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Can Veteran International NGOs be Humanitarian Actors?

Photo by U. S. Air National Guard Capt. Steven Stubbs - US, Honduras Military, and NGOs provide support to Honduras schools. May 20, 2014, Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras.

By Stanislava Mladenova, Ph.D.

Upon retiring or exiting military service, veterans’ leadership and technical skills are often attractive qualities in non-military professions, whether in the public, private, or non-governmental sectors, facilitated by programs such as the 100,000 Jobs Mission.[1] Among the numerous veteran non-profit organizations has emerged a new type of organization:  the veteran recruiting international NGO (“VRINGO”). In particular, in semi-secure environments, where there is a need for humanitarian assistance and development initiatives, retired military veterans are increasingly joining or establishing their own NGOs upon exiting military service. VRINGOs operate across a spectrum of areas, helping in crises and disasters or humanitarian missions, both to support host nation governments, or US efforts abroad.


Several examples abound. Team Rubicon, an international NGO specializing in disaster response, “unites the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams.”[2] Spirit of America (SoA) seeks experienced staff to hire “with US government and/or military leadership experience.”[3] Samaritan’s Purse, which provides humanitarian response, is “staffed by veterans who have served in the toughest conflict zones in the world,” as they seek skills “to operate in challenging, kinetic conditions in developing countries.”[4] Just a few weeks into the war between Russia and Ukraine, Global Surgical and Medical Support Group (GSMSG) remained the only US surgical team on the ground in Ukraine, where GSMSG teams of Special Operations Veterans and medical/surgical professionals provided the spectrum of training to the local population.[5] In their ability to provide trauma medicine, “Veterans, especially those with medical qualifications… can find an incredibly unique opportunity to apply their entire range of skills in the service of others.”[6] 


In 2021, over half of the 50 SoA board of advisors members were retired military officers, highlighting the organization’s commitment to leveraging military expertise.[7]  SoA has been directly working alongside with the Department of Defense (DoD) since 2018,[8] and in 2019 alone, they completed 238 projects worldwide, supporting US diplomats and the US military.[9] The presence of retired General David Petraeus on the board of Team Rubicon underscores the importance of military leadership in these organizations.[10] Just as Audrey Hepburn brought attention to children’s welfare as a UNICEF Ambassador, these generals bring visibility to the work of security and development entities.


There are numerous guidelines and structures intended to coordinate military and civilian entities.[11] But it is ultimately the personalities and commonalities between these entities that make for effective engagement.[12] The natural affinity between VRINGOs and military personnel is strongest when both are operating in the same geographies—especially when those regions are affected by unstable governance, human insecurity, and general fragility.[13] This potential convergence raises questions regarding VRINGOs' abilities to define themselves as, alternatively, purely “civilian” or “military.”  Yet, field staff with the ability and maturity to operate in complex spaces, while not posing a risk to the organization, or the local population is highly valuable.


Many humanitarian NGOs remain reluctant to coordinate with the military because of their partiality and non-neutrality. Many, such as MSF, will assiduously avoid any connection with security actors. This further complicates these organizations’ roles, as retired veterans-gone NGO, know all too well that it is difficult to lose the ability to see things first and foremost through a security lens.[14] To what extent are other VRINGOs operating in unstable environments, absorbing military frameworks, relationships, and working methods?


Further inquiry should unpack how the military and NGO cultures are blending. Staff who are former military may create a strongly needed and tightly-knit ecosystem crossing the civil-military divide, one which reflects the constant convergence of the civilian and security environments globally. Retired veterans leverage connections, moving between their understanding of security challenges, while seeking to adopt humanitarian or development approaches to their work. VRINGOs are neither typical NGOs nor traditional development partners. But they are agile and consistent actors in conflict-affected settings. The impact of VRINGOs on the programmatic effectiveness requires further inquiry:  to what extent do these entities abide by the principles of, e.g., development effectiveness and humanitarian best practices? How do they address concerns of regulatory bodies for compliance with legal standards and ethical practices or of international accreditation agencies that assess adherence to global standards of operation?

The proliferation of VRINGOs, finally, has broader implications for relationships and coordination between developmental/humanitarian and defense establishments, and former military who adapt their “expertise and experience to the NGO culture.  [They] can have much to offer and be a great asset. Not all security makes you safe, and often security isn't even about security; it is about good program design, leadership, resilience, and above all, communication.”[15] The recruitment and placement of ex-military staff in key VRINGO advisory and operational positions represent a form of boundary convergence rather than demarcation. As security forces, both militaries and non-state actors, increasingly permeate humanitarian spaces, organizational distinctions become less clear: who is a military, humanitarian, development, or non-state actor?

About the Author

Stanislava Mladenova is a Global Fellow at the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies at Brown University. She is the author of the upcoming book When Rambo Meets the Red Cross: Civil-Military Engagement in Fragile States. You can follow her on LinkedIn, where she often posts about civil-military relations:

Standard Disclaimers

The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization.

The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

End Notes

[2] Team Rubicon Global. “Team Rubicon Global gives military veterans around the world the opportunity to continue to serve.” (last accessed December 3, 2021)

[4] Samaritan’s Purse International Relief. “Careers for U.S. Military Veterans.” (last accessed July 1, 2021).

[5] Aaron Epstein, “American veterans, medical professionals train Ukranians in combat care,” Fox News, March 29, 2022.

[6] Ibid.

[8] Civil Affairs Association, “2021 Civil Affairs Symposium Report,”, December 30, 2021. The MoU allows for special donations which have been financed by private money and are in support of US missions, to be transported by DOD, under DOD Section 1092 “Department of Defense Engagement with Certain Nonprofit entities in support of missions of deployed United States Personnel around the world.”

[9] 2019 Annual Report for Spirit of America, (cite directly from the website)

[11] Jaff, Dilshad, Lewis Margolis, and Edward Reeder. "Civil–military interactions during non-conflict humanitarian crises: a time to assess the relationship." Defence Studies. (2022): 1-16.

[12] Mladenova, Stanislava P. When Rambo Meets the Red Cross: Civil-Military Engagement in Fragile State. Rowman and Littlefield, 2024. Francis Kofi Abiew, "From civil strife to civic society: NGO-military cooperation in peace operations," Occasional Paper 39 (2003): 11.; John Mackinlay and Randolph Kent, "A new approach to complex emergencies," International Peacekeeping 4, no. 4 (1997): 31-49.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Brown, Thomas, “The Strategic Humanitarian,” Team Rubicon, July 11, 2023 - 

[15] McCann, Steve, “Why military muscle doesn't make better humanitarian security,” The Guardian, June 4, 2014, 


1 comment


han gu
han gu

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