It should be no surprise that skills learned in the military such as decision-making under pressure, organization, and leadership translate well to the corporate boardroom. And those skills tend to make a big difference, with companies led by former military officers tending to show better performance.
People like Fred Smith or Sam Walton have become household names for their business success. Lesser known is their service prior to the companies they founded.
After World War II, nearly 50% of veterans went the entrepreneurship route, though that number has substantially declined today. Still, there are currently around 3 million veteran-owned businesses.
Here are 9 companies started by military veterans.
1. RE/MAX, cofounded by Air Force veteran Dave Liniger
Prior to founding “Real Estate Maximums” — better known as RE/MAX— Dave Liniger served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.
From 1965 to 1971, he served as an enlisted airman in Texas, Arizona, Vietnam, and Thailand, according to his LinkedIn.
“The military really gave me the chance to grow up. It was fun. I thought it was a fabulous place,” he told Airport Journals. “It also taught me self-discipline and a sense of responsibility.”
After he got out of the military, he started flipping houses for profit, and eventually got his real estate license. He cofounded RE/MAX with his wife Gail in 1973.
2. Sperry Shoes, founded by Navy veteran Paul A. Sperry
You can thank a former sailor in the US Naval Reserve for inventing the world’s first boat shoe.
In 1917, Sperry joined the Navy Reserve, though he didn’t stay in for very long. He was released from duty at the end of the year at the rank of Seaman First Class.
Still, his experience there and further adventures sailing led to the founding of his company, which eventually created the first non-slip boating shoe. He founded Sperry in 1935.
During World War II, his Sperry Top-Sider shoes were purchased by the boatload by the Navy. Now nearly a century later, they are still a favorite of sailors everywhere.
3. FedEx, founded by Marine Corps veteran Fred Smith
Back before FedEx was the behemoth logistics company it is today, founder Fred Smith was observing how the military was getting things from point A to point B.
After graduating from Yale University, he was commissioned as a Marine Corps officer and served two tours in Vietnam. He earned a Bronze Star, Silver Star, and two Purple Hearts,according to US News.
Only two years after he left the Corps, he started Federal Express.
“Much of our success reflects what I learned as a Marine,” he wrote forMilitary.com. “The basic principles of leading people are the bedrock of the Corps. I can still recite them from memory, and they are firmly embedded in the FedEx culture.”
It was founded by a former Army intelligence officer named Sam Walton.From 1942 to 1945, Walton was in the Army and eventually rose to the rank of captain. His brother (and cofounder) Bud served as a bomber pilot for the Navy in the Pacific.
According to the company’s history, Sam Walton’s first WalMart store, called Walton’s Five and Dime, was started with $5,000 he saved from his time serving in the Army and a $25,000 loan from his father-in-law.
5. GoDaddy, founded by Marine Corps veteran Bob Parsons
The company responsible for registering a large portion of the world’s web domains, GoDaddy, is the brainchild of Marine veteran Bob Parsons.
Parsons enlisted in the Corps in 1968 and later served in Vietnam, where he earned a Combat Action Ribbbon, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, and the Purple Heart for wounds he received in combat.
“I absolutely would not be where I am today without the experiences I had in the Marine Corps,” he writes on his website.
In 1997, he started GoDaddy. In 2014, it filed for a $100 million IPO. He left the company around that time to focus on his philanthropic efforts
6. WeWork, founded by Israeli Navy veteran Adam Neumann
Hot coworking startup WeWork is the 9th most valuable startupin the world, and it was started by a veteran of the Israeli navy.
Adam Neumann started a coworking office space for entrepreneurs in New York City back in 2011.Today, WeWork has 128 offices in 39 cities around the world.
7. Taboola, founded by Israeli Army veteran Adam Singolda
Another veteran of the Israel Defense Forces is Adam Singolda, the founder of content recommendation engine Taboola.
Like many other successful Israeli entrepreneurs who served in the IDF (military service ismandatory in Israel), Singolda developed many of the skills that would help his company later on in the military intelligence field.
He started Taboola back in 2007, and you have surely seen his work under the many millions of articles who feature “Content You May Like” that the company generates at the bottom. Taboola raised a round of financing in 2015 that put its value at close to $1 billion.
8. Kinder Morgan, cofounded by Army veteran Richard Kinder
The fourth largest energy company in North America was cofounded by Vietnam veteran Richard Kinder. Along with his business partner William Morgan, he started the company in 1997.
It may not be a huge surprise that USAA — a company that exclusively caters to military veterans and their families — was started by veterans.
Interestingly though, it doesn’t have just one founder. It has 25.
Back in the 1920s, it was pretty hard for military service members to get (or keep) auto insurance, since it was either way too expensive or likely to get cancelled since they moved around so much.
So Maj. William Henry Garrison and 24 of his fellow Army officers got together in 1922 and formed their own mutual company to insure themselves, according to Encyclopedia.com. Today, the United Services Automobile Association provides insurance, banking, and investment services to nearly 12 million members.
Disclosure: I personally have USAA insurance and use its banking services.
Every April veterans and volunteers gather at the Rose River Farm in Madison County, Virginia for an annual 2-fly fishing tournament known as “Project Healing Waters.” This year was the 10th anniversary and the event raised over $200,000 for veterans services.
WATM sat down with keynote speaker Tom Brokaw and several veterans who have found physical and mental improvement through the program.
Listen to the interview with Tom Brokaw:
More than 7,500 vets from every war since WWII have taken part in Project Healing Waters in 2015 alone. There are hundreds of local programs in addition to the national events.
Along with the psychological benefits of the camaraderie and being out in nature, the technical aspects of fly-fishing help those with all sorts of injuries recover, from a physical therapy perspective. They have taken blind people and quadriplegics out to catch fish.
84 cents of every dollar raised goes to the veterans services making it one of the leanest veterans services programs.
To learn more about Project Healing Waters, visit their website.
“A U.S. EP-3 Aries aircraft flying in international airspace over the Black Sea was intercepted by a Russian Su-27,” the Navy statement read.
“This interaction was determined to be unsafe due to the Su-27 closing to within five feet and crossing directly through the EP-3’s flight path, causing the EP-3 to fly through the Su-27’s jet wash. The duration of the intercept lasted two hours and 40 minutes.”
The intercept is the latest in a string of “unsafe” intercepts that the Russian military has conducted.
In November 2017, a Russian Su-30 fighter flew as close as 50 feet before turning on its afterburners while intercepting a US Navy P-8A Poseidon anti-submarine warfare aircraft over the same area, and in December 2017, two US Air Force F-22s were intercepted by Russian Su-25 and Su-35 jets.
The US Aircraft had to fire flares as warnings to the Russian jets, one of which “had to aggressively maneuver to avoid a midair collision.” Russia has denied the incident in Syria took place.
Check out the footage from the Jan. 29 intercept here:
‘Tis the season for the giving of gifts. ‘Tis also the season of FOMUG (Fear Of Messed Up Gifting). We get it. It’s hard out there for an elf. Team WATM would like to offer you some guidance.
For the conservative caffeine connoisseur:
~ Small batch, roast-to-order coffee that might as well be shot from guns~
Black Rifle Coffee Company is a deeply veteran-owned, veteran-oriented business.
Military service, American conservatism, and an unapologetic love of liberty make up the philosophical bedrock upon which founder, Evan Hafer, built his in-your-face gourmet coffee upstart.
If you’ve ever taken a virtual stroll through Black Rifle’s youtube marketing videos (frequently featuring co-owner and 2nd Amendment Pom Pom Waver @mat_best_official), then you know that these guys really, really treasure circadian rhythm shattering coffee.
Hafer served as a Green Beret during Operation Iraqi Freedom, as well as a stint as a contractor for the CIA in subsequent tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, all while nurturing an abiding fascination with the fine art of roasting coffee. Much as he prized his time as an operator, when it came time to transition, he was ready for the adventure of running a small business exactly according to his rules.
“I transition out…in a way that’s probably unusual to a lot of people, because, I’ll just turn the page on it, meaning, like, I love and respect my time in the military–it’s taught me a lot, but at the same time…it doesn’t hold me back.”
His solution to the problem of leading a new life as an vetrepreneur is to bring with him as much of his past warrior life as is germaine to his new mission. The combat humor, the belief in veteran power, the faith that hard work will pay off in the end…these qualities and more make up the arsenal that Black Rifle Coffee carries on its steady march forward.
Like the best of them, they remember where they came from.
“War is something that, it’s like, it’s always there. I think for most veterans…you don’t ever leave it. You don’t leave it.”
The Army is issuing Soldiers a new small arms 5.56 ammunition magazine designed expressly for the M4/M4A1 carbine and M16 family of weapons.
The 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, WA, was the first unit to receive the new “Enhanced Performance Magazine (EPM), as free issue In July,” said Anthony Cautero, Assistant Product Manager for the M4/M4A1 Carbine.
Other units are acquiring smaller quantities through the standard supply system.
Cautero said the regiment received 6,800 magazines in July.
More than 49,000 of the new magazines will be issued to other units at JBLM before the end of the year, he said.
Army engineers and scientists optimized the EPM to work with the M4/M4A1, M16 rifle, and standard military 5.56mm small arms round, the M855A1.
The M855A1, known also as the Enhanced Performance Round (EPR), has been in use since 2010.
Following the EPR’s release, engineering tests of M4/M16 rifles firing the M855A1 showed that the weapons were sensitive to the EPR’s steel tip.
A Picatinny Arsenal, N.J. engineering team subsequently made a design change to the magazine that corrected this issue.
The EPM eliminates weapon wear caused by the steel-tipped M855A1 at the upper receiver/barrel extension interface, a condition discovered during laboratory testing.
Soldiers insert the EPM into the magazine well of a carbine’s lower receiver that positions rounds for feeding.
The forward moving bolt and bolt carrier assembly strips the rounds from the magazine and feeds them smoothly into the chamber for firing.
Soldiers also can use the new magazine with the previous standard military 5.56mm round, the M855.
The EPM is tan-colored and has a blue-gray follower. The latter is the spring-loaded plastic component that positions each round up into the lower receiver of the weapon. Each magazine holds a maximum of 30 rounds.
Tests show that the EPM increases system reliability and durability.
It also ensures optimal performance in M4/M4A1 and M16 weapons when used with the EPM and EPR, Cautero said.
The Army expects to field more than 1.8 million of the new magazines over the next 12 months.
Center Industries of Wichita, Kansas, is the manufacturer.
Cautero said the Army has received more than 700,000 of the new magazines from the company to date.
The Mustang will appear at the Flying Legends Airshow on July 8 and 9, and then will take part in the International Air Tatoo on July 15 and 16 in Fairford, England. During that show, the “Berlin Express” will fly alongside the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.
The pilot of the plane, Dan Friedkin, owns one of the largest private military warbird collections in the world. In addition to the P-51, he has also flown the F6F Hellcat, F4U Corsair, Supermarine Spitfire, F-86 Saber, and T-6 Texan, among other aircraft.
“The ‘Berlin Express’ is an iconic war plane that is symbolic of our country’s strong aviation history,” said Friedkin, who’s chairman and CEO of The Friedkin Group. “It’s an honor to pilot this aircraft in the Flying Legends Airshow as we pay homage to the brave men and women who have flown in the U.S. Air Force.”
Friedkin founded the Horsemen Flight Team — an aerobatic demonstration team that flies vintage warbirds — and the Air Force Heritage Flight Foundation, which honors the men and women of the U.S. Air Force.
The P-51B being flown to England was originally designated 43-24837 before it was restored and painted to look like the original “Berlin Express.” The 43-24837 plane crashed in the U.K. after its pilot bailed out during a training mission on July 10, 1944.
The “Berlin Express” was famous for a dogfight in which its pilot, William Overstreet, Jr., was engaging a German fighter. During the battle, the Nazi pilot tried to evade Overstreet by flying through the Eiffel Tower.
Overstreet followed the Nazi, flying between the tower’s arches, and proceeded to shoot the enemy plane down. Despite heavy enemy ground fire, Overstreet made good his escape.
In 2009, Overstreet was awarded France’s highest military decoration, the Legion of Honor, for the engagement. He died in 2013. The release did not mention whether or not there would be a repeat performance of the flight through the Eiffel Tower.
In January 2008, the Army began the process of removing drill sergeants from Advanced Individual Training, and replacing them with platoon sergeants. One decade later, the reverse transition has begun with the first wave of noncommissioned officers graduating March 8, 2018, from a 10-day conversion course qualifying them to wear the drill sergeant identification badge.
In the past, noncommissioned officers who trained to be AIT platoon sergeants attended the first six weeks of the nine-week long drill sergeant school before splitting off to learn other things, such as attending the master resilience course.
According to officials, although AIT platoon sergeants proved effective and provided “ready Soldiers for the nation,” the return of drill sergeants is expected to “improve the standards and discipline” of new Soldiers.
Making the transition is mandatory for those who have graduated from the AIT platoon sergeant course on or after Jan. 21, 2017. Platoon sergeants who have between 13 to 18 months of time can volunteer to extend for an additional year to become eligible.
Master Sgt. Christopher Foley, 1st Engineer Brigade operations sergeant major, said the brigade has 27 platoon sergeants at installations across the country, 15 of which are here at Fort Leonard Wood. “(As a whole,) 15 must attend training; six are in the option window, and six do not have enough time remaining,” Foley said. “Two within that option window have already volunteered and will incur a third year of duty.”
(U.S. Army photo by Terrance Bell)
Foley added that the brigade has already had three of their Fort Leonard Wood platoon sergeants attend the course, making the transition to drill sergeant. The brigade plans to have all eligible platoon sergeants converted by July 2018.
Staff Sgt. Ericka Kong-Martinez with Company A, 554th Engineer Battalion, is one of those recent graduates. She has spent one year as a platoon sergeant and, after volunteering to extend for a year, will spend the next two as a drill sergeant.
“It’s a good opportunity to see the difference between both roles,” Kong-Martinez said. “Now I see the difference in trainees’ reactions from a platoon sergeant to an actual drill sergeant. They react a lot faster when a drill sergeant addresses them.”
She added, “the discipline level is higher. It shouldn’t be, but it is.”
Here, the 3rd Chemical and 14th Military Police brigades, together, have approximately 38 platoon sergeants that will also transition or be replaced.
In the end, approximately 600 current platoon sergeants across the Army will make the conversion to drill sergeant. All are expected to be in place by the end of the fiscal year.
This week’s Borne the Battle episode features Mike Fisher, the Chief Readjustment Counseling Officer for VA’s Health Administration, who discusses some of the unique and generous benefits that Vet Centers offer.
Vet Centers began in 1979 when Vietnam veterans had difficulty readjusting to civilian life. Vet Centers seek to help and equip veterans by offering a community-based counseling center that provides a wide array of services. In addition, these Vet Centers actively help veterans to simply get started, set goals, and eventually accomplish them.
Vet Centers have quickly expanded and is now celebrating its 40th anniversary. There are currently over 300 Vet Centers, 80 mobile Vet Centers, and a Veteran Call Line as well. This model seeks to make readjustment smoother and more effective.
This week’s episode covers:
Mission, Vision, and Peer-to-Peer Model of Vet Centers
Expansive services of Vet Centers, including all types of counseling, opportunities, and trauma rehabilitation resources
Inclusive Eligibility requirements, including grandfathering of Vietnam veterans and inclusion of all, regardless of character of discharge
This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.
Don Nicholas joined the military twice. The second time was for a reason soldiers don’t often give. His first enlistment began as a Marine in 1971. He spent the war on an aircraft carrier and didn’t set foot in South Vietnam until the war was over. He re-enlisted to land a spot as an embassy Marine in Saigon in 1974. He was on the second-to-last American helicopter leaving the city as it fell in 1975. He left active duty in 1978.
In 2004, he came back. The Marines thought he was too old at age 52. But for the Army Reserve, he was just what the doctor ordered. Literally.
“It’s really not a fascination with war itself,” Sgt. Nicholas, who became a podiatrist in the intervening years, told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s more trying to keep people from getting killed. I’m taking the spot of some 19-year-old.”
The now-Army NCO Nicholas’ Marine Corps Saigon Embassy ID photo.
In 2011, he was 59 years old, the oldest of 6,000 troops in the 25th Infantry Division sent to eastern Afghanistan. He tried for years to get back into the military after his service ended. He tried during Desert Storm and again after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It wasn’t until the height of the Iraq War that the Army was ready to take a man of his skill and advanced age.
Though “advanced” is a term used only because the Army’s average age of enlistees back in 2004 was somewhere between 30 and 35. Nicholas’ wife says his return to service actually replenished his youthful vigor.
“He doesn’t want the other 19-year-olds to go,” Mrs. Nicholas said. But “it makes him 19 again. He finds youth in the military.”
Don Nicholas in Afghanistan.
(Fox News/Daily Mail UK)
After his initial re-enlistment in 2004, he was sent to Iraq for 11 months. After a brief stay back at home, he redeployed to Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, among other places. At age 60, he would be ordered out of the battlefields of Afghanistan due to age restrictions. Instead, he fought to stay in Kunar Province of Afghanistan for another year, pushing back against the military’s attempted mandatory retirement. He has only seen 16 years of active service and wants to complete 20 years.
“If I have my chance to stay in and complete my 20 years. I absolutely would,” he told the Daily Mail. “Probably would stay in a few more years after that if I could.” As of 2011, he was hoping his podiatry practice could get him attached to a medical unit.
It took 104 years, but the Marine Corps Reserve has grown from just 35 personnel to more than 40,000. To celebrate the USMC Reserve’s August 28 birthday, here’s a look at Marine heritage and culture.
USMC-R History and Origins
The Marines’ reserve component dates back to the Civil War when military and civilian readers recognized a need for a Naval Reserve to augment the fleet during wartime.
Leading up to WWI, individual states tried to fill the need through state-controlled naval militias, but the lack of a centralized national force limited combat effectiveness.
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson recognized the need for an operational Reserve Force, and on August 29, the USMC Reserve was born. The organization grew from just 35 Marines on April 01, 1916, to 6,467 by the time Germany surrendered in November 1918.
Reserve Marines fought on the sea and land in major battles during WWI, and as the Marine Corps began expanding its horizons during WWII, the Reserve component continued to grow. The USMC Women’s Reserve was activated in July 1942, and in 1943, the USMC WR swore in its first director, Maj. Ruth Cheney Streeter.
However, by 1947, it seems like the Marine Corps and the Reserve component were going to be disbanded. Fortunately, the Armed Forces Unification Act created the Department of Defense, which helped standardize pay for Marine Corps Reserve service members, along with creating a retirement pay program.
At the end of the military draft and the transition to an all-volunteer military in the 1970s, the USMC-R would grow to be almost 40,000 members strong.
Celebrating the USMC-R Birthday
This internal observance isn’t a widely known date or public holiday, but Reservists don’t mind. To honor and celebrate the history of the USMC Reserve on its birthday, you might consider flying the Marine Corps flag alongside the American flag this week.
Consult the Marine Corps Flag Manual to learn how to properly display a USMC-R service flag alongside the national colors. Fair warning, and in true USMC nature, this flag-flying manual is no less than 50 pages long, so be prepared for a long and thorough read.
TL;DR: The flag represents a living country and is considered a living thing. The right arm is the sword arm, and so the right is the place of honor, so the edge of the flag should be toward the staff. Flags should be displayed from sunrise to sunset. If a “patriotic effect is desired for specific occasions,” the flag can be displayed for a full 24 hours if properly illuminated during hours of darkness.
Famous USMC Reservists
Like the other branches of the military, being a part of the USMC-R can significantly impact civilian careers. For Reservists, being a Marine often means being able to also continue with life’s other passions. Take a look at the most famous Marine Reservists. You might not know they were Leathernecks, but we’re pretty sure you know their work!
After enlisting in the Reserves in 1980, Carey went on to serve a total of six years. The comedian says that he adopted his trademark crew cut and horn-rimmed glasses because of his time in service. During his time in the Reserves, Carey was always looking for new ways to make money. Someone in his unit suggested using his jokes. Of his big break in Hollywood, Carey has often remarked that he would still be serving if he hadn’t made it big.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Cory W. Bush/Released)
Retired Lt. Col. Riggle served in the USMC Reserve as a PAO from 199-2013. He served in Kosovo, Liberia and Afghanistan. He joined the Marines after getting his pilot’s license with the intent of becoming a Naval Aviator but left flight school to pursue his comedy career. He has appeared on the Daily Show and had a running role on The Office.
Interested in joining the USMC Reserves?
The USMC-R is a critical component to being able to provide a balanced, ready force. There’s no telling that you’ll end up a famous comedian like Drew Caret or Rob Riggle, but chances are you’ll grow as a person and learn something in the process, too. Find out more here.
For my crime of earning a Naval Flight Officer’s Wings of Gold and being selected for training as an F-14 Tomcat radar intercept officer (like “Goose” in the movie “Top Gun”) I was sent to the Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape – SERE – School in Brunswick, Maine during the winter of 1984.
My fellow trainees and I stepped off the C-9 from Norfolk and were hit by a biting wind, the kind that’s normal for Maine in January. I immediately wondered why I hadn’t tried to push off SERE School until June or July.
The first couple of training days were conducted in a classroom. The lead instructor had been in the backseat of an F-4 Phantom that was shot down over Hanoi and had spent nearly three years as a POW. He explained that since we were all aviators there was a likelihood that we could fall into the hands of the enemy as well, therefore we needed to pay attention and take SERE training to heart. “This is the most important school the Navy will ever send you to,” he said.
The crux of the classroom training was an in-depth review of the Code of Conduct, a list of six “articles” created after American POWs suffered at the hands of their captors during the Korean War. They were all tortured in one form or another. Many were brainwashed; some even refused to return to the United States after the war.
Here are the six articles of the Code of Conduct:
I am an American fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.
I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist.
If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.
If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information nor take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior, I will take command. If not I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way.
When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number, and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.
I will never forget that I am an American, fighting for freedom, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.
The night before we were bussed across Maine and dropped in the mountains that border Canada, we decided to stuff ourselves with KFC, hoping that would give us the energy we needed to get through the field portion of SERE. Early the next morning we were issued cold weather clothing and reminded that it was more than we’d have if we’d had our jets shot from under us. And the fact we were also given snowshoes should have been a warning sign that the weather where we were going was more brutal than the already miserable weather at Naval Air Station Brunswick on the Atlantic Ocean side of the state.
After a four-hour drive westward into higher elevations we wandered off the bus and were greeted by a group of “partisans,” friendly locals who welcomed us to the Peoples Republic of North America – PRONA. The partisans explained that PRONA was a Soviet satellite (remember, this was 1984 and the Cold War was still in full swing) and that they were a small band of rebels fighting for freedom. (We found out later that the partisans, like everyone else in the land of PRONA, were actually a combination of local outdoorsmen on retainer and DoD personnel on loan to SERE School.) The partisans spoke English with thick eastern European accents. (They were acting, of course, but it was believable.)
The partisans broke us into groups of 10 and led us into the forest where they gave us instruction in some of the basics of survival, including how to use the snowshoes to navigate the massive snowdrifts we encountered. That night we were allowed to make a campfire and eat meat of unknown origin and huddle as a group to stay warm.
The next day our partisan told us that the army of PRONA was looming and we needed to break up the group and attempt to evade individually. I spent the balance of the daylight hours crunching through the forest trying to be sneaky in spite of the fact there was no way to be while wearing snowshoes. Right before it got dark I fashioned a quick snow fort as our partisan had instructed and climbed into my sleeping bag for a few hours of trying to keep the exposed part of my face from freezing.
At daybreak one of the partisans came and got me –obviously my hiding place sucked – and said that the enemy threat was gone for the time being and we were going to form up the entire group and march to a safe place. It was actually a trap (and a lesson in who not to trust during wartime).
The formation was interrupted by gunshots. The partisans disappeared into the forest and suddenly we were surrounded by military trucks and dudes in uniform yelling at us in a foreign tongue. Whatever training scenario context remained in our minds evaporated as our new captors slapped us – like hard – and threw us to the ground.
We were forcibly loaded into the back of the troop transports and driven along a long road down the mountain, repeatedly told during the trip not to look out the back of the trucks or we’d be shot. When the trucks stopped and we were yanked to the ground again I got a quick glance at my surroundings – a prison camp – before I was blindfolded and led to a cell.
The guard removed my blindfold and forced me to sit on a box that was barely a foot tall and place my arms along my legs with my palms facing upward – what he called “the po-seesh.” “Get in po-seesh!” he yelled, Prona-ese for “position,” I assumed.
The guard told me I was “War Criminal Number One Five” and that I should refer to myself as such. Then he pointed to a tin can lined with a plastic bag in the corner and explained that it was my “sanitary facility” in the event I had to use the bathroom, but I was not to use it without permission.
He slammed the door to my cell shut and then peered through the small hatch in the door and, seeing I was not in the po-seesh, promptly re-entered the cell and roughed me up for a bit. I spent the next hours doing the calculus of holding the uncomfortable po-seesh and relaxing with the understanding that if the guard caught me I’d weather another beating.
As I sat there wondering what was going to happen next a wide variety of psyops stuff blared through the speaker mounted high in one corner of the small cell. A mind-numbing cacophony of an out-of-control saxophone was followed by Rudyard Kipling reciting his poem “Boots” over and over in a very haunting voice. (No one who ever attended Navy SERE will forget “Boots.”)
Give it a listen (and try not to go insane in the process):
Occasionally instructions from the guards were piped over the speaker, for instance, the rules for heeding calls of nature: “War criminals wishing to use the sanity facilities must ask permission by saying, ‘War criminal numbering whatever wishes to urinate or defecate.’ Do not do so until you are told to do so!”
At some point a guard entered my cell, blindfolded me, and led me to an interview with the camp commander. His friendly demeanor led me to believe this was the “soft sell” portion of my interrogation. He asked me how I was feeling. I joked I was hungry. He looked concerned and said he’d get me some hot food right after I got back to my cell. I also joked that the music was terrible and I’d prefer the Beatles, and he said he’d make that happen right away too.
Then he asked me where I was stationed. I said I couldn’t answer that. He asked me what kind of airplanes I flew. I said I couldn’t answer that either. After a second round of refusals his friendly mood shifted into anger, and he ordered the guard to take me back to my cell, saying I was “insincere” and needed to see the provost marshal for further “re-edu-ma-cation.”
After another extended period in solitary confinement in my cell accompanied by “Boots” on repeat, I was blindfolded again and taken to another part of the camp. As I was led through the snow I heard loud banging and people screaming. Once inside the building my blindfold was removed and one of the guards told me to climb into a small box, barely big enough for me to fit.
Once I’d wedged myself in, the guard slammed the lid. He instructed me that when he banged on the box once I was to yell my war criminal number, and when he banged twice I was to yell my social security number. This went on for a while, and fortunately I don’t get claustrophobic, cause if I did the confined space would have freaked me out.
The box treatment was followed by some “up and jumps,” known to the rest of us as jumping jacks, and other calisthenics punctuated by guards slapping me and throwing me to the floor. When I was good and winded a guard led me to a room where a big burly man with a red beard was waiting.
Red Beard asked me a few questions about my military profile, and each time I didn’t answer he slapped me. He produced an American flag and threw it on the ground and told me to dance on it. I tried to avoid it but he pushed me and I wound up stepping on the flag and as I did a photographer appeared and snapped a shot.
After another round of questions I didn’t answer, Red Beard decided it was time for stronger measures. He pushed me to the floor and made me sit on my hands. He straddled my legs as he fired up some pipe tobacco and started blowing smoke into my face using a large rubber tube.
I couldn’t breathe. The room started spinning. My head hit the floor. I puked.
And to my horror – even though I’d hadn’t quite finished puking – Red Beard blew more smoke in my face.
This felt like real torture, and I was convinced he was going to kill me. As I fought to get a clean breath of air, I managed to beg him to stop and offered to tell him something, hoping to employ the technique where you try to bend but not break by throwing out some meaningless bullshit.
I told him I was stationed in Florida even though I was really stationed in Virginia and that I flew helicopters even though I flew jets. Red Beard laughed and called the guard back in, telling him to give me as much food and water as I wanted because I’d been very helpful.
As I was led back to my cell blindfolded I felt like a total pussy who’d caved too easily.
After another period in solitary with my morale at an all-time low, a guard came and got me and led me back to the camp commander’s office. The camp commander told me about a junior enlisted man who’d gone through the same torture but instead of talking he’d come off the floor screaming “Article Five!” – a reference to the Code of Conduct where it states a POW should only give name, rank, and date of birth. “You are supposed to be an officer, but an enlisted man is stronger than you,” he said. “And you are insincere. You told us wrong information. I am sending you back to the provost.”
Sure enough, after more time in my cell to contemplate my shortcomings as an officer, I was back in front of Red Beard.
I hated Red Beard. I hated PRONA. And I felt another emotion that was like an epiphany: I wasn’t about to let America down again. The nation was depending on me to be strong. That’s why they’d given me my Annapolis education and put me through flight school. (Seriously, all of these things ran through my brain in that torture chamber.) If I had to die, so be it. Let the smoke blow . . .
After some more passing out and puking followed by more passing out and puking, Red Beard let me go.
The next day we were let out of solitary confinement and forced to do hard labor around the camp where our tasks included carving a “heli-mo-copter pad” in the ice-covered ground – an impossible task for which we were beaten for our lack of progress. One guy was stripped to his underwear and forced to stand at attention as his clothes were burned in front of him.
The camp commander gathered us together and, holding a Bible aloft, told us our beliefs were bullshit and that the only religious figure Americans truly worshiped was St. Walt Disney. He threw the Bible down and stomped it, which caused some of the prisoners to react enough that the guards felt obliged to slap them and throw them on the ground.
This cycle of hard labor in the freezing cold followed by “re-edu-ma-cation” sessions from PRONA’s propaganda machine went on for hours and hours, until the sun was about to set on our miserable existence once again. Morale was low. We were sure we were never getting out of there and our lives as we knew them were over.
Suddenly there was another burst of gunfire and a group of guys in cammies rappelled over the walls of the compound at various spots. They took the camp personnel into custody and announced that they were Navy SEALs. The flag of PRONA hung against the main guard tower was replaced by the Stars and Stripes as the National Anthem played over the camp PA.
There wasn’t a dry eye among us as we sang along. We were Americans, and we were free again.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s recent report on the CIA’s enhanced torture techniques during the early years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has restarted discussions about DoD’s methods and where they’re taught and learned. The SERE School curriculum has been lumped into those discussions.
But for me SERE wasn’t about the torture. It was about the realization that the pomp and ceremony, the pageantry and adulation that surrounded wearing a Navy officer’s uniform was meaningless without the courage and commitment that underpins them.
SERE taught me a big lesson in sacking up, and I can say without any hesitation that it was, in fact, the most important school the Navy ever sent me to.
(Editor’s note: This story deals with a specific SERE curriculum that no longer exists.)
One wounded warrior wanted to amble around the hotel pool during his honeymoon without strapping on prosthetic legs. Another wanted ice skates to fit snugly onto his prosthetic feet so he’d receive the sensory feedback he’d come to expect when engaging in his favorite pastime. And yet another wanted to hold a fishing rod while enjoying full use of the hook where his hand used to be.
These requests for custom prosthetic attachments were fulfilled by the 3-D Medical Applications Center, or 3DMAC, at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. There, a small staff of engineers and technicians use advanced digital technology and additive manufacturing, also known as 3-D printing, to design and produce personalized devices quickly and cost-efficiently.
“We’ve made more than 100 unique devices to enable activities that able-bodied people often take for granted,” said Peter Liacouras, the center’s director of services who holds a doctorate in biomedical engineering.
The devices make it easier for amputees to engage in leisure activities they enjoy, Liacouras said, as well as routine things such as drinking a glass of wine or brushing teeth. Returning to their everyday lives helps wounded warriors overcome the physical and emotional trauma of limb loss, health care experts say.
Part of Walter Reed Bethesda’s radiology department, 3DMAC is located in a small suite of offices and computer rooms tucked behind double doors at the end of a long hallway. Although it’s an unassuming-looking place, what’s happening inside is state-of-the-art. Among the center’s many projects are surgical models to produce custom implants used in dentistry and oral surgery; skull plates for blast injuries; and other models to help surgeons prepare to perform intricate procedures, and to train the next generation of dental and medical professionals.
“We also have several research projects going on,” Liacouras said. They include 3-D surveying and mapping of the human face to create a digital archive of facial anatomy. This archive could be used to fabricate implants for reconstruction if a service member became disfigured in a blast injury. “The face is the most complicated region to reconstruct and, of course, it’s what everyone sees every day,” Liacouras said.
So 3-D printed cellphone and cup holders that attach to wheelchairs or other assistive devices “may sound like they’re on the lower scale of what we do, in terms of importance,” Liacouras said. “But they’re not, because they mean a lot to wounded warriors.”
The center fabricates by request from the Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs health care providers. When a request is received, Liacouras usually searches the web to see if the item already exists and can be purchased and adapted. If not, 3-D printing “enables us to create custom devices, making them patient-specific,” he said. The items are made from plastic or titanium.
The center’s first assistive technology project was “shorty feet” for the honeymoon-bound bilateral amputee, in 2002. “Wearing full prosthetic legs can be cumbersome and also, the full prosthesis for pool wear are very expensive and not necessarily 100 percent waterproof,” Liacouras said.
He and his team used computer-assisted design to plan the shorty feet, then printed a plastic prototype for a fit test. They made the permanent pair in titanium alloy.
“They attach to sockets that attach to the stumps,” Liacouras said. “Think of it like walking on your knees.”
And though Liacouras admits “we didn’t fully understand the need at first,” the center has produced more than 70 pairs to date.
“They’ve really taken off,” he said, noting wounded warriors like to use them instead of full prosthetic legs if they need to get up after going to bed, and also to play with young children at the little ones’ level. Physical therapists use them to help new patients feel more comfortable and confident about getting up and moving again.
“Whatever our wounded warriors need, we’ll create,” Liacouras said.