GySgt Danny Draher: From New York to Force Recon, From Marine Raider to Family Man

UAP is excited to share this exclusive interview featuring GySgt Danny Draher – a seasoned former Reconnaissance Marine and current Marine Raider with more than eighteen years in the Marine Corps.

GySgt Danny Draher. (Photo credit: Lloyd Wainscott Photography)

When did you join the military and why?


I joined the military right after 9/11. I was going to Borough of Manhattan Community College. Once the towers fell, that school was right there, and they used it as a triage facility. They basically gave us this opportunity to withdraw without penalty. So, I took advantage of that opportunity.


I was kind of playing with the idea of joining the military before that, but then I just figured I'd followed through with it. I signed up in December of 2001, and then I actually went to boot camp in February of 2002.


Why the Marine Corps in particular?


I have Navy in my family, my grandfather was in the Air Force, we had Army, and they all kind of thought I should go the Army route. Bu after having a conversation with my oldest brother, I have two older brothers and I respect their opinions very much, but I just happened to be having this conversation with my older brother while I was kind of playing with the idea of joining and trying to figure out what branch, because I had recruiters from all the branches calling me.


My brother is a pretty wise dude, and he's always been like that. It's just kind of like that stereotypical older brother where it's just like, that's the guy you go to when you have problems, he helps you sort things out.


And he just said, “if you're going to jump off a cliff, why not get a running start?” So, you know, take the toughest one you can bear and, you know, make that your home. So, and it was words to that effect. He basically told me to go for the challenge, the most challenging branch, and based on all the stories I've ever heard, nobody denies that the Marine Corps has the hardest boot camp and, you know, even beyond that more difficult opportunities.


So that was ingrained in the back of my mind and later I started to learn more about the different jobs and opportunities. So yeah, that was why I chose the Marine Corps.

Draher (right) during a combat deployment.

Is there a particular moment or period in your military career that you're most proud of?


I'm proud that I had a little bit of diversity in the Marine Corps. I had time in the reserves, I had time in the infantry, time in Force Recon, and Special Operations in general, but I also have a lot of diversity within Special Operations.


I've been in all three Marine Raider Battalions and I spent time down in Tampa at SOCOM headquarters, and it really broadened my perspective and understanding how the enterprise works. But what I'm kind of most proud of is my time as an instructor, that was the most fun that I had. The most rewarding time that I had.


It's kind of like the typical cheesy answer, but I mean, it really is. You're there and you're part of this whole entire process and you're the presentation, right? For, for a lot of guys, I was one of the first special operators that they met from any branch and with that comes a lot of responsibility. And, you know, I learned a lot about myself and I learned a lot about people having that job. It was my opportunity to essentially mold the future generation. And really the only thing that matters once you become a senior guy, once you become seasoned, is the next generation of guys.


You're the tip of the spear of putting your hands on those guys and leaving an impression and then making them a better product at the end than when they showed up so that they’re major assets for their team.


What specifically were you responsible for teaching?


I taught close quarter battles. I taught marksmanship. I taught breaching, which deals with explosives.


Is there a particular military school that you feel was the most difficult to pass?


I went into a lot of schools with my mind made up that that's what I was going to become. Whatever it was I was going to get out of that school. I've gone to a lot of academically demanding courses and a lot of physically demanding courses. I think that the most defining course was the Amphibious Reconnaissance School (ARS).


There's no doubt about it that place is etched in history – Marine Corps history – and, you know, just to be there was an honor and a privilege. So, there was no way I was going to come back without being a Recon Marine. I just tried to have my mind made up that I was going to go to those schools, and I was going to be successful.


As a student, I wanted it to come out better than I went in. So, I can be the best Reconnaissance Marine, Raider, diver, jumper, whatever the skillset was – I wanted to add value to the team. I really wanted to go there and hone whatever those skills were just for the greater good.


ARS was a very interesting school and I mean; it was every single day you had to show up with your game-face on otherwise you would kind of get left behind and you probably weren't gonna make it.


Were you a good swimmer from the start, or did you have to learn to be proficient in the water?


Well, coming into the Marine Corps, no. Coming into Amphibious Reconnaissance School, I was well-prepared. My RIP (Recon Indoctrination Program) instructor asked me if I'd been on a swim team, but I was never on a swim team or in the pool doing anything that was physically demanding until I learned exactly what reconnaissance was.


I got letters from my cousin in boot camp and he told me that he was a machine gunner. And as soon as he got done with the school of infantry (SOI) and got to his grunt unit, he immediately went to recon.


And then I was like, oh, so there's something more. So, recon was, you know, playing off what my brother said about doing what was most challenging. I actually took the recon screener when I was in comm school, right after I got done with combat training, and I just showed up.

Once I learned about that unit, I was like okay I'll just go do that. Kind of like how I just showed up to bootcamp and did that, but once they threw us in the pool, I was like, wait, I'm way out of my element. I'm from a place where it's the four-foot pool and that's where we go to basically hang out with the guys and look at the girls.


After I got that experience with the failed screener under my belt and figured it out, then I took, you know, I took that really hard and figured it out and learn how to swim. I learned how to swim by doing a lot of different drills and spending a lot of time speaking with guys who had been there and done that and figuring out what made them successful.


And then I really took that personally and I tried to make that part of my everyday routine. So that kind of changed the way I looked at the water and I never wanted to fail anything again after that. First thing in the morning, I would go to the pool. I would get out of work and go right to the pool. You know, when you want something bad enough, you'll get it.


After I got that experience with the failed screener under my belt and figured it out, then I took, you know, I took that really hard and figured it out and learn how to swim. I learned how to swim by doing a lot of different drills and spending a lot of time speaking with guys who had been there and done that and figuring out what made them successful.

Draher during an underwater reenlistment ceremony.

What three personality traits are most important for someone interested in joining the special operations community?


There's a lot of different traits that I think are good to have, but I think the top three would be discipline, perseverance, and integrity. I’d also add in a fourth, which would be that it’s hard for someone coming in to be successful if they don't have a little bit of flexibility.


Nobody wants to get up first thing in the morning and go to the pool. And then you can get traumatized if you have a bad experience. You could be treading water with a group of guys and all of a sudden, you know, because you are in such close proximity, one person grabs you and drags you down to the bottom. And then you're trying to swim up and getting kicked in the face by some of these other guys. It takes a lot of discipline that gets back in the pool after that.


But you know what it takes to get to where you want to be, and you have to stay after it. So that's where discipline comes from, which also kind of leads in the perseverance.


You have to take those different challenges and you have to persevere through them no matter what the outcome could be. You have to kind of fix your mind on what you want it to be, and then persevere through all those odds and all the, you know, the cold weather and being wet and tired. Nobody really cares. You got to find a way to persevere through it. And that trait alone right there has helped me a lot in life even to this day. And I'm sure up until I'm in my death bed, that's going to be something that I hold dear.


Integrity, I mean, a good friend of mine, he says to do the right things at the right time for the right reasons. To me, having integrity is a lot about being a trustworthy guy. And if you don't have that integrity, it's really hard for people to trust you to the left and the right. If you want to be a good team member and you want to be a reliable person, having that integrity is kind of where that starts from.


Flexibility is showing up somewhere and having a packing list, being ready to go and then, after I receive the first brief it turns out that I'm going to need a lot more than they told me to bring. Now I have to improvise all these things. Or I train all the time in pretty ideal conditions because we have a lot of limitations as to what we can do. We can do a lot of realistic training, but there's always some type of limitations or some type of backstop for safety reasons. And we call this “training-isms”. You take those training-isms into a real-world environment and into combat and you're going to be disappointed, right? Cause it's not going to be a hundred percent what you were trying to do.


Ideally, I think, you know, you don't want to see anything for the first time in a real-life scenario. You want to be exposed to those things in training, but you may not have that opportunity. I've been fortunate enough over the course of my career to have some pretty good training opportunities that have translated into a lot of things that I've done for real.

There's no such thing as a two-way range in the training area. But you only find that when you go overseas and the next thing you know, you're looking at somebody's muzzle flashes. It's a very different experience. There are not many ways to prepare for that outside of actually being there. So, you have to stay flexible and when you encounter something new, you have got to be a problem solver and work through it.


What advice would you give a young person that's interested in joining the military?


You know, in all honesty, my experiences have just equated to my ability to maintain an open mind. So, coming in with an open mind. You don’t know what you don't know and when you join, it's like in Forrest Gump, life is like a box of chocolates and you never know what you're gonna get.


I think guys should come in and they should look, you know, just first and foremost to serve your country, but I think they should look to professionalized themselves as much as possible. There's a lot of benefits that the military offers. Take advantage of it.


You're going to come in and you're going to do what the government asked. And they're gonna ask a lot. It's a lot to ask a 17 or 18-year-old, or somebody fresh out of college to put their life down for somebody to their left and their right. It may be someone that they didn't grow up with, that they're not best friends with, or maybe even somebody that they don't get along with. But, you know, we're going to ask that of you when you join. And I think, you know, in return you should seek out every opportunity you can to look for things, to make yourself more marketable when you get out.


And everybody always talks about the intangibles that military members gain throughout the course of their career, whether it's four years or whether it's 30 years. I think education benefits is one thing. I also think that guys can take advantage of internships. While they're in there's certain training opportunities that they have that can bleed over into the civilian world, you know, I would say, find something that you'd love to do.


And if you don't find something that you'd love to do, just try and seek it out the whole entire time that you're in.

Draher (right) during a pause in jump training.

What does your typical workout routine look like?


We always refer to ourselves as a Jack of all trades, master of none. And somebody told me that all that really equates to is not being good at anything. So, I took that to heart and, you know, because I always wanted to try like a little bit of everything.


And I think it's important to try out a little bit of everything. But the goal overall is being functionally fit. You want to be able to run long distances and be rather comfortable. You're going to be able to run short distances with weight. You want to be able to move weight. And then you need to adjust that to your environment.


Trying a little bit of everything and finding what you like is good, but don't stick to any one thing. Try to be well balanced and that's not just, you know, physically, that's how you eat. And that's also your emotional fitness as well. And I mean, you've got to have to have the right mindset.


So, you know, watching videos and studying things. It's another part of fitness that a lot of people don't talk about. You’ve also got to be your own doctor at times in this community because you gotta be good at medicine. You gotta be a scientist because you gotta understand how to mix all these different explosives together.


You have to be a philosopher. You have to be a historian. You have to be a mathematician. Yeah, there's a lot of formulas that we have to know when it comes to long range shooting, dealing with mortars, dealing with explosives. So, you gotta have a little bit of all of these skill sets.


Who do you look to as a role model and why?


I really look up to Major Capers. And the reason that I look up to the Major is because I sit with him and I listen to him talk. And for years I I've just heard over and over a lot of the same stories and they never get old because from the time he was young, he was determined to do more, and he kept seeking that out.


And that resonates with me because it's like me telling you why I went to the Marine Corps versus the army, or why I didn't just stay a comm guy, or why I tried to get to all these different units and why I wanted to get to Force Recon, and eventually we became Raiders – always trying to seek out more.


Not only did Major Capers have a lot of hardships during his service from being a minority – not just because of the color of his skin – but just by the virtue of his job and being the minority who also had all these great qualities just to get from the beginning of something, to the end of something, whether it's a school, a training evolution or a deployment, but he was able to be great in the military.


And then as he got out and transitioned, he tried to become a great businessman. He tried to be the best husband he could be. He tried to be the best dad he could be. So, you know, just like fitness, right? It's your physical, mental, emotional fitness as well. For him, he wasn't just this great Reconnaissance Marine, this great enlisted man, this great officer. He tried to be the very best husband he could be, the very best parent that he could be.


And, you know, as a young guy, I only cared about the unit and cared about the Marine Corps, I only cared about special operations, I only cared about recon. As I grew older, I really started to understand that, you know, those things at one point will become a fraction of your life, a small fraction of your life. Those other things that you do, you have to be investing equally, if not more, and the longer you stay on, the more you should be investing in yourself and in your family, because those people go with you to the grave.


During a very kinetic period of the Marine Corps, I served. There was a long time that I didn't think I'd make it to 30. Now I’m almost 38 years old. So, I mean, I beat that by eight years. When I sit with him and I talk to him, you know, I think I got the Marine Corps stuff – the military stuff – figured out, but what came slowly to me was understanding family and investing into that. So, I appreciate him. I look up to him. I admire him because he reminds me all the time to hug my wife, to kiss my wife, to hug my kids, to kiss my kids. And I think about that because he doesn't have that anymore. So, when I come home first thing I do is hug and kiss my wife and I hug and kiss my kids.


When you join, you're new to the institution, and you're trying to find your way through, and it can be easy to get lost. But you can learn from your mistakes and you can employ those lessons learned and you can have a better life. You can create more opportunities and a better life for the people around you as well, just by being humble and being open.


Draher with his family at Christmastime.

What is something interesting about you that most people wouldn't know about?


Well, I used to be a DJ. I started when I was eleven years old and I thought I was going to be a famous one. I actually joined as a communicator in the Marine Corps because I thought that somehow that would tie into my DJ career and help me further my DJ career.


I quickly learned that that wasn't the case! And I got fully immersed in the whole Marine Corps thing and I kind of let go of the DJ thing.



GySgt Danny Draher was born on June 26, 1983 and raised in New York City, New York. He is married to Destiny Flynn-Draher and they have two beautiful children. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Strategic Studies and Defense Analysis from Norwich University after graduating Summa Cum Laude.

Draher has attended numerous courses including the Multi Mission Parachute Course, as well as various other parachuting courses, Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape, Marine Combatant Diver Course, Dive Supervisor, Special Operations Planners Course, The Senior Instructor Course, Fast Rope Master, Multiple Explosives and Assault Breacher Courses, Multiple Direct Action & Special Reconnaissance Packages, Advanced Special Operations, The Merlin Project, Martial Arts Instructor Course, Sergeants Course, Career Course, Advanced Course, Joint Special Operations University Joint Fundamentals, Enterprise Management, and Enhanced Digital Collection Training.


His personal decorations include the Purple Heart Medal, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Navy and Marine Commendation with Valor, Joint Service Achievement Medal, Navy Achievement Medal, and the Combat Action Ribbon with one gold star.

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