For nearly two decades, U.S. special operations forces have been leading the war against terrorism. They are deployed to over 100 countries worldwide.
Since 2012, Operation Healing Forces has helped injured operators and their spouses recover, and in some cases return to the battlefield -- after a week-long retreat at luxury destinations around the country.
Gary Markel, a successful Florida businessman and part owner of the Tampa Bay Rays, founded Operation Healing Forces after watching injured service members scuba diving on TV. He was so moved, he felt compelled to act.
“It's a bonding and healing retreat -- very therapeutic where none of the couples know each other when they come to the location,” said Markel in an interview with Fox News.
“The retreats range from Key West, Florida to Hilton Head to Virginia Beach to Vail to Los Angeles to New England, he added. “I still donate my yacht, but most of our generous donations come from people that have luxury vacation homes as well as several resorts that have agreed to support cause as well.”
Those resorts include The Greenbrier, Beaver Creek, The Sea Pines Resort and Scrub Island in the British Virgin Islands.
The charity has expanded from 10 week-long retreats to nearly 40 this year, helping some of the nearly 15,000 wounded special operators.
Nearly three-quarters of participants are active-duty special operations forces.
Markel's brother, Tony, joined his brother a few years ago.
“The reality is the way wars are being fought these days these are the guys that are really out there protecting the front lines and putting their lives at risk,” said Tony Markel. “The special operators are special and we think it's a wonderful way to repay the sacrifices that they make on our behalf.”
“The divorce rate in the special ops community is horrendous given the pressure of the number of deployments,” he added. “We're trying to concentrate on keeping those marriages solid.”
One couple from the special operations community – a recipient of one of the week-long retreats in Arizona – praised the work of Operation Healing Forces.
“I don't want to say that our marriage was broken or on the rocks but our marriage was not thriving,” said Heather Mizerek. “It gave us the time to focus on us.”
Mizerek credits Operation Healing Forces for helping her husband, Vince, transition out of the military.
“My favorite thing was we went on a hot air balloon ride in the middle of the desert,” she described. “They set up this beautiful dinner in the desert, while the sun is going down a string lights. It was awesome.”
Former Marine Corps special operator Vince Mizerek deployed to combat multiple times. A traumatic brain injury during a training accident in 2017 cut his career short. The former staff sergeant said he struggled with the transition.
“Operation healing forces is more than just a charity, it was a bonding experience. It was the reintegration of family,” said Vince. “The challenges that you face overseas or are completely different than the normal everyday challenges that you face here -- dropping the kids off at school helping them with homework – it's almost so simple it’s hard for you.”
For the Markel brothers, the joy comes at the end of the week-long retreat when the special operations families learn who has sponsored their luxury retreat.
“The initial reaction is I can't believe somebody would do this for us. Well, of course, our response is we can't believe what you do for us,” said Tony Markel.
“Operation Healing Forces gave us some friends from our retreat that we never would have made before. They gave us the resources,” added Heather Mizerek.
“Everybody in the military are heroes. We just feel that the special ops community is that cut above. It's a pleasure to help them out,” added Gary Markel.