Beyond the Special Operations Mystique:

Superman is human, and he could use your support

Our nation’s Special Operators are human beings; not superheroes or celebrities. Get behind them instead of worshipping them from afar. Image: pexels

According to SOCOM, there are currently 68,500 Americans serving across the military in a Special Operations capacity. Just for perspective, that is more than enough servicemembers to populate the entire city of Palo Alto, CA. And when the population of retired SOF personnel is taken into consideration, this number skyrockets.

Now, another statistic to consider.

How many of these active duty or retired SOF personnel have built for themselves self-proclaimed media empires selling the Superman mystique to a hungry public?

One. Precisely one.

One individual out of the tens of thousands who easily could — and he won’t be named here, per the request of individuals invested in the mission who don’t believe he merits any further press.

The temptation and the option to bank on the SOF mythos is always there. Every veteran who transitions out with a story to tell is presented with the chance to pick the golden apple. Go to the media, write a book, sing like a bird. The public is there ready and willing to wave dollars in their faces, if the $6.8 million in book royalties that Matt Bissonnette earned (and was subsequently ordered to forfeit) for his unauthorized tell-all of the Bin Laden raid is any indication.

America’s SOF saw unprecedented levels of action in the post-911 GWOT era. In 2021, the post-911 enlistees who went for a 20 year military career will begin retiring, soon to constitute a new population of SOF veterans with serious stories to tell. Iraq, Saddam, Afghanistan, Bin Laden…in the thick of the Global War on Terror in 2007, one CSIS report put it succinctly: “The special operations forces (SOF) mission in 2007 is more diverse and demanding than at practically any time in history. Few anticipated the scope or pace of operations now considered common in the Global War on Terror (GWOT).”

What we are looking at is a very large population of currently retired, transitioning, and active duty SOF servicemembers who have seen more combat than most Americans have in generations. So why aren’t more of them talking?

What we are looking at is a very large population of currently retired, transitioning, and active duty SOF servicemembers who have seen more combat than most Americans have in generations. So why aren’t more of them talking?

There’s one simple answer, though it may not be the one that the public wants to hear:

It’s not that they can’t; they have plenty to say. It’s that they won’t say it.

That’s not who they are.

That’s never been who they are — or who they were supposed to be, anyway. Special Operations Units in the United States Military have been, since their inception and in every branch of service, the units tasked with the most sensitive and clandestine operations. If there is one unifying feature connecting the work and skillset of SOF across branches of the military, it would be this. It is what essentially defines them above and beyond the equally essential, but essentially different, work of conventional forces. You’re not supposed to know what they do.

You’re not supposed to know what they do.

The veil of secrecy is, for the most part, taken to heart within these communities. Seeking individual recognition is frowned upon for a variety of reasons. Not just for security and privacy purposes, though always a valid concern. On a higher level, the community widely embraces the belief that “the deed is all, and not the glory.” Many are uncomfortable receiving recognition for their work, even at the highest level. Consider the remarks made by SEAL Ed Byers at the Pentagon after receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2016:

“I’ve lived my entire career a very private life. We don’t talk about what we do, and this honor carries with it some obligations that I need to carry out…But I plan to continue doing my job as normal and continue being a SEAL. It’s something I love and grew up wanting to be.”

The SOF community widely embraces the belief that “the deed is all, and not the glory.” Many are uncomfortable receiving recognition for their work, even at the highest level.

While his Medal of Honor citation might have the public believe something different, Byers’ remarks that day were emblematic of a type of humility that is actually far more common within the SOF community than many media darlings, who have sought the spotlight, would have us believe.

President Obama had it right at Byers’ award ceremony when he remarked, “Today’s ceremony is truly unique — a rare opportunity for the American people to get a glimpse of a special breed of warrior that so often serves in the shadows.” It is rare to meet someone like Byers. It’s even more rare to see him take the stage and the spotlight — something, in this case, that Byers had done only because it came with the territory of receiving the nation’s highest military decoration.

And for every great heroic deed which results in such a rare public glimpse into the secretive SOF community, there are thousands more of which the public will never know. The glorious deeds that remain unglorified. The acts of valor or self-sacrifice for which no award is ever given.

For every great heroic deed which results in such a rare public glimpse into the secretive SOF community, there are thousands more of which the public will never know. The glorious deeds that remain unglorified. The acts of valor or self-sacrifice for which no award is ever given.

And the doers of those glorious deeds? Rest assured that they are never the ones talking.

While spotlight seekers can be found — and one Special Operations themed tabloid news website reigns supreme above them all — you will never find the true doers of glorious deeds among them.

So, what are the true silent warriors actually like? While there will always be exceptions to any generalization, across the board, in all branches of service, some universal values are constantly upheld. High intelligence on a functional level that accomplishes the most challenging tasks with effectiveness and efficiency. Unmatched focus and drive to achieve objectives, and equal commitment to personal growth and development. Adaptability in the form of swift adjustments that are made when a course needs to be altered. A consistent emphasis on the power of mindset and its preeminent role in enabling them to excel. The insistence that they fight first for the brother beside them, and only then for their patriotic ideals or other ideologies that personally motivate.

So, what are the true silent warriors actually like?

And the misconceptions? That they are all Superman, just born that way. You’ll rarely meet a warrior worth his salt who doesn’t tell you the same story: that, growing up, he was not necessarily the most innately gifted, but he was always the hardest worker. Their job requires a physical readiness and elite level of fitness that compels them to maintain the training and recovery schedule of NFL players — minus the fat paychecks. Still, they’re no knuckle-draggers, either; most are voracious readers, with interests spanning the gamut from philosophy and history to business and leadership. This is because knowledge is power, too. They accomplish what they do more through mental endurance and adaptability than through brute force. Think of Special Operators as a tribe of driven, highly adventuresome, outdoorsy and patriotic MBA triathletes who — on average — are usually married with an average of two children (an actual SOCOM statistic), and you’ll be on the right track.

We live in a celebrity culture. Americans are very good at putting our heroes on a pedestal. We buy a LeBron James Jersey, wear it to the game, cheer him on, and feel great about it. We apply this adulation formula to every type of elite, from our favorite musicians to our favorite actors.

Our nation’s Special Operations Forces, while elite, are not celebrities. They are public servants, and there is an enormous difference with regard to the role that their supporters can play.

There’s a distinction to be made here, though, and it’s a critical one. Our nation’s Special Operations Forces, while elite, are not celebrities. They are public servants, and there is an enormous difference with regard to the role that their supporters can play. While LeBron James is part of a team of players and the larger Cavs organization, other than buying tickets to support LeBron’s paycheck and lifestyle, a fan has no greater recourse towards being part of the Cavs organization’s mission. The end game of celebrity culture is a paycheck, and we see it across the board as celebrities the world over capitalize on their personal “brands” and enjoy support in the form of their fans’ hard-earned dollars.

The same is not the case with our military servicemembers. When misguided young people invest their time, energy, and finances into pursuits like airsoft, gaming, and online web services that claim to sell a glimpse into the real world of Special Operations, they are missing a far greater opportunity.

The opportunity to be like their heroes, and serve.

Consider this essential message, one of the 5 defining Truths embraced by the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM):

“Truth 5: Most special operations require non-SOF assistance. The operational effectiveness of our deployed forces cannot be, and never has been, achieved without being enabled by our joint service partners. The support Air Force, Army, Marine and Navy engineers, technicians, intelligence analysts, and the numerous other professions that contribute to SOF, have substantially increased our capabilities and effectiveness throughout the world.”

It is critical for all Americans to recognize that our Special Operations Forces are not celebrities to be put on a pedestal and worshipped from afar. Rather, they are human beings actively engaged in a very real mission that requires the essential support of joint service partners — and every American has an open invitation to join the fight in such a role. There are myriad ways to contribute to advancing our nation’s cause worldwide, investing ourselves productively in support of their mission. Not everyone can fight at the tip of the spear, but everyone can lend a hand by supporting our warriors and their families.

It is critical for all Americans to recognize that our Special Operations Forces are not celebrities to be put on a pedestal and worshipped from afar.

Some examples?

Assist the SOCOM Warrior Care Program to help wounded, ill, or injured Special Operations servicemembers and their families navigate through life-changing events, whether returning to operational readiness or transitioning to civilian caarers.

Help support the Special Operations Warrior Foundation’s promise to fund full-ride college scholarships to the children of any Special Operator killed in the line of duty.

Get behind the Green Beret Foundation’s initiative to provide innovative new therapies not currently offered by the VA to Special Forces personnel, the branch of SOF who has suffered the most casualties in the GWOT.

Help Jimmy, a former Navy SEAL, take care of the warrior dogs who courageously support our military and law enforcement personnel.