Memorial Day is set aside for us to remember those who have fallen in defense of our country. This year’s observance should remind us that too many of us pay too little attention to the war that erupted on 9/11 in which Americans are still fighting, and sometimes dying, in many places around the world.
Army Gen. Ray Thomas, commander of Special Operations Command (SOCOM) told the Senate Armed Services Committee a few weeks ago that about 8,000 special operations troops — Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and Green Berets, as well as Air Force and Marine Corps special operators — are deployed in 80 countries around the world.
Our special forces are fighting terrorists, training friendly forces and, Gen. Thomas said, are engaged in a wide variety of other actions ranging from, “countering Russian aggression to preparing for contingencies in Korea.”Though special operators number fewer than five percent of the Americans in uniform, as The New York Times reported in February, they are sustaining two-thirds of the casualties.
Special operators’ deaths are one-day news stories for all but the fallen fighter’s family, comrades-in-arms and friends. Most Americans never hear that news and fewer still pay attention to it.
The survivors — wives and children — suffer the crushing loss of a husband and father. Yes, there are survivors’ benefits and insurance they are usually paid. But what happens after that? There is a host of superb military charities that help in different ways but there’s none that do what the Special Operations Warrior Foundation does.
SOWF began with the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission in 1980 in which eight men died. The survivors wanted to something effective for the children of those who died. They decided to put them all through college. What evolved from their efforts became SOWF.
The foundation operates as a small team whose sustained work is highly effective. They provide immediate financial aid to severely injured and hospitalized special operators. When a special operator — or anyone else the Special Operations Command sends in harm’s way — is killed, they pay the entire cost of sending that person’s children to an accredited two- or four-year college of their choice.
Two hundred and eighty SOWF-supported children have already graduated from college. One hundred and fifty-one are in college today and six hundred and eighty-nine kids are “in the pipeline” to be sent to college in future years. That huge number reflects the increased number of fallen Special Operations Command warriors in the past decade.
Vice Adm. Joe Maguire , (U.S. Navy Ret.) served as a SEAL and is a former commander of Naval Special Warfare Command. He’s now president and CEO of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.
Adm. Maguire explained that the foundation may learn of a special operator’s death from news reports, from SOCOM or from commanders in the field. Saddened by the loss and the fact that they usually can’t return to the U.S. for the funeral, the comrades of a fallen special operator want assurance that the lost man’s family will not be forgotten. After waiting about a month out of respect for the family’s loss the foundation begins sustained and frequent contact with the family.
“We ramp up our support and involvement in the students once they enter high school,” Adm. Maguire told me. “Our two high school guidance counselors work with the family to prepare the student for college entrance exams and assist with their applications. We bring all students who are entering their senior year of high school to Tampa in June for one week of intensive college preparation at the University of Tampa. Once they enter their senior year we fund three college campus visits for the student and parent.”
When the student enters college, SOWF provides all the costs of their college education.
Gen. Bryan “Doug” Brown started his military career as a private, qualified to be an Army Special Forces member (a “Green Beret”) and then, as he said, “grew up” in the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. After serving as a four-star general and commander of SOCOM, Gen. Brown retired and is now chairman of SOWF’s board of directors.
Special operators are many of our best soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. They are intensely motivated and both function and thrive in an incredibly high-stress environment. Being readied for a difficult mission, it’s not unusual for them to be isolated from contact with the outside world for a week or more.
Gen. Brown wants SOWF to help every operator to be one hundred percent focused on his mission. It does so, he said, by “taking a rock out of his rucksack.” The foundation lightens the load because every operator going out on a mission knows that if he’s killed, there will be a bunch of people from his community who will ensure his children go to college.
Adm. Maguire said, “Some of the children left behind by Special Operators killed in the line of duty this year are in their first year of life. We made a solemn promise to the surviving spouses that when their child is of college age in 2034 we will be there for them to ensure their full college payment through graduation. We can never repay these Gold Star families for their sacrifice. But we do what we can to help.” Nobody does it better.
• Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research and the author of five books including “In the Words of Our Enemies.”