Brent Cooper is the Executive Director of the Green Beret Foundation. A Green Beret himself, he’s aiming to motivate and encourage everyone to live a life of purpose with service to others.
When Cooper received the message that he’d been named one of the Mighty 25 for 2020, he was shocked. He shared that he just kept thinking, ‘Why me?’ He explained, “Green Berets aren’t trained to seek accolades – we are trained to get the job done. My mission is to help people. I find what needs to be done and I get it done, that’s my job. To me, success is seeing people being helped. That’s the motivator that keeps me going.”
It’s that specific motivator that pushed him to leave the corporate world to become the Executive Director of the Green Beret Foundation. When he was active duty, Cooper was attached to 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. When he left employment at a good job to join the military, things were going well – until they weren’t. “The night before I went to Special Forces selection, my wife at the time called me and told me she wanted a divorce,” he shared. After the dust settled, he had nothing left from that chapter of his life except his Army bag of clothing. “The point was, I had a choice. I had an opportunity and goal in front of me and I chose to not let anything stop me from achieving that goal,” Cooper explained.
Cooper became a Green Beret and faithfully served the Army for five years. He met his now wife, Shelley, and decided to leave the military to focus on his family. When he found himself back in what he deemed the hamster wheel of the corporate world, he began looking for purpose. He found it in the Green Beret Foundation.
The Green Beret Foundation is the only Special Operation Forces benevolent organization solely dedicated to supporting and serving Green Berets that has received a four star rating from Charity Navigator, which is the highest rating awarded by the nation’s largest independent charity evaluator. GBF’s mission is to provide support to special forces soldiers and their families. It’s a focus that Cooper is deeply proud to be a part of.
When asked if he would be who he is today without his military service, Cooper was quick to say no. Although he feels his character traits were absolutely always there, his service in the Army taught him what he was actually capable of. “There are times I’ll look back on training, deployment or what we went through and I’ll think, how did I not quit or not fall over,” he said with a laugh. “Break through barriers, I promise you that you can.”
The other point Cooper really wants to make is that life itself isn’t easy and neither was his eventual success. He shared his struggle walking through what he called ‘dark times.’ But he feels that it’s how you get back up and tackle it that really matters. “I grew up cleaning homes with my mother, free lunches at school… my past has helped me become who I am today. There were a lot of times of falling on my face and wondering how you can get up again. It boils down to a choice,” Cooper explained.
What makes Cooper different is his ability to utilize empathy as a focus, putting aside any textbook response or tough guy façade. “Leading a nonprofit foundation that is helping Green Berets go through all the myriad of things in life that get you down – I have been there. I can sympathize and empathize with them. It is a real life response coming from my heart. That is what I love,” he explained. “I don’t have to carry a heavy ruck or shoot weapons anymore. I get to help these guys take off that burden now instead.”
When he goes to work at the Green Beret Foundation, it’s with a smile and a renewed sense of purpose. It’s something he hopes everyone can find for themselves. “If you are able to change someone’s perspective even one degree, monumental change can happen. I am all for universal service and serving something bigger than yourself – it doesn’t have to be the military, it can be anything. He has a challenge for everyone, too. “Empathize and sympathize with each other. Once we can learn to do that, humanity will be a better place.”
To learn more about the Green Beret Foundation and how you can support their mission, click here.
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.
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.
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.”
Heroes aren’t born; they are made. Medal of Honor recipient and retired Army Colonel Jack Jacobs thinks everyone has it in them to become one for their own community.
“One of the things you learn in uniform but particularly in combat – is that when you are part of something larger than yourself, you really are making a difference,” Jacobs shared. “Secondly, it’s the average person who winds up making the difference between success and failure. I’ve spent much more time in combat than I ever expected or wanted. I can tell you this, that everyday people made a difference in terms of valor. It wasn’t some super person who turned the tide of a battle or saved fellow soldiers, it was just the average soldier. It’s always the average soldier.”
His parents were immigrants from Europe and his father served in the South Pacific in the Army during World War II. Service to country was ingrained. Jacobs himself entered the Army as a Second Lieutenant after graduating from Rutgers ROTC program. Six months later in 1967, he was sent to Vietnam. He has shared the experience of landing in Vietnam and seeing the soldiers heading home, who he said looked like they were about 100 years old. About eight weeks later, he looked like that, too.
After being ambushed due to an enemy informant, Jacobs had shrapnel wounds covering his arms and a critical wound to his head, impairing his vision. Despite all of this – with complete disregard for his own safety – he continued to return to the ‘kill zone’ to evacuate the wounded, saving the lives of 14 soldiers. In an interview with the American Veterans Center he said, “We fight to achieve the mission and we fight for the country. When the bullets and shrapnel start flying around, we do it for each other. You don’t know real love until you are in combat.”
When Jacobs stopped to rest, he discovered he couldn’t get up again. He would undergo dozens of surgeries to piece back together his skull and face. He also never regained his sense of smell or taste. For his heroism and sacrifice, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Jacobs said it was a profound ‘Why me?’ moment. “There were a lot of brave people on that day just like there are a lot of brave people in combat every day,” he explained. Although he doesn’t remember much of the ceremony, he can still recall the vast sea of people who came to watch – stretching as far as the eye could see.
Witnessing that was remarkable considering the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and the civil unrest wreaking havoc on the country at the time. Jacobs feels a lot of the reason troops may be more celebrated now is because it isn’t a draft, instead, a volunteer force. “We love the troops today. One of the reasons is because we don’t have to be the troops,” he said pointedly.
After retiring from the Army, Jacobs led a successful career on Wall Street. He’s a military analyst on NBC and MSNBC, extremely vocal on issues impacting today’s military. Jacobs also co-authored a book about his experiences during the Vietnam War titled, If Not Now, When? Duty and Sacrifice in America’s Time of Need. With brutal honesty he addresses the role of citizenry and necessity of sacrifice.
One of Jacobs’ passions is improving employment opportunities for veterans. “We don’t realize – and indeed the veterans themselves – don’t realize that people in uniform have had authority and responsibility at such a young age, that they are often more qualified to do just about anything,” he explained.
As for the majority of the public that will never serve in the military, he feels they have a duty to those who do raise their hands to defend and protect. “All of us whether we’ve been in uniform or not, benefit from the exertions from the young people wearing the uniform and because of that, we all have the responsibility to ensure their transition out of the military is easy,” Jacobs said. “I strongly encourage people to do what they can to make veterans a bigger part of their community.”
It should also be said that ‘Thank you for your service’ rings hollow to a lot of veterans, seeming more like a platitude Jacobs said. “There’s a certain modicum of guilt from those who say that, because they feel guilty about not serving…What veterans really need is action, if you aren’t doing something local for veterans you aren’t doing anything,” he explained.
Universal service is a concept that Jacobs believes every American should subscribe to. There is an area where you can put words into action, he stated. “You need to do something. If we have not served in some capacity we aren’t doing anything for our country,” he stated. “It’s when you only think about yourself that you wind up drifting away from the American ideal of being a member of the wider American community.”
The advice and words of encouragement from American hero and Medal of Honor recipient Jack Jacobs are quite simple. Go do something. Be a part of something bigger than yourself.
Dale King is an Army veteran and cofounder of Doc Spartan – an all-natural and American made skin care company. He’s not just supporting the economy of a small town — King offers recovery support to veterans and others coming back from drug addiction.
After owning his CrossFit gym for 10 years, King approached a long-term member who made all natural products to ask if she’d create a first aid ointment. He explained that his members were always ripping their skin with weights or from rucking and he wanted an in-house solution. “We started to get great feedback from the members immediately. So, we sketched out a napkin agreement in the kitchen and a year later we were filming an episode with Shark Tank,” King said with a laugh.
Doc Spartan products are handcrafted in small batches, with all natural ingredients. King and his co-founder had a lot of success thanks to the show but it was really important for him to support his local community and bring them along on the ride. “We are located in one of the worst drug addicted and economically depressed areas in Ohio. When we were on Shark Tank, we wanted to show them you could own a successful business in a small town,” he explained.
King’s hometown had become an epicenter for the opioid crisis. He shared that one of the original doctors who was part of the pain pill mills was prescribing the drugs right down the street from his gym. When the crackdown began on opioid prescriptions in 2010, heroin flooded the streets – causing the addiction and overdose rates to climb at alarming rates.
“You need to find that something in your heart that sets you on fire,” King shared. That’s what the military and deployments taught us – life is short, we don’t have a whole lot of time. So, we might as well use the time we have to make our own neighborhoods a little better.” With that in mind, they dove in to try to make a difference.
Through the gym, King was given the opportunity to provide CrossFit classes for patients at a treatment center. This gave them all an opportunity to get to know the people and their stories. “There was this one guy who had finished the program but had nowhere to go, so he checked himself into a homeless shelter,” King said. This didn’t sit right with him or the other trainers, so they told the guy to come back the next day and they’d find something for him to do.
King gave him odd jobs to do and allowed him to work out at the gym for free. When he needed someone part-time for Doc Spartan, he trained him on how to do the orders and ship the products. “He really took to that. He was the first example of how long-term recovery is more than 90 days of treatment. It’s like basic training, that doesn’t make you a soldier – you need the advanced training for that,” King explained.
One guy became two. Eventually, the entire workforce of Doc Spartan was filled with individuals who were in recovery. “It’s a very fulfilling and rewarding thing,” King said of creating the program. “They need a safe place, to be around safe people and they need a new purpose in life. In our position, they earn their recovery through working out. Then we give them an opportunity to earn a paycheck to earn their way back into society.”
Asked if he felt his time in service has had an impact on who he’s become and how he approaches life, he was quick to say yes. “Any success I have is from the time and lessons I learned in the military. I wouldn’t be who I am today without serving, there’s no doubt,” King said. “It gives you perspective. A valid lesson in what is really important in life. From sacrifice, time and the fragility of life. That’s what it teaches you.”
The mission of Doc Spartan is to help heal the local economy and community, while creating quality American-made products for everyone. The company follows a process that King learned while deployed to Iraq for two tours during his time in the Army: Foreign Internal Defense. They train, develop, mentor and fight alongside those in recovery – just like he did with the allies overseas.
Doc Spartan plans to continue to be a vital resource in recovery and hopes to be a recognizable brand, everywhere. “The long term vision and how we can make the most impact is to land ourselves in a retail store. We have to take our time and scale up. We’d love to grow, the more we grow – the more opportunities we can provide,” King shared. It isn’t easy, but King and his team at Doc Spartan are making a difference – one life at a time.
To learn more about Doc Spartan, its mission and to purchase their quality American made skin care products – click here.
Retired Air Force Colonel Pamela Powers planned to enjoy retirement as she transitioned out of military service in 2018. But life had other plans for her – like becoming the first female Deputy Secretary of the VA.
“I grew up in a small town in Minnesota,” Powers told WATM. “My grandfather served in World War II, but he was part of the generation that didn’t talk about their service. I didn’t know he was in the military until I was an adult.” She also had a great grandfather who served during World War I. “My uncle was the only one I knew at the time who was serving and he was stationed at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.” It would be a visit with him that would lead Powers to an impressive career, spanning 30 years.
Applying and attending the Air Force Academy was easily the best decision she ever made, Powers shared. “It has really been an honor and a privilege to serve this great nation,” she said. It’s one decision that she’s never regretted and one that has created a ripple effect of unique opportunities both professionally and personally.
“The military instills skills like discipline and determination…This was really the foundation of my personal and professional success. I learned that I can be mentally strong and resilient. I also learned that I can pretty much withstand anything that comes my way,” she said with a smile. Powers also credits her time in the military with developing her leadership abilities. “The best leadership is authentic and servant leadership. Bottom line is, I think the military has shaped me into who I am today.”
One of Powers’ passions is serving and supporting women veterans. Powers shared that when she graduated from the Air Force Academy, her class was only the 10th to do so with women. “It was at a time of transition where the military was just starting to see women as an important part of the nation’s defense,” She explained. “I am really excited to see that population grow. As women, we need to be strong enough to believe in ourselves even when others around us may not. It’s also about inspiring other women.”
Powers has found that many female veterans don’t even think of themselves as veterans. One of her priorities with her role has been to educate and inform them of their benefits at the VA. “I want to make sure that our women warriors get the care and recognition that they deserve,” she explained.
Her own experience in a male-dominated military pushed her to work harder and be better, she said. Powers also stated that it helped her create deep resiliency and what she termed “grit.” She would need it, especially as she continued to shock people with her status as an officer. “I went to Army war college and my husband was a United pilot. It was halfway through the year and we were at a party together when [attendees] assumed he was the service member and I was the spouse,” she shared. Although she laughed, it wouldn’t be the last time something like that happened. “The culture is changing in the military and it’s just taking a little bit of time to catch up.”
When Secretary Wilkie approached her to come work for the VA as Chief of Staff as she was poised to retire, she said yes. But she didn’t realize that not even two years later she’d be its number two leader, by the request of the president himself.
She recognizes the significance of being the first female Deputy Secretary of the VA and it’s one she doesn’t take lightly. “I want to be in a room and not be the first or the only female. I want to be recognized for kicking butt and making things happen,” she said with a smile. Despite this, she knows it’s a unique opportunity. “I want women veterans to see that the number two leader of Veterans Affairs is a female. I feel an obligation to make sure their voices are heard and they are understood and respected.”
Prioritizing the needs of female veterans has been at the top of her list in her new role. “We’ve done a lot of outreach and several women veterans events to get the word out. But we are also listening to our women and how they want to be served,” she said. Through her and the team’s innovative efforts, they are seeing more and more women come to the VA to seek resources.
Powers also remains deeply passionate about modernizing the VA. “We’ve implemented a number of really important and critical change-modernizing efforts,” she said. With her leadership, the organization has focused on improving access to care for the nation’s veterans. “We’ve really seen the difference just in three years; trust in the VA has jumped 25 percent. We know we are on the right path.”
The positive change and deep impact Powers has made through serving her country — both in the Air Force and now as the second highest leader of the VA — cannot truly be measured. It is her hope that her story will inspire a new generation of servant-leaders ready to stand up and make a difference.
Phyllis Newhouse is used to shattering glass ceilings. As a woman of color working in national security in the Army, Newhouse broke all sorts of barriers. She’s doing it again, this time with her award-winning and innovative cyber security company.
Growing up as one of 11 children, discipline was a must in her home. Newhouse jokingly said her house prepared her well for the military. “I grew up during the Civil Rights Movement so drive, determination was important. I took that with me to the military. That enhanced what I already had as a foundation,” she explained.
When asked what drove her to service, Newhouse laughed. She explained that her first introduction to the military was being awed by a chance sighting of Air Force women in flight suits. “I remember seeing these women in uniform and saying, ‘Wow look how powerful they look.’ From that day, I never got the image out of my mind and thought those women were superheroes,” she said. That moment was the deciding factor for her to enlist.
Newhouse took her oath of enlistment on Veterans Day in 1977, beginning a career that would span 22 years. She became passionately focused on national security and protecting the assets of the United States. She worked her way up to eventually establishing the Cyber Espionage Task Force within the Army. But when she was offered a senior level position, she turned it down – deciding instead to retire and create her own company. Xtreme Solutions, Inc. was formed in 2002 and is now located in 42 states with 40 percent of its workforce made up of veterans.
In 2017, Newhouse received the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in the field of technology. She was the first woman to receive the honor.
Despite undeniable success, Newhouse found herself wanting to do more. She also didn’t want to be the first or only anymore. A passionate advocate for women in business, Newhouse wanted to support women in a bigger way. A partnership with Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis led to forming ShoulderUp, a nonprofit completely dedicated to supporting women in entrepreneurship.
Newhouse and Davis recognized that it was connection that could pave the way for women everywhere. “What we realized is that no matter what industry we were in – as women we were always able to identify with a part of each other’s stories. We have a stronger connection, regardless of our backgrounds or foundation,” she explained. “We wanted to use our economic power and our platform to create change and empower women around the world.”
By opening the door for other women, Newhouse knew it would lead to positive impacts all around, even for those doing the mentoring. By giving advice woman-to-woman in ShoulderUp circles, the organization has been able to bridge a gap and assist women in reaching their greatest potential.
Newhouse herself credits her time in the military as transformative, sharing that it absolutely made her who she is today and created a foundation for success. She also recognizes that it imparted vital leadership abilities she’d need to become an entrepreneur. “I think veterans make the most incredible entrepreneurs. We always say in the military that there is a difference between a good leader and a great leader. If they were great they have the confidence to know that they still have the ability to serve, but serve in a different capacity…You can do things that still have purpose,” she explained.
WATM spoke to Newhouse on election day — arguably one of the most critical days in America. Asked what issues she was focused on lending her voice and advocacy efforts to the most, she didn’t hold back. “I think about, how did we get here – with so much divisiveness in this country. No matter what side of the fence you are on, we serve one America. Veterans and military folks go off to serve this country, one country. I want to focus on how we bridge the gap and work together in America as one,” she explained.
Newhouse expressed that veterans often feel like they are invisible and don’t matter. It’s something she wants to change. “We need to build America again. We have to do it together and that’s why I am working on the Honor2Lead project. It’s getting people who know how to serve, to serve again,” she said.
It’s that passion for service that Newhouse feels will change the world. When asked what advice she would give transitioning veterans, she was quick to answer. “I challenge those in the military community to live up to their God-given potential,” she stated. “Go find something that you can impact because great leaders can make incredible impact.”
Phyllis Newhouse is living proof of that … and she’s just getting started.
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.”
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.
Paul Szoldra is deeply familiar with being challenged; he spent eight years as a Marine infantryman. This Mighty 25er is not only a combat veteran but also a trail-blazing journalist devoted to uncovering the truth at all costs.
Szoldra’s father was a helicopter mechanic for the Army during the Vietnam War, which left Szoldra always thinking about military service. “I would see his uniform in the closet growing up. It was one of those kid moments, seeing all those ribbons and medals and thinking it was super cool,” he explained. When America was attacked on 9/11, Szoldra was a senior in high school and watched it unfold in his history class. Like so many others, it was a pivotal moment that would change his life.
He arrived at boot camp on the one year anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
Although he joined the Marine Corps, he was almost an Airman. “It was the biggest cliché. The Air Force office was closed that day and I was knocking on the door and I heard this voice behind me – a Marine gunny,” Szoldra said with a laugh. That gunny brought him to the Marine Corps office and gave him the full impressive rundown of why he should join the Marines. “I’m just like, wow this is incredible stuff! That’s how it started, they got me good – they got me really good.”
His time as a Marine changed him in many ways. Szoldra shared that he lost friends in combat and more recently, to suicide. It’s an experience that had him questioning whether serving was worth it at times. “If I hadn’t joined the Marine Corps I wouldn’t have the pain of knowing and losing these people in the back of my mind…but, I also think of all the great things that came as well,” he explained. Despite the losses and challenges, he doesn’t regret serving and if anything, finds himself glad he joined the Marine Corps, seeing it as a stepping stone on the path for his life.
That stepping stone led him to journalism and an unwavering search for the truth. “I think the service aspect is an important one. Most people join the military because they are compelled to serve something higher than themselves… how I go about my day to day is that,” Szoldra said. Although he’s hung up his uniform, his days are still spent serving the military through journalism.
Although his serious and truthful journalism can be found at Task & Purpose, where he is the Editor in Chief, he also likes to have a little fun. He is the founder of The Duffel Blog, widely acclaimed military satire, or “fake news” site, enjoyed by the likes of General Mattis himself.
Despite the frequent negative commentary about the media, Szoldra remains positive about the work reporters do and feels it’s vital. He also encourages people to always have questions and to stay informed. “I can tell you that there are a lot of great journalists that are doing hard work all over the world. A lot of them are paid very little money to do so and some of them even are in war zones, risking their lives to get that information. Many times, it’s simply because they believe it’s so important to get the information out,” he explained.
Szoldra doesn’t hold back from finding the truth, even when it makes the military look bad. His pursuit of this led him to successfully sue the Department of Defense in early 2020. Szoldra discussed his concerns regarding things like mold in the barracks and increased rates of veteran suicide, saying that without journalism – change wouldn’t happen. “All of these things are huge issues and without the media to put a spotlight on them, none of these issues get fixed. Especially in the military. My experience has been to see an organization that is reactive rather than proactive,” he stated.
Szoldra shared that it sometimes takes the media to push issues in order to force the military’s hand in correcting wrongs or addressing issues that maybe weren’t prioritized. He’s made it his mission to tell the truth, at all costs. “Keeping people honest – that’s essentially what it boils down to,” he said with a laugh.
As for what Szoldra hopes readers take away from his story, his words were simple: “Find your purpose,” he said. “Fight for what’s right and seek the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. Serve your community in whatever capacity. There are ways that you can serve that do not require you to carry a weapon.”
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.”
In 2010, after an earthquake ravaged Haiti, a small team of veterans responded in support. A decade later, Team Rubicon has become a leading force in disaster response – all over the world.
When Marine veteran Jake Wood co-founded Team Rubicon, he never imagined on its 10 year anniversary he would be responding to a global pandemic. However, he shared that they recognized the severity of COVID-19 long before it reached the United States and immediately began making plans. “We adapted very early to the crisis. That allowed us to move pretty quickly and we reorganized our entire organization which allowed us to pivot into the fight,” he explained.
Team Rubicon got their volunteers on the ground doing food bank operations, testing clinics and PPE distribution. But while they were busy supporting COVID-19 relief efforts, mother nature continued to wreak havoc with continuous natural disasters. “We were able to continue to answer the bell for these communities. We’re really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish,” Wood said.
Wood had always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but wanted to do something that would add value to the world at the same time. Although Wood recognizes the impact Team Rubicon has had and the incredible growth they’ve achieved, it hasn’t come without failures or personal cost. His advice to others is to make sure they are fully committed to everything that comes with diving into a goal. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Jake said. “I’ve been so stressed at certain points in the last 10 years that I was grinding my teeth. I’ve broken three molars in half.”
Standing beside Wood to shoulder the responsibility of leading the global crisis response organization is its President and Chief Operating Officer Art delaCruz, a 22 year Navy veteran. When delaCruz took off his uniform and transitioned into civilian life with a role at a large corporation, something was missing. “I don’t think that’s uncommon. I think that’s where Team Rubicon and other organizations that serve veterans are uniquely positioned to have people plug in,” he explained.
The conversations around the leadership table these days revolve around what Team Rubicon will look like in 100 years, because they aren’t going anywhere. The team aims to be the best disaster response organization in the world. “We hope we can grow in the impact we can provide to the world and make Team Rubicon a household name. We also want the men and women who volunteer to serve in the military to view Team Rubicon as a part of their journey in life,” delaCruz said.
Team Rubicon helps veterans continue their service but also helps maintain that sense of community, something many lose when they take off the uniform. It also focuses on giving veterans back their sense of purpose and identity. After losing one of its initial team members, Marine veteran Clay Hunt in 2011, Team Rubicon honed in the need to be a vital resource for veterans. The organization developed The Clay Hunt Fellows Program to support personal growth and development for struggling veterans.
Team Rubicon has also become a leading voice on veteran issues. Wood himself has briefed multiple presidents on veteran transition and has also testified in front of Congress to champion improving mental health care services for returning veterans.
DelaCruz himself is passionate about those issues but also wants employers to think about hiring veterans and to recognize their unmatched value. “Military veterans are uniquely equipped and bring this incredible context, skill and capabilities that we generally, as a society, don’t ask them to use later on. People who might be hiring, don’t be afraid to take that bet on that veteran,” delaCruz said.
Military members develop skills and abilities at a young age. The responsibility they undertake is also unmatched, something hiring organizations need to recognize. “I flew airplanes in the Navy. I would walk up on a flight deck and stare at a 19 year old kid and salute him and say, ‘Is this jet ready to go?’ knowing that one lost tool, a hydraulic system not being serviced properly or a cap being left off a system – means losing a $60 million dollar jet. Then knowing that kid may leave the military and not be trusted to lock up a building at night…That’s just unbelievable,” delaCruz said.
Team Rubicon remains passionate about helping people recognize their ability to make a difference. “I think for us at Team Rubicon, everybody has some intrinsic value. There’s so much you can do,” delaCruz said.
Both Wood and delaCruz expressed feeling deeply honored to be named in the Mighty 25 for 2020. Both acknowledged that it’s only possible because of the dedicated work of their team and the incredible volunteers who make what Team Rubicon does for the world possible. It is their hope that their story will inspire others to add purpose to their lives. All it takes is a heart for service and a commitment to make a difference.