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Bonds That Heal

The Vital Mission Behind Operation Healing Forces

Imagine a life where every day is a battle; not just against external threats, but against your own mind and body. This is the reality for many Special Operations Forces (SOF) members, whose lives are often marred by physical injuries, mental trauma, and the strains of combat. Without the proper resources, these veterans and their families are left to continue their fight in the trenches without any weapons. Thankfully there are organizations such as Operation Healing Forces, that step in and refuse to leave anyone behind. 

Operation Healing Forces understands the importance resources can play for Special Ops active duty members, veterans, their families and their caregivers. They know rehabilitation is crucial and reintegration is a journey, one that could potentially save lives and family systems. Operation Healing Forces (OHF) was founded on the principle of honoring America's wounded, ill, injured, and fallen Special Operations Forces service members, veterans, and their families through programs that offer mental, physical and emotional healing on multiple levels. OHF is a testament to the power of human connection in healing and stands as a beacon of hope for those who feel lost.

The idea started in November of 2011 under the name Operation Cruise by Gary Markel, with the thought of providing week-long retreats on his yacht for Special Operations Forces and their family members. Over the years it has transformed into so much more. What started as week-long cruises has evolved into a comprehensive program offering support, rehabilitation, and reintegration services for SOF members and their families.

In March 2016, OHF expanded its programs beyond cruises to include donations of homes and resorts, ensuring that the healing and bonding experiences could continue through couples retreats. Gary's brother, Tony Markel, joined him in this noble endeavor, along with their Board of Directors, all of whom pledged to cover the overhead and administrative costs of OHF. This commitment ensures that 100% of all donations go directly toward supporting Special Operators and their families.

The mission of Operation Healing Forces is clear and resolute: "Their lives are our mission." OHF is dedicated to serving the needs of the Special Operations Forces community through a suite of programs that promote long-term mental, physical, emotional, and fiscal well-being. Their vision, "Creating bonds that cure," reflects their belief in the transformative power of human connections in enhancing resilience, empowering rehabilitation, and fostering reintegration for SOF members and their families.

“It’s imperative for our nation to understand that it’s our duty and responsibility to support those who have sacrificed so much for our nation…it’s a moral obligation.”--Kerry

For Kerry Irvin, the CEO and an integral figure in OHF, this mission is deeply personal. Coming from a military family, with a father who served in Vietnam for over 40 years, a husband who was a special operations night aviator for 32 years, and two children who are now in the military, Kerry understands the unique challenges faced by SOF members and their families. She was an officer for national security and intelligence for many years and worked closely with special ops. 

“I have a lot of respect and high regard for the work they do. They are quiet professionals; the general public doesn’t know a lot of what’s really happening. On any given day, in about 72-82 countries, we have special ops on the ground numbering between 6-8,000 individuals. They are doing their duty, on behalf of our nation.”--Kerry

OHF recognizes that oftentimes relationships and lives are severely damaged by the call of duty and its aftermath. It provides a network of support that allows for the opportunity to grow a community of like-minded individuals who simply understand what the word “sacrifice” actually means. These retreats refresh their souls and bring them hope during times of defeat and loss because the battle doesn’t end when they return home. Recognizing the unique challenges faced by the SOF community, OHF provides a suite of programs tailored to their specific needs. Decades of perpetual combat operations, increased suicides, and a high divorce rate within the SOF community underscore the importance of OHF's work.

“Every program we provide enhances mental and physical well-being. When you have one of those areas out of sync, it impacts other areas of life. How are we helping increase the holistic well-being of our service members?”--Kerry

Breaking the Silence

One of the biggest challenges for SOF members is the expectation to be tough and resilient. However, this often leads to burying emotions and trauma, which can have devastating effects on mental health and relationships. OHF provides a safe space for SOF members to open up and share their struggles without fear of judgment or repercussions. By providing a community of peers who understand their experiences, SOF members can find solace, support, and a renewed sense of purpose.

“It’s drilled into them to be tough. They are the most elite, our most formidable military units in the world. The expectation is to be a machine, but the reality is, they’re human.”--Kerry

The programs offered by OHF are designed to create a safe and supportive environment where SOF members and their families can openly discuss their personal battlefield and problem solve hardships. With a staff comprised of former operators, SOF spouses, and personnel with over a decade of experience serving the SOF community, OHF creates a trusting atmosphere where participants can share their struggles without fear of stigma. While physical injuries are often visible, the invisible wounds of war, such as PTSD and moral injury, can be just as debilitating. OHF offers a range of programs to address these issues, including mental health counseling, addiction treatment, and holistic wellness coaching.

Once an operator or SOF family becomes a part of the OHF alumni family, the bonds formed are lifelong. OHF's staff is available 24/7, mirroring the dedication of the SOF community they support. From week-long therapeutic retreats for Special Operations couples to the Special Operations Additional Resource Program (SOAR), OHF offers a wide range of resources to support SOF service members and their families.

In addition to retreat programs, OHF provides direct crisis support, employment services, financial planning, and more. They host frequent fundraising events, from golf tournaments to songwriting sessions; providing outlets, community, and support for those that need it.

“Our immediate needs program has provided over a million dollars in financial grants for our veterans and their families during times of hardship and crisis. This is not funding that’s covered by the VA or DOD or health insurance, these are referrals that have come directly to us from Special Ops Command. They range from medical necessities, physical ailments, health issues, prosthetics, and adaptive equipment needs, to remodeling homes and food insecurity requests. We also set them up with wraparound services such as financial counseling, to prevent similar challenges in the future. Sometimes we refer them to mental health counselors and clinicians or virtual holistic coaching programs to enhance their overall well-being through mindfulness and meditation.”

Raymond “Tony” Thomas, a former four-star Commanding General of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) understands the crucial need for benevolent organizations to counterbalance the toll taken on America’s most elite fighting forces. 

“Operation Healing Forces is one of the most powerful platforms I know of to help support our nation’s Special Operations Forces. The vital programming they offer specifically targets the evolving needs within the Special Operations community and provides long-lasting positive impacts for the Service Members, Veterans, and their families.”--Tony

Having previously commanded the more than 78,000 individuals who comprise USSOCOM, General Thomas knows better than most the importance of ensuring wraparound care services are available in times of hardship and crisis. 

“The tempo of special operations missions around the world is not lessening, nor are the repercussions on the lives of those who serve. We cannot afford to take our foot off the gas pedal when it comes to taking care of those who have given so much in service to our Nation. That’s one of the reasons why I chose to align myself with Operation Healing Forces as a member of their National Advisory Council. There are many organizations out there serving the military, but OHF does one of the best jobs of caring for not just the service member, but their entire family.”

The work of OHF is made possible by generous donations and volunteers. By supporting OHF, you can help provide vital services to those who have sacrificed so much for our country. Whether through fundraising, advocacy, or volunteering, you can make a difference in the lives of Special Operations Forces and their families. 

If you're inspired by the mission of Operation Healing Forces and want to get involved, Kerry Irvin emphasizes one thing, “Be an ally, spread the word, help us elevate awareness and advocate for them. Encourage people to look at our website, reach out, and volunteer.” OHF is always looking for partners to host fundraising events and support their vital mission. By joining hands with OHF, you can be a part of creating bonds that truly heal.

Operation Healing Forces is more than an organization; it's a lifeline for the Special Operations Forces community. Through their unwavering commitment to strengthening human bonds, OHF is changing lives on every battlefield.

  • General (Retired) Joseph Votel; OHF Founder and Chairman, Gary Markel; OHF CEO, Kerry Irvin; OHF Vice-Chairman, Tony Markel; General (Retired) Tony Thomas