Chick-fil-A Community Hero hosts free healing retreats for injured special ops soldiers, veterans

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Gary Markel doesn’t describe himself as a hero.

But he will be honored as the Gasparilla Children’s Parade Chick-fil-A Community Hero on Saturday for his incredible work with his organization, Operation Healing Forces.

Operation Healing Forces provides active-duty and recent-veteran wounded, ill and injured Special Operations soldiers and their spouses healing retreats across the country, from Aspen to Key West.

Markel founded the organization years ago, when he saw something that stuck with him.

“About 10 years ago, I was at home channel surfing and I ran across the History Channel or the Military Channel and they had a segment on people teaching Wounded Warriors how to scuba dive down in St. Thomas,” Markel explained.

Being a boat owner himself and the son of a veteran, Markel thought it was time to start giving back.

He contacted General Doug Brown at MacDill Air Force Base, who put Markel in touch with the director of the Care Coalition at the base.

The coalition’s website states they provide these men and women and their families “advocacy after life changing events in order to navigate through recovery, rehabilitation, and reintegration as quickly as possible, strengthening SOF readiness.”

Markel made the call and offered up his yacht to take some of these soldiers on a trip.

“He called back about 10 minutes later and he was laughing. And I said, ‘what are you laughing about?’” Markel said.

“And he said, ‘well I get calls all the time from people that want to donate their 25 and 35 foot boats to take our wounded troops out fishing and cruises.’ But he said, ‘nobody’s ever offered a 155-foot yacht before.’”

That’s how Operation Healing Forces began. The first few retreats took place on Markel’s yacht in the British Virgin Isles.

He said the organization really got under way when they began asking others for use of their yachts and vacation homes.

Operation Healing Forces requires that every vacation home have five bedrooms and five bathrooms.

Four couples from different branches of the military attend a retreat, as well as a retreat leader, who are all veteran Special Forces soldiers, from the organization.

Over 65 percent of these soldiers are still active and are getting ready to be re-deployed.

Markel said these retreats with other families help a soldier heal.

“They have the same things in common, they just don’t let it out. During these retreats they open up and our retreat leaders can usually get them to open up and talk about their problems and what’s going on,” he said.

Activities on retreats can obviously vary by location.

“My brother and I donate our houses in Naples, Florida for example. And the normal retreats will be a fishing trip, wave runners, it runs a gamut. And we normally get the people to donate activities in the retreats, in the areas where we go, as well as meals. We got to restaurants and ask them to donate meals for these couples as well as the activities,” Markel explained.

He said they’ve had great success with funding meals and activities for their families.

“It’s not a hard sell, when you hear the stories of these men and women and what they’ve gone through, active and retired,” he said.

Applicants for retreats come to Operation Healing Forces through the Care Coalition at MacDill.

The coalition has over 15,000 members, those being wounded special operations troops.

The soldiers are screened at the base and a list is sent to Markel’s organization for further screening.

Markel explained to 8 On Your Side that the testimonials from soldiers who have attended a retreat can be astounding.

He told the story of a gentleman who was in the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command who spoke at an operation fundraiser.

“And he was wounded both mentally and physically. And he was just talking about how it saved his marriage, ect, ect, and he told my wife, he said he had the metal in his mouth a couple times, which means he was thinking about committing suicide,” Markel said.

“And you get stories like that and it’s very heart-rendering. So hopefully our retreats are helping save divorces and helping save lives.”

Operation Healing Forces’ aid to these soldiers and veterans does not stop at the retreats.

Markel explained their immediate needs program.

“We’ve set aside X-hundreds of thousands of dollars where the couples that have been part of our retreats may have an immediate needs problem, where maybe their husband is in the hospital or whatever and they want to go visit the husband and they don’t have the funds to stay in a hotel or whatever,” he said.

Markel said with the “red tape through the government,” assistance like that takes time, and his organization has the ability to provide help immediately with the funds they have set aside.

Operation Healing Forces has also partnered with a law firm and financial planner to help these families, pro bono.

Markel said the organization has “really turned into more than just the retreats.”

This year, Operation Healing Forces is going on 45 to 55 week-long retreats. Next year, they hope to expand by 10 percent more.

Those without a yacht or vacation home can still help out.

In addition to monetary donations, Markel said their biggest need is airline miles.

“We’ve partnered with Southwest Airlines, but that’s our biggest single cost, is flying these couples… all over the country, and into the Caribbean and stuff,” he explained.

While Markel said the real heroes are the men and women protecting and who have protected our country, he’s honored to provide them this service.

He’s also honored to serve as the Chick-fil-A Community Hero.

Markel has been to Gasparilla a few times and was involved in a previous floatilla, but this will be his first time in the parade.

“I’m very much looking forward to it… I’m very honored to receive this recognition,” he said, smiling.

News Channel 8 will stream the Gasparilla Invasion live on WFLA Now Jan. 25. The Gasparilla Parade will be broadcast on News Channel 8 beginning at 2:30 p.m.  

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