Chris Kaag is a second generation Marine veteran who, when faced with unfathomable adversity, refused to let it stop him. He’s spent almost 20 years trying to instill that same never-quit attitude in others, too.
Kaag describes himself as a lazy kid, but the military completely changed that. “Three months in boot camp totally changed my entire perspective on life and what I was able to accomplish. I never quit on anything,” he explained. He gives credit to his drill instructor, who wouldn’t let him. “We were on a four mile run at the end of boot camp and I was about to drop out when he yelled, ‘Don’t quit on me Kaag!’ It’s because of him that I didn’t stop. As I started to have issues later on in my life, that day was a defining moment for me.”
At 21 years old, Kaag found himself enjoying life and happily stationed overseas in Italy when everything changed. While out on a run, he noticed a drag in his feet. Doctors initially thought he had a tumor on his spine and immediately sent him stateside. “They sent me back to the states where I spent nine weeks at Walter Reed Hospital in DC. I was diagnosed with Adrenomyeloneuropathy, ” he shared.
The spinal cord disease is genetic, and unfortunately Kaag and his two younger brothers inherited the gene from their mother. “I sustained a head injury in the Marine Corps that they linked to my early onset of the disease. I wanted to be a Marine ever since I was seven years old, but unfortunately my Marine Corps career was done,” Kaag said.
He headed home to Pennsylvania to work things out, refusing to let his tight-knit family see how much this life change was impacting him. “The Marine Corps instilled that improvise, adapt, overcome – they don’t like excuses too much, so I basically figured it out. Everyone has their own challenges and crosses to bear and you can see mine now. But everyone can figure things out and live a fulfilling life,” Kaag shared. As the disease progressed, Kaag went from using a cane, to two canes, to having to use a wheelchair within just five years of his diagnosis with the disease.
Despite the overwhelming challenges and change, Kaag was motivated to be an example to others going through similar situations. “That’s the cool thing about veterans, we don’t lay down and give up,” he said. Kaag attended Penn State University, earning a degree in business but had difficulty finding employment.
So, he decided to hire himself. “I started Corps Fitness out of the back of my truck. I didn’t get to become a drill instructor, but now I had a chance to motivate and inspire civilians to get out there and do more than they thought they could,” Kaag said. Although meaningful, he wanted to do even more. In 2007, he founded IM ABLE.
Time spent in a Baltimore children’s hospital years before inspired the foundation. “I would see kids on breathing and feeding tubes in chairs and not able to do a lot of things. That made a huge impact on me. I wanted to provide these kids with a ‘normal’ childhood,” Kaag said. He shared a story of gifting a little boy with a hand operated bike, who was finally able to ride around with kids, completely transforming his life. Kaag had found purpose.
IM ABLE seeks to transform lives by removing obstacles for those diagnosed with physical, cognitive or behavioral challenges by being physically active and redefining what is possible.
“I’m trying to bring everyone on the same page. I want everyone to do the things they can do, but I also want people who are able-bodied to feel guilty as sh** that they are not doing as much as the guy in the wheelchair, riding around every day and working out,” Kaag admitted with a smile.
When asked if he would have responded to his diagnosis if he hadn’t become a Marine, he was quick to answer. “I really think the Marine Corps saved my life. It gave me that ability and that defining moment I needed. It comes to the point that you have to dig so deep in your soul to find out who you are and that’s what the Marine Corps did for me.” Kaag explained. “People look at me funny when I say this, but my diagnosis was the best thing that ever happened to me…I wouldn’t have been able to have had the impacts on people that I’ve had without it.”
Kaag felt compelled to bring that deep feeling of fulfillment to others. IM ABLE recently started Operation Lead From the Front, teaming up law enforcement and veterans with the youth the foundation serves. The results have been extraordinary.
Kaag shared a story about a Marine he knew who had been battling PTSD for four or five years. Kaag saw him at an event and invited him to come to one of his IM Fit classes. “I paired him with Robert, a youth with cerebral palsy using a walker. I told him, ‘It’s your responsibility to train him, get it done.’ I watched them for an hour; the connection was instantaneous,” Kaag recalled. Later that night he received a text message from that struggling Marine – the words were striking:
“That kid just saved my life.”
Kaag hopes that his story will challenge people to find their ability in the face of adversity. He also remains committed to reaching veterans, showing them a path to a purpose-filled life. Despite all the challenges Kaag has faced and overcome, his accomplishments and commitment to uplifting others is awe inspiring. And he’s just getting started.
To learn more about IM ABLE and how you can support its incredible mission, click here.
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.”
Ryan Manion’s journey to leading The Travis Manion Foundation began with her brother’s legacy and her mother’s love. In a time of deep sorrow and almost unbearable loss – both would create a mission of hope and purpose for generations of Americans to come.
On April 29, 2007, First Lieutenant Travis Manion and his fellow Marines were ambushed while on patrol in Iraq. He willingly led counterattacks to draw fire away by entering the kill zone numerous times to retrieve wounded Marines. He was fatally wounded by a sniper. Manion’s heroic actions undoubtedly saved the lives of everyone on the patrol.
Before he left for the second tour of duty in Iraq which would ultimately claim his life, Travis was asked numerous times why he would go back. His response paints a vivid and compelling picture of the hero and servant-leader that he was: If not me, then who? It would be those words that would spur his mother to create a foundation of purposeful service that would grow far beyond her family’s wildest dreams.
“If he was here, he would 100 percent be a part of this organization and be all about it. But he wouldn’t like that it was named the Travis Manion Foundation,” Ryan said with a laugh. She herself joined the foundation in 2009, two years after it was formed by her mother, Janet. Ryan said it was her mom’s vision that led the Foundation to where it is and without her, it wouldn’t exist.
Originally, Ryan said that she and her father saw the Foundation as a labor of love for her Janet – a way to channel deep grief. “While she talked about big things that she wanted to do, we didn’t really think it was going to happen…I certainly never could have envisioned where it was going to go,” she said with a smile. Ryan worked alongside her mother for over two years until Janet lost her battle with cancer in 2012.
The board of directors unanimously voted for Ryan to step into her mother’s role as president, a role Ryan admits she wasn’t fully prepared to fill. “I had to learn so much on the fly. I brought in some really talented people to help us grow. It was from there that we took off and I think a lot of it was because of the things my mom put in place,” she shared.
The organization works directly with veterans and family members of the fallen to create a deep sense of purpose and undeniable social impact in communities throughout the country. Through innovative programming, training and events, The Travis Manion Foundation is changing lives.
One of the programs Ryan herself is most proud of is Character Does Matter. Veteran mentors work with youth in schools to develop leadership and character through relationship building events. Youth also participate in service projects to honor the fallen, which can be a life-changing experience. Case studies over the last two years have showcased extraordinary health and wellbeing scores for the veteran mentors in the program, demonstrating the importance of a purpose filled life. “Everything we do at TMF is with that same holistic approach. For us it’s about providing opportunities for veterans to be engaged,” Ryan explained.
Another thing that makes Ryan incredibly proud is how the organization hasn’t lost who they were at the beginning. “At the end of the day, this was a family that started a nonprofit – not because they came up with some grand idea but because they lost their loved one and were trying to decide what to do next…That same sentiment of being a part of a family – still exists today,” she explained.
Ryan spends a lot of her time speaking about resiliency through loss and even wrote a book – The Knock at the Door – with other Gold Star family members about turning loss into purpose. “We are all going to receive knocks at the door. You are not going to escape this life without setbacks,” she explained. Ryan shared that it’s what you do in those moments after that will set the tone for life after hardship.
Despite the undeniable, vital impact that Travis’ life and legacy has had, Ryan and her family will never stop hurting or missing him. “I would throw it all away to have my brother back with me,” Ryan said. “But I do feel incredibly blessed that I have the opportunity every day to wake up with purpose and passion. That I get to do something for my brother and his legacy – there’s not much more you can ask for.”
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 Chief Master Sergeant Kaleth Wright’s legacy of service is one of courage, devotion and a pretty creative nickname. But his story is far from over.
Wright candidly shared his path to joining the Air Force. It involved using a bad address that got him kicked out of college and an Air Force recruiter’s card that fell out of his wallet. “I looked down and said, ‘You know what, I’m gonna join the Air Force. A couple months later I was in San Antonio trying to figure out how to be an airman,” he laughed.
He never dreamed he’d eventually become the voice of the enlisted as the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. But he knew he could be. It’s a role he relished and took pride in. What he didn’t know was that not long into his tenure, airmen were really liking all the improvements and changes he was making. They liked him so much they gave him a nickname that he’s never been able to shake: Enlisted Jesus.
“It’s certainly humbling that people think of you in that light – in such a positive manner,” he said with a smile. Wright was careful not to promote the nickname in order to avoid offending anyone, but certainly appreciated the sentiment behind it. As a public figure and leader, Wright recognizes the importance of being a good role model. He hopes to continue to be that and encourage others to do the same.
“The thing that makes me most proud as I look back over my Air Force career are all the young men and women I helped influence and have had a positive impact on. I was the recipient of some really really good mentorship, especially early in my career. So, I always made it a point to try to give back in that same way,” Wright explained. He has been open about sharing his struggles as a young airman and how pivotal having a mentor was for not only his career, but his life.
While Wright continues to receive messages from those he’s mentored throughout the years, it’s the ones he doesn’t know personally who also reach out to share the impact he’s had on them. “That makes me feel like I at least made a difference and was able to give back,” he explained. It was those experiences that challenged him to continue to read, study and develop himself both as an airman and a human being.
As he continued to lead as the voice for the enlisted force, the other leaders within the Air Force began to grow alarmed with rising rates of airmen suicides in 2019. Wright shared a powerful video message as the Air Force signaled a stand down to address suicide prevention. “I recognized that resilience was an issue for us in the Air Force. Just tracking not only the amount of suicides we were having but just realizing how difficult and challenging it was to be a service member in general…I just wanted to impress upon the Air Force… that hey, this is something really important to us,” Wright explained.
One of the things Wright remains extremely proud of is how the military is moving forward, especially as it pertains to removing the stigma associated with mental health. Leadership is now encouraged to openly share vulnerabilities and stories of their own struggles which can have undeniable impact on the Force. The results have been instrumental in reaching airmen to let them know they aren’t alone and there is support for them.
As he planned his transition out of the service, Wright said he wanted to do something that gave him equal purpose. He’s found that as the new CEO of the Air Force Aid Relief Society. “I’ve known for a long time the important work the organization does for Airmen and families. I also saw it as a way for me to continue to serve,” Wright said.
Although many may put him on a pedestal, especially with the nickname that he’ll probably never shake off, Wright remains a humble Airman. There’s some fun things you’d be surprised to learn about him, too. Wright shared that he loves the color pink, he is a poet and an aspiring guitarist. He also wants people to know that they can achieve whatever they set their minds to. It’s his hope that his story resonates and inspires a new generation. His advice for them was simple: be dreamers
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.”
Army and service disabled veteran Curtez Riggs is making waves in the veteran entrepreneurial space. He aspires to help others to find their passion and purpose in it, too.
Riggs was always a scrappy kid. Growing up in Flint, Michigan he knew he’d have to work hard to make it. He was raised in a two bedroom home that housed six of his family members. “I didn’t have a lot, $20 meant a lot to us growing up,” he said. He started his entrepreneurial journey by picking up used bottles and turning them back into stores for cash. Before long, Riggs was doing it from his couch, running a team of pre-teens to do the heavy lifting while he managed the business. When he got older and got his first job, he passed the torch to his little brother to run.
Surrounded by blue-collar workers, college was never really on his radar. As the factories and shop work started to shut down, he knew he’d have to do something. Watching his family struggling or going into questionable activities, he wanted more for his own life. So, he graduated high school early and joined the Army. “I graduated in January and shipped out in February. To be honest – I’ve never looked back,” Riggs shared.
Although he knows that his values and character were well-established by his upbringing, Riggs recognizes that both the streets and the Army created a strong foundation for who he is today. “I grew up in a single parent home. My dad wasn’t around until I was older. The lessons that I learned were from a wide variety of people… some I shouldn’t have been around,” he explained. “So, for the first time in my life I am entered into an environment where everything is structured and disciplined. It’s the first time in my life that I had a sense of purpose. Loyalty, discipline, respect, honor and integrity. Those are the things the Army taught me that affect every decision that I make today.”
Although he knew how to hustle and work hard, he didn’t realize what it was. “I’ve always had the heart and mind of an entrepreneur, I just didn’t know what to call it,” Riggs explained. After going through a tough divorce, he devoted himself to improving his credit score and his life. As he was trying different things, Riggs was exposed to creating content which led to a relationship with USAA.
That relationship with USAA resulted in Riggs cultivating his first conference, although he didn’t realize that’s what it was at the time. “They gave me my very first check, $12,500. I thought I was ballin,” Riggs said with a laugh. “I had successfully sold a brand on an idea that I had. The faith and trust they had in me allowed me to do something small for the community.”
The mix of 80 veterans, active duty, military spouses and civilians that came together at that first event to network struck him as pivotal. The years after that saw tremendous growth in participation, with more than 900 attendees in 2019. “When you talk about entrepreneurship and where it comes from… it has always come from a desire for me to help someone else, and to give back to a community that raised all of us that were essentially lost,” Riggs shared.
The Military Influencer Conference is about relationships, Riggs said. People from all walks of life and communities can come together in a shared mission of service and entrepreneurship. “At the end of the day, it’s an inclusive community where we can connect and grow together,” he said. Although the Military Influencer Conference brand is very successful, it’s not the only thing he remains deeply passionate about.
The racial divide in the country hits home for Riggs. “The color of my skin, right? I am Black, I can’t color my skin anything else,” he shared. But Riggs said that he has what those in the community call a ‘Harvard voice’. He shared a story of talking to a high six figure sponsor on the phone and that everything was going incredible, the sponsor was ready to invest. When they switched to a video call to continue the conversation, things went downhill fast.
“I guess that guy never Googled my name. He kept calling me ‘Curtis,’” he explained. As they switched to video, Riggs’ son came into the room. “The executive introduced himself and I said that it was great to talk to him again. He gave me an odd look and then asked me, ‘When is Curtis going to get on the call?’ My 7 year old son said, ‘Curtis? Who’s Curtis? His name is Curtez.’ The gentleman then realized I wasn’t white; it was clearly shown on his face. The questions went from, ‘How can I invest in your brand,’ to asking me, ‘How did you get the money to afford to do this?’ And, ‘What city are you from?’
Riggs said his son asked him afterward why the gentleman kept asking him all of those questions and eventually, his son told him he shouldn’t do business with him. Then, it clicked. “My 7 year old son realized that this man had a problem with me because of who I am before I did. So, I am very passionate about the health and well-being of people that look like me,” he said.
Riggs discussed the racial unrest and police brutality cases against those who are Black and the impact it has had on him. “If we want to save Black lives we need to elevate Black leaders. We need more positive role models besides athletes. We need more people who have grown from the gutter and gone on to do phenomenal things who can then reach back and help the next generation grow,” he explained. “Our goal by creating this brand is to educate and empower.”
It’s Riggs’ hope that his story and journey will inspire others to dive into their own hopes and dreams. Riggs shared that “no” just means new opportunity and everyone has the power to create their own futures. All they have to do is step forward and do it.
Within the worlds of politics, business, advocacy, and media there are veterans who continue to serve in a wide variety of ways. Men and women who once fought the nation’s wars now shape the American landscape by doing everything from building cars with 3D printers to creating fashion trends, from making major motion pictures to passing laws.
The editors of WATM (with inputs from a proprietary panel of influencers) scanned the community and came up with a diverse list of those with the highest impact potential in the year ahead.
Here are The Mighty 25 for 2016:
1. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL — Co-Founder, The McChrystal Group
After a legendary career as an Army special operator, highlighted by effectively re-organizing JSOC and leading the war effort in Afghanistan, General McChrystal accelerated into the normally pedestrian world of business consulting. The same drive that made him an effective leader has informed the McChrystal Group‘s innovative approaches to the problems facing their clients. The company’s offices outside of DC feel like those of a Silicon Valley tech startup rather than a traditional Beltway firm, more Menlo Park than K Street, and he’s aggregated a hyper-talented team — including a number of veterans — who are changing the way consulting is done. McChrystal also serves as the Chair of the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute, advocating for a “service year” as an American cultural expectation. Watch for him to keep the press on there this year.
Seth Moulton’s reluctant entry into politics was spurred primarily by his experiences as a Marine across four tours during the Iraq War – a war he didn’t believe in. After getting his MBA at Harvard and working for a start-up for a while, he decided to run for Congress as a Democrat in Massachusetts’s Sixth District. His first year in office was punctuated by efforts to improve veteran health care through the VA. He also opposed attempts to block Syrian refugees from entering the country. Expect more impact from this veteran lawmaker as his comfort level goes up in 2016.
3. LOREE SUTTON — New York City Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs Commissioner
Retired Army Brigadier General Loree Sutton was appointed as New York City’s VA commissioner just over a year ago, and she hit the ground running, leveraging her experiences at places like the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury and the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center at Fort Hood to solve the immediate issues facing Gotham’s veteran community. Her approaches to resilience, using a “working community” model that scales problems at the lowest level, have proved very effective in dealing with issues like claims backlogs and appointment wait times. Her successes in 2016 could well inform how other cities better serve veterans going forward.
4. TM GIBBONS-NEFF — Reporter, The Washington Post
TM Gibbons-Neff served as a rifleman in 1st Battalion, 6th Marines and participated in two combat deployments to Helmand Province, Afghanistan before entering Georgetown University to pursue his English degree. He graduated this year and went from working as an intern at The Washington Post to earning a spot as one of their full-time reporters. As part of the Post’s national security staff, TM has reported on everything from the ISIS threat to the San Bernadino shootings. Watch for his reach to grow in 2016 as he continues to hones his already substantial journalism skills.
5. NICK PALMISCIANO — Founder, CEO, Ranger Up!
After serving as an Army infantry officer, Nick Palmisciano came up with the idea of creating a military-focused clothing company while earning his MBA at Duke University. He founded Ranger Up! in 2006, and since that time he has led the way in leveraging the power of user-generated content and social media to create a brand that is as much identity as apparel to the company’s loyal consumer base. Nick also walked the walk by deliberately hiring veterans to staff Ranger Up!. Watch for his star to rise this year with the release of “Range 15” — an independent horror-comedy produced in collaboration with fellow military apparel company Article 15 — hitting theaters in May.
6. MAT BEST — President, Article 15 Clothing
Article 15‘s motto is “hooligans with a dream,” and that atmosphere permeates all of the company’s products and productions. Mat Best brought the same attributes that made him an effective warfighter to the marketplace and those have made him a successful entrepreneur, but even more important to the military community is how his unapologetic brio has shaped attitudes around the veteran experience. Mat and his posse are the antithesis of the “vets as victims” narrative; these guys live life on their terms and that lesson has been prescriptive for legions of their peers looking for fun and meaningful ways to contribute at every level. Mat has meteoric impact potential this year as the star of the movie “Range 15,” which Article 15 co-created with Ranger Up!.
After graduating West Point and studying as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, Craig Mullaney served in the Army for 8 years as an infantry officer, including a combat tour in Afghanistan. After he got out he was on the national security policy staff of President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. He also served as the Pentagon’s Principal Director for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia Policy and later on the Development Innovation Ventures team at the U.S. Agency for International Development. He is the author of the 2009 New York Times bestseller The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier’s Education. This year he’ll continue his influence in his role as strategic partnerships manager at Facebook, and among his duties is convincing global influencers and business executives to maintain personal Facebook pages.
8. DAVID CHO — Co-founder, Soko Glam
This West Pointer and artillery officer took his Columbia MBA and joined his wife in the cosmetics business. Their company, Soko Glam, specializes in introducing Western customers to Korean cosmetics, beauty trends, and skincare regimens. David’s wife Charlotte Cho scours the market for the best and most trusted selection of products to bring to the U.S. while he handles the details around the business including biz dev and accounting. Together they have built Soko Glam into an international player in a very short time. Soko Glam also contributes to the veteran community by donating a percentage of profits to the USO.
9. SARAH FORD — Founder, Ranch Road Boots
Texas born and bred, Sarah Ford was a Marine Corps logistics officer who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. After leaving active duty she received her MBA from Harvard and used that knowledge (along with a Kickstarter campaign) to launch Ranch Road Boots, a company founded on, as their website states, “love—for freedom, West Texas and a hell-bent determination to craft good-looking, well-made footwear.” Sarah continues to honor the branch in which she served; Ranch Road Boots donates a portion of all sales to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund.
10. TAYLOR JUSTICE — Co-Founder and Chief Business Officer, Unite US
Taylor Justice honed the grit he now brings to the business world during his days on the football team at West Point. Along with co-founder Dan Brillman, an Air Force tanker pilot, he’s created software that helps organizations to navigate the “Sea of Good Will,” the 40,000 organizations dedicated to helping veterans that have historically presented a challenge because of their sheer number and dizzying overlap. The Unite US site uses what the company describes as “interactive, proximity-mapping technology” to match vets to the services they need — sort of like Yelp for the military dot-org ecosystem. As the Sea of Good Will continues to grow in 2016, the demand on Unite US’s expertise is sure to increase.
11. BOB McDONALD — Secretary of Veterans Affairs
This year Secretary McDonald continued his attempts to leverage his successes in the private sector to solve the daunting problems facing the VA. As he promised at the outset of his tenure he has remained very visible, even going so far as to broadcast his cell phone number to large crowds during his speaking engagements. In 2016 watch for his leadership to be focused on the West Los Angeles VA campus where a recent settlement in favor of improving veteran healthcare in the region has introduced as many challenges as it has created the potential for real change across the entire agency. (For more on that issue check out vatherightway.org.)
12. MARTY SKOVLUND — Freelance writer and film producer
Marty Skovlund has made his mark in media by bridging the gap between compelling content and deserving veteran causes. His company, Blackside Concepts, spawned six subsidiary brands — all high impact — in only three years. The sale of Blackside in 2015 has freed him to focus on his third book and various film and video projects, including a show idea that involves veteran teams racing across the world for charity. With the luxury of bandwidth, watch for this talented former Ranger to continue to build his portfolio in 2016.
13. BLAKE HALL — CEO, ID.me
Blake Hall’s company, ID.me, first came to light among the military community as an easy way for veterans to verify their status to obtain discounts and services, but his ambitions live well beyond that utility. “We want to become an inseparable part of Internet identity,” Hall told The Washington Business Journal last spring. His strategy focuses on the twin prongs of identity: portability and acceptance, and if he continues his path of cracking those codes, ID.me has the potential to be ubiquitous in e-commerce, national security, and inter-agency coordination in 2016.
14. JIM MURPHY — Founder and CEO, Invicta Challenge
After serving as a Marine Corps infantry officer in Iraq, Jim Murphy earned his MBA at the University of Southern California. During his studies he interned at Mattel, and that exposure sparked an idea. The Invicta Challenge combines online gaming, action figures, flash cards, and graphic novels to create a one-of-a-kind learning experience. The prototype, called “Flash & Thunder,” profiles Turner Turnbull’s actions on D-Day, but it’s not just a history lesson. It’s an interactive leadership challenge that brings history to life. While the Invicta Challenge is a natural for school-aged audiences, its unique presentation could also prove effective around military centers of excellence. With more games in the hopper, 2016 could be a year where Jim shifts into the next gear.
15. JARED LYON — Chief Development Officer, Student Veterans of America
Jared Lyon went from a life beneath the waves as a Navy submariner and diver to a life of the mind as a student and academic. In the process of making that transition he became an ambassador for other student veterans. While the Post-9/11 GI Bill is arguably the best military benefit in history, trying to use it can present roadblocks — both academic and environmental — that can keep qualified veterans from earning their degrees. As Jared enters his second year on SVA‘s professional staff watch for him to continue to make life easier for those who’ve followed him back to school.
16. TYLER MERRITT — Co-founder, Nine Line Apparel
Tyler Merritt founded Nine Line Apparel with his brother Daniel, also a former Army officer. From the start Savannah-based Nine Line was built with a specific purpose in mind, as expressed in the company’s mission statement: “It’s about being proud of who you are, what you wear, and how you walk through life . . . We don’t apologize for our love of country. We are America’s next greatest generation.” After one of Tyler’s West Point classmates lost three limbs fighting in Afghanistan in 2013, Nine Line added a foundation that gives a portion of proceeds to severely wounded veterans and their families.
17. AMBER SCHLEUNING — Deputy Director, VA Center for Innovation
After five years and multiple tours to Iraq as an Army Engineer focused on counter-IED ops, Amber Schleuning returned to school to study post-conflict mental health. She’s held a wide variety of consulting and advisory roles with both public and private organizations including the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict and COMMIT Foundation. As VACI‘s Deputy Director, Amber is in charge of building a portfolio of partnerships with creative, innovative, and disruptive organizations to ensure effective services are available to veterans.
18. NATE BOYER — Philanthropist, media personality
After multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan as a Green Beret, Nate Boyer left active duty in 2012 and made the unorthodox move of returning to college to play football. His success as the Texas Longhorn’s long snapper led to a pre-season bid with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Although he was ultimately released by the team, the exposure helped him with other elements of his Renaissance Man portfolio, specifically Waterboys.org, a not-for-profit dedicated to providing clean drinking water to remote regions of Africa. This year Nate is poised to increase his impact with “MVP,” an organization formed with Fox Sports personality Jay Glazer that partners professional athletes with special operators to deal with the common challenges of career transition.
19. BRAD HARRISON — Founder and managing partner, Scout Ventures
The same drive that got Brad Harrison through Airborne School and earned him his Ranger tab has served him well in the private sector. After honing his tech chops while working as AOL’s Director of Media Strategy and Development, he pivoted into the venture capital space where he’s been able to use his passion for technology, media, entertainment and lifestyle to assist fledgling businesses. His company, Scout Ventures, has quickly blossomed into one of the premier angel-to-institutional investment firms in New York.
20. BRAD HUNSTABLE — Founder and CEO, Ustream
Brad Hunstable started Ustream in 2007 to connect service members to family and friends, but his vision has grown since then to include everybody, everywhere. Ustream is now the largest platform for enterprise and media video in the world with clients including Facebook, NBC, Cisco, Sony, Intuit, NASA and Salesforce. Ustream’s product suite is evidence of a company that intends to be a tool for both broadcast networks and citizen journalists. As more and more organization turn to video for effective impact, look for this West Pointer’s company to grow even more in 2016.
21. JESSE IWUJI — Professional racecar driver
Jesse Iwuji started racing cars on a whim during his last semester as a midshipman at the Naval Academy, once Division I football was over for good. Since that time he’s moved up the ranks of American stock car racing, balancing time commitments at the track and juggling sponsors with his duties as a Navy surface warfare officer. Most recently he’s partnered with the Phoenix Patriot Foundation. “We dedicate each race weekend to a wounded veteran and his family,” he said. Jesse plans on getting out of the Navy at the end of his current tour to pursue bigger things as a NASCAR driver. He hopes to move up to the K&N Pro Series soon, driving a bigger car in front of bigger crowds. After that he wants to make it to the Xfinity series and, finally, the Sprint Cup.
Evan Hafer always cared about a good cup of coffee regardless of where his Army duties took him, even when serving with the Green Beret in a variety of hostile regions. He founded Black Rifle Coffee — a “small batch roasting” company — this year with a simple motto: “Strong coffee for strong people.” In a commerce ecosystem known more for hipster baristas and progressive causes than unflinching patriotism and weapons expertise, BRCC is unique. (It’s doubtful any other coffee company would call a product “AK-47 Blend,” for instance.) BRCC’s attitude has caught on with the veteran audience; look for more warfighting grinds as well as a growing inventory of merchandize with a similar type-A tone in 2016.
23. BRIAN STANN — President and CEO, Hire Heroes USA
Brian Stann has been labeled a “hero” in a couple of phases of his life, most notably when serving as a Marine Corps platoon leader in Iraq — actions that earned him the Silver Star — and winning titles as an ultimate fighter, including the WEC Light Heavyweight Championship in 2008. After announcing his retirement from the UFC in 2013 the Naval Academy alum assumed the role of President and CEO of Hire Heroes USA. Hire Heroes focuses on three different elements of the veteran hiring equation: empowering vets to find great jobs by building their confidence and skills, collaborating with military leaders and transition coordinators to build awareness of the company’s capabilities, and partnering with more than 200 companies, like Comcast and Deloitte, to find vets great jobs. This year Hire Heroes could emerge as the vet job board of choice as the company works to improve on its already impressive metric of 60 hires per week.
24. JEREMY GOCKE — Founder and CEO, Ampsy
There are veterans who work in the tech sector, and then there are veterans like Jeremy Gocke who carve the leading edge of the tech sector. After getting an “Accelerator Finalist” nod at SXSW in 2014, the West Point grad and former Army Airborne officer founded Ampsy to slow the rate at which content falls into what he calls the “social media abyss.” Ampsy has a suite of social aggregation tools designed to improve a brand’s reach across the Twittersphere by solving what the company website calls “a major leakage problem in the customer acquisition and retention funnel.” Look for Jeremy to continue to stay ahead of the digital pack in 2016.
25. JOHN B. ROGERS, JR. — CEO and Co-founder, Local Motors
Former Marine Corps infantry officer John B. Rogers, Jr.’s love of automobiles is only rivaled by his hatred of inefficient processes, which is why he created Local Motors, a company that uses Direct Digital Manufacturing (a.k.a. “3D printing”) to build cars. “Car manufacturers have been stamping parts the same way for more than 100 years,” he said. “We now have the technology to make the process and products better and faster by linking the online to the offline through DDM.” With the upcoming launch of the LM3D — the company’s first 3D printed car model — 2016 has the potential to be huge for Local Motors. Can you say “microfactory”?
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.
Harris Faulkner is an Emmy-winning anchor for the daytime Fox News shows Outnumbered and Outnumbered Overtime. She’s also a military kid who recognizes the deep impact her father’s Army career has had on her life and who she has become.
When asked what her reaction was after receiving the news of being selected for the Mighty 25, Faulkner said she immediately thought of her dad. “There have been so many times in my life when I’ve paused for a moment to think of the successes… and they are always because of my parents,” she said. “I am really blessed with military leadership in my family – that made such a huge difference in one’s ability to be resilient, innovative, creative and believe all things are possible.”
Faulkner’s father is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel who served multiple tours during the Vietnam war as a combat pilot. She candidly shared how hard her parents worked to instill a deep sense of values within her and that she learned from an early age the importance of a strong work ethic. “It doesn’t surprise me that I can be successful at something because I truly can follow the mission until it’s over. I don’t quit,” she said with a laugh.
Stories and news were always a part of her life. Faulkner recalled that her father would have her read the paper every night at the dinner table and they would talk about what was going on. “I would learn about the world that way,” she said. “From a very young age I knew I would always vote and knew the cost in and out of the country for that right.” By the time she was 10 years old in 1975, there was a whole lot going on in the world. One vital piece of advice that her father imparted on her was to always have questions.
“My father fought for this country when Blacks were not allowed to drink at the same water fountains, sit at the same counters or use the same restrooms [as whites],” she explained. When she asked her father once about why he wanted to serve a country where he wasn’t treated equally because he was Black – his response was memorable. “He said, ‘There will be times where it will feel like we are bending or even breaking but I would rather fight for the democracy and potential of America than look from afar and wonder what difference I could have made if I had stuck in the fight,’” Faulkner shared.
Journalism and investigating the truth came naturally to Faulkner, and her parents always pushed her to use her voice. She’s come a long way since she was that little girl reading the newspaper to her parents; she’s earned six Emmy awards and is a best-selling author. But it didn’t come easy.
Faulkner discussed the challenges of often being the first or only woman of color throughout her career. “By my sixth Emmy I did start to wonder, ‘Why me?’ I was incredibly blessed. Now I do question, ‘What’s next?’ I want to create a legacy for people of every stripe,” she explained. She also hopes that her story will inspire the next generation to chase dreams and excellence. “I want people to know that doing your best isn’t overrated.”
With the media coming under attacks as the ‘enemy,’ Faulkner hasn’t found herself overwhelmed. Instead, she sees it as the opportunity to get it right. This is where that fierce work ethic her military father instilled comes into play. “In my life, when I have gone for a job or a promotion…If you see me coming and I am your competition, you’d better be ready – because I am not showing up to get ready. I am already there,” Faulkner said with a smile.
With the country currently divided in the midst of a pandemic, the news is often fraught with emotionally-charged stories and unkindness. It’s difficult to navigate but Faulkner still sees the good in America and has an easy solution for healing: love. “That’s what this is all about. It’s not complicated to want to spread what you know works. I think sometimes we forget that,” she explained. “What I want people to know is, our journey is really all about love. If I can leave people with one notion it is this…we don’t know the end of our story yet so let’s make the middle be about something that works… and love cures everything.”
Harris Faulkner has come a long way since the days of being a military kid, hungry to read the news and discuss politics with her father. Despite her success, she’s never forgotten her foundation. And for Faulkner, there’s no end in sight.
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.
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.
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.