As a Veteran Marine, wife to an Active Duty Marine, friend to dozens of veterans and Active Duty members from all branches and prior Government Service employee who helped veterans, retirees and family members find employment the show Stars Earn Stripes on NBC caught my attention, big time. I'm that person who will watch re-run episodes of JAG, NCIS, 24 and Army Wives because of the action and military depiction it shows. Now there's a reality show that brings in celebrities and pairs them up with war Veterans and Law Enforcement to compete against each other by completing missions based off of real military exercises! This alone sparked my interest! Call me a tomboy, a gun toting Republican, whatever. Seeing the missions and weapons they have used and get to use makes me all warm and fuzzy inside and strikes a jealous nerve. Then the true "Mission" for the show came out. Each team represents a Veteran, Active Duty, or Law Enforcement Charity. Every time the team earns a "stripe", wins a mission, they earn money toward their chosen charity. Over $100,000 can be earned!
I (along with four others) was given the opportunity to interview five of the men who are partnered with the celebrities. JW Cortes a Veteran Marine/Current NY Police Officer, Brent Gleeson a Veteran Navy Seal, Tom Stroup a SWAT Team Commander in Florida, Talon Smith a current Active Duty Navy Fleet Marine Force Corpsman, and Grady Powell a Veteran Green Beret. Bad asses all around. What I found most interesting was the fact that none of them sugar coated their responses. Prior to the interview I conducted my own research on the show and found numerous articles that gave only negative feedback on it. Stating that it "glorified war", that it was a recruiting tactic for the armed services, and that it was a disgrace to portray the military in such a manner. It seemed like everyone was trying to turn the CHARITABLE show that also provided insight to many military members daily trainings in to something it is not, a war propaganda video game show. So many reality shows now-a-days allow people to win money for themselves but suddenly when one comes out, that no one else had the balls to do, surrounding only a small portion of what our fighting men and women of the US Military endure daily AND that has the proceeds go toward some of the best organizations out there that helps them, every antiwar person has to come out of the word works and bash it. A large majority of which have never served or had family that has served. In my opinion they need to find another subject to complain about, open their own checkbooks and donate, or step onto those yellow footprints themselves and learn what being a part of the greatest fight force really means. Do that and then they may have a damn leg to stand on for complaints, but I doubt it would be geared toward this show raising money but instead toward more money needing to go toward these charities and the military in general.
Just as the men didn't sugar coat their replies and make them as what most would say is PR friendly by small clip note, rehearsed responses, I am not going to completely shorten their answers (some words have been removed, but not much at all). While it is a bit of a read, I find it proper to have their words be seen/read. (Plus, I'm not a news reporter with limited space). :)
When asked by the Washington Post about the Nobel Prize winners stating that it sanitized war by making it into an athletic competition
Brent Gleeson stated: "We're not glorifying war. We're raising money for charity. We're bringing some basic understanding of how difficult the job our military and special operations communities are and nothing more. A lot of the people who are criticizing the show A, have never served; B, don't know what it's like to really sacrifice for their country, don't know what it's like to be shot or have friends die in their arms. So it's disappointing when people say that about something that we're involved in because we never would have been involved in a show that we thought was doing exactly what they're saying it's doing."
Tom Stroup answered: "This is not about politicizing the war, this is about raising awareness and appreciation for the effort that it takes to live in a country like we do. This is a free country because we defend our rights and we're willing to do things on a daily basis. that we're reminding the public that every day people put their lines on the line believing or not in the war but definitely believing in protecting the freedoms of this country. And that's unfortunately I think that some people have turned this into a political statement and this has got nothing to do with politics. This has everything to do with the soldiers."
JW Cortes said: "There are things going on to these young men and women every single day that goes unspoken of and unless you've been in their shoes like these other seven operatives have then it's hard to describe that feeling of being a part of something so great and so magnificent yet when you leave the service, you're feeling like you're not really sure which foot to put forward in front of the other one. You're not sure which way to go. And what happens is in an alarming rate we're losing more soldiers today by suicide than actually on the battlefield. So if Stars Earn Strips is about raising awareness and bringing funding to these programs to prevent another suicide so a guy isn't on the street homeless in New York City, you know, so he can fend for his family then Stars Earn Stripes to me in my opinion is on the right path. It may be an un-walked path but however it may be it's on to something much bigger than any one of us. And that's what for me the show is really about. It's those things that aren't spoken of, aren't glamorized but yet they're statistically proven and it's an epidemic and we need to do something about it. And I see no one else doing what NBC is doing. And for that alone they should be applauded."
Talon Smith stated: "This show doesn't glorify war; it brings what the men and women do every day, a little taste of that to the American people. Unfortunately America has shown apathy towards the current conflict and, you know, losing troops. You'll see a story about, you know, some celebrity who lost their life through an unfortunate maybe drug overdose or something but a soldier or, you know, a Marine or airman who lost their life they only make their local news when it should be in everybody's national attention that hey our men are still fighting. This show glorifies the men and women and that’s it. Entertainment is how America will receive information and NBC brings what is going on overseas to everybody's doorsteps and says hey we're not silent, we have men and women still over there, our police officers are on the street daily protecting our freedoms, we need to help them. It glorifies men and women who have served, who are serving and have been wounded and lost their life in combat. And as JW said I applaud NBC for being the first network of its kind to do anything like that and for finally giving some credit where it's due and attempting to change the lives of veterans who have served."
Grady Powell responded with: "I was made aware at a panel the other day by one of the guys in the panel just made a comment about the show about how it has been a vessel for him to open up and talk about things that he wasn't necessarily comfortable talking about with his son. His son and him were watching the show and his son says, "Daddy is this what you used to do?" And it opened up a door for him to put into words what he's been holding in for so long and I didn't see the show. That was new to me. I didn't see or expect that to happen. But there are benefits coming from this show that none of us would have expected and it's been something so much more than we had hoped for."
My turn came and I asked the men: How do you feel that this competition has helped promote the hiring of veterans?
JW Cortes responded by saying: "You know, for me what I think what it's done is it's showcased the amazing skill set that our young men and women are given in the military. I'm a police officer here in New York. I can tell you I can you that I can always pick out the guy who just came home from the military when I interact with a person on the streets. There's a certain level of confidence, an air to them, a can-do attitude that makes a person like that incredibly valuable and a standout for me. And it just makes sense that we need to hire them."
Brent Gleeson said: "Just from the sheer fact that one of the charities is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Hire a Hero program which is the one that Picabo and I are competing for and raise money for is a testament to elements that the show brings. Is it a direct message or indirect message, it doesn't really matter but seeing how that is one of the charities clearly the show is promoting how we as a country can come together and really help our men and women who've sacrificed and help them find careers after the military. Because I can tell you jut speaking for myself that my experience in the field, teams and combat completely changed my life for the better and gave me the skill sets necessary to do what I'm doing now. And I think those stories that we all can tell around that like what JW was saying as far as when you just get out and you're trying to figure out which way to go, we can tell that story too. And because of the potential publicity and PR around the show it gives us that platform from which to speak to that."
Talon Smith stated: "Just to chime in not only did NBC promote hiring heroes but they actually did it. It wasn't just do as I say not as I do. Like I can't tell you how many times on set that I was actually talking to somebody who was a veteran themselves. So literally the cast and crew of this show was veterans and not only did they promote it but they actually did it. And every day I was meeting somebody new who had served or was a veteran's child per se. The show was actually made using veterans and that's promoting it there itself."
My second question to the guys was: During your training for this particular show and the training for your counterpart, do you feel that your team member, your partner is a little bit more in tune with the demands physically and emotionally of military training in general?
Bret Gleeson answered: "Yes. But one interesting turn of events was that Picabo being a female, a female athlete, just a strong woman and wife and mother, her original attitude was that women really don't have a place necessarily in special operations and on the front line of combat. And once through the experiences of the show her attitude about that did a complete 180. She actually now fully believes in that women can and eventually will have a place in the front lines of combat and even in special operations. So that was something that was interesting that just happened organically throughout the process of the show."
Tom Stroup said:" I saw that across the board with all the people that were celebrities there, they would all also readily admit that this was just a game. This was just a taste it. And this actually - I think the person Terry Crews said it the best like it was an opportunity to realize how hard it really is. He even said it was the hardest thing he's ever done in life. So I think all the celebrities will agree with that, that this is just a taste of what they do and it's not even near the sacrifice that they make."
JW Cortes replied: "From what I got to understand of Todd's (Palin) reasoning behind being a part of the show is that he wanted to kind of say thank you to not just veterans of course and first responders, but he wanted to say thank you to his son. And by being a part of the show he was saying thank you, I not only respect you, I'm appreciative of you and of your friends that are serving alongside you. And I think that's such a huge, huge testimony. What a way to say thank you than to jump out of a helicopter entrusting your life in another person's hands just like his son does, to be fast roped out of a helo, right, and kind of come close to evading death, not necessary death but really taking a risk just like his son does. But it's just a testimony of how appreciative these celebrities were."
The last question I asked was: What motivated you guys to work with untrained celebrities and what kind of impact do you believe that this will have on society's view of our every day heroes?
Talon Smith was the first to answer: "The motivation was to give back to the charities. We've all said this so many times: the show isn't about us, it isn't about our celebrities, it's about those who have served, who are serving or who have been wounded or killed in the line of service. So that was motivation enough, an opportunity to give back and bring our call for awareness to this country that it still has people, men and women overseas that are coming home that are affected from their service. That was all it was."
Tom Stroup replied: "We all went there with a little bit of trepidation because there was a high expectation from us, you know, they sort of didn't have a high expectation from the celebrities but they told us hey you guys are going to train these people so it was a lot of pressure at first. And then Mark Burnett walked into the tent and he told us, he assured us we are only here to honor the men and women of law enforcement and military. That was most important telling part about the entire show to me was when he came in and assured us that the only purpose of this show is to raise awareness and honor military and law enforcement men and women across the world and then we all knew we were doing the right thing and with the right place at the right time."
Grady Powell responded: "Not only will it bring the average Joe to a point where he thinks you know what? Maybe I am capable of this but for those who are physically not capable and cannot join the military but want to give back somehow, this show opens so many people's eyes to you know what? There are ways for me to give back. I might not be able to serve based on something I was born with; however there are so many ways that I can stand up and give back to the community, give back to those who are fighting for us, who have died for us, give back to the family who have sacrificed so much for us. It's just going to be a vessel for people to see what they can do and open up different opportunities that maybe they didn't see prior to the show airing."
Another Journalist had asked: Since people are so consumed with entertainment and reality TV, do you think people are seeing the military in accurate light or is something getting lost?
JW Cortes answered: "Minus the uncertainty, minus people being killed, I don't know how much more realistic we can make a television program without making it unwatchable by our family. You know? We're not trying to portray realism. What we're seeing is this is a small, tiny, microscopic glimpse of what a training mission is and I think for me the big key word there is training. We all understand, we're all very competent in what it is that we're doing. This is a competition, this is paying respect to the daily sacrifices and we are in no way trying to say that this is the real deal. To say that would be a mockery and we will never ever stand for something like that. For me people always ask what was the hardest part of deploying or just being in the service or whatever. For me it really being in country wasn't as hard as it was kissing my mom and dad goodbye. That was tough for me to see them cry like little children, sobbing because they didn't know if they would ever see me again. That's difficult and that is something that happens every single day. And to add to what Brent said, I didn't have any kids when I deployed. I'm a father of two now, Brent's a dad, Talon is a brand new dad -- he was deployed when his wife was pregnant -- that's something that unless you've been there it can definitely mess your brain up. It will devastate you. And if we're able to show that through our own examples then America needs to see that part of what they think of the military. They need to see that and feel it in their hearts. And I think NBC is on the path to doing that."
Brent Gleeson stated: "One of the things that's actually kind of difficult being in the military or being in law enforcement is your loved ones never really know what - they really don't know that side of you, they don't know what it's like. They don't know what JW's like when he's a working Marine in a combat zone. They don't know what Tom is really like when he's SWAT commander on scene for a hostage rescue. So I think one positive thing that this does it gives at least a glimpse of what the training is like because it's like JW said it really can't get much more realistic because we're using live ammo, live demo, proper safety precautions. And it's nothing more than that. It's us trying to honor our service men and women and first responders, raise money for charity and help people understand a little bit about what that's like."
Talon Smith responded: "It is a way for us to connect to our families and to show people what a small taste is. However helo tasking that was 100% real and the only people who really do learn helo tasking are your specialized units. That's it. That's not something that somebody in a regular infantry unit is going to do. You literally really saw Terry and Dolvett almost drown. That was 100% real. And I saw Brent and Dale pulling Terry as hard as they could and that's real. Live ammo; it was real. So like they said there's a real aspect to what we do; however it's just a small taste. And once again, you know, as JW said we're not aiming to try and kill our celebrities, that's not the goal. The goal is to bring appreciation to our service men and women and that's what the show does in the safest way possible in a way that people can get a glimpse."
Others asked about the physical stature of the celebrities, which was answered by saying that the celebrities were all very physically fit (some more so than the operatives) which then had the operatives step up their game and hit the gym with their counterpart to help increase their ability to compete for their Charity. The charities were preselected by NBC and the celebrities chose from that list which one they wanted to represent.
The interview was amazing and I was so proud to be in the presence of these men, even if it was only via telephone!