Serving your country and serving others was ingrained into Mississippi native Chef Andre Rush. He is one of eight children, all of whom were encouraged to serve in some capacity. His path of service led him to becoming the ‘strongest chef’ in the United States Army.
“Cooking was a comfort for me, something I did with my mom. But I had to hide it. As a matter of fact, my dad didn’t even know I was a cook until a few years ago,” Rush said with a laugh. He describes his dad as a very intimidating and ‘macho’ guy, but credits him with developing a strong work ethic. “In the South, men didn’t cook. So, I used to sneak and cook with my mom. It gave me such a calm feeling.”
Rush became a master chef – cooking for generals, foreign heads of state and perhaps most impressive, four different presidents. He eventually found himself cooking at the White House, laser-focused on his job. Then, a photo of him cooking on the White House lawn in 2018 changed everything. “I remember that I wanted it to be over with,” he said with a laugh. “When it happened, it was such a whirlwind. I remember avoiding them [the media] the entire time but they kept swarming around me…The reporter came up to me later and said, ‘I’m going to make you famous.’”
The photo seen around the world created a wave of clever memes featuring his 24 inch biceps. Unending requests for Rush to be on various media outlets and even a television series soon followed.
For the humble Army combat veteran, it was the opposite of anything he’d ever experienced in his lifetime. Although he was unbelievably busy, he was trying to go all in and enjoy the ride after he retired from the Army. It was in the middle of this that he received a phone call that his mother was dying. Rush shared that his mother had hidden her illness from him because she knew all the opportunities coming to him and didn’t want to stop him from saying yes.
After her funeral, Rush wanted to take a break to mourn his mother. Then, an old picture went viral – causing a new and even bigger wave of attention. “I got anxiety from it because it was so much. But I had a moment of calmness. I looked up and I said, ‘You did this.’ My mom always said to me, ‘Never give up and keep going.’ So, I kept going,” Rush said with a smile.
Growing up in Mississippi, building his 24 inch biceps and dedication to fitness took ingenuity. There were no gyms around, so Rush spent his time doing pushups and using items laying around for weight lifting. During his time in the military, he came across Arnold Schwarzenegger’s encyclopedia and developed a passion for body building – creating the physique that made him famous. After his cooking photo went viral, he received a call from the big man himself and has collaborated with him on numerous charity works, something Rush is very proud of.
Although Rush has had many offers to be a private chef or work in big restaurants, he has his sights on something more. He’s working on two books, one that will focus on his life growing up in Mississippi and serving in the military. Rush said it will be raw and go deep into his experiences. He’s also working on two television series, and if that wasn’t enough, he founded a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention, an issue he is extremely passionate about.
His advocacy around prevention is personal. In 2011, he lost a soldier to suicide. Despite Rush doing everything in his power to mentor and support this soldier, it’s a loss he carries with him everywhere.
Rush has caught some flak from people who have criticized his push up challenges for suicide prevention, but he doesn’t let it bother him. He knows that by using his position of influence in this way, he’s making a difference. Rush shared that he responds to every single message he receives on social media and has talked to hundreds of people struggling with suicidal ideations. He knows that without those push ups, those conversations would never have occurred.
Despite Rush’s continued success, this master chef and Army veteran’s focus remains on serving others in order to make a difference in the world. Rush considers himself to be an advocate for humanity and building communities, above everything else. His advice to those looking to find their way and purpose is simple, “Be kind to one another, be considerate and… be grateful. Humility is everything.”
As the United States approaches our 20th year at war, veterans are coming home forever changed. Some suffer unseen wounds that profoundly impact their lives. Others are unable to sustain or find meaningful employment. And one veteran, family-owned business is working to change all of that.
Since Tracy and Jerry Flanagan founded JDog Junk Removal & Hauling, the company has become a nationally recognized brand for many reasons. This junk business looks a little different, for one. When a customer hires JDog, the workers that show up are not just your average employee. They are veterans, donning camo pants and sharp-looking JDog embroidered shirts. The veteran workers arrive on time (which means early), are always polite and refer to customers as “ma’am” and “sir.” The experience is nothing like anything the majority of customers have ever seen. And it all started as a way to save the Flanagan family from financial ruin.
“We started [JDog] in March of 2011 and really it was out of desperation,” Tracy shared with a laugh. She explained that her husband had always been a successful entrepreneur but when the financial crisis hit in 2008, they lost everything. After filing bankruptcy, the Army veteran and his wife had to quickly figure out how they would make it. Unable to even get a sit down interview for a job, Jerry went back to the drawing board to create another business. This time, something he felt would be recession proof. JDog Junk Removal and Hauling was born.
“Jerry started doing a couple of jobs. The phones were ringing and he always showed up early because when you are military, that’s what you do. If you are on time, you are late. He just worked like he does – military style, ” Tracy explained. She shared that customers were stunned by the work ethic and kept asking him where it came from. When they finally found out Jerry was an Army veteran, they encouraged the family to advertise it.
“We put veteran owned and operated on all of our stuff and it was a home run. People wanted to use me because I was a veteran,” Jerry said. The response was overwhelming. They both quickly realized that Jerry couldn’t physically do every single job. But they didn’t want to hire just anyone. They wanted veterans.
Jerry went down to the local VA hospital and met with the director, who discussed the Compensated Work Therapy program with him. The veterans in the program had all been in combat and were struggling with drugs and alcohol, unable to get jobs. “I’m like, bring them to me,” he said. Both Jerry and Tracy were troubled by the reports of high unemployment among veterans. They knew this was a way they could impact those numbers.
“It was the most rewarding experience, to be able to make a difference in a veteran who came back and is struggling and just needs a company or an employer to give them a chance. Not only did we give them a chance, we embraced them. We understood the value of what they brought,” Tracy explained.
When she shared the idea of franchising with Jerry, he was understandably nervous given their past experience with bankruptcy. But Tracy just knew they had something special. “I said, ‘We have to help these guys. We have something here that can give a veteran the opportunity to control their own destiny and be in business for themselves and wow, how many veterans can they hire? How many lives can we affect? We have to do this.’”
A few franchises later, they wanted to go even bigger. After partnering with a capital equity firm, the sky was the limit. “My goal is to get every single zip code in the United States to have a JDog brand,” Jerry shared. He shared that the company is committed to eradicating veteran unemployment.
In 2016 they signed an agreement with the VA Central of Washington. JDog is now connecting new franchises with VA clinics all over the country that have Compensated Work Therapy programs. “It’s a snowball effect and has just been amazing,” Tracy said.
Not only is JDog supporting veterans, they are embracing military spouses too. “I’m proud to be able to be a resource and mentor to them. We have a JDog spouse community and I have a spouse buddy program too,” she shared. “We are offering a culture and mission; it’s so much more than a business.”
In 2019 they took it a step further and created the JDog Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to serving the military community and supporting their needs. Tracy and Jerry hope to impact positive change and support the needs of those who they feel sacrifice so much. “The company is based on people, purpose and patriotism. It’s really simple,” Jerry said.
Through hardship and what seemed like endless challenges, Tracy and Jerry Flanagan created a unique business idea that blossomed into a beacon of hope for veterans. At JDog there is welcoming space for them to be honored, valued and for them to do the same for others. One veteran at a time.
Naveed Jamali has worn a lot of hats. Veteran, intelligence analyst, diversity advocate, Editor at Large for Newsweek and if that wasn’t enough, undercover double agent.
“I am a child of immigrants but also someone who grew up post 9/11. It was the defining moment for my life,” Jamali shared. He was working at a university at the time and after the attacks, his role felt almost meaningless. “It felt very much like it was up to people who look like me to say we are patriotic.”
His father immigrated from Pakistan and his mother France, with them eventually meeting and marrying in New York City. Jamali wanted to become an Intelligence Officer for the Navy, but he didn’t get in the first time he applied. Although understandably let down by the denial, his recruiter wouldn’t let him give up. “He basically said apply again and show growth. True to form, my growth was I had this connection with the FBI. I thought if I helped them with the Russians, they would write a letter of recommendation for me to get in the Navy. So, I spent three years working undercover for them,” he explained.
His parents had worked alongside the FBI for years after discovering their bookstore was being used by Russian intelligence agents seeking hard to find government documents. When they retired, he used that connection to offer his services to the FBI. Jamali spent those three years luring Russian intelligence officers and being paid by them for what they thought were classified documents. It ended when Jamali was “arrested” and the diplomatic cover for that undercover Russian officer was blown. He co-wrote a book about the experience which is now being developed into a movie.
Although he loved his time serving and has enjoyed working with leaders since leaving the Navy Reserve after 10 years, Jamali doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the change and deep growth the military itself needs. “It is still very much an honorable profession, one that offers opportunity. But, we also have to come to grips with the fact that today of the 40 plus four star generals and admirals – there are only two who are Black. It’s not a slight on them, but we have to do better,” he explained.
“This year the Navy had its first Black [female] fighter pilot. It’s 2020 – we shouldn’t be having firsts. It should be so commonplace that we don’t even think about it but yet here we are. There are obviously barriers and reasons why; the first thing we can do is have an honest discussion about it,” Jamali shared. The military recently did away with having pictures being included in packages for promotion boards, a good step in the right direction he said.
But it isn’t just the military struggling with ensuring persons of color are represented in senior leadership. “As a person of color, I can attest to the fact that we are expected to work twice as hard with half of the return. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t opportunity, but clearly the numbers don’t lie…Do we really believe there just aren’t people qualified to rise to that level? Honestly, that’s racism. If you really believe there aren’t women or qualified people of color, that’s a problem,” Jamali said.
The lack of diversity also means minimal mentorship for those who are striving to rise, he said. Jamali highlighted the deep need for more seasoned professionals in any field to ensure that they are supporting those coming behind them. He himself continues to ensure he mentors others and advises them to then pay it forward. “I was really lucky to have some great mentors and people who pushed me along the way. Commander Julie Schmit was actually my recruiter for getting into the Navy. I want to say I am grateful for her help and incredibly proud of her career. It’s important to not only have these people but also acknowledge them,” he explained.
Jamali remains focused and deeply committed to increasing diversity both in the military and the civilian sector. But he’s also passionate about challenging citizens of this country to find their purpose and use their voices for good. “It’s really easy to use a hashtag or throw on a bumper sticker, but that isn’t activism,” he said with a laugh. “It doesn’t matter what you do. If you believe in something, go out there and do it. We all have the responsibility of ensuring the next generation is better off than us and more successful. Let’s commit to making sure that this country and this world is better.”
In politics, business, advocacy, and media, there are veterans on the American landscape who have the potential to make a big difference in the months ahead. Some of them are well-known; many of them are not (but should be).
The editors of We Are The Mighty looked across the community and created a diverse list of veterans who continue to serve in a wide variety of high-impact ways. Here are The Mighty 25:
WILLIAM MCNULTY — Managing Director, Team Rubicon Global
William McNulty is a former Marine infantryman who later transitioned into the intelligence community. In 2010 he assumed a new mission with what would eventually become Team Rubicon, a non-profit disaster relief organization he co-founded with fellow Marine Jake Wood.
Since then, Team Rubicon has grown considerably. The permanent staff now oversees some 16,000 volunteers who deploy wherever disaster strikes. Late this year, McNulty stepped back from the main organization to focus on an ambitious project to take TR international.
In 2015, with McNulty now managing director of Team Rubicon Global, look for greater impact from the five-year-old organization as it expands to support relief efforts worldwide. This franchise approach will model Team Rubicon’s successes with American veterans and allow foreign military vets to continue to serve in their communities.
DON FAUL — Director of Operations, Pinterest
Annapolis grad and former Marine Don Faul got to his new job by way of Google and Facebook, a great training track for the task he faces as Pinterest’s head of Operations.
Faul is already making waves with his innovative approach to the site’s ad units, substituting the standard way of charging an advertiser per one thousand impressions for a model that charges by the amount visitors actually click on an ad – a huge benefit for the small businesses that frequent Pinterest. Faul’s leadership could make a big difference in Pinterest’s performance, and beyond that, in how social media is monetized next year and beyond.
JONI ERNST — Senator from Iowa
A day after winning the most contested Senate race in the country — a race punctuated by ads that showcased her talking about castrating cows — Maj. Joni Ernst showed up for duty with the Iowa National Guard where she’s served since 1993.
She now arrives in D.C. as the only female combat veteran in the Senate, and the Republican side of the aisle is ready to use that for all it’s worth. “It’s really good for our National Defense,” Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley told National Review Online, “having [Ernst serve] in the Senate will be good for all debate on national security.”
DAN BRILLMAN — Co-founder, Unite US
Along with co-founder and West Point grad Taylor Justice, Air Force reservist and tanker pilot Dan Brillman has figured out a way to leverage web technology to allow eligible parties to effectively navigate the “Sea of Good Will” — the 40,000 organizations dedicated to helping veterans that have historically presented a challenge because of their sheer number and dizzying overlap.
Brillman created Unite US, a website that uses “interactive, proximity-mapping technology” to match vets to the services they need – sort of like Yelp for the military dot-org ecosystem. If you haven’t used UniteUS.com yet, by the end of 2015 you will have.
SETH MOULTON — Congressman from Massachusetts
Seth Moulton’s reluctant entry into politics was spurred primarily by his experiences as a Marine across four tours during the Iraq War – a war he didn’t believe in. After getting his MBA at Harvard and working for a start-up for a while, he decided to run for Congress as a Democrat in Massachusetts sixth district.
He ultimately won the election after unseating a longstanding incumbent during the primary. The same work ethic, intelligence, and moxie that made him a Gen. Petraeus acolyte should serve him well on the Hill. If anyone has the pedigree and problem solving skills to get something done from across the aisle in a Republican-majority Congress, it’s Moulton.
BRIAN ADAM JONES — Editor-in-Chief, Task & Purpose
After an award-winning career as a Marine Corps combat correspondent, Brian Adam Jones honed his journalism chops at Business Insider, working as a reporting intern for the military section.
This year he joined (and helped launch) the HirePurpose blog “Task & Purpose” as editor-in-chief, and in short order his content choices and writing helped that website become a breakout property among a host of emerging military-affinity destinations.
And he’s just getting started; Jones is currently working on a political science degree at Columbia in addition to his gig at Task & Purpose. Make it a point to find his byline in 2015.
PATRICK MURPHY — Host of MSNBC’s “Taking the Hill”
Patrick Murphy was the first Iraq War vet to be elected to Congress in 2007, but his political career was short-circuited in 2011 when the Tea Party helped orchestrate his defeat in Pennsylvania’s 8th District, primarily because of his work in repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Murphy fell back into legal work until he was approached to host a new show on MSNBC. “Taking the Hill” is the only broadcast network program dedicated to military issues and veteran advocacy, and the show was just picked up for a second season. Look for bigger impact in 2015 as Murphy continues to find his voice as a host and gains more creative control over program topics.
PHIL KLAY — Author of “Redeployment”
The New Yorker said this about Army vet Phil Klay’s debut Redeployment: “The best literary work thus far written by a veteran of America’s recent wars . . . Klay’s fiction peels back every pretty falsehood and self-delusion in the encounter between veterans and the people for whom they supposedly fought.”
This year Klay was awarded National Book Award for Fiction — the first Iraq war veteran do so — and he was also named a National Book Foundation ‘5 Under 35′ honoree. Whenever he puts pen to paper going forward, his will be an important and credible voice on behalf of those who served during our most recent wars.
TOM COTTON — Congressman from Arkansas
Tom Cotton first came to the attention of conservatives when he wrote The New York Times a nastygram from the Iraq War because of a story the paper published that he believed hazarded the safety of his troops. Since that time he’s been shaped into a new breed of veteran politician: an anti-progressive in spite of his Harvard degree, one who’s Tea Party-friendly but whose views are shaped as much by reason as ideology.
A recent Atlantic Monthly article put it this way: “He unites the factions of the Republican civil war: The establishment loves his background, while the Tea Party loves his ideological purity.” That combo could be used to good effect – the kind that actually causes outcomes – as he continues to represent the people of Arkansas’ 4th District next year.
TM GIBBONS-NEFF — Reporter, The Washington Post
While working toward his undergraduate degree at Georgetown University, former Marine and Afghan War vet T.M. Gibbons-Neff has emerged as a high-impact writer with bylines in vaunted publications like The New York Times andThe Washington Post.
As an intern with The Post, Neff landed a significant scoop earlier this year with a story that revealed that Maj. Doug Zembiec, the “lion of Fallujah” who was killed in 2007, was actually working for the CIA at the time.
Gibbons-Neff is a guy to watch in that he shows a deft hand by leveraging his warfighting experience while remaining an objective journalist — a skill few possess who deign to cover the topics surrounding national security.
TULSI GABBARD — Congresswoman from Hawaii
Tulsi Gabbard deployed to Iraq with the Hawaii Army National Guard in 2004, and eight years later she was elected to represent Hawaii’s second congressional district. With a diverse background — she’s just 33, thereby one of just a handful of millennials in the House — and the first member of the Hindu faith to be elected to Congress. She’s also just one of two female combat veterans in office.
“I saw in Congress we had fewer veterans serving than had ever served before in our nation’s history and you have people making very important decisions about where and when our troops go into battle,” Gabbard told Yahoo News. As the Obama Administration continues to struggle with how to best counter threats like ISIS, watch how Gabbard leverages her war experience going forward.
TODD CONNOR — Founder, The Bunker
After earning his MBA, Navy veteran Todd Connor started to miss military life while working as a consultant, so he approached Chicago-based tech incubator 1871 with the idea of creating an effort dedicated to veterans.
The result was “The Bunker,” a group of entrepreneurs helping vets avoid the pitfalls of tech start-up life as they struggle to get their businesses off the ground – sort of like a friendlier version of the TV show “Shark Tank.” Connor has a vision of national dominance, and “The Bunker” detachments have sprouted up from Boston to Austin to Los Angeles.
ANU BHAGWATI — Founder, Service Women’s Action Network
Anu Bhagwati’s path to becoming an advocate on behalf of female service members started during her time in the Marine Corps where she weathered myriad examples of sexual harassment and found no quarter within the system designed to protect her and then found no justice when she attempted to go around it.
She channeled her frustration and anger into action in the form of the Service Women’s Action Network, a nonprofit organization that works to end discrimination, harassment and assault in the military. In short order Bhagwati’s clear voice and unflinching approach to SWAN’s mission has influenced policies at the VA and legislation on Capitol Hill. Look for her to keep the pressure up into the new year.
OWEN WEST — Director, Goldman-Sachs Veterans Network
Business Insider labeled Owen West as “the most badass banker on Wall Street” a couple of years ago, and his efforts since then have done nothing but reinforce that title.
West left his lucrative job at Goldman-Sachs three times to serve during the Iraq War. He defines “Renaissance Man”: Novelist and historian; triathlete, world traveler, and philanthropist. But perhaps most importantly, his day job as the director of Goldman-Sachs’ veterans networkunderwrites the impact of that program and ensures this generation of warfighters have a place in the halls of power on the south end of Manhattan.
DAWN HALFAKER — Board Chairwoman, Wounded Warrior Project
Dawn Halfaker was serving as a military police officer when she lost her right arm in an ambush in Iraq in 2004. Her employment struggles after being medically retired from the Army motivated her to start Halfaker and Associates, a consultant firm that specializes in government tech solutions.
She’s built the business with an eye on veteran hiring, and, in turn, used the lessons learned as a board member for the Wounded Warrior Project, specifically with WWP’s “Warriors to Work” employment program. “A lot of business leaders say they want to hire veterans, but don’t know ultimately how they can bring veterans in and empower them to be successful, given the cultural differences of the military,” Halfaker told The Huffington Post. Look for her to continue bridging that cultural divide in 2015.
ANTHONY NOTO — Chief Financial Officer, Twitter
Army vet Anthony Noto was named Twitter’s CFO this summer after shepherding the social media giant through its IPO, and he’ll need to channel the aggressiveness he used as a football player at West Point as the company attempts to, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “transform its mainstream presence into widespread adoption.”
Noto’s job this year is to diminish investor skepticism by growing Twitter’s user base beyond its already gigantic footprint – a suitable challenge for a former Ranger who honed his business chops at Goldman-Sachs and the NFL.
PAUL RIECKHOFF — Founder, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America marked a decade of existence in 2014, and the organization is showing no signs of slowing down going into next year. Under the leadership of the well-networked and media-savvy founder Paul Rieckhoff, IAVA championed the Clay Hunt SAV Act – legislation designed to combat the veteran suicide rate – at the end of the year, although the bill’s passage was singularly impeded by Sen. Tom Coburn.
As military vets continue to take their own lives at a rate of 22 per day, don’t expect Rieckhoff to give up on this issue in 2015.
GUY FILIPPILLINI — Co-founder and CEO, The Commit Foundation
Former Army intel officer Guy Filippellini co-founded The Commit Foundation to address what he saw as a fundamental flaw in veteran career transition programs he’d seen: One-size-fits-all approaches are largely ineffective.
The Commit Foundation’s mission statement is at once lofty and matter-of-fact: “[The foundation] creates serendipity for veterans by fostering mentorship, extending and growing professional networks, promoting familiar camaraderie, and setting the stage for inspiring moments.”
The foundation’s approach is different than most in that it’s focused on what Filippellini calls “small touch high impact efforts,” which means they focus on small numbers of veterans at a time and give each “sustained attention.” The veteran unemployment problem isn’t going away next year, but Filippellini’s foundation is poised to lessen it.
JOHN MCCAIN — Senator from Arizona, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee
Senator John McCain returned to the spotlight at the end of 2014 when the Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA enhanced interrogation techniques hit the streets. “[The CIA] stained our national honor, did much harm and little practical good,” he said on the senate floor.
McCain also took over as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee this year, which could be sporty considering his criticism of wasteful spending and his currently rocky relationship with the Pentagon. With his unique ability as a Hill provocateur, 2015 could be an exceptionally bad year for weapons programs that are over budget and behind schedule.
ROBERT MCDONALD — Secretary of the Veterans Administration
Former Army Ranger Robert McDonald took the reins of the VA on the backside of a massive scandal that revealed administrative ineptitude at the agency had led to the deaths of more than 40 veterans.
McDonald was brought aboard primarily because of his experience as CEO of Proctor and Gamble, but also because he has more charisma than his predecessor, the phlegmatic Eric Shinseki. McDonald has already been more visible than Shinseki was, threatening to fire large numbers of entrenched bureaucrats and even making his cell phone number public. As more veterans transition to VA care next year, the pressure is on the new secretary to improve the way the agency has performed overall since 9-11.
JASON MANGONE — Director, The Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project
The Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project “envisions a future in which a year of full-time national service — a service year — is a cultural expectation, a common opportunity, and a civic rite of passage for every young American,”according to their website. Jason Mangone is a former Marine Corps infantry officer and the director of the project.
Although he served three tours in Iraq, he is quick to point out that he never saw actual combat and that service is not about that. “While those who bear the costs of battle carry a heavier burden, the rest of us can still rightly say we’ve served our country,” Mangone writes at The Huffington Post. “Serving my country means that I gave up the normal progression of my life — high school, college, work — to do something whose end was civic. The same could be said for the veterans of many other types of national service.”
In an era where the social contract is increasingly challenged by diverging political outlooks, economic circumstances, and cultural backgrounds, Mangone’s effort in leading the Franklin Project may ultimately design the road map toward preserving our national identity.
MAT BEST — Founder, Article 15 Clothing Company
Though Mat Best did five combat tours to Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom with the 2nd Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, he’s best known for his collection of hilarious videos on YouTube. He’s doing something right: His videos that poke fun at military life have been viewed a whopping 13 million+ times.
Besides his videos, he’s also written on important topics like PTSD. Best is also the founder and president of Article 15 Clothing, a successful business selling everything from t-shirts to patches to branded coffee. While 2014 has been a huge year for the company, next year looks to be even better. Article 15 is launching their own whiskey brand and the team is scheduled to appear in major movies outside of YouTube.
TIM KENNEDY — MMA Fighter
Tim Kennedy is many things: Special Forces sniper, YouTube video star, and philanthropist. As if that weren’t enough, his main gig these days is a professional mixed martial arts fighter in the UFC.
Fighting since 2001, the 35-year-old Kennedy now has an 18-5-0 record in the UFC. In 2014, he had two major fights: a dominant win against Michael Bisping, and a controversial loss against Yoel Romero. (Kennedy maintains Romero cheated during the fight by sitting on his stool an extra 30 seconds before the final round).
Look for Kennedy to continue his rise in the UFC next year. Also keep an eye out for more of his hilarious videos, which are usually put together by Ranger Up.
MAXIMILIAN URIARTE — Creator, “Terminal Lance”
In 2010, then-Marine Lance Cpl. Max Uriarte launched “Terminal Lance,” a web comic that captures the grunt-level view of life in the Corps. Drawing on his time in the service — with two deployments to Iraq — Uriarte runs a 300,000+ fan-strong Facebook empire that drives readers to his site where he posts two new comics each week.
Now four years old, the strip has matured into a must-read for military personnel, while also making Uriarte a celebrity among Marines. His Terminal Lance brand helped him fund a successful Kickstarter campaign for a graphic novel he’s working on, which brought in more than $160,000. While he works on the novel — working title “The White Donkey” –Max also has plans to move into animation next year.
JAS BOOTHE — Founder, Final Salute
Jas Boothe was a captain who’d been in the Army for 13 years when she was hit with a double whammy: She found out she had cancer and her home in New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
The single mother was suddenly homeless and unemployed. As she fought for her family and her dignity, she discovered there were many other female veterans suffering the same plight. She founded Final Salute to address the problem, and she created the Ms. Vet America event (don’t call it a “pageant”) to bring visibility to the organization. Look for more from Boothe and the Ms. Vet America event in 2015.
Throughout the year, the team at We Are The Mighty has the privilege of learning about and meeting people doing extraordinary things in the military-veteran community. This is the inspiration behind our annual Mighty 25: Influencers Supporting the Military Community in 2018 — a list of individuals who are making a difference for military service members, veterans, and their families.
This year, we expanded our list to include not just veterans, prior service members, and reservists, but also civilians who are doing exemplary work in this community.
The Mighty 25 Committee utilized a set of specific criteria to select 25 members of the military-veteran community currently making a significant impact. The committee was comprised of the diverse WATM team of veteran editors, writers, and creators who engage with this community daily. The task force conducted extensive research to identify over 100 initial potential candidates. The top 25 were chosen according to impact and the representation of a diverse variety of social causes, fields of work, and communities affected.
This individuals on this year’s Mighty 25 have dedicated their lives to missions that vary greatly: from developing transitioning service members and their spouses into successful entrepreneurs, to helping veterans heal through stand-up comedy training. Yet these exceptional individuals all share one goal: to improve the lives of those who have sacrificed for their country.
We are excited to share these influencers’ stories, highlight their accomplishments to the world, and cheer them on as they continue to make a difference in the lives of many. The 2018 Mighty 25 list is presented here in alphabetical order.
Dr. Jill Biden
Combining a lifetime passion for teaching with her high-profile role as former second lady of the United States, Dr. Jill Biden is able to reach millions as a premier advocate for military service members and their families.
Not long after their husbands took office, Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama teamed up to form “Joining Forces,” a non-profit that partners with the private and public sectors to provide military families with tools to succeed throughout their lives. Their initiative, “Operation Educate the Educator,” was designed to help teachers understand what military families go through, and was introduced at 100 teaching colleges across America.
Biden believes that in addition to military members, families also serve – including children. Her book Don’t Forget, God Bless Our Troops is the story of a little girl coping with her father’s deployment, and is based on the Biden family’s own experiences when their son and father, the late Beau Biden, was deployed to Iraq.
The Biden Foundation, launched Feb. 2017, by Dr. Jill Biden and former Vice President Joe Biden, is a nonprofit organization that looks to “identify policies that advance the middle class, decrease economic inequality, and increase opportunity for all people,” according to its website. One of the organization’s primary focuses is supporting military families.
In April 2017, Biden was appointed to the JP Morgan Chase Military and Veterans’ Affairs External Advisory Council. The council advises the firm on a comprehensive strategy to design programs and products aimed at serving the unique needs of members of the military, veterans and their families.
U.S. Naval Academy graduate and retired Lieutenant Colonel Scott Cooper spent an impressive career in the Marine Corps as an EA-6B Prowler aircrew, serving five tours in Iraq, two in Afghanistan, one in Europe, and one in the Western Pacific. Cooper now serves as the Director of National Security Outreach at Human Rights First, a nonprofit organization that advocates for human rights, especially in encouraging America to be a leader and champion of human rights at home and abroad. In his role, Cooper works to build broad coalitions among military agencies, the national security community, veteran service organizations, and think tanks.
In 2015, Cooper’s passion for advocating for Afghan and Iraqi wartime allies and Syrian refugees led him to found Veterans for American Ideals, a nonpartisan, grassroots, community-based group of veterans aiming to leverage military veteran voices to bridge divides and regain a shared sense of national community. He believes that within this increasingly divisive political climate, veterans can be an important civilizing, unifying force. Their work amplifies veterans’ experiences, leadership abilities, and credibility to combat the erosion of our democratic norms and to challenge the rise of xenophobic, fear-based rhetoric and policies that run counter to our ideals.
In the face of the refugee ban promulgated by the current White House administration, Cooper has dedicated himself to championing the rights of refugees on Capitol Hill, working to educate government officials on the current refugee vetting process, even leading a delegation of refugees to meet with the offices of numerous senators, including John McCain, Jeanne Shaheen, Marco Rubio, Tammy Duckworth, Chuck Grassley, Joe Manchin, and Ed Markey.
Cooper also lends a prominent voice to this public issue as a published author, with his pieces on human rights issues and American values appearing in numerous publications, including the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, The Washington Quarterly, War on the Rocks, Task and Purpose, The American Interest, and Policy Review.
The crown in Elizabeth Dole’s long and varied public career may not lie in her capacity as Federal Trade Commissioner under President Richard Nixon, Secretary of Transportation under President Reagan, or Secretary of Labor under George H.W. Bush — and possibly not even as United States Senator from her home state of North Carolina.
Rather, it is her foundation that may hold more significance for the ordinary Americans it serves every single day. Through the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, Dole has chosen to use her high-profile platform to advocate for those 5.5 million spouses, friends, and family members who care for America’s ill, injured, and wounded veterans.
While visiting her husband at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Dole first became aware of the needs and challenges facing military caregivers. A veteran of World War II, Bob Dole is the recipient of two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star, and has long suffered from the effects of his injuries. As she visited other veterans suffering catastrophic wounds, Dole was drawn to the families, constantly at the side of their loved ones, receiving little or no support.
Under Dole’s leadership, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation has brought national attention to military caregiver issues through its Hidden Heroes Campaign, launched grassroot support initiatives in more than 110 cities across the nation via Hidden Heroes Cities, encouraged innovation and the creation of direct service programming supporting caregivers through Hidden Heroes Fund, empowered and equipped military caregivers in all 50 states and Puerto Rico with tools to advocate on behalf of their caregiver peers though the Dole Caregiver Fellows program, and advocated for national caregiver support with Congressional and VA leaders. The Foundation also launched HiddenHeroes.org, a first-of-its-kind online tool where military caregivers can connect to a peer support community and directory of 200+ carefully vetted resources.
Dole’s impact doesn’t stop there. In October 2017, she was appointed chair of the Veteran Administration’s new family and caregiver advisory committee, which was formed in response to problems with support programs, and is charged with advocating for improvements to VA care and benefits services.
Marjorie K. Eastman
Her 2017 National Independent Publisher Award-winning book The Frontline Generation: How We Served Post 9/11 not only reframes how many thought about those who served in the conflicts following 9/11, it is the first book to define the timeless legacy of anyone who steps up to serve, declaring the most significant call to action for our time. What started as a memoir project that this former enlisted, direct commission Army Reserve officer took on to cope with her infant son’s battle with cancer, it became an informational and inspiring collection of reflections on those with whom she served, and the aftershocks of service, character, and leadership.
She sought to write a book that would help shape the man she hoped her son will become — yet she succeeded in shaping the narrative of post 9/11 veterans as being far more, and better than, the prevailing themes of hero or broken. And the U.S. Army took notice and placed her book on the recommended reading list for the Military Intelligence Center of Excellence library and museum. A 2018 updated version of her book is now available (audio book set to release in late May), with an additional appendix that empowers readers to find a mission — inciting confidence that every one of us can live with purpose, live for each other, and lead.
Named by PBS’s Veterans Coming Home Initiative as a veteran thought leader, Eastman, who was awarded the Bronze Star as a combat commander, as well as the Combat Action Badge, continues to pioneer new ground by positively reinforcing the value of veterans and service as an unmatched currency. She is a frequent public speaker and her articles on topical issues such as the #MeToo movement, veteran entrepreneurs as a force multiplier in our economy, how veterans can bridge the partisan divide, and the potential impact of U.S. State Department cuts have appeared in publications such as The Washington Post, Task Purpose, and USA Today. Make sure to check out her 2018 Deck of 52 Most Wanted post 9/11 Frontline Leaders, a weekly column that is a spin-off and salute to the original deck (2003 Iraqi Playing Cards), highlighting veterans and military families who have launched exceptional businesses and charities.
On Aug. 21, 2009, while enroute from Camp Victory to the International Zone (IZ) in Baghdad, Iraq, then-Army Col. Carol Eggert’s vehicle was struck by an EFP — an explosively formed projectile. She calls it her Gratitude Day. She and all ten service members riding with her that day were wounded. Eggert was in Iraq on a 15-month combat tour as Chief of the Women’s Initiatives Division and Senior Liaison to the U.S. Embassy, Baghdad. In this role, she conducted an analysis of women’s initiatives and engineered a strategic plan to empower Iraqi women economically and politically.
Now as a retired brigadier general in the private sector, Eggert continues to lead through empowerment. She currently serves as the Senior Vice President, Military and Veteran Affairs at Comcast NBCUniversal, executing Comcast NBCUniversal’s commitment to deliver meaningful career opportunities to veterans, National Guard and Reserve members, and military spouses. Eggert recently announced that the company exceeded its goal of hiring 10,000 members of the military community between 2015 and 2017.
Eggert’s selection for this role comes as no surprise. Eggert herself served across several components, including the Regular Army, the Army Reserve, and the National Guard. She also earned several degrees — two master’s and a doctorate in organizational leadership. In addition to the Purple Heart, Eggert is also the recipient of the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Combat Action Badge, and Meritorious Service Medal with 4 Oak Leaf Clusters.
U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former Navy Seal Nick Etten believes that veterans’ quality of life could be improved — and lives could be saved — through access to cannabis for medical treatment. Through his organization, the Veterans Cannabis Project, Etten champions cannabis as a life-saving treatment option. With the prevalence of chronic pain among military veterans leading to a deadly opioid addiction problem within the community, Etten views Cannabidiol (CBD) products as a viable way to help veterans get off opioids.
Access to medical marijuana for veterans, however, is limited. The laws regulating marijuana are currently murky, since it is illegal under federal law, but legal under the law in some states. And because of the current classification of cannabis as a schedule one drug, research on its potential benefits for veterans is limited, and the Department of Veteran affairs does not allow its providers to prescribe or even recommend it to patients.
The Veterans Cannabis Project has been active on Capitol Hill, working to educate lawmakers, and requesting they take action to help clarify the health benefits of cannabis. Etten’s work to educate, advocate, support research, and partner with like-minded organizations is paving the path for future access to alternative treatment options for veterans.
When Justine Evirs joined the Navy, her plan was to make a career out of it. Her early medical discharge, however, forced her back to square one. She ended up in college to study business then spent numerous years in higher education and veteran services. Evirs is now a mother of three, military spouse, and prominent leader and disrupter in the entrepreneurial and veteran military spouse communities, whose ideas are fast-tracking opportunities for veterans entering the civilian workforce or starting their own businesses.
In her previous role as the Executive Director of the nonprofit Bunker Labs Bay Area Evirs helps provide resources and networking opportunities to military veterans and their spouses who are starting and growing their own businesses. Now in her new role as the National Director of Policy at Bunker Labs she is focused on policy solutions for veteran entrepreneurs across the nation.
The Paradigm Switch, a nonprofit founded by Evirs in 2017, originally provided veterans and military spouses access to prestigious certifications and vocational skills-based programs. Fast forward to today, The Paradigm Switch has recently relaunched and is putting military spouses first. Evirs is building a global digital community for military spouses by military spouses, offering a full spectrum of resources that enable spouses to unleash their unlimited potential both personally and professionally. They discover and provide access to resources and communities that empower military spouses to take control of their careers.
Delphine Metcalf-Foster made history in 2017, when she became the first woman ever elected as the National Commander of the Disabled Americans Veterans (DAV) organization.
Metcalf-Foster, whose father was a Buffalo Soldier, joined the military later in life, when her daughter was in high school. Her daughter was convinced people would laugh at her mom because of her age, but Metcalf-Foster went for it, and ended up retiring from the Army Reserve 21 years later. During her service, she deployed to Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield, where she was injured.
Metcalf-Foster’s passion for serving fellow veterans has fueled her work with DAV. With over 1 million members, this nonprofit organization helps injured veterans access benefits and advocates on their behalf. In her role as the DAV National Commander, Metcalf-Foster aims to spotlight the need to close the health care gap that exists for women veterans, as well as the need to expand government support for caregivers of pre 9/11 veterans.
It all started with this former Army captain’s raw, brutally honest and irreverent blog titled Kaboom: a Soldier’s War Journal, which chronicled his 15-month Iraq deployment leading a scout platoon with the 25th Infantry Division. The controversial and popular blog was eventually shut down by Gallagher’s chain-of-command, but was later published as a critically-acclaimed memoir after he left the Army.
Armed with an MFA in fiction from Columbia, Gallagher went on to write for numerous major publications, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Wired. Tackling such dicey issues as whether or not the Iraq War was worth it, the social estrangement of returning veterans, and refugee and immigration rights of Muslims coming to America, Gallagher challenges intellectual and moral complacency. As a veteran directly affected by these issues, Gallagher’s skepticism of the establishment, honest self-reflection, and calls for accountability bring an enormously refreshing and credible perspective to the conversation.
In 2015, Vanity Fair called Matt Gallagher one of the most important voices of a new generation of American war literature. His debut novel Youngblood (2016) portrays a young soldier in his search for meaning during the end of the Iraq War.
As a former intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve, the mayor of Los Angeles has made improving the lives of veterans a priority throughout his tenure. His establishment of the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs aimed to ensure veterans in Los Angeles can access the services they’ve earned. One of Garcetti’s most impressive contributions to the veteran community during his time as mayor has been through the office’s massive hiring campaign called the 10,000 Strong Initiative.
Garcetti’s groundbreaking initiative formed a coalition between the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs and companies and community organizations in Los Angeles over the last three years to reach the goal of hiring 10,000 local veterans. The program utilized the services of local nonprofits and government agencies to match qualified veteran candidates with open positions. The initiative also offered job training to veterans to assist them in transitioning into the civilian workforce, as well as training to companies on how to use tax incentives when hiring veterans.
Through the use of these resources and training programs, Garcetti’s 10,000 Strong Initiative ended up beating its own goal, placing 10,500 veterans with more than 200 companies in the Los Angeles region. In Garcetti’s own words from his Aug 29, 2017 Fleet Week speech, “The men and women who served our country in uniform should come home to opportunity, not obstacles. Veterans are some of the hardest-working, most qualified, and prepared people in Los Angeles — and they should have every chance to succeed in the workplace, and make a living for themselves and their families.”
Jason Hall started his career in Hollywood as an actor. Some might recognize him from his recurring role as the lead singer of a band in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. According to Hall, however, the role that truly made a difference in his life was for a University of Southern California student film in which he portrayed a Marine coming to grips with the loss of a troop. This role would serve as his entry into the fascinating and strange world of American military veterans.
Hall’s Oscar nomination for his adaptation of the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s American Sniper novel for the 2014 film version served as his breakout moment as a major creative force. His success in the powerful telling of that story led him to his next project, Thank You for Your Service, a 2017 film he wrote and directed based on Washington Post reporter David Finkel’s nonfiction book by the same name, which follows the real-life plight of four soldiers returning home from the Iraq War.
Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, had followed these soldiers in the war for 10 months, then continued following them for another 13 months after they came home. What resulted was a gripping account of the challenges faced by veterans following war.
Hall’s film expanded the book’s audience to moviegoers across America, giving a prominent spotlight to the issues faced by returning veterans. It’s his dedication to the careful and accurate depiction of these true-life accounts that demonstrates his commitment to serving veterans through filmmaking. He looks to bring that same accuracy to the story of another well-known veteran: George Washington. He has spent the last year researching and writing the story of Washington’s road to becoming a leader through the French Indian war.
Zach Iscol is a combat decorated Marine veteran who served two tours in Iraq and fought in the second Battle of Fallujah, where he led a combined unit of 30 American and 250 Iraqi National Guard troops, and later helped build US Marine Corps, Special Operations Command.
Through Hirepurpose, Iscol has helped over 50,000 veterans with employment through personalized career guidance, resources, and job matching. Iscol’s Headstrong Project, an affiliate of Weill Cornell Medical Center, has provided cost-free world-class mental healthcare to over 600 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in 14 cities and growing around the Country. Task Purpose is a leading news, culture and lifestyle website with content aimed at military and veteran audiences, and reaching over 50 million people a month.
In 2007, Iscol’s testimony, while on active duty, before the United States Senate, helped establish the Special Immigrant Visa to safeguard and protect our Iraqi and Afghanistan translators.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
Dwayne Johnson comes from a proud military family, and his goal is to give back to the military community. An actor, producer, philanthropist, and former WWE professional wrestler, Johnson uses his super-celebrity status to advocate for the importance of American freedom and to honor its protectors.
At the end of 2016, Johnson was the executive producer and host of the inaugural “Rock the Troops” event at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam for 50,000 military personnel in recognition of the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. For this event, which aired on Spike TV, Johnson assembled an epic cast of fellow celebrities — Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, Keegan Michael-Key, Rob Riggle, Nick Jona, Flo Rider, and more all made special appearances to honor the troops.
Johnson continues his support for military members and their families through his partnership with Under Armour’s Freedom initiative, which supports the military and first responder communities by enhancing their physical and mental wellness.
After serving 25 years in the U.S. Air Force as both a public affairs NCO and officer, Mike Kelly continues serving the military community as a passionate advocate for veterans and military spouses. In his role as an executive at USAA, he leads strategic collaborations with key military, government, nonprofit, and for-profit advocacy groups.
Mike is building collaborative relationships that focus on a national dialogue surrounding important veteran and spouse issues such as financial readiness, navigating successful transitions into the civilian workforce, entrepreneurship, and supportive and impactful military spouse communities.
In 2016, The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation selected Mike as the recipient of the annual Hiring Our Heroes Colonel Michael Endres Leadership Award for Individual Excellence in Veteran Employment. He currently serves on the HOH Veteran and Military Spouse Employment Councils, which focus on actions addressing the unique employment challenges veterans and military spouses face.
Mike is dedicated to connecting, equipping, and inspiring opportunities that benefit the military community at large.
Sam Meek served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps as a Nuclear Biological Chemical Defense (NBCD) Specialist, completing two tours in Iraq. After leaving the military, Meek would eventually end up using his passion for technology to help connect members of the military community. His unique mobile app, Sandboxx, helps give new recruits in basic training — as well as deployed service members without access to their social media apps — a way to stay connected to the outside world.
Sandboxx customers, most of whom are already active users of social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, and SnapChat, are easily able to transition to Sandboxx to communicate with out-of-reach military members. They use the app to upload photos, which get converted into a piece of physical mail, which is sent anywhere in the world it needs to go, even remote locations. Most letters are sent overnight and are delivered the next business day.
Meek launched Sandboxx Travel in 2017, which enables service members to book hotels and flights, often with military discounts, through the Sandboxx app and site. The app also helps provide a way for active and inactive members of the military to connect with any unit they have ever served. As the grandson and great grandson of military service members, Meek was intent on maintaining his connection to the Marines. He now helps people around the world do exactly that.
On April 10, 2012, while serving on his third tour with the 82nd Airborne, Staff Sergeant Travis Mills was critically injured by an IED. He lost both arms and both legs in the blast, and is one of only five quadruple amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to survive those injuries.
Mills spent much of his time during recovery at Walter Reed encouraging and hanging out with fellow injured veterans and their families, earning the nickname the “Mayor.” So it’s not much of a surprise that he ended up deciding that he wanted to do something big — not only for veterans, but their families as well. In 2013, embodying the warrior ethos of “Never give up, never quit,” Travis and his wife started the Travis Mills Foundation.
The Foundation supports veterans and their families through programs that help these heroic men and women overcome physical obstacles, strengthen their families, and provide well-deserved rest and relaxation. Mills’ latest effort to support these veterans and their families is through his Foundation’s national retreat center, located in his home state of Maine.
Since June of 2017, the retreat has served injured veterans and their families, who receive an all-inclusive, all-expenses paid, barrier-free vacation where they participate in adaptive activities, bond with other veteran families, and enjoy the 17-acre grounds of the estate.
You might know Bob Parsons as the larger-than-life billionaire entrepreneur who founded GoDaddy, but his legacy extends far beyond the massively successful internet domain registrar and web hosting company. Parsons served in the United States Marine Corps and, at 18 years old, deployed to Vietnam as a rifleman with Delta Company, earning a Purple Heart, a Combat Action Ribbon, and the Vietnam Gallantry Cross.
Parsons is passionate about creating a positive homecoming experience for veterans returning from war. This was also the inspiration behind those who started the Semper Fi Fund, a charity that provides immediate and long-term resources to post-9/11 military members who have been combat wounded, catastrophically injured, or are critically ill.
Semper Fi Fund also provides services aimed at helping vets throughout their lives, including family and caregiver support, PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury care and education, adaptive housing and transportation, education and career transition assistance, mentoring and apprenticeships, and unit reunions.
As one of the highest-rated charities in the country the Semper Fi Fund’s impact is impressive. According to their website, Semper Fi Fund’s 2017 monetary assistance to service members totaled million dollars. Bob Parsons and his wife Renee are also the founders of the nonprofit organization The Bob Renee Parsons Foundation. For the sixth year in a row, the Foundation recently completed its Double Down for Veterans match campaign with the Semper Fi Fund by matching contributions dollar-for-dollar, exceeding their 2017 goal of million. The Foundation has donated more than million in total to the Semper Fi Fund since its creation. This husband-and-wife philanthropic powerhouse have given an astounding 0 million dollars to charity since 2012.
Coming from three generations of military service, Elizabeth Halperin-Perez spent nine years as an Aviation Logistic Specialist in the U.S. Navy. During a deployments to the Middle East, her friend died in a terrorist attack on the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Cole while it was refueling in Yemen’s Aden Harbor. This event, along with the deep respect for Mother Earth instilled in her from her Mono Indian Native American heritage, sparked her passion for energy policies that advance national security.
Committed to reducing conflict and future wars by furthering sustainable energy practices, Halperin-Perez went on to become the founder and president of the green-build general contracting and consulting firm GCG. Using her experience and network, she also works to help other veterans find clean energy job opportunities, and is passionate about helping them onto an entrepreneurial path. In 2017, Halperin-Perez was chosen by Governor Brown to serve on the California Veterans Board, and most recently was appointed Deputy Secretary of Minority Veterans with the California Department of Veterans Affairs, serving underrepresented veterans in a much larger capacity across California. She was also recognized at the White House in 2013 as a “Champion of Change for Advancing Clean Energy Technologies Climate Security”.
Sam Pressler began his involvement with the veteran community during his time as a student at the College of William Mary, where he majored in government and first learned about the mental health challenges faced by veterans returning from war. Pressler himself had turned to comedy to cope after a suicide in his family, and in response to the challenges affecting veterans and service members he started Comedy Bootcamp, a stand-up comedy class for veterans and their families as a way to help build community and improve well-being through comedy.
This bootcamp eventually grew into the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP), a non-profit founded and led by Pressler that helps veterans, service members, and military family members reintegrate into their communities through the arts. The organization promotes expression, skill-development, and camaraderie through classes, workshops, and performances across a variety of artistic disciplines. ASAP’s focus on consistent programs and community partnerships ensures that members of our community have continuous opportunities for artistic and personal growth.
ASAP has served more than 600 students, and put on over 800 performances for 50,000+ audience members, including a 2016 comedy show at The White House and a performance for President Jimmy Carter. Through these programs and performances, Pressler has helped to create connections and understanding between veterans and members of their local communities. Pressler was honored on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2017, as one of HillVets 100 most influential people in the veterans space in 2016, and as a recipient of the prestigious Echoing Green Fellowship.
His work with ASAP has been featured by numerous media outlets, including the Washington Post, ABC News, NBC, CNN, NPR, PBS, Military Times, Task Purpose, and Stars Stripes.
Jennifer Pritzker (born James Pritzker) enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions while on active duty, then at various units in the Army National Guard until retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 2001. She was later promoted to the honorary rank of Colonel.
Pritzker has been a massive force multiplier through her philanthropic work as the President and Chief Executive Officer of Tawani Enterprises, Inc., President of the Tawani Foundation, and Founder and Chair of the Pritzker Military Museum Library. In these roles, Pritzker makes significant long-term differences for programs and organizations that advocate the role of military in society.
Among her notable contributions is a id=”listicle-2565932886″.3 million donation to the University of California, Santa Barbara to fund studies on how the U.S. military could openly integrate transgender members into its ranks. In 2017, the Pritzker Military Foundation donated id=”listicle-2565932886″ million to fund key initiatives for Elizabeth Dole’s Hidden Heroes campaign, which supports the caregivers of injured and ill veterans and service members. In 2018, the Foundation gave id=”listicle-2565932886″ million to the Army Historical Foundation to help with the construction of the National Museum of the United States Army in Virginia. In 2013, Pritzker came out as transgender and started living as a woman. She is the only known transgender billionaire in the world.
(Photo by Terrilyn Bayne)
Diana & Daniel Rau
Daniel Rau was inspired to serve his country when he saw the Twin Towers fall on 9/11. He joined the Marine Corps and served as a Marine Security Guard protecting embassies around the world. After his service, based on his and his friends’ experiences, he saw an opportunity to radically change the process of how Veterans enter the civilian workforce.
Diana Rau, who was honored as one of Forbes’ 2018 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs, is a Georgetown graduate passionate about solving major social problems. When she met Daniel, the idea for Veterati sparked: build a technology platform to help America’s 1.5 million service members currently transitioning into the civilian workforce as well as 5.5 million underemployed military spouses navigate and break into civilian careers. (A romantic relationship that later led to their marriage also sparked — Veterati’s story is both a startup story a love story!)
Because 80% of job opportunities are never listed, but rather, are advertised and filled through personal networks, the Raus built a digital platform that empower service members and spouses to connect with multiple mentors and build social networks vital to their career search. At Veterati.com, Veterans spouses are matched with successful business people in their area of interest using smart algorithms. Mentors volunteer their time through free, one-hour phone calls facilitated by the platform. Since its 2015 launch, Veterati, which has been called the “Uber-of-mentoring,” has provided thousands of free mentoring conversations for 10k+ members and is partnered with the nation’s leading Veteran Service Organizations and Military Employers to deliver free, on-demand mentoring to our entire military community.
In 2017, Denise Rohan became the first female national commander of the 2 million-member American Legion in its 99-year history. Rohan, who served in the Army’s Quartermaster Corps for two years at the end of the Vietnam War, joined the Legion 33 years ago, working her way up from post-level membership to National Commander.
The American Legion is the nation’s largest veteran service organization and was founded on four pillars: veterans affairs and rehabilitation, national security, Americanism, and children and youth. As their new national commander, Rohan is expanding on those four pillars through her “Family First” platform, which broadens the American Legion’s focus on service members and veterans to include family members as well. As the spouse of a veteran herself, Rohan believes that families serve too; and ensuring those family members are being taken care of at home allows for their loved ones in the fight to focus more on their mission, ultimately strengthening national security.
Rohan’s current special fundraising project is the Legion’s Temporary Financial Assistance program, which awards cash grants to children of veterans in need to help the cost of shelter, food, utilities, and health expenses.
Major Dan Rooney
Major Dan Rooney is a U.S. Air Force Reserve F-16 fighter pilot with the Oklahoma National Guard. It was during his second tour of duty in Iraq that he felt a calling to do something in response to the devastating sacrifices he saw others make fighting for their country. This calling was solidified on a commercial flight Rooney took after returning to the U.S. The plane had just landed and the pilot announced that the remains of Corporal Brock Bucklin were on board. Maj Rooney watched as the flag-draped casket slowly made its way to the awaiting family, which included the fallen hero’s son. Rooney was overwhelmed thinking about the hardship those family members would face due to their loss.
This moment irrecoverably altered Rooney’s trajectory, and he made the decision at that moment to dedicate the rest of his life to helping the family members of those who gave their lives, or were disabled in service to their nation. He recently formed a partnership with Budweiser’s Patriot Beer and in 2007 created the Folds of Honor Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps the more than one million dependents adversely impacted by war through educational scholarships.
Rooney, who is also a PGA golf pro, realized that he could use his platform to help achieve the goals he had for his foundation. The first Folds of Honor golf tournament raised ,000. Since, then Folds of Honor has raised over 0 million and given away over 13,000 educational scholarships. Rooney continues to his work to uphold the mission of his foundation: “Honor their sacrifice. Educate their legacy.”
Actor and humanitarian Gary Sinise has been a strong advocate of American service members for nearly 40 years, starting with his Veterans Night program, which offers free dinners and performances to veterans at the Steppenwolf Theatre, which he co-founded in Chicago. Later, his portrayal of Lt Dan in the film Forrest Gump would create a lasting connection with the disabled military community. Following 9/11 he took part in many USO tours, which led him to form The Lt. Dan Band, which entertains troops at home and abroad and raises awareness at benefit concerts across the country.
Sinise established the Gary Sinise Foundation in 2011, through which he continues to serve and honor America’s defenders, veterans, and first responders as well as their families and those in need. Whether they’re sending WWII veterans to New Orleans to tour the National WWII Museum through its Soaring Valor program or building specially adapted smart homes for severely wounded veterans through its R.I.S.E. (Restoring Independence, Supporting Empowerment) program, Sinise continually demonstrates just how much one person’s commitment can do for an entire community. His Foundation recently added the annual Snowball Express event to its roster of programs. The annual event brings together the children and spouses of fallen military heroes each December for a fun-filled four-day event at Disney World.
Sinise’s forthcoming book Grateful American, which features the author’s life story and passionate advocacy for military service members, is slated for release in 2019.
Jon Stewart, comedian and former host of The Daily Show, is nothing less than passionate about his support for the troops. He continually uses his public platform to stress that the country does not do enough to support service members and veterans. His persistent message to America and its institutions is that supporting the troops shouldn’t be an empty saying, but rather a call to action. Stewart backs up his words with his own remarkable commitment, proving himself a truly dedicated advocate for this community.
During his long tenure as the host of the massively popular satirical news show, Stewart established an internship program for veterans trying to break into the television industry, which continues on to this day. He has also toured with USO three times, entertaining service members all over the world, bringing them laughs and a touch of home. Stewart regularly participates in benefits and campaigns aimed at raising money and awareness for issues impacting veterans.
In 2016, Stewart attended the Warrior Games, an adaptive sports competition in which injured and ill service members and veterans participate. He later pitched the idea of broadcasting the games on television to ESPN — and in 2017, they did exactly that, with Stewart serving as the emcee.
Within the worlds of politics, business, advocacy, and media there are veterans who continue to serve in a wide variety of ways. Men and women who once fought the nation’s wars now shape the American landscape by doing everything from building cars with 3D printers to creating fashion trends, from making major motion pictures to passing laws.
The editors of WATM (with inputs from a proprietary panel of influencers) scanned the community and came up with a diverse list of those with the highest impact potential in the year ahead.
Here are The Mighty 25 for 2016:
1. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL — Co-Founder, The McChrystal Group
After a legendary career as an Army special operator, highlighted by effectively re-organizing JSOC and leading the war effort in Afghanistan, General McChrystal accelerated into the normally pedestrian world of business consulting. The same drive that made him an effective leader has informed the McChrystal Group‘s innovative approaches to the problems facing their clients. The company’s offices outside of DC feel like those of a Silicon Valley tech startup rather than a traditional Beltway firm, more Menlo Park than K Street, and he’s aggregated a hyper-talented team — including a number of veterans — who are changing the way consulting is done. McChrystal also serves as the Chair of the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute, advocating for a “service year” as an American cultural expectation. Watch for him to keep the press on there this year.
Seth Moulton’s reluctant entry into politics was spurred primarily by his experiences as a Marine across four tours during the Iraq War – a war he didn’t believe in. After getting his MBA at Harvard and working for a start-up for a while, he decided to run for Congress as a Democrat in Massachusetts’s Sixth District. His first year in office was punctuated by efforts to improve veteran health care through the VA. He also opposed attempts to block Syrian refugees from entering the country. Expect more impact from this veteran lawmaker as his comfort level goes up in 2016.
3. LOREE SUTTON — New York City Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs Commissioner
Retired Army Brigadier General Loree Sutton was appointed as New York City’s VA commissioner just over a year ago, and she hit the ground running, leveraging her experiences at places like the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury and the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center at Fort Hood to solve the immediate issues facing Gotham’s veteran community. Her approaches to resilience, using a “working community” model that scales problems at the lowest level, have proved very effective in dealing with issues like claims backlogs and appointment wait times. Her successes in 2016 could well inform how other cities better serve veterans going forward.
4. TM GIBBONS-NEFF — Reporter, The Washington Post
TM Gibbons-Neff served as a rifleman in 1st Battalion, 6th Marines and participated in two combat deployments to Helmand Province, Afghanistan before entering Georgetown University to pursue his English degree. He graduated this year and went from working as an intern at The Washington Post to earning a spot as one of their full-time reporters. As part of the Post’s national security staff, TM has reported on everything from the ISIS threat to the San Bernadino shootings. Watch for his reach to grow in 2016 as he continues to hones his already substantial journalism skills.
5. NICK PALMISCIANO — Founder, CEO, Ranger Up!
After serving as an Army infantry officer, Nick Palmisciano came up with the idea of creating a military-focused clothing company while earning his MBA at Duke University. He founded Ranger Up! in 2006, and since that time he has led the way in leveraging the power of user-generated content and social media to create a brand that is as much identity as apparel to the company’s loyal consumer base. Nick also walked the walk by deliberately hiring veterans to staff Ranger Up!. Watch for his star to rise this year with the release of “Range 15” — an independent horror-comedy produced in collaboration with fellow military apparel company Article 15 — hitting theaters in May.
6. MAT BEST — President, Article 15 Clothing
Article 15‘s motto is “hooligans with a dream,” and that atmosphere permeates all of the company’s products and productions. Mat Best brought the same attributes that made him an effective warfighter to the marketplace and those have made him a successful entrepreneur, but even more important to the military community is how his unapologetic brio has shaped attitudes around the veteran experience. Mat and his posse are the antithesis of the “vets as victims” narrative; these guys live life on their terms and that lesson has been prescriptive for legions of their peers looking for fun and meaningful ways to contribute at every level. Mat has meteoric impact potential this year as the star of the movie “Range 15,” which Article 15 co-created with Ranger Up!.
After graduating West Point and studying as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, Craig Mullaney served in the Army for 8 years as an infantry officer, including a combat tour in Afghanistan. After he got out he was on the national security policy staff of President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. He also served as the Pentagon’s Principal Director for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia Policy and later on the Development Innovation Ventures team at the U.S. Agency for International Development. He is the author of the 2009 New York Times bestseller The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier’s Education. This year he’ll continue his influence in his role as strategic partnerships manager at Facebook, and among his duties is convincing global influencers and business executives to maintain personal Facebook pages.
8. DAVID CHO — Co-founder, Soko Glam
This West Pointer and artillery officer took his Columbia MBA and joined his wife in the cosmetics business. Their company, Soko Glam, specializes in introducing Western customers to Korean cosmetics, beauty trends, and skincare regimens. David’s wife Charlotte Cho scours the market for the best and most trusted selection of products to bring to the U.S. while he handles the details around the business including biz dev and accounting. Together they have built Soko Glam into an international player in a very short time. Soko Glam also contributes to the veteran community by donating a percentage of profits to the USO.
9. SARAH FORD — Founder, Ranch Road Boots
Texas born and bred, Sarah Ford was a Marine Corps logistics officer who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. After leaving active duty she received her MBA from Harvard and used that knowledge (along with a Kickstarter campaign) to launch Ranch Road Boots, a company founded on, as their website states, “love—for freedom, West Texas and a hell-bent determination to craft good-looking, well-made footwear.” Sarah continues to honor the branch in which she served; Ranch Road Boots donates a portion of all sales to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund.
10. TAYLOR JUSTICE — Co-Founder and Chief Business Officer, Unite US
Taylor Justice honed the grit he now brings to the business world during his days on the football team at West Point. Along with co-founder Dan Brillman, an Air Force tanker pilot, he’s created software that helps organizations to navigate the “Sea of Good Will,” the 40,000 organizations dedicated to helping veterans that have historically presented a challenge because of their sheer number and dizzying overlap. The Unite US site uses what the company describes as “interactive, proximity-mapping technology” to match vets to the services they need — sort of like Yelp for the military dot-org ecosystem. As the Sea of Good Will continues to grow in 2016, the demand on Unite US’s expertise is sure to increase.
11. BOB McDONALD — Secretary of Veterans Affairs
This year Secretary McDonald continued his attempts to leverage his successes in the private sector to solve the daunting problems facing the VA. As he promised at the outset of his tenure he has remained very visible, even going so far as to broadcast his cell phone number to large crowds during his speaking engagements. In 2016 watch for his leadership to be focused on the West Los Angeles VA campus where a recent settlement in favor of improving veteran healthcare in the region has introduced as many challenges as it has created the potential for real change across the entire agency. (For more on that issue check out vatherightway.org.)
12. MARTY SKOVLUND — Freelance writer and film producer
Marty Skovlund has made his mark in media by bridging the gap between compelling content and deserving veteran causes. His company, Blackside Concepts, spawned six subsidiary brands — all high impact — in only three years. The sale of Blackside in 2015 has freed him to focus on his third book and various film and video projects, including a show idea that involves veteran teams racing across the world for charity. With the luxury of bandwidth, watch for this talented former Ranger to continue to build his portfolio in 2016.
13. BLAKE HALL — CEO, ID.me
Blake Hall’s company, ID.me, first came to light among the military community as an easy way for veterans to verify their status to obtain discounts and services, but his ambitions live well beyond that utility. “We want to become an inseparable part of Internet identity,” Hall told The Washington Business Journal last spring. His strategy focuses on the twin prongs of identity: portability and acceptance, and if he continues his path of cracking those codes, ID.me has the potential to be ubiquitous in e-commerce, national security, and inter-agency coordination in 2016.
14. JIM MURPHY — Founder and CEO, Invicta Challenge
After serving as a Marine Corps infantry officer in Iraq, Jim Murphy earned his MBA at the University of Southern California. During his studies he interned at Mattel, and that exposure sparked an idea. The Invicta Challenge combines online gaming, action figures, flash cards, and graphic novels to create a one-of-a-kind learning experience. The prototype, called “Flash & Thunder,” profiles Turner Turnbull’s actions on D-Day, but it’s not just a history lesson. It’s an interactive leadership challenge that brings history to life. While the Invicta Challenge is a natural for school-aged audiences, its unique presentation could also prove effective around military centers of excellence. With more games in the hopper, 2016 could be a year where Jim shifts into the next gear.
15. JARED LYON — Chief Development Officer, Student Veterans of America
Jared Lyon went from a life beneath the waves as a Navy submariner and diver to a life of the mind as a student and academic. In the process of making that transition he became an ambassador for other student veterans. While the Post-9/11 GI Bill is arguably the best military benefit in history, trying to use it can present roadblocks — both academic and environmental — that can keep qualified veterans from earning their degrees. As Jared enters his second year on SVA‘s professional staff watch for him to continue to make life easier for those who’ve followed him back to school.
16. TYLER MERRITT — Co-founder, Nine Line Apparel
Tyler Merritt founded Nine Line Apparel with his brother Daniel, also a former Army officer. From the start Savannah-based Nine Line was built with a specific purpose in mind, as expressed in the company’s mission statement: “It’s about being proud of who you are, what you wear, and how you walk through life . . . We don’t apologize for our love of country. We are America’s next greatest generation.” After one of Tyler’s West Point classmates lost three limbs fighting in Afghanistan in 2013, Nine Line added a foundation that gives a portion of proceeds to severely wounded veterans and their families.
17. AMBER SCHLEUNING — Deputy Director, VA Center for Innovation
After five years and multiple tours to Iraq as an Army Engineer focused on counter-IED ops, Amber Schleuning returned to school to study post-conflict mental health. She’s held a wide variety of consulting and advisory roles with both public and private organizations including the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict and COMMIT Foundation. As VACI‘s Deputy Director, Amber is in charge of building a portfolio of partnerships with creative, innovative, and disruptive organizations to ensure effective services are available to veterans.
18. NATE BOYER — Philanthropist, media personality
After multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan as a Green Beret, Nate Boyer left active duty in 2012 and made the unorthodox move of returning to college to play football. His success as the Texas Longhorn’s long snapper led to a pre-season bid with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Although he was ultimately released by the team, the exposure helped him with other elements of his Renaissance Man portfolio, specifically Waterboys.org, a not-for-profit dedicated to providing clean drinking water to remote regions of Africa. This year Nate is poised to increase his impact with “MVP,” an organization formed with Fox Sports personality Jay Glazer that partners professional athletes with special operators to deal with the common challenges of career transition.
19. BRAD HARRISON — Founder and managing partner, Scout Ventures
The same drive that got Brad Harrison through Airborne School and earned him his Ranger tab has served him well in the private sector. After honing his tech chops while working as AOL’s Director of Media Strategy and Development, he pivoted into the venture capital space where he’s been able to use his passion for technology, media, entertainment and lifestyle to assist fledgling businesses. His company, Scout Ventures, has quickly blossomed into one of the premier angel-to-institutional investment firms in New York.
20. BRAD HUNSTABLE — Founder and CEO, Ustream
Brad Hunstable started Ustream in 2007 to connect service members to family and friends, but his vision has grown since then to include everybody, everywhere. Ustream is now the largest platform for enterprise and media video in the world with clients including Facebook, NBC, Cisco, Sony, Intuit, NASA and Salesforce. Ustream’s product suite is evidence of a company that intends to be a tool for both broadcast networks and citizen journalists. As more and more organization turn to video for effective impact, look for this West Pointer’s company to grow even more in 2016.
21. JESSE IWUJI — Professional racecar driver
Jesse Iwuji started racing cars on a whim during his last semester as a midshipman at the Naval Academy, once Division I football was over for good. Since that time he’s moved up the ranks of American stock car racing, balancing time commitments at the track and juggling sponsors with his duties as a Navy surface warfare officer. Most recently he’s partnered with the Phoenix Patriot Foundation. “We dedicate each race weekend to a wounded veteran and his family,” he said. Jesse plans on getting out of the Navy at the end of his current tour to pursue bigger things as a NASCAR driver. He hopes to move up to the K&N Pro Series soon, driving a bigger car in front of bigger crowds. After that he wants to make it to the Xfinity series and, finally, the Sprint Cup.
Evan Hafer always cared about a good cup of coffee regardless of where his Army duties took him, even when serving with the Green Beret in a variety of hostile regions. He founded Black Rifle Coffee — a “small batch roasting” company — this year with a simple motto: “Strong coffee for strong people.” In a commerce ecosystem known more for hipster baristas and progressive causes than unflinching patriotism and weapons expertise, BRCC is unique. (It’s doubtful any other coffee company would call a product “AK-47 Blend,” for instance.) BRCC’s attitude has caught on with the veteran audience; look for more warfighting grinds as well as a growing inventory of merchandize with a similar type-A tone in 2016.
23. BRIAN STANN — President and CEO, Hire Heroes USA
Brian Stann has been labeled a “hero” in a couple of phases of his life, most notably when serving as a Marine Corps platoon leader in Iraq — actions that earned him the Silver Star — and winning titles as an ultimate fighter, including the WEC Light Heavyweight Championship in 2008. After announcing his retirement from the UFC in 2013 the Naval Academy alum assumed the role of President and CEO of Hire Heroes USA. Hire Heroes focuses on three different elements of the veteran hiring equation: empowering vets to find great jobs by building their confidence and skills, collaborating with military leaders and transition coordinators to build awareness of the company’s capabilities, and partnering with more than 200 companies, like Comcast and Deloitte, to find vets great jobs. This year Hire Heroes could emerge as the vet job board of choice as the company works to improve on its already impressive metric of 60 hires per week.
24. JEREMY GOCKE — Founder and CEO, Ampsy
There are veterans who work in the tech sector, and then there are veterans like Jeremy Gocke who carve the leading edge of the tech sector. After getting an “Accelerator Finalist” nod at SXSW in 2014, the West Point grad and former Army Airborne officer founded Ampsy to slow the rate at which content falls into what he calls the “social media abyss.” Ampsy has a suite of social aggregation tools designed to improve a brand’s reach across the Twittersphere by solving what the company website calls “a major leakage problem in the customer acquisition and retention funnel.” Look for Jeremy to continue to stay ahead of the digital pack in 2016.
25. JOHN B. ROGERS, JR. — CEO and Co-founder, Local Motors
Former Marine Corps infantry officer John B. Rogers, Jr.’s love of automobiles is only rivaled by his hatred of inefficient processes, which is why he created Local Motors, a company that uses Direct Digital Manufacturing (a.k.a. “3D printing”) to build cars. “Car manufacturers have been stamping parts the same way for more than 100 years,” he said. “We now have the technology to make the process and products better and faster by linking the online to the offline through DDM.” With the upcoming launch of the LM3D — the company’s first 3D printed car model — 2016 has the potential to be huge for Local Motors. Can you say “microfactory”?
Mike Erwin was a senior at West Point when the events of 9/11 unfolded. He would go on to complete 12 years on active duty for the Army as an intelligence officer, with three combat tours. Erwin was then picked up for graduate school, where he found himself being the only military member – something that impacted him greatly. Especially when he thought about the friends he left behind in Afghanistan. In the midst of a rigorous psychology program and then eventually as a professor at West Point, he founded Team Red White & Blue.
“I was rowing really hard,” Erwin said with a laugh. “My passion for the mission was centered around how we can take this knowledge of positive psychology that I was teaching and bring it to more veterans. To do that, we have to help them meet new people, stay physically active and feel that they belong to something bigger than themselves.”
He initially didn’t think of himself as an entrepreneur. Instead, he felt he was just working hard for volunteer-based nonprofits and doing some good things. But in 2013 after a successful Team RWB conference, membership just exploded. “We started to see the numbers grow… I said whoa, we are growing by 40 or 50 veterans a day! That’s when it became real that we knew we had a chance to scale and grow this organization to thousands and eventually millions of veterans,” he said.
What started out as a small idea has morphed into an explosive movement that has touched the lives of so many in the military community. In 2019 alone, they engaged with 216,717 people, hosted 34,582 events and now boast 203,301 members.
“We’ve really evolved. Yes, veterans still need help connecting but we are starting to clearly articulate to the world and the veteran community that we are focusing on veteran health and wellness,” Erwin explained. “If you look at the mental, physical and emotional health of society and the veteran community, there’s a lot of room to improve.”
The organization itself doesn’t claim to be the solution for everyone, but rather a tool to be utilized as veterans are navigating life stressors. “Team RWB isn’t going to be a magic potion. But, you will have a supportive group of people who are fellow veterans or supportive civilians that want to help you,” Erwin said.
Team RWB and Erwin want veterans to know that in moments of stress or volatility, that’s when it really is vital that they get themselves moving. “While it’s harder to do it on those days, it’s way more important on those days,” he explained. “When you sense from a mental health standpoint, you have to be able to step back and know you have to do something different. Those kinds of things are really critical to anyone but especially veterans.”
Erwin left active duty for the Army reserves after 13 years to continue to not only grow Team RWB, but do some other pretty incredible things. He co-founded The Positivity Project, 501c3 nonprofit in 2015. Based on a 15 minute curriculum for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, it’s aimed at helping youth build positive relationships and self-worth through the 24 character strengths and the mindset that other people matter.
Suicide was the second leading cause of death in 2018 among people between the ages of 10-34, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Erwin and his co-founder, fellow Army Veteran Jeff Bryan, knew they had to do something to reach America’s struggling youth.
“While society is telling us that happiness is driven by wealth, success, the size of your social media following etcetera – positive psychology research has made it clear that the number one driver of life satisfaction is the quality of our relationships with family, friends, co-workers, teammates,” Erwin explained. “The Positivity Project is on a mission to make sure children in our country know that, so they prioritize the role of relationships in their lives – and how they show up for other people.”
With his leadership roles within his nonprofit organizations, he’s just a little busy. But, he doesn’t stop there. Erwin also co-authored the book, Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude and is working on a new one, Leadership is a Relationship – to be released in November of 2021.
Despite all of his success, Erwin has had his own struggles along the way. He credits following the ethos of Team RWB for avoiding a lot of situations or issues that could have occurred if he wasn’t so committed to keeping his body moving and staying active. As for others who are seeking to change up or find a missing piece to combat their own adversities, Team RWB wants you. Erwin’s message is simple: Join the team.
Learn more about the mission of Team RWB by visiting their website. You can even download the app to start connecting and participating in events even faster and easier.
Chris Kaag is a second generation Marine veteran who, when faced with unfathomable adversity, refused to let it stop him. He’s spent almost 20 years trying to instill that same never-quit attitude in others, too.
Kaag describes himself as a lazy kid, but the military completely changed that. “Three months in boot camp totally changed my entire perspective on life and what I was able to accomplish. I never quit on anything,” he explained. He gives credit to his drill instructor, who wouldn’t let him. “We were on a four mile run at the end of boot camp and I was about to drop out when he yelled, ‘Don’t quit on me Kaag!’ It’s because of him that I didn’t stop. As I started to have issues later on in my life, that day was a defining moment for me.”
At 21 years old, Kaag found himself enjoying life and happily stationed overseas in Italy when everything changed. While out on a run, he noticed a drag in his feet. Doctors initially thought he had a tumor on his spine and immediately sent him stateside. “They sent me back to the states where I spent nine weeks at Walter Reed Hospital in DC. I was diagnosed with Adrenomyeloneuropathy, ” he shared.
The spinal cord disease is genetic, and unfortunately Kaag and his two younger brothers inherited the gene from their mother. “I sustained a head injury in the Marine Corps that they linked to my early onset of the disease. I wanted to be a Marine ever since I was seven years old, but unfortunately my Marine Corps career was done,” Kaag said.
He headed home to Pennsylvania to work things out, refusing to let his tight-knit family see how much this life change was impacting him. “The Marine Corps instilled that improvise, adapt, overcome – they don’t like excuses too much, so I basically figured it out. Everyone has their own challenges and crosses to bear and you can see mine now. But everyone can figure things out and live a fulfilling life,” Kaag shared. As the disease progressed, Kaag went from using a cane, to two canes, to having to use a wheelchair within just five years of his diagnosis with the disease.
Despite the overwhelming challenges and change, Kaag was motivated to be an example to others going through similar situations. “That’s the cool thing about veterans, we don’t lay down and give up,” he said. Kaag attended Penn State University, earning a degree in business but had difficulty finding employment.
So, he decided to hire himself. “I started Corps Fitness out of the back of my truck. I didn’t get to become a drill instructor, but now I had a chance to motivate and inspire civilians to get out there and do more than they thought they could,” Kaag said. Although meaningful, he wanted to do even more. In 2007, he founded IM ABLE.
Time spent in a Baltimore children’s hospital years before inspired the foundation. “I would see kids on breathing and feeding tubes in chairs and not able to do a lot of things. That made a huge impact on me. I wanted to provide these kids with a ‘normal’ childhood,” Kaag said. He shared a story of gifting a little boy with a hand operated bike, who was finally able to ride around with kids, completely transforming his life. Kaag had found purpose.
IM ABLE seeks to transform lives by removing obstacles for those diagnosed with physical, cognitive or behavioral challenges by being physically active and redefining what is possible.
“I’m trying to bring everyone on the same page. I want everyone to do the things they can do, but I also want people who are able-bodied to feel guilty as sh** that they are not doing as much as the guy in the wheelchair, riding around every day and working out,” Kaag admitted with a smile.
When asked if he would have responded to his diagnosis if he hadn’t become a Marine, he was quick to answer. “I really think the Marine Corps saved my life. It gave me that ability and that defining moment I needed. It comes to the point that you have to dig so deep in your soul to find out who you are and that’s what the Marine Corps did for me.” Kaag explained. “People look at me funny when I say this, but my diagnosis was the best thing that ever happened to me…I wouldn’t have been able to have had the impacts on people that I’ve had without it.”
Kaag felt compelled to bring that deep feeling of fulfillment to others. IM ABLE recently started Operation Lead From the Front, teaming up law enforcement and veterans with the youth the foundation serves. The results have been extraordinary.
Kaag shared a story about a Marine he knew who had been battling PTSD for four or five years. Kaag saw him at an event and invited him to come to one of his IM Fit classes. “I paired him with Robert, a youth with cerebral palsy using a walker. I told him, ‘It’s your responsibility to train him, get it done.’ I watched them for an hour; the connection was instantaneous,” Kaag recalled. Later that night he received a text message from that struggling Marine – the words were striking:
“That kid just saved my life.”
Kaag hopes that his story will challenge people to find their ability in the face of adversity. He also remains committed to reaching veterans, showing them a path to a purpose-filled life. Despite all the challenges Kaag has faced and overcome, his accomplishments and commitment to uplifting others is awe inspiring. And he’s just getting started.
To learn more about IM ABLE and how you can support its incredible mission, click here.
Michael Grinston’s road to becoming the Sergeant Major of the Army wasn’t easy, nor was it planned. A lifetime of overcoming adversity and an unwavering commitment to servant leadership brought him to where he is today.
After coming home from his first year at Mississippi State in 1987, Grinston was looking for a way to continue paying for college. It was during this time that he received a phone call from an Army recruiter. Thinking it was a great way to pay for education – something that was important to him – he signed up. He had no clue he’d begin a career that would span 33 years. “Why did I stay? I think it was a combination of the people, opportunity and even in the end, as you rise in the ranks – it’s to make a difference,” he shared.
It wasn’t limited to making a difference in the Army; Grinston saw the influence he was able to have on the world. He recalled a story of being on his third or fourth deployment during a particularly cold Afghanistan winter. The children there didn’t have coats, something he shared with his daughter. She rallied her school and mailed him jackets for the children in need. It’s a memory that still brings a smile to his face today.
“I saw a jacket that we had bought my own daughter on an Afghan kid. It still warms my heart. With all the bad things in the world that can happen but looking at how you can really make a difference in people’s lives across the world… that’s why I stayed,” Grinston shared.
Not only did his early years in the military teach him the value of serving, humility and resiliency, the Army brought much needed diversity to Grinston’s life. He shared that growing up biracial was difficult, especially as a boy in Alabama. His father was Black and his mother white, something that people around him never let him forget.
“I didn’t know where I fit in the world. I struggled with that for a long time, even in the Army because I look a little different. It was something I was extremely uncomfortable with because people judged me and treated me differently,” Grinston shared. He wouldn’t see a biracial couple in his hometown together in public until he was almost 30 years old.
Grinston has come a long way since then, sharing that he chose to stay focused on being the best version of himself that he could be. Despite his own internal evolution and the mostly welcoming arms of the Army, he felt compelled to share his truth. The death of George Floyd elevated the discussion on systemic racism, especially in the military. With the encouragement of Army Chief of Staff General McConville and others, Grinston recorded a heartfelt video for social media about his experience as a biracial man and soldier in America.
It’s been seen by millions.
Although the attention made him uncomfortable, he said the reaction made it all worth it. “I thought I had this unique story. Growing up you didn’t see people like you and so you tried to blend in as best you could. But then you put it out and you find there are a lot of people like you…Because of what I said – they were able to have these conversations,” Grinston shared.
In his 33 years of service, he’s seen a lot. One thing he was adamant about was how proud he remains of the Army and their commitment to getting it right. “That’s what I love about the Army; every day we are trying to make it better,” Grinston said. Not only does he feel the Army is focused on continually improving the lives of soldiers, but they remain deeply committed to their families too.
When Grinston was told that he’s called “a soldier’s soldier,” he laughed. “To me it’s the highest honor to be called that. When you say ‘a soldier’s soldier’ – it reminds me that I didn’t forget where I came from,” Grinston explained. “I didn’t forget what it’s like to live in the barracks or sleep in the rain in a sleeping bag that wasn’t waterproof. I think it’s really special when people say that to me.”
As he looks back on his life, he has a lot of proud moments with much more to come. Grinston was asked what he would want people to gain from his story and his response was simple. “Have the mentality that one person can make a difference…You have to put some effort into that; you can’t wait for someone else to do it,” he said. “Don’t just say it, do something. If one person helps another person, it compounds over time. What a great place the world would be.”
Ryan Manion’s journey to leading The Travis Manion Foundation began with her brother’s legacy and her mother’s love. In a time of deep sorrow and almost unbearable loss – both would create a mission of hope and purpose for generations of Americans to come.
On April 29, 2007, First Lieutenant Travis Manion and his fellow Marines were ambushed while on patrol in Iraq. He willingly led counterattacks to draw fire away by entering the kill zone numerous times to retrieve wounded Marines. He was fatally wounded by a sniper. Manion’s heroic actions undoubtedly saved the lives of everyone on the patrol.
Before he left for the second tour of duty in Iraq which would ultimately claim his life, Travis was asked numerous times why he would go back. His response paints a vivid and compelling picture of the hero and servant-leader that he was: If not me, then who? It would be those words that would spur his mother to create a foundation of purposeful service that would grow far beyond her family’s wildest dreams.
“If he was here, he would 100 percent be a part of this organization and be all about it. But he wouldn’t like that it was named the Travis Manion Foundation,” Ryan said with a laugh. She herself joined the foundation in 2009, two years after it was formed by her mother, Janet. Ryan said it was her mom’s vision that led the Foundation to where it is and without her, it wouldn’t exist.
Originally, Ryan said that she and her father saw the Foundation as a labor of love for her Janet – a way to channel deep grief. “While she talked about big things that she wanted to do, we didn’t really think it was going to happen…I certainly never could have envisioned where it was going to go,” she said with a smile. Ryan worked alongside her mother for over two years until Janet lost her battle with cancer in 2012.
The board of directors unanimously voted for Ryan to step into her mother’s role as president, a role Ryan admits she wasn’t fully prepared to fill. “I had to learn so much on the fly. I brought in some really talented people to help us grow. It was from there that we took off and I think a lot of it was because of the things my mom put in place,” she shared.
The organization works directly with veterans and family members of the fallen to create a deep sense of purpose and undeniable social impact in communities throughout the country. Through innovative programming, training and events, The Travis Manion Foundation is changing lives.
One of the programs Ryan herself is most proud of is Character Does Matter. Veteran mentors work with youth in schools to develop leadership and character through relationship building events. Youth also participate in service projects to honor the fallen, which can be a life-changing experience. Case studies over the last two years have showcased extraordinary health and wellbeing scores for the veteran mentors in the program, demonstrating the importance of a purpose filled life. “Everything we do at TMF is with that same holistic approach. For us it’s about providing opportunities for veterans to be engaged,” Ryan explained.
Another thing that makes Ryan incredibly proud is how the organization hasn’t lost who they were at the beginning. “At the end of the day, this was a family that started a nonprofit – not because they came up with some grand idea but because they lost their loved one and were trying to decide what to do next…That same sentiment of being a part of a family – still exists today,” she explained.
Ryan spends a lot of her time speaking about resiliency through loss and even wrote a book – The Knock at the Door – with other Gold Star family members about turning loss into purpose. “We are all going to receive knocks at the door. You are not going to escape this life without setbacks,” she explained. Ryan shared that it’s what you do in those moments after that will set the tone for life after hardship.
Despite the undeniable, vital impact that Travis’ life and legacy has had, Ryan and her family will never stop hurting or missing him. “I would throw it all away to have my brother back with me,” Ryan said. “But I do feel incredibly blessed that I have the opportunity every day to wake up with purpose and passion. That I get to do something for my brother and his legacy – there’s not much more you can ask for.”
Shannon Razsadin wears a lot of hats. Mom, Navy spouse and dedicated advocate are just a few. She’s also the Executive Director for the Military Family Advisory Network, a strong and vital voice and resource for military families everywhere.
Despite having two young children and walking through ongoing challenges associated with being a military spouse, Razsadin has always been devoted to ensuring the wellbeing of military families. When she was selected to be the Executive Director of MFAN, she looked at it as a vocation, not a job.
“I feel really privileged because leading MFAN is more than a job for me. It’s something I am called to. I’m the lucky person that gets to lead it – but it’s a team,” she explained. “Because everyone who works for MFAN has a military connection, there is an innate authenticity that’s part of who we are as an organization and the ability to connect with military families in a way that is real.”
One issue MFAN is spending a lot of time on that may surprise the public is food insecurity for military families. This critical issue is an ongoing and escalating concern that Razsadin and her team remain passionate about researching and finding solutions for. “One in eight of our [survey] respondents in 2019 was food insecure. We are launching a pretty aggressive effort in Texas where one in six of our respondents was food insecure to really understand the underlying factors that lead to food insecurity,” Razsadin said. They will be doing the same outreach in Virginia as well, where one in six families also reported food insecurity.
MFAN works hand and hand with policy makers and the Department of Defense. “We stick to the research and we don’t embellish — really sticking to the facts. Also, we are not shy. But we do it in a way that gets to solutions and not just play a game of ‘gotcha.’ We want to make sure we are building bridges and shortening the amount of time between identifying the problem or issue and deployment with a solution,” Razsadin explained.
This means MFAN brings the information and research right to the doors of the leaders within the DOD before it’s released. Razsadin stated that it’s important to build relationships and sit at a table together to tackle problems and find solutions for military families. “That really helps as we try to get at meaningful change,” she said. It’s approaches like this that have led to budget increases within military housing and new attention placed on food insecurity.
Recent research by MFAN has found instances of military spouses resorting to eating cat food or even ice to fill their empty stomachs. With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the world in so many ways, Razsadin shared that military families are starting to speak out more about food insecurity because they no longer feel alone.
When MFAN or Razsadin share the research regarding food insecurity with people, the first reaction is often shock. “They say, ‘How could military families be struggling for food?’ and I say, ‘Think about it. Think about the out of pocket costs for each PCS, think about that many military families are single income households.’ There’s a lot more to it,” she said. Through research and outreach, MFAN remains excited to use the data to create informed change, Razsadin shared.
Another important point that Razsadin was quick to make was that food insecurity directly impacts the future of the all-volunteer force. She explained the link between food insecurity and obesity as families are forced to eat cheap and unhealthy meals. With the percentage of eligible military service members dwindling drastically over the years, this is one issue that appears to need to be front and center when considering mission readiness.
With the pandemic impacting the world and creating deep isolation due to lack of engagement, military families aren’t immune. The military community is seeing higher rates of suicide and depression, with the trend continuing upward. “It’s very real, the implications that loneliness has on other areas of your life. We need to ask for help and know that there is nothing wrong with doing it,” Razsadin said.
When asked what advice she would give to military families everywhere as they navigate the new normal and ongoing issues, she said to give grace. “Ask people how they are doing, and listen. Right now, people are dealing with a lot,” she said. “Don’t expect to be great at all the things right now. Taking care of yourself and each other is really important.”
After their service, many veterans find ways to continue to make great strides across the nation and the globe — from the arts to politics to non-profit organizations. One of the great privileges we enjoy here at We Are The Mighty is that we learn about and meet veterans who are doing really incredible, meaningful and sometimes truly badass things, every day.
Each year, we have the honor of choosing The Mighty 25 — a list of veterans whose amazing accomplishments suggest they are poised for major impact in the coming year.
It’s always tough narrowing those who’ve really made an impression — veterans we want other veterans to know about — to a list of 25, because for every individual selected, there are several others who could easily take their place.
Certainly, there are veterans we’d be honored to highlight year after year. In order to keep things fresh, however, we try to cover a broad sweep of the veteran community and to highlight people we think our readers might like to track in the coming year. These are vets who make us proud, and we’re excited to follow their work as the year progresses.
In alphabetical order, The Mighty 25 of 2017 are:
1. Daniel Alarik — CEO Grunt Style / Alpha Outpost
Grunt Style sells unabashedly pro-military shirts and clothing to a veteran and civilian market proud to wear pride of service on their sleeve.
In 2016 Alarik started Alpha Outpost — a subscription box company for men with curated high-quality items focused on everything from cooking to survival.
Between these two companies, Alarik employs around 100 veterans, and his businesses are packed with patriotism and personality. But more than that, they’re kicking ass — just what we like to see from veteran-run businesses. Here’s to their bright and glorious future.
2. Lieutenant General (Ret.) David Barno — Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, School of International Service, at American University
Widely considered among the nation’s leading defense intellectuals, David Barno is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who commanded coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. He is currently a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at the School of International Service at American University.
Barno recently co-authored a ground-breaking analysis of military leadership principles that challenged decades of Army policy, and his work for War on The Rocks remains highly influential as our country grapples with persistent global conflict and a changing political climate.
Barno’s broad intellect, wide-ranging expertise, and undying commitment to a better Army inspire WATM to watch and learn from his continued impact.
3. Tim Bomke — Military Program Manager at Amazon
Tim Bomke is an Army veteran who was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart and was medically retired in 2008 due to wounds sustained in combat in Iraq. After retiring, Tim went to work on the Department of Defense’s Troops to Teachers program, as well as the Army Continuing Education System aboard Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Bomke is now the Military Manager for Amazon helping to lead their veteran and military spouse hiring initiatives. His work this year will help employ a multitude of members our community.
4. Bonnie Carroll — President and Founder, TAPS
Bonnie Carroll is one of the 2015 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions. Ms. Carroll received the honor, and is admired throughout the entire U.S. military, for her selfless leadership at the forefront of the greatest battle our military families ever fight: that of the ultimate sacrifice.
A retired Air Force Major and the surviving spouse of Brigadier General Tom Carroll, Bonnie is the founder and president of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or “TAPS,” which provides much needed compassionate care, casework assistance, and lifetime round-the-clock emotional support for those affected by the loss of a service member.
A staffer in both the Reagan and Bush White Houses, Bonnie Carroll was appointed as the White House Liaison for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, DC. Before that, however, Ms. Carroll’s own military career was one of distinction; Carroll retired as a Major in the Air Force Reserve following 30 years of service, including 16 years in the Air National Guard.
For her impactful, often life-saving work providing bereavement support for the families of our fallen, Bonnie Carroll has been recognized by the American Legion, the Department of Defense, and President Obama. We Are The Mighty salutes her, too.
5. Phillip Carter — Senior Fellow and Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security
Phillip Carter is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. Carter’s research focuses on issues facing veterans and military personnel, force structure and readiness, and the relationship between civilians and military.
Carter served in the Army for nine years, including an 11-month deployment to Iraq as an embedded advisor for the Iraqi police in Baquba. In 2008, Carter joined the Obama campaign as the National Veterans Director; he went on to serve as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense.
In addition to his military and government experience, Carter writes extensively on veterans and military issues for Foreign Policy, the Washington Post, and other publications, and serves on numerous boards and advisory councils in the veterans and military community.
Whether it’s working with donors and grantmaking organizations to help them understand the needs of veterans, leading research that informs policy change, or convening leaders poised to make a difference in the lives of veterans, Phil Carter’s influence is large and growing.
6. Mike Dowling — Producer, Author, Veteran Advocate
Mike Dowling, a U.S. Marine and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran has dedicated his entire post-service life to his fellow veterans, servicemembers, and military families, and has become a much-admired leader of the greater Los Angeles veteran community.
Mike is a co-founder of the nonprofit Veterans in Film Television which serves as both a networking organization and a way for the film and television industry to connect with the veteran community working in it.
He also founded the LA Veterans Orientation, which helps connect veterans newly transitioning from service in the L.A. area and helped develop and lead VA The Right Way, an initiative supported by veteran, nonprofit and governmental stakeholders alike that seeks to give veterans a greater voice in the redesign of the VA and to help build 1,200 permanent veterans housing units on the Los Angeles VA campus.
Dowling served as Director of Community Outreach here at We Are The Mighty, and in 2017 is leaving to be involved in the production for a major network based on military subject matter he is passionate about. We can’t wait to see it.
7. Adam Driver — Actor, Arts in the Armed Forces Founder
Adam Driver is a Marine veteran who rose to fame on the hit HBO show “Girls,” and who skyrocketed after starring as the villain Kylo Ren in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, a role he’ll reprise in Episode VIII later this year. Driver’s impressive and growing film career has afforded him the opportunity to work with luminaries such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.
In 2016, his performance in “Paterson” earned Driver critical acclaim and multiple awards. Coming soon, he will team up with Sylvester Stallone to star in the film “Tough As They Come,” based on the bestselling book by former Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, a quadruple amputee who lost his limbs in a roadside bomb attack during his third tour to Afghanistan.
Driver founded the nonprofit organization Arts in the Armed Forces, which performs theater for all branches of the military at U.S. installations domestically and around the world. As Driver’s star continues to brighten, so too does his commitment to helping veterans heal the scars of war and telling their inspiring stories.
8. Sen. Tammy Duckworth — U.S. Senator
Fresh off an upset victory over longtime Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, Army veteran Tammy Duckworth is on her way to the U.S. Senate with an eye toward giving former service members a greater voice at the national level.
Duckworth, a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot who lost her legs after a crash during combat in Iraq, previously served as a senior official at the Department of Veterans Affairs and as a U.S. congresswoman from Illinois’ 8th District. The Asian-American lawmaker has consistently charted her own political course, but with a laser beam focus on supporting today’s military and veteran community.
She’s passed legislation aimed at helping veterans have more access to mental health care and made it easier for vets to get civilian certifications for skills they acquired in the military. We’re looking forward to seeing what Senator Duckworth will do in Congress this year.
9. Ken Falke — Chairman and Founder, Boulder Crest Retreat; CEO, Shoulder 2 Shoulder
Ken Falke is a 21-year service-disabled combat veteran of the U.S. Navy and retired Master Chief Petty Officer. His first business, A-T Solutions, is internationally recognized for its expertise and consulting services in combating the war or terror. Ken is now the CEO of organizational improvement solutions company Shoulder 2 Shoulder, Inc.
Falke is also an innovator in the world of warrior care. In 2013 after Falke and his wife Julia witnessed first-hand the desolation and frustration the wounded experienced while spending time in military hospitals, they founded the exceptional Boulder Crest Retreat for Military and Veteran Wellness. Situated on a massive swath of pristine Blue Ridge Mountain land donated by the Falkes, Boulder Crest’s mission is “To provide world class, short-duration, high-impact retreats for combat veterans and their families”, in an environment “of healing that integrates evidence-based therapies, a safe, peaceful space and unparalleled customer service to improve physical, emotional, spiritual and economic well-being.” The Retreat has hosted more than 1,000 veterans and their loved ones looking to reconnect and heal after service, with all services provided for free.
Ken is also the founder and Chairman of the EOD Warrior Foundation, which provides financial assistance and support to active-duty and veteran wounded, injured or ill warriors, families of the wounded and fallen from the Explosive Ordnance Disposal community, and maintains the EOD Memorial.
Falke is passionate about educating our nation on issues regarding the long-term care of the returning military members and families who’ve borne the burden of our nation’s longest wars. We Are The Mighty salutes this exceptional veteran, businessman and philanthropist for his thoughtful, generous, family-centered and solution-oriented approaches to the unique challenges facing post 9/11 veterans and their loved ones.
10. Matt Flavin — President, Concord Energy Holdings, LLC
Matt Flavin is a former Navy intelligence officer who deployed with SEAL teams and previously worked at the White House as its first director of the Office of Veterans and Wounded Warrior Policy under President Obama. After leaving the White House, Flavin went into the private sector as a senior executive with energy-related businesses. He is currently the CEO of Concord Energy Holdings.
At only 29 when he became director of the Office of Veteran and Wounded Warrior Policy in 2009, Flavin was one of the youngest vets to earn a senior White House position and marked a generational shift in veterans advocacy at the highest levels of government.
Now at the helm of one of the fastest growing energy companies in America, Flavin has demonstrated through his tireless advocacy at the White House and his innovation in business that this millennial generation of veterans is poised for greatness.
11. Brenda “Sue” Fulton — Board of Visitors at West Point, Advocate for LGBT Equality in the Military
Sue Fulton is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy’s first-ever co-ed class and is the first female and openly gay person to hold a position as a member of the West Point Board of Visitors.
Fulton has become a passionate advocate for the inclusion and rights of LGBT service members, and for women and people of color in the military. She is a founding board member of OutServe which provides legal assistance for openly gay service members and is a founder of Knights Out, an LGBT rights organization.
With her combination of fierce pride in her alma mater, the branch of service whose leaders it prepares and in the under-represented groups whose civil rights as soldiers concern her, Fulton strikes us as a military influencer to watch in 2017.
12. Dan Goldenberg — Executive Director, Call of Duty Endowment
Dan Goldenberg is a Naval Academy grad, Harvard Business School alum, and Air Command and Staff College graduate. He’s also a Navy captain with over 24 years of active and reserve military experience and the executive director of Activision’s Call of Duty Endowment.
Through the Call of Duty Endowment, Goldenberg’s helping veterans find high-quality careers by supporting groups that prepare them for the job market and by raising awareness of the value that veterans bring to the workplace. So far his organization has helped place more than 25,000 post-9/11 vets in jobs that average a more than $50,000 salary.
The Call of Duty Endowment has set a goal to help 50,000 post-9/11 vets find jobs by 2019. Goldenberg and his team are poised for an aggressive push in 2017.
13. Matthew Griffin and Donald Lee — Co-founders, Combat Flip Flops
As former Army Rangers with several Afghanistan tours behind them, Matthew Griff and Donald Lee saw a country filled with hard-working, creative people who wanted jobs, not handouts. Terrorist organizations would target people who couldn’t make ends meet, so Griffin and Lee created Combat Flip Flops as a way to help the people of Kabul, Afghanistan, create a sustainable economy.
Today, the company has expanded to Colombia, Laos, and Afghanistan, and they support charities like Aid Afghanistan for Education, which helps marginalized Afghans attend school. With the help of Combat Flip Flops, over 3,000 female students currently attend an AAE school. Additionally, some revenue from certain products is spent to clear 3-square meters of unexploded ordnance from a region rocked by long-term war.
We’ll be continuing to watch how Combat Flip Flops uses its double bottom line to help make the world a better and safer place.
14. Florent Groberg — Director of Veteran Outreach at Boeing, MOH recipient
A French-born naturalIzed citizen who joined the US Army in 2008 and went on to receive numerous awards, decorations and the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in Afghanistan, retired Capt. Florent Groberg is now the Director of Veterans Outreach at Boeing, where he’s responsible for the company’s support of military veterans and their families. He’s a member of Keppler Speakers where he uses his experience to inspire audiences under the most adverse conditions.
He’s also an advisor at Mission 6 Zero, a leadership development company created by for U.S. special operators.
For the past year, Groberg has been helping his peers prepare for life after the military through his partnership with LinkedIn’s Veteran Program, in which the veteran community connects, networks, and grows professionally via the powerful LinkedIn platform. A passionate advocate for the veteran community, Groberg’s every public appearance emphasizes education, transition planning and career development, all of which is inspired by the love and memory he has for those who gave their lives on the day for which his actions have been so prestigiously honored.
And for those so inspired, check out Capt. Groberg’s moving interview with Stephen Colbert last year. Many of the female veterans we know are hoping to hear him speak a little more French in the coming year.
15. Dr. Anthony Hassan — CEO and President, Cohen Veteran Network
Dr. Anthony Hassan is a retired Air Force officer with over 30 years of leadership, mental health, and military social work experience. As the CEO and President of the Cohen Veterans Network, he’s in charge of spearheading the organization’s mission to improve the mental health of veterans across the nation.
Hassan lead one of the first-ever Air Force combat stress control and prevention teams embedded with Army units during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004. His groundbreaking work in military mental health and substance abuse treatment has paved the way for a variety of military medical innovations and programs.
With his work for the Cohen Veterans Network, Hassan is establishing 25 high-quality, free or low-cost outpatient mental health clinics in cities throughout the country. Additionally, Hassan continues to lead efforts to advance the mental health treatment profession through funded research initiatives and training programs to improve care within the network and beyond.
We’re rooting for Hassan’s success in 2017 as it lifts our community and improves the lives of veterans and their families.
Jaslow was previously Chief of Staff for Illinois Democrat Rep. Cheri Bustos and was the Press Secretary for Virginia Democrat and former Navy Secretary Sen. Jim Webb.
IAVA has quickly become one of the nation’s top veterans advocacy organizations, and Jaslow’s political experience on Capitol Hill and her recent military service will surely help continue her organization’s fluency in the issues facing the post-9/11 veteran community.
Jaslow is an up-and-comer and is someone we’ll definitely be watching as IAVA works to help recent vets navigate their post-service lives.
17. William McNulty — Co-Founder and CEO, Team Rubicon Global
Marine Corps veteran William McNulty is CEO of Team Rubicon Global, the disaster response organization he co-founded after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which offers veterans around the world opportunities to serve others in the wake of disasters. McNulty has worked in support of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, and the National Security Council’s Iraq Threat Finance Cell. Among the vast community of veteran-serving nonprofits, McNulty is broadly admired for his success in scaling the Team Rubicon model internationally.
McNulty also serves on the Board of Directors of Airlink Flight, an international non-profit organization that connects commercial airlines with humanitarian initiatives, and on the Advisory Board of the Truman National Security Project, a policy advocacy organization that encourages the use of diplomacy, free trade, and democratic ideals to help resolve complex international challenges.
From Team Rubicon deployments with Prince Harry in Nepal to bringing veterans together with POS REP, 2016 was a busy year for McNulty, and we’re excited to see what his veteran service organizations have in store for 2017.
18. Donny O’Malley — Founder and President, VET Tv
Danny Maher, a combat Marine veteran, goes by the stage name Donny O’Malley and is the founder of Irreverent Warriors (home of The Silkies Hike) and now VET Tv, the first video channel created by and for post 9/11 veterans. O’Malley’s mission for VET Tv is to create high-quality, targeted entertainment for the veteran community that is therapeutic in order to promote camaraderie and prevent veteran suicide.
After a successful crowdfunding campaign, VET Tv is off and running, producing content “by bloodthirsty veterans and made for veterans with dark and twisted humor.” Their programming plan is laid out on their website and quite frankly, we’re subscribing to see what they come up.
19. Range15 Crew — Producers and Cast Members from the Feature Film
While some of these cast members (Mat Best, Nick Palmisciano, and Evan Hafer) have been highlighted in previous years for their successful veteran-owned and run companies, this band of brothers brought humor and in many ways a form of therapy to our community in a way that no other film has. Here’s to hoping it’s one of many to come.
20. Rob Riggle — Actor, Comedian
Rob Riggle is an actor, comedian, and Marine veteran. Riggle retired from the Marine Corps Reserves as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2013 after serving for 23 years, 9 of which he served on Active Duty and 14 more in the Reserves. Despite his growing career on screen, Riggle served as a pilot, Civil Affairs Officer and a Public Affairs Officer across numerous deployments to Liberia, Kosovo, Albania and Afghanistan.
Of his decision to finally retire, Riggle has said, “I may have retired from the Marine Corps in 2013, but you never really stop being a Marine” — a statement borne out by his Iraq tour with the USO. In the years since, Riggle has done his part to advocate for and raise awareness of our veterans, attending numerous events that support our military family and most recently, co-hosting the first Rob Riggle InVETational Golf Classic with We Are The Mighty, to benefit the Semper Fi Fund.
Rob Riggle’s star continues to rise. He’s best known for his work as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” from 2006 to 2008, and as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live” from 2004 to 2005, despite still being in the Reserves at the time! Riggle’s also beloved for his comedic roles in numerous television shows and films. This year, we look forward to Rob debuting his own series on TBS.
21. Mark Rockefeller — CEO/Co-Founder of StreetShares
Mark Rockefeller is an Air Force veteran who later transitioned into a law career to help veterans secure financing for businesses and protect against predatory lending. Early in his post-Air Force career, Rockefeller worked on a pro bono micro-finance project in Africa which inspired him to help establish StreetShares, Inc.
StreetShares uses a combination of technology and social networking to obtain financial services for the military and veteran communities and to help veterans build businesses.
As the company puts it, “we’ve got red, white and blue running through our veins.”
As more veterans leave the service and look for innovative ways to enter the workforce, groups like StreetShares are poised to make a major impact on helping veteran-owned businesses become a larger part of the American economy.
22. Vincent Viola — Secretary of the Army (Select)
Vincent Viola is the epitome of a self-made man. An Army veteran of the 101st, Viola has a Juris Doctorate from New York Law School but chose to focus on becoming a businessman rather than practice law.
In the course of his civilian career, Viola made his fortune by focusing his efforts on the oil industry. Viola has created a number of businesses in the tech, oil, and financial industries, among others. He currently owns the Florida Panthers.
After 9/11, Viola founded the Combating Terrorism Center, an academic institute that studies the terrorist threat and provides education towards mitigating it. He is President Trump’s nomination as the Secretary of the Army.
With an increasingly tumultuous world and an Army poised for big changes, we’ll be watching as Viola takes takes charge of America’s largest service and shapes it for the future.
23. Kayla Williams — Director of VA’s Center for Women Veterans
Williams was previously a project associate for the RAND Corporation and is the author of “Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army,” a memoir about her experiences negotiating the changing demands on today’s military.
Kayla is a White House Women Veteran Champion of Change, a Truman National Security Project Fellow, and a former member of the VA Advisory Committee on Women Veterans.
As the principal advisor on female veterans issues to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Williams will play a big role in shaping the policies, programs, and legislation that affect an increasing population women veterans in the coming years.
24. Eli Williamson — Co-Founder and President, Leave No Veteran Behind; Director of the Veterans Program for the Robert R. McCormick Foundation
An Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, Williamson was an Arab linguist and worked with Army Special Operations psychological operations teams.
After his time in the Army, Williamson created the non-profit Leave No Veteran Behind to invest in veterans and help build better communities through employment training, transitional jobs, and an educational debt relief scholarship. Williamson was also recently named as a member of the new Obama Foundation’s Inclusion Council.
With a strong influence in the minority community and a business outlook that believes “veterans are not a charity, but a strategic social investment,” Williamson embodies the spirit of We Are The Mighty, and we look forward to many great things from him in the year ahead.
25. Brandon Young — Director of Development, Team RWB
Brandon Young is the Director of Development at Team Red, White, and Blue. An Army veteran, Young joined the military before 9/11 and served 11 years, mostly conducting Special Operations missions in support of the Global War on Terror.
Brandon is a speaker and contributor on podcasts and the Havok Journal where he shares his myriad experiences while in the service. His aim and sincere hope is to “give words to the voiceless who are struggling to find them; or the courage to say what’s really on their hearts.”
Young’s primary focus with Team RWB is to develop and maintain strategic partnerships and identify growth opportunities that ensure the success of the nonprofit’s programs. He recently handed over the Denver RWB Chapter where in the past two years he helped grow membership from 400 to 1,200.
Retired Air Force Colonel Nicole Malachowski didn’t set out to make history as a female fighter pilot but… she did. As for making waves with her passionate advocacy on behalf of veterans? Absolutely on purpose.
“It goes back to 1979; I was five years old and went to a local air show,” Malachowski shared. “There was a plane flying, the F4 Phantom – a workhorse fighter aircraft in the Vietnam War. I remember when it came by… it was so loud, I could smell the jet fuel and it just shook my chest. I remember thinking – I want to be a fighter pilot someday.” What she didn’t know was at the time, women were forbidden from being fighter pilots and that only recently had women even been allowed to go to flight school at all.
Despite the challenges associated with achieving her dream, Malachowski maintained an unwavering commitment to becoming a combat fighter pilot. She joined the civil air patrol and then the Air Force ROTC, which she credits with building a strong foundation to support her focus. Her hard work paid off – she was accepted to both the Air Force and Naval Academy. “I chose the Air Force Academy because I knew my chances of getting a pilot slot were the highest,” she explained.
Despite the fact that she knew how hard she worked for it, Malachowski acknowledges that she had a privilege growing up in the family and supportive environment that she did. “Timing, luck and circumstance were on my side. It’s important to recognize that I had a lot of opportunities that a lot of people around this world are never given,” she said.
Malachowski got into flight school, became a pilot and saw her first combat time in 1999 while stationed in England during Operation Deliberate Forge. It was during this time that she met her husband Paul, who was a Weapons Systems Officer in the Air Force. When they were both sent back to the states, the wedding planning commenced.
Then, America was attacked on September 11, 2001. Their wedding was sparsely attended, as many of the guests were deployed or afraid to fly. On the day they said “I do,” the United States military dropped the first bombs in Afghanistan. It’s something she’ll never forget.
Malachowski spent the next few years teaching and leading her peers in and out of combat over Iraq. “It was during this time that I got the crazy idea to apply to be a Thunderbird,” she said with a laugh. Not only would she become a Thunderbird, she would be the first female to do so.
After two years as a Thunderbird, she was selected as a White House Fellow. This was a monumental time in our nation’s history as she bore witness to the peaceful transition of power from President Bush to President Obama. “I was just a Major in the Air Force, I had no business being where I was,” she confessed. During her time there, Malachowski advocated for and was able to secure the Congressional Gold Medal for the Women Air Force Pilots (WASPs) of World War II. This was personal to Malachowski as she was adamant about correcting a wrong and ensuring that these women received the recognition, benefits and credit for their service to the nation.
Malachowski wasn’t done yet. Over the next few years she shocked the Saudi Arabian government by showing up to brief their military’s chief of staff. “I briefed everything in my uniform and the reception in the room was mixed. But every question they had I could answer because I was credible and I was good,” she shared. At the time, she was responsible for the largest foreign arms sale in the United States.
She went on to attend the Naval War College, which was male dominated. Two days before graduation, she found out she was the honor graduate. Malachowski was the first Air Force officer to hold that position in its 250 year history. Notable assignments followed but one that she found incredibly rewarding was commanding 333rd Fighter Squadron. What people don’t know is that when she accomplished all of this, she was critically ill from a tick borne illness.
Unfortunately, Malachowski was misdiagnosed with Lyme disease. Unbeknownst to her or her medical team, she had three separate tick borne pathogens running through her body. “That would set me on a horrific four years of medical craziness,” she explained. Two years into her illness, she was asked to be the Executive Director of the Joining Forces program created by then First Lady Michelle Obama and Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden.
Although she was asked to stay on, she became too sick. “I woke up one day and I was basically paralyzed. I ended up having an infectious lesion on my brain stem,” Malachowski shared. What she wasn’t aware of at the time was that tick borne illness, if not treated properly and immediately, leads to lifelong disability. It was a fact she was never made aware of as she crawled through the tick laden grounds of North Carolina during survivor training.
It’s a fact she is announcing far and wide to veterans and military families in order to prevent the debilitating illness she experienced herself. “Lyme disease is just the tip of the iceberg of what North American ticks can carry,” Malachowski explained. During her transition out of the Air Force, she put all her cards on the table – including writing to military leadership to plead her case.
The Chief of Staff of the Air Force directed the foundation of a “Task Force on Support to Airmen with Complex Medical Conditions” and appointed her to it. Malachowski was also asked to serve on the Department of Health and Human Services Tick Borne Diseases Working Group.
When asked what she wants people to take away from her story, she smiled. “I want people to realize they have the power to change things for the better. For themselves, their families and their communities. Never accept the status quo because it’s easier,” she said. “The runway behind you is always unusable. All you have is the runway in front of you.”