Perry Yee's best way to support Gold Star Families is an active imagination. (And Nerf guns.)
By Brent Hannify | May 2, 2022
perators always know how to handle a weapon. It doesn't matter if it shoots 300 Blackout rounds or foam darts with suction cup tips. That's why the veteran volunteers with the nonprofit Active Valor all handle Nerf guns with the same practiced discipline as a SCAR-L.
It was one of many authentic details veterans brought to 2019's "Zombie Hunt" Valor Adventure, an epic day of fun where kids battled the zombie hordes alongside volunteers with Active Valor. The nonprofit is dedicated to Gold Star Families, and each child participating that day had a parent who died in the line of duty.
Active Valor, and every imaginative Valor Adventure that defines it, is the creation of Perry Yee, who spent four years as an operator with SEAL Team 7.
He speaks humbly of his creation, offering plenty of credit to his wife Jamie, with whom he plans every adventure. "She has a more active imagination than I do," he says. "We were both made for this, but she's the real magician."
The Zombie Hunt: Halloween Town was the seventh Valor Adventure, and by far the most ambitious. Perry recruited over 100 volunteers to play the walking dead. He purchased 80 Nerf Rival pistols and hundreds of extra rounds of foam dart ammunition. In the weeks before the event, Perry's house was littered with Amazon boxes containing stage blood and makeup, costumes, wigs, and plastic skeletons. He wanted to create the ultimate experience for the kids whom he believes deserve it the most.
Active Valor's main mission is to address the void in a child's life created by the tragic loss of a parent in the line of duty. And while nothing can ever replace a deceased parent, veteran mentors bring the kind of knowledge, moral strength, and compassion that every person needs to grow, especially at young ages. And Perry found the best delivery system for those kinds of values were Valor Adventures—Sprawling activities kids can enjoy alongside American military pros.
But they had to be legendary. Absolutely thrilling. And what's more thrilling for a kid than battling through zombie hordes alongside real warfighters, reaching the extraction point with the undead hot on your heels, and escaping in an actual MRAP on loan by the Carlsbad SWAT team?
Perry Yee (left) rallying the troops before the kids arrive.
Becoming the impact
It's often said that veterans seek to remain connected to the military community, even if the last thing they want is the military itself. They stop serving for a reason, after all, and no one wants to keep following orders.
But many veterans find themselves adrift, seeking purpose, longing for that sense of community and brotherhood they enjoyed during their years of active service, even if they can't fully explain why.
Perry didn't plan on remaining connected to the military. He'd served his time, been deployed, and seen the action. He awaited the next stage of his life unencumbered by commands and combat.
But life has a way of presenting opportunities to continue using one's skills, even if all you want is to learn new ones. You can take a man out of the military, but you can't take the military out of the man. Perry found himself bouncing from job to job before landing at a tactical training facility teaching close quarters combat to law enforcement officers and civilians. The field was exploding in interest, and the customers were rolling in. It was good business at Warfighter Academy, and Perry found himself inexorably working alongside other combat vets like himself. Soon, he realized that he too missed the brotherhood and sense of purpose he enjoyed during his six years on the teams.
And he knew he wasn't alone. Veterans, especially those who've seen war up close in all its brutality, struggle with mental health. Depression, PTSD, and suicide is rampant among a community that feels lost in society and unsupported by the government. It's nonprofits that step in to fill the void, and sitting there in San Diego, a town with a huge military presence, Perry didn't know where to possibly begin.
"This area is filled with veteran nonprofits, and that means you have a lot of overlap," he says. "I didn't want to double up on what everyone else was doing." He wanted to find a specific need that wasn't being filled in the mission to care for America's veterans.
The answer came to Perry, as many answers do, through prayer. Outspoken about his faith, Perry said that he and his wife sat down and posed the question to God. How can we provide for veterans who've lost their sense of purpose? And as far as Perry and Jamie (and God) could tell, there wasn't an organization dedicated to the most impacted segment of the military community—the families of men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their nation: Gold Star Families.
Getting the Active Valor mission started
How do you build a nonprofit dedicated to Gold Star Families without being exploitative? The last thing Perry and Jamie wanted to do was capitalize on grief. The opportunity to get the message out about Active Valor came through Facebook—one of the rare instances these days where social media created a solution rather than a problem. Perry came across a photo of a group of Gold Star Wives posted on a military Facebook Group he was subscribed to. The woman who posted it lost her own husband in Iraq and had tagged every other woman in the photo, all of whom lived in the San Diego area and had lost loved ones in the War on Terror.
Through his contacts in the veteran and tactical community, Perry found as many mentors as he could for the kids in those families, and decided to reach out to the women in the Facebook Group. "There's a right way and a wrong way to reach out to the wives of fallen servicemembers on social media," he said. "I must've written at least a dozen drafts before hitting send."
Perry's careful tact did the trick. Several of the women responded and were on board with attending the first Valor Adventure: A mission-based treasure hunt, complete with authentic land navigation techniques, finding and reaching waypoints, and solving problems as a team alongside military pros with real combat experience. In other words, a day spent with veterans who could offer a measure of the same skills, values, and companionship their fathers had.
"The idea isn't to take the place of Dad," he says. "That will never happen. But everyone has coaches throughout life. Teachers who help you grow and parents who guide your upbringing and help you to become your own person. We intend to be those coaches and those mentors."
Perry and his friends at Active Valor also discovered an unintended yet welcome side effect of Valor Adventures—It's essentially free babysitting. "The first thing the kids make you aware of is how they definitely do not want Mom to come along. This is their fun time," Perry says with a laugh. "And the moms are totally fine with that, because they get to spend time with each other, with other women who can relate to their life experiences, while we take their kids out on a treasure hunt or a game of Capture the Flag."
It's gotten to the point where every Valor Adventure has become an increasingly large family reunion. "We know every wife's name," he recalls. "We know their husbands' names. We know how they died, and what their rank was. And most importantly, we know their kids."
Right now, Perry and Jaime's house is again under threat of crowding by Amazon boxes, toys, costumes, and other arts and crafts. For Father's Day weekend this June—an especially important weekend for Gold Star Families nationwide—Perry and Jamie are hard at work planning Valor Adventure 09: Laser Tag. They're going to take over a football field, fill it with inflatable barricades and defensive cover, and host the greatest laser tag battle the world has ever seen.
It's all for the kids. And it will always be for the kids. But when you picture him handing out laser rifles to both kids and the veteran mentors who stand alongside them, it's easy to imagine Perry Yee as the most excited person on the field.