“Survivor” champ Mike Gabler donating $1 million prize to Veteran causes

Mike Gabler is a big reader of existential philosophy, the exploration of questions related to the meaning, purpose and value of human existence.

Such philosophers as Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Soren Kierkegaard are all special to him because their beliefs bolster his own life motto: “Life is short! Life is now! Live it!”

Gabler did just that by competing last year in the 43rd season of the reality TV series “Survivor” and becoming the second-oldest American to ever win it at age 51. Then, for added emphasis, he opted to donate every penny of his $1 million prize to Veteran charities, establishing himself as the first contestant on the show to give their winnings—even a portion—to charities.

Mike Gabler with his parents, Bob and Joan Gabler. Bob Gabler served as a Green Beret in the Army Reserves.

Mike Gabler with his parents, Bob and Joan Gabler. Bob Gabler served as a Green Beret in the Army Reserves.

Thus far, he’s designated about 10 Veteran organizations to receive a percentage of his prize. Highlighting his list are non-profits that help former service members with PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI) and who are at risk of suicide. He’s also reaching out to organizations with other goals, including one that provides “cradle to career” educational support for children of fallen Special Operations personnel and Medal of Honor recipients.

Honored to be able to help Veterans

Interestingly, Gabler isn’t a Veteran, putting him in the same conversation as other non-Veterans, such as actor Gary Sinise, who lead humanitarian efforts on behalf of military personnel and Veterans.

“I’ve had the opportunity to serve but never the honor of serving,” Gabler said in an interview with VA’s Veterans Experience Office. “But it was my honor to be able to serve those who served us, and it was very important to me to be able to do something special. To be able to save lives, even one life, would be incredible. I know we’re on the way to doing that now. That money’s going to do a lot of good for a lot of people for many years to come.”

Here’s a sampling of the non-profits to which Gabler will be donating:

It was prior to the taping of Survivor 43, which began in May of last year and was filmed in the Pacific archipelago of Fiji, that Gabler decided he would donate his $1 million prize to Veteran causes if he finished first among the 18 contestants. He never told of his unique idea during the four-week taping period, including at the final Tribal Counsel. There, he pitched his case for why he deserved to be the winner, highlighting the fact that no votes had been cast against him during the show. The jury agreed and crowned him the champion over two other contestants.

The show aired on CBS from Sept. 21 to Dec. 14.

Gabler thought for a “split second” about mentioning his donation idea during the final Tribal Council before deciding otherwise.

“I immediately shied away from that because I didn’t want in any way, shape or form to be using Veterans, using the population I care about deeply, to help me win,” he explained. “That would have been the wrong approach. By winning it on my own, then it’s just me taking care of Veterans. Otherwise, there’d be an asterisk by my name right now. People would be going, `Well, he wasn’t going to win, but when he dropped that in there, he used the Veterans to win.’ I just thought it was shady, to be honest. I wanted to win on my own merit and then pay it forward. I’m glad I did it that way.”

He’s seen Veterans struggle physically and emotionally

Gabler, who lives with his wife and two daughters in Meridian, Idaho, is no stranger to the health care industry. For decades, he has worked as a heart valve specialist and is now employed by the company Edwards Lifesciences. He supports Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement (TAVR), a minimally invasive heart procedure to replace a thickened aortic valve that can’t fully open.

His concern for the welfare of Veterans is rooted in several factors. For one, he was raised in a family with men who served. His father was in the Army Reserve from 1966 to 1970, and some of his uncles fought in the Vietnam War. His father would invite surviving members of his platoon over to the house, where Gabler saw they were struggling physically and emotionally.

He remembers seeing one Green Beret who had a prosthesis for an arm that he had lost in combat in Vietnam.

“His helicopter went down,” Gabler said. “His unit had to blow it up while it was under heavy fire before they left it. When they were blowing it up, I guess it blew off his arm. It was just an obvious thing to me that the guy had a hook for a hand. The prosthetics they had back then were terrible. My dad decided I deserved an answer for it, and he explained it all to me.”

Gabler also attended a high school near Houston with fellow students who later served as Navy SEALS in the post-9/11 conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“They’ve all struggled and have lost friends,” he said. “Even one guy has harmed himself. It’s been a rough run for them.”

Contribute to our society in a positive way

Then there’s Gabler’s patriotism and the love and respect he’s eager to show to his country.

“Growing up, we would always take our hats off and stand for the National Anthem,” he said. “I have a very patriotic family because so many people have served. In fact, I’m one of the few who didn’t. So, this is my contribution. Be thankful for being in this great country. Do good for your neighbors. Help your community and contribute to our society in a positive way. Those are things that were hammered down on me. Work hard. The harder you work, the luckier you get. Treat people fairly, and they’ll treat you back fairly. Those messages resonated throughout my childhood.

“I’ve worked very hard, and I could use $1 million. I have a kid in college and another one on the way. My wife needs a new car, and we have house payments and all that stuff. But I got so much out of the adventure of being on Survivor. I went so deep into myself. I had so much fun. I made lifelong friends. But to be able to do something good with this money beyond me is by far the right decision.”

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