A Network of Special Ops Veterans Wants to Change How America Reintegrates Troops
GallantFew sees building connections as crucial
by KEVIN KNODELL
“My own transition was not the smoothest in the world,” former U.S. Army officer Karl Monger said as he recounted leaving the 75th Ranger Regiment — one of the Army’s most legendary and tight-knit units.
“To leave that unit ripped a piece out of me,” he said. “When I came back to the community I didn’t tell people I was a Ranger, because I didn’t want to hear the inevitable next question — why did you leave?”
It was years before he could reconcile it. He left not long after a tragic military accident claimed the lives of several friends in the regiment. Monger decided he needed to spend more time with his family and be present in the lives of his daughters.
But during a 2003 visit to Fort Benning, Georgia, Monger began to reconnect with the brotherhood. He was invited to attend a change of command ceremony for Gen. Joseph Votel, who now oversees all U.S. military operations in the Middle East and recently traveled to Syria. Votel and Monger had served together as captains.
During the trip, Monger learned that he wasn’t alone in having struggled with civilian life. “As I got reacquainted with the Ranger community I started learning about some of the pressures they were facing,” he recalled.
He began to hear more and more stories of substance abuse, trouble with the law and most disturbing to him, suicides. “Virtually every one of the younger guys, post-9/11 Rangers, knew somebody who committed suicide. And I knew a couple who had attempted suicide,” Monger said. “So it was a huge wake-up call for me.”
Today, Monger is the director and co-founder of GallantFew, a social media and professional network organization which hopes to change the way veterans re-enter society at time when the gap between America’s civilians and warriors seems further apart than ever.
The network oversees a series of programs nationwide. They include the Darby Project for Rangers, The Raider Project for Marine special ops veterans, Wings Level for Air Force veterans and a blanket program for other veterans needing help with finding work or readjusting.
The main focus is on giving transitioning veterans mentors and contacts to help them navigate the civilian world. Even after more than 14 years of war, the post-9/11 veterans of America’s all-volunteer military make up fewer than one percent of the U.S. population.
That means a much smaller portion of the American public — perhaps a historically small number—has any personal connection to the most recent generation of veterans.
In a recent interview, author and filmmaker Sebastian Junger told War Is Boring that the isolation of veterans is exacerbated by Americans living increasingly isolated and insecure lives. Americans report having fewer close friends than they did two decades before, and a quarter say they have no one to confide in.
As service members leave the highly communal life of the military, Junger posited that it’s the isolation more than any trauma that causes problems.
GallantFew is an ambitious program that hopes to help veterans by focusing on that seemingly overlooked factor — personal connections. And it’s a model the organization hopes others can learn from.
Monger comes from a long line of veterans.
His grandfather fought in three wars — Vietnam, Korea and the Pacific theater in World War II. But Monger didn’t know him well. His grandfather was an alcoholic who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, was largely estranged from family and died in 1977. “When my dad went to go get his stuff — it all fit in a shoebox,” Monger recalled.
His father was also a career soldier who retired as a sergeant major but struggled with family life. “That stress on the relationship, that untreated PTSD, I believe had an effect on my father,” he added.
After Monger’s parents divorced, he became one of the first children enrolled in what would become the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. He credits the program and the mentorship it provided with helping him through that period in his life. Later as a college student, Monger joined the program as an adult mentoring at-risk youth.
“Mentoring and personal relationships have been a huge part of my life along with the multi-generational effects of post-traumatic stress,” he explained. “So these things have kind of run parallel and are very important to what I do now.”
Even before starting GallantFew, Monger had joined and formed networking groups on social media for Ranger veterans — and began coaching veterans on resume writing skills on LinkedIn.
Not long after returning from Fort Benning, he began supporting the Wounded Warrior Project with $1,000 donations every year for three years. He frequently called to offer his services to the organization.
“All I got in response was a deluge of mail asking me to donate more money,” he said. “It was like a weekly thing that was a very expensive, high-quality mailer piece. So after the third year, I realized they weren’t doing the sorts of things I’d expected them to do.”
The Wounded Warrior Project, one of the highest profile veterans organizations in the country, has since become a subject of controversy after former employees spoke out about what they described as poor practices and lavish, wasteful spending. In 2016, the charity underwent a major leadership overhaul with the termination of two top executives.
Monger continued working with other Rangers to build veteran support networks. He explained that mental health problems for veterans have long been poorly understood. In particular, active duty soldiers suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries — or a combination of both — often go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.
“Some of them self-medicate with alcohol or illegal substances,” he said.
He explained that historically, military leaders have had a propensity to punish soldiers who are struggling rather than help them. He admitted that even during his time as an officer, he was often uninterested in trying to figure out what might cause a soldier to act out — whether that be PTSD, marital problems, survivor’s guilt or some combination.
“Whether their self-confidence is broken or whether they’re missing formation, or whether they get a DUI, instead of looking at what’s the cause and the source of this behavior the system just says ‘you screwed up, we’re going to crush you.’”
Punishments can often result in a bad conduct discharge that can follow veterans after they leave the military. “They can lose access to the very services you need to deal with the problems that were created by their service in the first place,” Monger explained.
But it was after seeing a speech by then Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki about veteran suicide that Monger recognized a crisis. The estimated numbers of daily suicides—22 a day — were shocking. “I was sitting on a network in 2009 of a thousand Army Rangers on LinkedIn and we’ve got veterans killing themselves,” Monger recalled.
During a 2009 trip to Kansas, Monger met up with a mentor for lunch. Monger told him about his experiences, and said he had an idea for a program that would leverage social media to connect veterans to mentors found in programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters.
“He pulled out his wallet, pulled out a folded hundred dollar bill he kept behind his driver’s license, put it on the table and said ‘go get started.’ So he became the first board member,” Monger recalled.
The Darby Project, Gallant Few’s branch for Army Rangers, is named after Brig. Gen. William Darby, the World War II officer who formed the 1st Ranger Battalion and modeled it in part on the British Commandos.
Its success hinges on capitalizing on the “Ranger buddy” system the regiment has long imparted on its soldiers.“You always take care of your Ranger brother, whether you want to or not, you’re there for them,” explained Ranger veteran Ron O’Ferrall, the head of the Darby Project’s Washington state chapter.
The organization helps pair up transitioning veterans with those who’ve already made the transition. The hope is that those with experience can prepare newly discharged vets for the culture shock of leaving the fast-paced communal life of the Ranger Regiment for the corporate world.
O’Ferrall works on connecting vets with professionals, educators and counselors. Another priority is helping veterans get the right paperwork signed. “We’re going to help as many [veterans] as we can to get into the private sector, into that workforce, and these companies need to understand the dynamic of what it means to hire a veteran,” he said.
Part of that is identifying people who have an investment in hiring veterans. Many veterans have struggled with translating the skills they learned in the military into a resume. But once they get the jobs, many veterans excel. Their leadership experience in high stress situations often becomes an asset.
However, lately it’s been networking with other veterans who’ve successfully transitioned that gets the foot in the door for recently discharged troops. “How do you find a job? You find a job because you know somebody,” explained Nate Smith, a Ranger veteran and former police officer.
That’s part of the reason the Darby Project is looking to branch out beyond the veteran community. Smith observed they’ve had particular success in the Pacific Northwest. “You look at the people we have here, and they’re not the typical people we have in our circles,” he said.
For instance, the Washington state chapter has formed a close relationship with the Liz Rocks Campaign, a rock climbing and fitness initiative named in honor of Liz Daley, a rock climber who died in a 2014 avalanche in Argentina.
“It’s really important for us to close that gap. People in the civilian community don’t understand the struggles that these guys are dealing with,” said Krystle Edwards, an organizer with the Liz Rocks Campaign. “We’re trying to get civilians and military — active duty and veterans — together to start sharing stories and to start talking about the issues.”
Monger said that the disconnect isn’t entirely down to civilians failing to understand veterans. At times, he admits there are service members who encourage an “us versus them” mentality which encourages veterans to stick with their own kind and look down on civilians. He said that veterans who pride themselves on being “dysfunctional” and confrontational have done little to bridge the divide.
Smith recalled a young active duty Ranger who expressed an interest in getting more involved with the Darby Project. The soldier was an avid outdoorsman with a passion for climbing, so Smith suggested he consider getting involved with Liz Rocks instead.
“That way we start sending people out into other communities and they can bring people back into ours,” Smith explained.
The Darby Project tries to hold regular social events that are as inclusive as possible. Though Rangers are the focus, they welcome all veterans and want civilian entrepreneurs and community leaders engaged.
“[It’s important] to bring everyone together in the same room and have this dialogue, that’s what we want to see. That’s what we advocate,” said O’Ferrall. “Because that’s part of the transition process, and the healing process I think too.”
“I think we’re less money driven,” Smith said when asked about what sets GallantFew and the Darby Project apart from other veteran’s initiatives. He lambasted organizations that emphasize fundraising and putting on “special events” for veterans like fishing and deep sea diving trips … rather than actually helping them reintegrate.
“If a guy is trying to get a job does he care about your fundraiser and going fishing? No, he’d rather spend that time getting a job. A guy is suicidal — does he care? Something needs to be done right now,” Smith said.
“I would make the argument we’re more grassroots and more in the trenches,” Smith added. He recounted the story of a younger Ranger who was trying to get into rehab. “He’d developed a heroin addiction that as far as we can surmise is the result of the painkillers they had him on for a number of years,” Smith explained.
Smith accompanied the soldier on a trip to the V.A. where he witnessed staff telling the young Ranger to come back another time, and to keep using the heroin as they warned stopping would lead to withdrawals. But they didn’t offer any supervision for the process.
Smith was furious after witnessing the interaction. “They told a junkie to go back on the street and keep using hard drugs,” he said. The young Ranger has since moved in with Smith and his wife, and has gotten himself sober with the help and encouragement of fellow veterans rather than the V.A.
Smith had little personal experience with the V.A. before working with the Darby Project. He’s always had private healthcare since leaving the military, but said his advocacy work has led him to see glaring problems with the system.
“The problem is out in the real world we have real jobs and real lives. So I can’t realistically take half a day to stand in 20 lines to find out where I have to go like when I was a soldier at Madigan.”
“They’re failing to meet people where they’re at. So, in terms of someone who’s suicidal — they’re suicidal now — that’s why they’re talking to you now. Tomorrow might be a different story, or they might be dead.”
The frustration with the V.A. is palpable. “This system that says they’re there for everybody — everyone knows it’s bullshit — so it becomes almost numb, where people feel defeated,” O’Ferrall explained. “And that’s where we’re trying to make the difference, telling them ‘no, you do count.’”
A collection of Ranger groups — including the Darby Project — have used social media networking to build their own anti-suicide programs. The group Rangers Supporting Rangers was instrumental in forming the Suicide Prevention and Interdiction Network (SPIN) for Rangers past in present.
O’Ferrall, who is involved with the network, explained that SPIN consists of vetted members who keep an eye out on social media looking for signs of veterans in distress, whether that be troubling Facebook posts or messages from worried spouses and family members.
“From there we begin to identify who is that person, where are they, what do we need to do.” O’Ferrall explained. Sometimes it’s as simple as grabbing a beer and talking it out. Other times it means convincing them to get treatment.
“The V.A. needs to get fixed, but realistically is it going to be tomorrow? Is it going to be 10 years from now? Probably not, they have so much work to do,” Edwards said. “So the Rangers are taking it upon themselves to start doing the dirty work that the V.A. won’t do.”
GallantFew’s leadership hopes the group’s work can serve as a model for other organizations and institutions to learn from — including the V.A.
GallantFew and its sub-organizations have worked to record data on how many veterans they’ve helped and what they’ve gone on to do. They hope to share that information with others. But many with the organization admit the information is still incomplete. There’s still a lot of work to do.
“Last year we rendered 700 services to veterans,” Monger explained. “Now that doesn’t necessarily mean 700 veterans served, some of those were for the same people.”
The organization is also looking at ways to adjust to the new realities facing the post-9/11 veteran generation. For instance, more and more women have served on the front lines and are joining a historically male-dominated community of combat veterans.
Monger said that while Gallant Few has worked with female veterans, he’s realized it needs to do better. He said other members of the organization have recently told him that much of the group’s language focuses on their “brother veterans,” and has inadvertently left out some of their sister comrades.
“We’re not very good at it,” Monger said.
He said that he personally hadn’t thought much about it as he’d served in all-male units his entire career. He said Gallant Few is now looking to develop a program to better serve female veterans, and wants input from women who’ve fought.
Much of Gallant Few and its different branches have centered their work on veterans of elite units. But Monger said he hopes their methodology can spread to better serve all U.S. military veterans.
Monger asserted that many service members take their cues from elite troops. He points to aspects of Ranger culture that have made their way into the Army mainstream — such as the “Ranger Buddy” system that regular soldiers now call the “battle buddy” system.
Monger said he hopes that if other veterans see that members of elite units can struggle with demons — and ask for help — that hopefully others will be willing to open up about their own problems. It may save lives.