Retired Marine Capt. Donny O’Malley said everyone he has known who died by suicide had one thing in common: isolation.
Attending the funeral of a battle buddy who took his own life, O’Malley was struck by the grief of his friend’s mother who kept asking, “Why?” So, he set out to do something about it.
O’Malley researched suicide rates among transitioning veterans. When he realized how much it impacts the military community, he knew something had to change.
He reasoned that if he was able to get a bunch of people together laughing, it might lead them to talk, which in turn might lead them to feel less socially isolated.
“Laughter connects us because it lets us know we both think alike and there are similarities in our experiences. And in the military, we have a very strong sense of community, but that’s often absent once we get out,” he said.
After medically retiring in 2017, O’Malley himself was missing that sense of community, so he reached out to some Marines in his last unit and organized a “Silkies Hike.” He and his buddies donned their silkies, strapped a 22 kg ruck on their backs and set out to walk 22 km to represent the 22 veterans who die by suicide daily.
O’Malley said he expected about 10 people to show up but was so excited when 75 Marines arrived. Right away, O’Malley knew he was onto something special.
“I remember thinking that all we have to do is facilitate social connection among veterans of the same unit. They have a shared experience that will help them bond, and in turn, can help them heal,” he said.
What started as a local event quickly spread across the country, and O’Malley’s non-profit organization, Irreverent Warriors, was born. Irreverent Warriors’ mission is to facilitate social connection and bring the military community together. To date, it has helped bring over 60,000 veterans together.
Once the Silkies Hikes started taking off, O’Malley realized he could do something with all the energy and interest that the organization generated.
He made a video to market a book he wrote that was based on a post for a popular veteran-centric blog. The blog post didn’t take off, but making videos sparked something else. While he realized it would be impossible for him to do it on his own, O’Malley saw the need for irreverent veteran-based comedy shows. But there was no market for it. True to form, he created it.
“I was trying to monetize it, but I realized I couldn’t sell two to five minute sketches individually. So, I realized I needed to start my own Netflix,” he said.
That’s exactly what he did. With a targeted audience of “combat grunts,” O’Malley has launched the first-ever television network created for military veterans, by military veterans.
“There’s no one telling stories that are for us, with our voice, and making an effort to get it right. I saw that need and decided I should be the one to do something about it,” O’Malley explained.
Using an “attract your tribe” mindset, O’Malley created VET Tv as a streaming video on demand channel (SVOD). He said he and his team have literally googled their way to success.
“We’re one of the few SVOD production companies that does everything in house, from content creation to distribution. Admittedly, most of our programming is very dark and very irreverent, but everything we do is geared toward building social connection among military members, especially veterans, because as we’ve come to learn, when you build social connection, greater social connection leads to less social isolation (a common problem especially among veterans) and with less social isolation comes fewer veterans suicides. It’s pretty heavy stuff, but it’s what makes us what we are,” said O’Malley.
A Kickstarter campaign helped O’Malley and his team raise $300,000, which enabled him to hire full-time workers. Three years later, VET Tv has 21 full-time employees and 93,000 subscribers.
“We have the most incredible testimonies from people who directly attribute the discovery of our network to saving their lives through comedy. We provide them the kind of laughter they haven’t had since being in the military. The military is full of absurd situations where you ask yourself how something is even real. That’s the kind of content we provide to our subscribers,” said O’Malley.
And true to his pledge to the mother of his fallen buddy, every sketch on his channel has a call to action at the end, asking the viewer to reach out to someone they served with and say hello.
“Asking our subscribers to text someone they served with helps lead to a connection, which might lead to rekindling a friendship, which eventually leads to getting the squad back together. And the less our veterans are isolated, the less at risk they are,” O’Malley said.