreneurs, founders or military, there tend to be themes. They fall around those lines. Every once in a while, I will get somewhere. I’m blown away. We will dig in a bit more on some of those, I look at yours, and I think about the drive. 1) It equates to drive when we talk about the nine characteristics of elite performance. 2) There’s this element of humility. 3) There’s an element of curiosity. We bring up the nine as a foundational element of this show, drive, resiliency, adaptability, humility, integrity, curiosity, team ability, effective intelligence and emotional strength.
I throw those out there because you, our guest, exhibit all nine of these. You had to. You were evaluated on those nine to be selected, to go and become a Green Beret. I think about SOAA, you and the organization. If I had to think about one, it’s adaptability because there’s so much pressure on our Special Operations warriors every single day to do so many tasks, known and unknown.
The job of a Special Operator is to wake up and volunteer and go to work and say, “Whatever challenge comes my way, I have to figure it out.” Your job, the organization that you built, Special Operations Association of America, has to now find a way to take care of those people who are solving our nation’s most complex challenges.
That means that you have to stay ahead of them because they are going to come with issues and requirements that you are in a position to solve and help them with. Your goal is to take care of the people who care for us at the most elite level. Daniel, this has been an amazing conversation. I’m so thankful for the show to be partnered with you, SOAA, Talent War Group. I look forward to our friendship and our partnership across these organizations. You have an ally in everything you are doing to support our Special Operations warriors.
I appreciate the time. Thank you so much for having us on.
- Special Operations Association of America
- General Hutmacher – Past Episode
- Lieutenant Colonel Lisa Jaster – Past Episode
- Chris Miller – Past Episode
- Chris Frueh – Past Episode
- No One Left Behind
- Special Forces Association