“Their deaths are a reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices made by the men and women of our military and their families, including all who have served in Afghanistan. We will draw inspiration from their lives, and continue the work of securing our country and standing up for the values that they embodied.”
– President Barack Obama, Aug. 6, 2011, following the news of the worst U.S. loss of life in Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan.
Since 9/11, special operations forces (SOF), including the Navy’s SEAL Teams, have been the nation’s counterterrorism instrument of choice for combating al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist and anti-coalition forces. SEALs are proven experts in urban warfare, close quarters combat, counterinsurgency operations, and the most critical clandestine military operations. With the SOF “quiet professional” motto comes a veil of secrecy over the mysterious world of these special operations warriors. They work and live in the shadows and, to some extent, so do their families, challenged by not always knowing where their loved ones are deploying, what they are tasked with doing, or when they will be coming home.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that most Americans have little idea of the sacrifices made by these special operations warriors. “They don’t understand the amount of time that these guys are away from home and now the amount of time that they are in harm’s way,” said retired Vice Adm. Bert Calland, chairman of the Navy SEAL Foundation. “The deployment tempo has gone up significantly. The biggest challenge is due to the rotational deployment cycle. They get back with little time off and then roll right back into another deployment cycle with pre-deployment training that keeps them away over half or maybe three-quarters of the time that they are at home. Then at that point they are gone again for a six-month deployment. Some can be shorter or longer, but these guys that have been deployed since 9/11, literally have been gone well over half the time.”
And that represents normal operations over the past decade, when everything is going well. Sometimes, though, it goes very, very wrong. On Aug. 6, 2011, another heartbreaking news story began circulating on the airwaves and in the press, informing the world of a mission tragedy in Afghanistan. Reports stated that a special operations mission had gone bad, resulting in U.S. casualties: a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade had shot down a U.S. Chinook helicopter in Wardak province. When the dust settled and reports were refined, Americans learned that 38 warriors had been killed in action: 17 Navy SEALS, five Naval Special Warfare support technicians, three Air Force Special Tactics Squadron personnel, five Army aircrew, and eight Afghan National Army soldiers. The incident marked the largest single loss of life for U.S. forces in Operation Enduring Freedom and sent a shockwave through the close-knit special operations community.
This tragedy brought quick attention from around the world and in particular to the families of Navy SEALs. This was not the first time in Afghanistan a tragic loss was sustained during a single mission, but as always, it was the families at home that had to absorb the tragic loss of a son, husband, father, brother, or friend. It’s hard to explain to those outside the fight why such warriors make the ultimate sacrifice for their fellow brothers in arms. No words can express or console those who have to live with the loss of a loved one. The loss of one soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, or Coast Guardsman is one too many for any commander leading America’s finest, but what can be done for those who will live with this tragic loss the rest of their lives?
Since 9/11 and the beginning of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, combat losses have been the most difficult aspect for the American public to deal with. The military family understands the purpose, drive, mission, and sacrifice that their loved ones volunteered for, but what goes through their minds when they receive the notification that their loved one has made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom? The military takes care of its own, but there has also been an upwelling of organizations that have evolved since our nation’s fight against terrorists began – volunteer or nonprofit organizations that understand and support the personal needs and requirements of families and that can foster a spirit of hope that their loved one did not die in vain. One such organization is the Navy SEAL Foundation, established to support those in their own small, close-knit community.
The Navy SEAL Foundation
Earlier this year, two successful organizations dedicated to supporting the Naval Special Warfare community came together to form a single unified support entity for the Navy’s SOF and their families. The Naval Special Warfare Foundation and the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund merged to create the new Navy SEAL Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides support in times of hardship and celebrates U.S. Navy SEALs, Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen (SWCC), Naval Special Warfare support personnel, and their families.
“We’ve brought together two very successful organizations dedicated to supporting the Naval Special Warfare community,” said Calland. “The merger makes it easier for families to come to one place for assistance and support, while enabling the foundation to respond rapidly to their needs.”
The hub of this combined support activity is the SEAL Heritage Center (SHC), located in Virginia Beach, Va., at the Joint Expeditionary Base, Little Creek. The Navy SEAL Foundation’s mission is to provide assistance to the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) community during times of tragedy, as well as to provide special events, educational opportunities, and projects that honor those warriors and their families. The philosophy and direction of the Navy SEAL Foundation is guided by a board of directors, many of whom, like Calland, are former SEALs. Since the merger, the board has moved swiftly to develop a branding campaign, raise funds, and look into ways to make life transitions easier for Navy SEAL families.
“Donations combined from the two organizations have continued to grow, ” Calland said. “Also, having rolled them together as one, it has given us more flexibility. We are working to grow our endowment fund, which is an ongoing process. The purpose of the endowment is to be able to get to a certain level of resourcing – we are still working on exactly what that is, but it is 25 or more million dollars – and that is to be sure that we can continue to provide family support for the foreseeable future. There are some donors that like to get involved with the endowment program, while other donors would rather provide resources for immediate needs of the family and contribute regular donations.”
There When Needed
Never was the work and importance of the foundation more apparent than in its support for SEAL families and loved ones after the Aug. 6 tragedy. Sadly, some of the foundation’s effectiveness could be attributed to having already had experience in dealing with a single event resulting in multiple losses.
“Going back to a previous loss that was associated with the foundation, where SEALs were killed back in early 2005, it was the first major [such] event – at that point in time – and the Naval Special Warfare Foundation and the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund supported those families. We took what we learned from that 2005 incident and brought in lessons learned to the Navy SEAL Foundation to provide better support for the tragic 6 August 2011 event,” Calland said.
“The focus was to get to the families right away, so we made connections with the commands where those guys were assigned and began working immediately. We asked for volunteers – they set up the Volunteer Operation Center at the Navy SEAL Heritage Center. They essentially operated like a military operation center. Verizon came in and set up phone lines and set up operations to support the families – they opened lines to provide charitable support for donations.
“You can only imagine, with that many family members spread across the country who needed to participate in memorial services and funerals – just getting them together was a huge logistical challenge. The commands of those servicemen provided Casualty Assistance Officers, who immediately began working with the families and planning the way ahead.”
Calland described the difficulty the spouses and the families had staying focused and trying to figure out what to do next. “They just need [assistance and] people to … provide them an easy process to follow,” he said.
“We had a group of volunteers answering phone calls and taking donations from across the nation; major airlines were providing tickets, large hotel chains were providing free lodging, and rental car agencies did the same thing. So there was a lot of support from across the country. Donor support was amazing, with hundreds of thousands in personal donations; it was truly an amazing outpouring of support across the board.
“Just from this one incident, there are 26 children who are fatherless and 10 spouses without husbands. We pledge to support those families and kids for as long as it takes and ensure they have the opportunity to attend college if that’s what they choose.”
In addition to providing tragedy assistance, the foundation hosts family events to boost morale; awards scholarships and provides educational assistance to active-duty personnel, their spouses, and children; and works to preserve the history and heritage of the NSW community. Today, there are approximately 8,900 Naval Special Warfare personnel, including more than 2,400 SEALs and 700 Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen, 700 Reserve personnel, 4,100 support personnel and more than 1,100 civilians operating in locations around the globe.
“These warriors are at the tip of the spear in the global war on terrorism, exhibiting extraordinary skill, courage, and commitment,” said Calland, who became a SEAL in 1975, commanded U.S. Central Command’s Special Operations Command (SOCCENT) after 9/11, was commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command, and concluded his active-duty career as deputy director of the CIA. He is currently the executive vice president for Security and Intelligence Integration at CACI International, Inc. “The primary mission of the Navy SEAL Foundation is to provide support to the families of the Naval Special Warfare community. It’s a mission we will not fail.”
Helping those in need
The nation’s recent commemorations of the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 were a reminder of what inspired many, from all walks of life, to join the ranks of our armed forces in defense of America’s liberties and freedom. They were also a reminder, however, that there is always a terrible price to pay in lives and injuries. Calland described the focus and goals of the foundation and how Americans can lend their support to America’s fighting men and women of the Naval Special Warfare community.
“Donations are always good. They help us … make sure we have the resources to be able to continue to provide support to those who don’t currently have the means and to those who will need it in the future; there is a long-term commitment to these families. Donations help us provide the resources needed to keep our commitments to the families and especially the children. We talk to survivors and ask what we can do to help.
“One of those issues is grief counseling. Grief counseling for the entire family, in particular the kids, is a huge cost. We are in the process, a complicated process, of making sure that the right people are in the right counseling groups to meet their specific personal needs. We want to make sure they are provided the necessary level of support and understand that it will be an ongoing requirement. Also, the scholarship programs are very important. Additionally, we work closely with other charitable organizations that are associated with special operations families. We want to make sure all the family needs are met, so we work together coordinating a long-range plan to support the individual family needs.”
The Navy SEAL Foundation offers numerous donation opportunities, including planned giving and an endowment fund. Donations are tax deductible, and 95 cents of every dollar spent by the Navy SEAL Foundation support its mission, programs, and services. The Navy SEAL Foundation has also liaised in the development and funding of monuments and memorials across the country, from San Diego, Calif., to Virginia Beach; from the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., to Utah Beach on the coast of Normandy, France. These and other monuments are raised to focus and highlight the endeavors and accomplishments of Naval Special Warfare personnel, so that others may understand and preserve NSW’s heritage for future generations to come.
Navy SEAL Foundation
1619 D Street, BLDG. 5326
Virginia Beach, VA 23459
This article first appeared in Navy Seals 50: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Establishment of the U.S. Navy SEALs.