The internet has no shortage of Navy SEALs telling incredible stories (we even have some of our own here on Sandboxx), but few within the SEAL community have managed to etch out as much success on social media as John Allen–commonly known online as MrBallen.
Despite having an incredibly harrowing story about how his years on the SEAL teams came to a close, it wasn’t Allen’s military service that first brought him to my attention; it was his storytelling. Like lots of folks in our age group, my wife and I did away with cable years ago and have since adopted just about every streaming platform on the market. Our daughter gives Disney+ and Netflix a run for their money, and we often rent movies through Amazon–but without question, the streaming platform we use most of all is YouTube.
For all of the platform’s flaws, there really is no better place to find the sort of spooky or mysterious content that my wife and I share a deep affinity for; and it was that very affinity that led us to MrBallen’s YouTube channel. Remarkably, neither of us even knew the host was a former Navy SEAL when we first started devouring every video on his channel. While clearly proud (and incredibly humble) about his tenure as a Navy SEAL, MrBallen doesn’t trade on his Trident for YouTube exposure. Instead, he seems to genuinely devote himself to the content he produces — which he sums up rather eloquently in the introduction for each video:
“But before we get into today’s stories, if you’re a fan of the strange, dark, or mysterious delivered in story format, then you’ve come to the right channel because that’s all we do and we upload three, four, even five times every week.”
Of course, there’s plenty of creepy content to be found on YouTube, but there’s something about Allen’s delivery that makes his videos a sort of visual and auditory comfort food for me. The videos are light on graphics, and are largely just a single shot of Allen relaying a story to you in front of a green screen–but there’s genius in its simplicity. Allen scours the internet for the sorts of stories weirdos like me can’t get enough of, and then he studies them until he’s seemingly internalized the narrative enough to really sell the story.
The result is an approach to storytelling that feels entirely natural–Allen doesn’t read the story to you off of cue cards, nor is his delivery in any way performative. As you watch Allen’s videos, you really get the sense that you’re just being told a story from a buddy of yours that’s really good at storytelling. And as much as I do like the content, it may be that sense of familiarity that’s made his channel such a recurring part of my week.
Serving in the military offers young men and women a genuinely unique set of social circumstances. Just a few months after signing on the dotted line, you’ll almost certainly find yourself in a new environment, surrounded by new people, with a whole lot of time to kill. Being bored with strangers for extended periods of time leads to a lot of storytelling–both as a means to get to know each other and as a way to kill time. Maybe that’s why Allen’s channel feels so familiar to me… because I could see this guy telling me these stories while we sat on sandbags together and bathed in the smoke of a dozen Newports burning around us during my days in Twentynine Palms.
Allen’s time on the SEAL teams began in 2010, and he was injured in combat in 2014. He explains the experience in a video, so rather than paraphrasing, I recommend watching his story for yourself here. Allen ended up getting out of the Navy in 2017 and was soon facing the same sort of existential panic so many service members experience when starting their lives anew. Of course, Allen landed on his feet, but he’s aware that not everyone has been so lucky.
Recognizing that these challenges weren’t unique among special operators, Allen would go on to help found Elite Meet–an organization that helps special operations veterans like Allen find employment in competitive career fields. Allen also spent time partnered with the Operators Association, which is a group that helps aspiring special operators prepare for the rigors of selection.
Of course, you don’t have to care about any of that good stuff to enjoy MrBallen’s content on YouTube though. Honestly, his channel would be just as much fun if Allen had spent his 20s as an icecream man, but for a veteran like me, it’s tough not to root for someone who has devoted so much of his life to service.
While Allen found a lot of success with his video content on TickTock originally, his focus shifted to YouTube fairly recently. He’s been uploading videos there for around 9 months now and has already amassed a whopping 1.3 million subscribers.
Allen’s online success seems to prove the old First Sergeant’s axiom that the skills that can make you successful in the military can also make you successful in other endeavors. Allen may not pay his bills by speed roping into gunfights these days, but the tenacity that earned him a spot on one of America’s most elite combat units seems to translate into everything he does–which explains why he’s able to post “three, four, even five times per week,” as he so often reminds his viewers.
As a research junkie, I’ll admit that not all of his videos are heavily vetted. Many are based on stories that have made their way around the internet for years, and as such, are pretty tough to nail down with academic-level citations. Don’t let that stop you from enjoying the videos, but I wouldn’t cite them in your next term paper.
Check out MrBallen’s YouTube channel here, and if you like his content, make sure to hit subscribe.
Feature image courtesy of MrBallen on YouTube.