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.
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.
After their service, many veterans find ways to continue to make great strides across the nation and the globe — from the arts to politics to non-profit organizations. One of the great privileges we enjoy here at We Are The Mighty is that we learn about and meet veterans who are doing really incredible, meaningful and sometimes truly badass things, every day.
Each year, we have the honor of choosing The Mighty 25 — a list of veterans whose amazing accomplishments suggest they are poised for major impact in the coming year.
It’s always tough narrowing those who’ve really made an impression — veterans we want other veterans to know about — to a list of 25, because for every individual selected, there are several others who could easily take their place.
Certainly, there are veterans we’d be honored to highlight year after year. In order to keep things fresh, however, we try to cover a broad sweep of the veteran community and to highlight people we think our readers might like to track in the coming year. These are vets who make us proud, and we’re excited to follow their work as the year progresses.
In alphabetical order, The Mighty 25 of 2017 are:
1. Daniel Alarik — CEO Grunt Style / Alpha Outpost
Grunt Style sells unabashedly pro-military shirts and clothing to a veteran and civilian market proud to wear pride of service on their sleeve.
In 2016 Alarik started Alpha Outpost — a subscription box company for men with curated high-quality items focused on everything from cooking to survival.
Between these two companies, Alarik employs around 100 veterans, and his businesses are packed with patriotism and personality. But more than that, they’re kicking ass — just what we like to see from veteran-run businesses. Here’s to their bright and glorious future.
2. Lieutenant General (Ret.) David Barno — Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, School of International Service, at American University
Widely considered among the nation’s leading defense intellectuals, David Barno is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who commanded coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. He is currently a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at the School of International Service at American University.
Barno recently co-authored a ground-breaking analysis of military leadership principles that challenged decades of Army policy, and his work for War on The Rocks remains highly influential as our country grapples with persistent global conflict and a changing political climate.
Barno’s broad intellect, wide-ranging expertise, and undying commitment to a better Army inspire WATM to watch and learn from his continued impact.
3. Tim Bomke — Military Program Manager at Amazon
Tim Bomke is an Army veteran who was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart and was medically retired in 2008 due to wounds sustained in combat in Iraq. After retiring, Tim went to work on the Department of Defense’s Troops to Teachers program, as well as the Army Continuing Education System aboard Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Bomke is now the Military Manager for Amazon helping to lead their veteran and military spouse hiring initiatives. His work this year will help employ a multitude of members our community.
4. Bonnie Carroll — President and Founder, TAPS
Bonnie Carroll is one of the 2015 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions. Ms. Carroll received the honor, and is admired throughout the entire U.S. military, for her selfless leadership at the forefront of the greatest battle our military families ever fight: that of the ultimate sacrifice.
A retired Air Force Major and the surviving spouse of Brigadier General Tom Carroll, Bonnie is the founder and president of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or “TAPS,” which provides much needed compassionate care, casework assistance, and lifetime round-the-clock emotional support for those affected by the loss of a service member.
A staffer in both the Reagan and Bush White Houses, Bonnie Carroll was appointed as the White House Liaison for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, DC. Before that, however, Ms. Carroll’s own military career was one of distinction; Carroll retired as a Major in the Air Force Reserve following 30 years of service, including 16 years in the Air National Guard.
For her impactful, often life-saving work providing bereavement support for the families of our fallen, Bonnie Carroll has been recognized by the American Legion, the Department of Defense, and President Obama. We Are The Mighty salutes her, too.
5. Phillip Carter — Senior Fellow and Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security
Phillip Carter is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. Carter’s research focuses on issues facing veterans and military personnel, force structure and readiness, and the relationship between civilians and military.
Carter served in the Army for nine years, including an 11-month deployment to Iraq as an embedded advisor for the Iraqi police in Baquba. In 2008, Carter joined the Obama campaign as the National Veterans Director; he went on to serve as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense.
In addition to his military and government experience, Carter writes extensively on veterans and military issues for Foreign Policy, the Washington Post, and other publications, and serves on numerous boards and advisory councils in the veterans and military community.
Whether it’s working with donors and grantmaking organizations to help them understand the needs of veterans, leading research that informs policy change, or convening leaders poised to make a difference in the lives of veterans, Phil Carter’s influence is large and growing.
6. Mike Dowling — Producer, Author, Veteran Advocate
Mike Dowling, a U.S. Marine and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran has dedicated his entire post-service life to his fellow veterans, servicemembers, and military families, and has become a much-admired leader of the greater Los Angeles veteran community.
Mike is a co-founder of the nonprofit Veterans in Film Television which serves as both a networking organization and a way for the film and television industry to connect with the veteran community working in it.
He also founded the LA Veterans Orientation, which helps connect veterans newly transitioning from service in the L.A. area and helped develop and lead VA The Right Way, an initiative supported by veteran, nonprofit and governmental stakeholders alike that seeks to give veterans a greater voice in the redesign of the VA and to help build 1,200 permanent veterans housing units on the Los Angeles VA campus.
Dowling served as Director of Community Outreach here at We Are The Mighty, and in 2017 is leaving to be involved in the production for a major network based on military subject matter he is passionate about. We can’t wait to see it.
7. Adam Driver — Actor, Arts in the Armed Forces Founder
Adam Driver is a Marine veteran who rose to fame on the hit HBO show “Girls,” and who skyrocketed after starring as the villain Kylo Ren in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, a role he’ll reprise in Episode VIII later this year. Driver’s impressive and growing film career has afforded him the opportunity to work with luminaries such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.
In 2016, his performance in “Paterson” earned Driver critical acclaim and multiple awards. Coming soon, he will team up with Sylvester Stallone to star in the film “Tough As They Come,” based on the bestselling book by former Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, a quadruple amputee who lost his limbs in a roadside bomb attack during his third tour to Afghanistan.
Driver founded the nonprofit organization Arts in the Armed Forces, which performs theater for all branches of the military at U.S. installations domestically and around the world. As Driver’s star continues to brighten, so too does his commitment to helping veterans heal the scars of war and telling their inspiring stories.
8. Sen. Tammy Duckworth — U.S. Senator
Fresh off an upset victory over longtime Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, Army veteran Tammy Duckworth is on her way to the U.S. Senate with an eye toward giving former service members a greater voice at the national level.
Duckworth, a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot who lost her legs after a crash during combat in Iraq, previously served as a senior official at the Department of Veterans Affairs and as a U.S. congresswoman from Illinois’ 8th District. The Asian-American lawmaker has consistently charted her own political course, but with a laser beam focus on supporting today’s military and veteran community.
She’s passed legislation aimed at helping veterans have more access to mental health care and made it easier for vets to get civilian certifications for skills they acquired in the military. We’re looking forward to seeing what Senator Duckworth will do in Congress this year.
9. Ken Falke — Chairman and Founder, Boulder Crest Retreat; CEO, Shoulder 2 Shoulder
Ken Falke is a 21-year service-disabled combat veteran of the U.S. Navy and retired Master Chief Petty Officer. His first business, A-T Solutions, is internationally recognized for its expertise and consulting services in combating the war or terror. Ken is now the CEO of organizational improvement solutions company Shoulder 2 Shoulder, Inc.
Falke is also an innovator in the world of warrior care. In 2013 after Falke and his wife Julia witnessed first-hand the desolation and frustration the wounded experienced while spending time in military hospitals, they founded the exceptional Boulder Crest Retreat for Military and Veteran Wellness. Situated on a massive swath of pristine Blue Ridge Mountain land donated by the Falkes, Boulder Crest’s mission is “To provide world class, short-duration, high-impact retreats for combat veterans and their families”, in an environment “of healing that integrates evidence-based therapies, a safe, peaceful space and unparalleled customer service to improve physical, emotional, spiritual and economic well-being.” The Retreat has hosted more than 1,000 veterans and their loved ones looking to reconnect and heal after service, with all services provided for free.
Ken is also the founder and Chairman of the EOD Warrior Foundation, which provides financial assistance and support to active-duty and veteran wounded, injured or ill warriors, families of the wounded and fallen from the Explosive Ordnance Disposal community, and maintains the EOD Memorial.
Falke is passionate about educating our nation on issues regarding the long-term care of the returning military members and families who’ve borne the burden of our nation’s longest wars. We Are The Mighty salutes this exceptional veteran, businessman and philanthropist for his thoughtful, generous, family-centered and solution-oriented approaches to the unique challenges facing post 9/11 veterans and their loved ones.
10. Matt Flavin — President, Concord Energy Holdings, LLC
Matt Flavin is a former Navy intelligence officer who deployed with SEAL teams and previously worked at the White House as its first director of the Office of Veterans and Wounded Warrior Policy under President Obama. After leaving the White House, Flavin went into the private sector as a senior executive with energy-related businesses. He is currently the CEO of Concord Energy Holdings.
At only 29 when he became director of the Office of Veteran and Wounded Warrior Policy in 2009, Flavin was one of the youngest vets to earn a senior White House position and marked a generational shift in veterans advocacy at the highest levels of government.
Now at the helm of one of the fastest growing energy companies in America, Flavin has demonstrated through his tireless advocacy at the White House and his innovation in business that this millennial generation of veterans is poised for greatness.
11. Brenda “Sue” Fulton — Board of Visitors at West Point, Advocate for LGBT Equality in the Military
Sue Fulton is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy’s first-ever co-ed class and is the first female and openly gay person to hold a position as a member of the West Point Board of Visitors.
Fulton has become a passionate advocate for the inclusion and rights of LGBT service members, and for women and people of color in the military. She is a founding board member of OutServe which provides legal assistance for openly gay service members and is a founder of Knights Out, an LGBT rights organization.
With her combination of fierce pride in her alma mater, the branch of service whose leaders it prepares and in the under-represented groups whose civil rights as soldiers concern her, Fulton strikes us as a military influencer to watch in 2017.
12. Dan Goldenberg — Executive Director, Call of Duty Endowment
Dan Goldenberg is a Naval Academy grad, Harvard Business School alum, and Air Command and Staff College graduate. He’s also a Navy captain with over 24 years of active and reserve military experience and the executive director of Activision’s Call of Duty Endowment.
Through the Call of Duty Endowment, Goldenberg’s helping veterans find high-quality careers by supporting groups that prepare them for the job market and by raising awareness of the value that veterans bring to the workplace. So far his organization has helped place more than 25,000 post-9/11 vets in jobs that average a more than $50,000 salary.
The Call of Duty Endowment has set a goal to help 50,000 post-9/11 vets find jobs by 2019. Goldenberg and his team are poised for an aggressive push in 2017.
13. Matthew Griffin and Donald Lee — Co-founders, Combat Flip Flops
As former Army Rangers with several Afghanistan tours behind them, Matthew Griff and Donald Lee saw a country filled with hard-working, creative people who wanted jobs, not handouts. Terrorist organizations would target people who couldn’t make ends meet, so Griffin and Lee created Combat Flip Flops as a way to help the people of Kabul, Afghanistan, create a sustainable economy.
Today, the company has expanded to Colombia, Laos, and Afghanistan, and they support charities like Aid Afghanistan for Education, which helps marginalized Afghans attend school. With the help of Combat Flip Flops, over 3,000 female students currently attend an AAE school. Additionally, some revenue from certain products is spent to clear 3-square meters of unexploded ordnance from a region rocked by long-term war.
We’ll be continuing to watch how Combat Flip Flops uses its double bottom line to help make the world a better and safer place.
14. Florent Groberg — Director of Veteran Outreach at Boeing, MOH recipient
A French-born naturalIzed citizen who joined the US Army in 2008 and went on to receive numerous awards, decorations and the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in Afghanistan, retired Capt. Florent Groberg is now the Director of Veterans Outreach at Boeing, where he’s responsible for the company’s support of military veterans and their families. He’s a member of Keppler Speakers where he uses his experience to inspire audiences under the most adverse conditions.
He’s also an advisor at Mission 6 Zero, a leadership development company created by for U.S. special operators.
For the past year, Groberg has been helping his peers prepare for life after the military through his partnership with LinkedIn’s Veteran Program, in which the veteran community connects, networks, and grows professionally via the powerful LinkedIn platform. A passionate advocate for the veteran community, Groberg’s every public appearance emphasizes education, transition planning and career development, all of which is inspired by the love and memory he has for those who gave their lives on the day for which his actions have been so prestigiously honored.
And for those so inspired, check out Capt. Groberg’s moving interview with Stephen Colbert last year. Many of the female veterans we know are hoping to hear him speak a little more French in the coming year.
15. Dr. Anthony Hassan — CEO and President, Cohen Veteran Network
Dr. Anthony Hassan is a retired Air Force officer with over 30 years of leadership, mental health, and military social work experience. As the CEO and President of the Cohen Veterans Network, he’s in charge of spearheading the organization’s mission to improve the mental health of veterans across the nation.
Hassan lead one of the first-ever Air Force combat stress control and prevention teams embedded with Army units during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004. His groundbreaking work in military mental health and substance abuse treatment has paved the way for a variety of military medical innovations and programs.
With his work for the Cohen Veterans Network, Hassan is establishing 25 high-quality, free or low-cost outpatient mental health clinics in cities throughout the country. Additionally, Hassan continues to lead efforts to advance the mental health treatment profession through funded research initiatives and training programs to improve care within the network and beyond.
We’re rooting for Hassan’s success in 2017 as it lifts our community and improves the lives of veterans and their families.
Jaslow was previously Chief of Staff for Illinois Democrat Rep. Cheri Bustos and was the Press Secretary for Virginia Democrat and former Navy Secretary Sen. Jim Webb.
IAVA has quickly become one of the nation’s top veterans advocacy organizations, and Jaslow’s political experience on Capitol Hill and her recent military service will surely help continue her organization’s fluency in the issues facing the post-9/11 veteran community.
Jaslow is an up-and-comer and is someone we’ll definitely be watching as IAVA works to help recent vets navigate their post-service lives.
17. William McNulty — Co-Founder and CEO, Team Rubicon Global
Marine Corps veteran William McNulty is CEO of Team Rubicon Global, the disaster response organization he co-founded after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which offers veterans around the world opportunities to serve others in the wake of disasters. McNulty has worked in support of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, and the National Security Council’s Iraq Threat Finance Cell. Among the vast community of veteran-serving nonprofits, McNulty is broadly admired for his success in scaling the Team Rubicon model internationally.
McNulty also serves on the Board of Directors of Airlink Flight, an international non-profit organization that connects commercial airlines with humanitarian initiatives, and on the Advisory Board of the Truman National Security Project, a policy advocacy organization that encourages the use of diplomacy, free trade, and democratic ideals to help resolve complex international challenges.
From Team Rubicon deployments with Prince Harry in Nepal to bringing veterans together with POS REP, 2016 was a busy year for McNulty, and we’re excited to see what his veteran service organizations have in store for 2017.
18. Donny O’Malley — Founder and President, VET Tv
Danny Maher, a combat Marine veteran, goes by the stage name Donny O’Malley and is the founder of Irreverent Warriors (home of The Silkies Hike) and now VET Tv, the first video channel created by and for post 9/11 veterans. O’Malley’s mission for VET Tv is to create high-quality, targeted entertainment for the veteran community that is therapeutic in order to promote camaraderie and prevent veteran suicide.
After a successful crowdfunding campaign, VET Tv is off and running, producing content “by bloodthirsty veterans and made for veterans with dark and twisted humor.” Their programming plan is laid out on their website and quite frankly, we’re subscribing to see what they come up.
19. Range15 Crew — Producers and Cast Members from the Feature Film
While some of these cast members (Mat Best, Nick Palmisciano, and Evan Hafer) have been highlighted in previous years for their successful veteran-owned and run companies, this band of brothers brought humor and in many ways a form of therapy to our community in a way that no other film has. Here’s to hoping it’s one of many to come.
20. Rob Riggle — Actor, Comedian
Rob Riggle is an actor, comedian, and Marine veteran. Riggle retired from the Marine Corps Reserves as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2013 after serving for 23 years, 9 of which he served on Active Duty and 14 more in the Reserves. Despite his growing career on screen, Riggle served as a pilot, Civil Affairs Officer and a Public Affairs Officer across numerous deployments to Liberia, Kosovo, Albania and Afghanistan.
Of his decision to finally retire, Riggle has said, “I may have retired from the Marine Corps in 2013, but you never really stop being a Marine” — a statement borne out by his Iraq tour with the USO. In the years since, Riggle has done his part to advocate for and raise awareness of our veterans, attending numerous events that support our military family and most recently, co-hosting the first Rob Riggle InVETational Golf Classic with We Are The Mighty, to benefit the Semper Fi Fund.
Rob Riggle’s star continues to rise. He’s best known for his work as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” from 2006 to 2008, and as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live” from 2004 to 2005, despite still being in the Reserves at the time! Riggle’s also beloved for his comedic roles in numerous television shows and films. This year, we look forward to Rob debuting his own series on TBS.
21. Mark Rockefeller — CEO/Co-Founder of StreetShares
Mark Rockefeller is an Air Force veteran who later transitioned into a law career to help veterans secure financing for businesses and protect against predatory lending. Early in his post-Air Force career, Rockefeller worked on a pro bono micro-finance project in Africa which inspired him to help establish StreetShares, Inc.
StreetShares uses a combination of technology and social networking to obtain financial services for the military and veteran communities and to help veterans build businesses.
As the company puts it, “we’ve got red, white and blue running through our veins.”
As more veterans leave the service and look for innovative ways to enter the workforce, groups like StreetShares are poised to make a major impact on helping veteran-owned businesses become a larger part of the American economy.
22. Vincent Viola — Secretary of the Army (Select)
Vincent Viola is the epitome of a self-made man. An Army veteran of the 101st, Viola has a Juris Doctorate from New York Law School but chose to focus on becoming a businessman rather than practice law.
In the course of his civilian career, Viola made his fortune by focusing his efforts on the oil industry. Viola has created a number of businesses in the tech, oil, and financial industries, among others. He currently owns the Florida Panthers.
After 9/11, Viola founded the Combating Terrorism Center, an academic institute that studies the terrorist threat and provides education towards mitigating it. He is President Trump’s nomination as the Secretary of the Army.
With an increasingly tumultuous world and an Army poised for big changes, we’ll be watching as Viola takes takes charge of America’s largest service and shapes it for the future.
23. Kayla Williams — Director of VA’s Center for Women Veterans
Williams was previously a project associate for the RAND Corporation and is the author of “Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army,” a memoir about her experiences negotiating the changing demands on today’s military.
Kayla is a White House Women Veteran Champion of Change, a Truman National Security Project Fellow, and a former member of the VA Advisory Committee on Women Veterans.
As the principal advisor on female veterans issues to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Williams will play a big role in shaping the policies, programs, and legislation that affect an increasing population women veterans in the coming years.
24. Eli Williamson — Co-Founder and President, Leave No Veteran Behind; Director of the Veterans Program for the Robert R. McCormick Foundation
An Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, Williamson was an Arab linguist and worked with Army Special Operations psychological operations teams.
After his time in the Army, Williamson created the non-profit Leave No Veteran Behind to invest in veterans and help build better communities through employment training, transitional jobs, and an educational debt relief scholarship. Williamson was also recently named as a member of the new Obama Foundation’s Inclusion Council.
With a strong influence in the minority community and a business outlook that believes “veterans are not a charity, but a strategic social investment,” Williamson embodies the spirit of We Are The Mighty, and we look forward to many great things from him in the year ahead.
25. Brandon Young — Director of Development, Team RWB
Brandon Young is the Director of Development at Team Red, White, and Blue. An Army veteran, Young joined the military before 9/11 and served 11 years, mostly conducting Special Operations missions in support of the Global War on Terror.
Brandon is a speaker and contributor on podcasts and the Havok Journal where he shares his myriad experiences while in the service. His aim and sincere hope is to “give words to the voiceless who are struggling to find them; or the courage to say what’s really on their hearts.”
Young’s primary focus with Team RWB is to develop and maintain strategic partnerships and identify growth opportunities that ensure the success of the nonprofit’s programs. He recently handed over the Denver RWB Chapter where in the past two years he helped grow membership from 400 to 1,200.
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.
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 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.”
The year of 2020 will go down in history for many reasons. Despite the overwhelming challenges, there were some incredible people doing extraordinary things for the military community. It was a year of pivoting, creativity and resilience. The team at We Are The Mighty is honored to introduce this year’s Mighty 25.
The selection process for the 2020 slate was daunting. Our internal committee started with a list of over 100 veterans, service members, military spouses and civilians doing exceptional things to support the community.
The Mighty 25 is a recognition We Are The Mighty bestows each year on individuals in the military community that have gone above and beyond. In partnership with the Military Influencer Conference, We Are The Mighty recognizes the change makers in the veteran, active duty and military family space. Selectees are advocates utilizing their influence and voices to impact policies; entrepreneurs with a passion for service; disrupters forcing accountability and meaningful change; volunteers giving so much of themselves to better our world; and leaders whose vision and actions inspire us all. The Mighty 25 encompasses everything it takes to truly Be Mighty.
Army veteran and only the second female to be elected as Commander for the Hollywood American Legion, Jennifer Campbell has been instrumental in creating programs and events to support Hollywood’s veterans. When the pandemic hit, she and her team worked quickly to establish support and engagement for veterans to avoid the negative impacts that isolation can bring. She is a dedicated servant-leader who believes deeply in living a purpose-filled life. One of her other passions is health and wellness, especially for the military community. She uses her voice as a wellness coach and personal trainer to educate and support, creating better outcomes for our nation’s heroes.
Veteran Green Beret, Brent Cooper is the Executive Director of the Green Beret Foundation. This nonprofit has given over $15 million in assistance. His passion and purpose remains to serve the Special Operations Forces community. When he went into the Army, it was to fulfill a deep need to give back and serve his country; and he left a well-paying corporate career to do it. Cooper remains a champion for universal service and encourages people to get involved in their communities.
The son of renowned World War II veteran, Clint Eastwood, honoring America’s troops has always been on Scott’s mind. Not only has he sought out and played instrumental roles in military films but he is an avid voice and supporter of the community. Recently, Eastwood co-founded Made Here, a company dedicated to working with American manufacturers to create and source products Made Here, in America.
West Point graduate and combat experienced soldier Mike Erwin has been dedicated to serving the military and vulnerable communities for a long time. He is the founder of Team Red White & Blue. His nonprofit utilizes positive psychology combined with physical fitness to improve the health and wellbeing of veterans. In 2019 alone, the organization hosted 34,582 events and now has 203,301 members. He also created The Positivity Project, a nonprofit that teaches character and positive relationship building to today’s youth. He remains passionate about encouraging veterans and others in the military community to find their purpose and stay active.
Despite an impressive career and six Emmys, Harris Faulkner remembers where she came from and who she is. An Army brat, she’s spent her life finding ways to connect and serve the military. Her father served as a combat jet pilot in the Vietnam War, building the foundation of patriotism in her heart. She remains committed to service, kindness and encouraging people to find their purpose and make a difference in the world.
The founders of JDog Junk Removal and Hauling have impacted countless veterans’ lives. What began as a business to take care of their own family turned into so much more. This company franchises directly to veterans, giving them a chance to build something of their own. The team is filled with workers from the VA’s compensated work program, directly impacting and supporting struggling veterans. Recently, the Flanagans formed a nonprofit to focus on suicide prevention and honoring the fallen. They encourage all veterans and military families to find their purpose and know that there’s always a space for them at JDog.
Once a Marine, always a Marine, Sherman Gillums is a passionate advocate that blows past barriers. Despite suffering a critical spinal injury in a training accident while active duty, he’s spent his time since impacting countless veterans’ lives. Known for his honesty and his ability to be direct when targeting problems within the VA, Gillums is an undeniable change maker. He is now the Chief Strategy Officer for AMVETS, one of the most influential congressionally-chartered service organizations. He encourages everyone to find their voice and use it to make a difference.
Known as a soldier’s soldier, SMA Grinston remains dedicated to the Army and their families. Since becoming the voice for the enlisted he’s made an impact in a big way. As the racial divide grew in America and the world watched the murder of George Floyd, Grinston was one of the first to speak out. He shared his story of growing up biracial in Alabama, no easy feat. The video was seen by millions and touched more than he ever realized it would. His deepest passion is to leave the world better and make a difference.
A veteran of the British Royal Army, Prince Harry has spent his life dedicated to serving his country and the world. He remains a vocal advocate for mental health and has been open about his own struggles throughout his life. After visiting the United States during the Wounded Warrior games, he left inspired. Not long after, Prince Harry founded The Invictus Games – bringing wounded warriors in from all over the world to compete in sports. More than physical activity, it has brought healing.
The power duo of Donna Huneycutt and Lauren Weiner has been making waves in the military community for decades. They founded WWC Global when they couldn’t find competitive employment as military spouses, and the firm has become synonymous with success and quality work. They are advocates for military spouses and veterans’ needs, especially surrounding employment. This year, WWC Global secured a three-year contract with Defense Information Systems Agency, which will span between $18 million and $24 million. Long before spouse employment was a hot topic, these ladies were talking about it and making changes, paving the way for spouses across the world.
Col. Jack Jacobs’ heroic efforts despite a critical head wound incurred in combat during the Vietnam War earned him a Medal of Honor. While many men would have seized the opportunity to medically retire, Jacobs requested to go back to Vietnam after healing — and did, serving with distinction. When he retired, he began a successful career on Wall Street and has impacted countless lives through his public speaking. Jacobs encourages universal service and insists that it doesn’t take a weapon to serve your country.
Naveed Jamali is a force to be reckoned with. His commitment to service began in the FBI. After a member of the Russian GRU tried to recruit him, Jamali spent four years as a double agent, feeding falsified classified documents to Russia. His incredible work led him to the US Navy Reserve, where he served as an intelligence officer. While Jamali’s path shifted – he is now the Editor at Large for Newsweek – his passion for truth and justice remained. The child of immigrants, he’s using his voice to make a difference, advocating for equality and uncovering and stopping systemic racism. Jamali’s fight for accessible, true information for citizens around the world is just as impressive – and important – as his career in espionage.
Marine veteran Chris Kaag has spent the last half of his life turning “I Can’t” into “I will.” After receiving a service ending diagnosis, Kaag didn’t allow it to stop him from making a difference and continuing to serve. Deeply passionate about fitness and wellness, he got creative with how he could do it. After forming a coaching company, he realized something was missing and IM ABLE was born. A nonprofit dedicated to encouraging youth with disabilities and showing them that their abilities are limitless, his impact is immeasurable. He’s expanded IM ABLE to include having veterans work directly with the youth, giving them purpose and an avenue for healing. He shows us that anything is possible.
Army veteran and business owner Dale King is making deep impacts in his hometown. Located in the heart of the opioid epidemic, he began offering free work outs to recovering addicts at his gym. After partnering with an instructor, he co-founded Doc Spartan. The company boasts skincare that is made in house and with all natural ingredients. Their following grew exponentially after a Shark Tank experience. But it’s the compassionate commerce that has made an undeniable impact in the lives of so many. King began employing recovering addicts, many of whom were veterans – giving them their dignity and a purpose in life again.
Col. Nicole Malachowski’s incredible 22-year career as a female fighter pilot is legendary. From leading peers in combat to being the first female Thunderbird, she’s been a role model to many. But it was her courage and voice after receiving a debilitating diagnosis that sets her apart from the rest. After contracting a tick borne illness, Malachowski became gravely ill and disabled. After being misdiagnosed because the military medical system was unaware of ticks and the various pathogens they carry, Malachowski has become an outspoken advocate. She sat on numerous panels and testified about the perils of tick borne illnesses, educating the system that failed her in order to prevent future service members from enduring her same fate.
After losing her brother in combat while deployed to Iraq, Ryan Manion’s family founded the Travis Manion Foundation. Started as a way for her mother to channel her grief, it morphed into a nonprofit that has served countless Gold Star families and veterans. Ryan became president of the Foundation after her mother passed away, leading the organization to make an even greater impact in the lives of the men, women and children left behind. She is an inspirational public speaker on resiliency and challenges us all to find our purpose.
Army veteran Phyllis Newhouse is a pioneer for women in a male-dominated businesses. After spending her career focusing on national security, she formed Xtreme Solutions. Her company focuses on cyber security, a feat that was relatively rare in the women-owned business space. In 2017, Newhouse became the first woman to earn the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in technology. Wanting to make a difference in the lives of women led her to co-founding ShoulderUp, a nonprofit that offers support and relationships for women in business.
Deputy Secretary of the VA and Air Force veteran Pamela Powers has spent her life in service. Instead of heading into retirement, she made the decision to serve the nation’s veterans. This extremely passionate advocate is committed to improving access to care and the quality of services received. She’s especially focused on improving the lives of female veterans who often feel forgotten in the military community space.
Shannon Razsadin wears many hats. This Navy spouse, mother and Executive Director of the Military Families Advisory Network has consistently leveraged a volunteer Board of Advisors composed of military family members to find the pulse of the military community and create meaningful programming to address systemic gaps.MFAN is dedicated to research that leads to solutions for the issues plaguing military families, to include safety in base housing, military spouse employment, financial security and one issue very near and dear to her heart: ending food insecurity for military families. With Shannon’s lead, MFAN has made monumental changes to positively benefit military families.
Army veteran Curtez Riggs from Flint, Michigan has come a long way. Always an entrepreneur, now he makes his living encouraging others to find their passion and purpose. The founder of the Military Influencer Conference, Riggs has created an unprecedented platform where the military, veterans, spouses and civilian sector can come together to network and support each other in business. He remains devoted to using his voice for equality and people of color, and sets the standard for turning an idea into a global reality.
With a career as the leader of the USO-Metro that has spanned almost 47 years, you’d be hard pressed to find another woman as dedicated to service members and their families as Elaine Rogers. Raised by a father who was a World War II veteran, she’s always been passionate about serving her country. Rogers took that dedication to the USO and never looked back, growing the USO to include family programs and revamping their image of simply entertainment to one of actionable resources for the military community.
For Chef Andre Rush, it all started with a photo of him cooking on the White House lawn. There was no hiding his impressive 24 inch biceps and he quickly became a viral sensation. But this Army veteran is more than that. He is a dedicated chef that has spent much of his career mentoring others. After losing a fellow soldier to suicide, he made it his mission to focus on suicide prevention.
Marine veteran turned journalist is a seeker of the truth and has remained devoted to the military community long after he hung up his uniform. He is the founder of the sensational satire site, The Duffel Blog and the Editor in Chief of Task and Purpose. He successfully sued the Department of Defense in 2020 to gain access to information that should have been publicly available. Szoldra is a deeply patriotic American who believes in information and honesty, even if it steps on toes.
The leaders of the only veteran-led world disaster response organization, Jake Wood and Art delaCruz have impacted hundreds of thousands of lives in 2020 through Team Rubicon. Despite not having a playbook for COVID-19 or a global pandemic, they sprang into action running testing sites, delivering PPE and still responding to an unforgiving hurricane season. They remain fearlessly dedicated to serving and promoting universal service, especially for America’s veterans. Their volunteer programs give veterans a sense of purpose and unity that they may have lost when exiting the military.
Although he never dreamed he’d be the voice for the enlisted in the Air Force, he knew he was fully capable. He quickly proved his genuine dedication to Airmen and their families earning the nickname “Enlisted Jesus.” Wright became known for his honesty and openness, sharing his devastation with the suicides in the Air Force as well as his experience as a black man in America. He is a leader, champion for equality and forever coach for those coming up behind him.
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.”
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.
Naveed Jamali has worn a lot of hats. Veteran, intelligence analyst, diversity advocate, Editor at Large for Newsweek and if that wasn’t enough, undercover double agent.
“I am a child of immigrants but also someone who grew up post 9/11. It was the defining moment for my life,” Jamali shared. He was working at a university at the time and after the attacks, his role felt almost meaningless. “It felt very much like it was up to people who look like me to say we are patriotic.”
His father immigrated from Pakistan and his mother France, with them eventually meeting and marrying in New York City. Jamali wanted to become an Intelligence Officer for the Navy, but he didn’t get in the first time he applied. Although understandably let down by the denial, his recruiter wouldn’t let him give up. “He basically said apply again and show growth. True to form, my growth was I had this connection with the FBI. I thought if I helped them with the Russians, they would write a letter of recommendation for me to get in the Navy. So, I spent three years working undercover for them,” he explained.
His parents had worked alongside the FBI for years after discovering their bookstore was being used by Russian intelligence agents seeking hard to find government documents. When they retired, he used that connection to offer his services to the FBI. Jamali spent those three years luring Russian intelligence officers and being paid by them for what they thought were classified documents. It ended when Jamali was “arrested” and the diplomatic cover for that undercover Russian officer was blown. He co-wrote a book about the experience which is now being developed into a movie.
Although he loved his time serving and has enjoyed working with leaders since leaving the Navy Reserve after 10 years, Jamali doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the change and deep growth the military itself needs. “It is still very much an honorable profession, one that offers opportunity. But, we also have to come to grips with the fact that today of the 40 plus four star generals and admirals – there are only two who are Black. It’s not a slight on them, but we have to do better,” he explained.
“This year the Navy had its first Black [female] fighter pilot. It’s 2020 – we shouldn’t be having firsts. It should be so commonplace that we don’t even think about it but yet here we are. There are obviously barriers and reasons why; the first thing we can do is have an honest discussion about it,” Jamali shared. The military recently did away with having pictures being included in packages for promotion boards, a good step in the right direction he said.
But it isn’t just the military struggling with ensuring persons of color are represented in senior leadership. “As a person of color, I can attest to the fact that we are expected to work twice as hard with half of the return. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t opportunity, but clearly the numbers don’t lie…Do we really believe there just aren’t people qualified to rise to that level? Honestly, that’s racism. If you really believe there aren’t women or qualified people of color, that’s a problem,” Jamali said.
The lack of diversity also means minimal mentorship for those who are striving to rise, he said. Jamali highlighted the deep need for more seasoned professionals in any field to ensure that they are supporting those coming behind them. He himself continues to ensure he mentors others and advises them to then pay it forward. “I was really lucky to have some great mentors and people who pushed me along the way. Commander Julie Schmit was actually my recruiter for getting into the Navy. I want to say I am grateful for her help and incredibly proud of her career. It’s important to not only have these people but also acknowledge them,” he explained.
Jamali remains focused and deeply committed to increasing diversity both in the military and the civilian sector. But he’s also passionate about challenging citizens of this country to find their purpose and use their voices for good. “It’s really easy to use a hashtag or throw on a bumper sticker, but that isn’t activism,” he said with a laugh. “It doesn’t matter what you do. If you believe in something, go out there and do it. We all have the responsibility of ensuring the next generation is better off than us and more successful. Let’s commit to making sure that this country and this world is better.”
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.
Scott Eastwood has always had deep respect for this country’s armed forces. His father, Clint, was a soldier during the Korean War, and patriotism was ingrained in Scott from a young age. Some things don’t change.
As an actor, Eastwood has had the opportunity to play a number of powerful and memorable parts. One of his most recent films brought the military community to its knees with its accuracy and intensity. Journalist Jake Tapper’s book, The Outpost, tells the story of an Army location deep in a valley of Afghanistan. This outpost was home to the bloodiest attack on United States troops in 2009, The Battle of Kamdesh. The soldiers within the unit would also become the most decorated of all units in the war’s almost 20 year history. When the book was optioned for a movie, Eastwood was cast as Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha, whose real life heroic efforts to save his fellow soldiers earned him the Medal of Honor.
In a previous interview, Eastwood stated that he “just had to tell this story.” He also shared that what stuck with him most was the heroism from everyday people, who did extraordinary things.
When we spoke to Eastwood about his thoughts about the military and those who serve, he was quick to answer. “Veterans are the backbone of this country. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the freedoms we all are able to exercise.”
Not only has Eastwood become a leading voice both professionally and personally for the military community, he remains deeply passionate about the American worker. In 2020, he and co-founder Dane Chapin launched Made Here. “I want to honor the iconic heritage of American manufacturing and let people know it’s very much alive and well,” he said in a previous interview with WATM.
The goal of Made Here is to celebrate American workers by having a shop filled with high quality items created by them, right here in America. On the website Scott says that, “These people make up your family, your neighbors and your community and they deserve to be celebrated.” Made Here products can be found on their website but the company also recently launched a storefront on Amazon, making it even easier to get American-made goods.
The duo also launched the series, Made Here in a Day. The show brings viewers on an impactful journey around the country to learn about American craftsmanship. Their first stop? The USS Nimitz, where they spent 24 hours learning about US Naval operations. Of the sailors he met, Eastwood commented that he couldn’t believe, “how down to earth, humble and hardworking these people are.” The time aboard one of the Navy’s vital ships in her fleet as the first stop for the series further demonstrated Eastwood’s appreciation for America’s service members.
The intent of the series is to show the exceptionalism of the American worker and encourage citizens to buy items that are created by American manufacturers. It is a compelling look at the importance of serving our country in another vital way. When we purchase something made locally, we are putting food on American tables and supporting our fellow citizens in an undeniable way.
It was Eastwood’s commitment to America and unwavering support of the military community that made him an obvious choice for 2020’s Mighty 25. When we asked him how he felt about landing on the list, he expressed his humble and heartfelt thanks. “I’m extremely grateful for what We Are The Mighty stands for and does in support of our veterans. I’m touched and honored to be named as a Mighty 25.”
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.