Michael Grinston’s road to becoming the Sergeant Major of the Army wasn’t easy, nor was it planned. A lifetime of overcoming adversity and an unwavering commitment to servant leadership brought him to where he is today.
After coming home from his first year at Mississippi State in 1987, Grinston was looking for a way to continue paying for college. It was during this time that he received a phone call from an Army recruiter. Thinking it was a great way to pay for education – something that was important to him – he signed up. He had no clue he’d begin a career that would span 33 years. “Why did I stay? I think it was a combination of the people, opportunity and even in the end, as you rise in the ranks – it’s to make a difference,” he shared.
It wasn’t limited to making a difference in the Army; Grinston saw the influence he was able to have on the world. He recalled a story of being on his third or fourth deployment during a particularly cold Afghanistan winter. The children there didn’t have coats, something he shared with his daughter. She rallied her school and mailed him jackets for the children in need. It’s a memory that still brings a smile to his face today.
“I saw a jacket that we had bought my own daughter on an Afghan kid. It still warms my heart. With all the bad things in the world that can happen but looking at how you can really make a difference in people’s lives across the world… that’s why I stayed,” Grinston shared.
Not only did his early years in the military teach him the value of serving, humility and resiliency, the Army brought much needed diversity to Grinston’s life. He shared that growing up biracial was difficult, especially as a boy in Alabama. His father was Black and his mother white, something that people around him never let him forget.
“I didn’t know where I fit in the world. I struggled with that for a long time, even in the Army because I look a little different. It was something I was extremely uncomfortable with because people judged me and treated me differently,” Grinston shared. He wouldn’t see a biracial couple in his hometown together in public until he was almost 30 years old.
Grinston has come a long way since then, sharing that he chose to stay focused on being the best version of himself that he could be. Despite his own internal evolution and the mostly welcoming arms of the Army, he felt compelled to share his truth. The death of George Floyd elevated the discussion on systemic racism, especially in the military. With the encouragement of Army Chief of Staff General McConville and others, Grinston recorded a heartfelt video for social media about his experience as a biracial man and soldier in America.
It’s been seen by millions.
Although the attention made him uncomfortable, he said the reaction made it all worth it. “I thought I had this unique story. Growing up you didn’t see people like you and so you tried to blend in as best you could. But then you put it out and you find there are a lot of people like you…Because of what I said – they were able to have these conversations,” Grinston shared.
In his 33 years of service, he’s seen a lot. One thing he was adamant about was how proud he remains of the Army and their commitment to getting it right. “That’s what I love about the Army; every day we are trying to make it better,” Grinston said. Not only does he feel the Army is focused on continually improving the lives of soldiers, but they remain deeply committed to their families too.
When Grinston was told that he’s called “a soldier’s soldier,” he laughed. “To me it’s the highest honor to be called that. When you say ‘a soldier’s soldier’ – it reminds me that I didn’t forget where I came from,” Grinston explained. “I didn’t forget what it’s like to live in the barracks or sleep in the rain in a sleeping bag that wasn’t waterproof. I think it’s really special when people say that to me.”
As he looks back on his life, he has a lot of proud moments with much more to come. Grinston was asked what he would want people to gain from his story and his response was simple. “Have the mentality that one person can make a difference…You have to put some effort into that; you can’t wait for someone else to do it,” he said. “Don’t just say it, do something. If one person helps another person, it compounds over time. What a great place the world would be.”
When Jennifer Campbell was selected for 2020’s Mighty 25, it came as a complete shock. “It was a genuine surprise,” she shared with a laugh. Considering everything she’s accomplished with her health advocacy efforts, Army service and now, leading the Hollywood American legion as its Commander, Campbell was an easy choice.
Campbell is only the second female in the Hollywood post’s 100 year history to lead as its commander. Not only does it surprise a lot of people, but many often don’t realize or think she is a veteran herself, assuming instead she is the daughter of one. She is quickly changing perceptions and shattering barriers.
Not only is this post paving the way in leadership, its membership is much different than the average American Legion. The Hollywood post has more post 9/11 veterans than any other era combined. “We’re very fortunate that we’re not the stereotypical American Legion. There’s so much culture and history to draw upon but it’s also so motivating to see young people want to get involved,” Campbell explained.
She was quick to admit that she didn’t know much about the American Legion when she was asked to join. But after hearing good things from a friend, she went to an event. She quickly dove into volunteering her time and serving, something she was deeply familiar with as an Army veteran and had always enjoyed. It wasn’t too long after that when she stepped into the leadership position. “I never in a million years thought I would be doing this. But all you have to do is care. Get involved and serve,” Campbell said.
Military service was something she was familiar with growing up. Her father served in the Navy as did many other family members. “I was motivated and excited to do it [join the Army]. I wanted to show that I could do it just as well as any of the guys. When I called my dad to tell him I joined I am sure he said ‘What!’” Campbell shared with a laugh. After serving four years in the Army, she went on to earn her Master’s in nutrition and became a personal trainer.
She has been a vocal advocate of health and wellness, especially for America’s veterans. Campbell wants to help motivate people to be their best selves both outside and inside. “Veterans have a 70 percent higher likelihood of developing obesity than the general public, that’s something I really want to focus on. How to take care of yourself and your family,” Campbell explained. She does this through her personal training, speaking and nutrition coaching.
She has enjoyed life outside of the military, finding her purpose and passion within her industry and volunteerism efforts. “I know a lot of people when they exit the military, it’s still all about that. But for me, it doesn’t define me completely. It has definitely shaped me in what I’ve learned about what I will and will not put up with as far as leadership and being squared away,” Campbell explained. “It has been a massive part of my growth and expansion in leadership.”
While she recognizes that her leadership position in a traditionally male led organization is unique, she doesn’t want it to be. “I want people to understand that this isn’t just a man’s game. There are so many powerful women in leadership that have incredible drive and ability to problem solve in a way that is very different,’ she stated. It’s her hope that her story will resonate and spark others to step forward.
For those looking for a way to stay healthy and motivated in a purpose filled life – she was quick to say people need each other in order to be successful. “Find a base. Find people who you can challenge and together you can do a lot of great things. The more that you can engage your friends, family and colleagues the more you will stick with something – especially a higher calling or purpose,” Campbell said. “When you get to be a part of a team and serve yourself, your family or your community – those are the things that will help you really make an impact and difference.” One thing Campbell really hopes to see in the future is more young veterans and especially women in leading roles. “There are so few women in leadership and it takes that person to demand to be included and heard,” she said. She is encouraging them to be the person who bridges the gap and makes people notice them, saying it isn’t enough to get a seat at the table – it’s what you do when you get there that matters, too. Campbell’s advice is simple: step up and make your voice heard.
While Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex might only be known to some for his name or standing, to the military community at large, he is so much more.
Despite the opportunities available to him after graduating from high school, Prince Harry entered Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 2005. After finishing his rigorous officer training, Prince Harry was commissioned into the British Royal Army. Soon after, his unit was scheduled to deploy to Iraq and Harry fought to go with them. “There’s no way I’m going to put myself through Sandhurst and then sit on my arse back home while my boys are out fighting for their country,” he said in an interview with BBC at the time.
His insistence that he fight alongside his countryman in service of his country and the world’s allies is just one of the many reasons Prince Harry is admired. Although he ultimately did not go to Iraq due to threats on his life, he secretly served in combat with the British Royal Army in Afghanistan. It was the first time a member of the royal family had served in combat since Prince Andrew served during the Falklands War in the 80’s.
Following deployment, Prince Harry went to the Army Air Corps to learn to fly Apache helicopters. A year later he was flying in combat as a co-pilot and gunner, unbeknownst to the public. “I joined the Army because, for a long time, I just wanted to be one of the guys,” he shared at the 2016 Invictus Games. “But what I learned through serving was that the extraordinary privileges of being a prince gave me an extraordinary opportunity to help my military family.”
In the podcast Declassified that dropped over the weekend, Prince Harry reflected upon his time in the military. He said, “Service is what happens in the quiet and in the chaos. It’s what happens in the darkness, it’s what happens when people aren’t looking. It’s what happens on and off the battlefield. It’s about carrying out our duty as soldiers,” Prince Harry said. “For me as a father, a husband and as a human being, it’s about how we uphold these values in every aspect of our lives.”
During a visit to the United States Wounded Warrior Games in 2013, Prince Harry was astounded. It drove him to want to create a world-wide sporting event for wounded warriors of all Allied countries. The Invictus Games were born.
Since its inception, Invictus has grown considerably. “These Games have been about seeing guys sprinting for the finish line and then turning round to clap the last man in,” Prince Harry said at the Invictus Games in 2014. “They have been about teammates choosing to cross the line together; not wanting to come second, but not wanting the other guys too either. These Games have shown the very best of the human spirit.”
One thing unique to the Invictus Games is that each warrior can bring two family members with them. This is all thanks to incredible partnerships with organizations like The Fisher House.
“Above all, Invictus is about the example to the world that all service men and women –
injured or not – provide about the importance of service and duty.The true scale of this example was brought home to me when I left Afghanistan after my first deployment there in 2008. As I was waiting to board the plane, the coffin of a Danish soldier was loaded on by his friends. Once on the flight, I was confronted with three British soldiers, all in induced comas, with missing limbs, and wrapped in plastic. The way I viewed service and sacrifice changed forever and the direction of my life changed with it.
I knew that it was my responsibility to use the great platform that I have to help the world understand and be inspired by the spirit of those who wear the uniform,” Prince Harry said at the 2017 Invictus Games.
He lives by those words.
“The Invictus Games Foundation brings together the international community of wounded, injured and sick service personnel and veterans through the power of sport,” Rominic Reid, CEO of The Invictus Games Foundation said. “We are honoured and delighted that We Are The Mighty, in all they do for veterans, have recognized the Foundation and our Patron, The Duke of Sussex, for the role that Invictus plays within this community. We thank them and you, for all the support.”
Not only is he dedicated to veterans, Prince Harry also remains deeply passionate about serving vulnerable populations and increasing awareness around mental health and racial inequality. In October 2020, he and his wife, Meghan Markle, did a soft launch of their new nonprofit, Archewell. Although the full details of the nonprofit haven’t been unveiled, Archewell appears to be focused on increasing global generosity and kindness.
Prince Harry remains a committed humanitarian, patriot and servant leader. His inspired efforts remind us that our words, empathy and actions matter.
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.
Throughout the year, the team at We Are The Mighty has the privilege of learning about and meeting people doing extraordinary things in the military-veteran community. This is the inspiration behind our annual Mighty 25: Influencers Supporting the Military Community in 2018 — a list of individuals who are making a difference for military service members, veterans, and their families.
This year, we expanded our list to include not just veterans, prior service members, and reservists, but also civilians who are doing exemplary work in this community.
The Mighty 25 Committee utilized a set of specific criteria to select 25 members of the military-veteran community currently making a significant impact. The committee was comprised of the diverse WATM team of veteran editors, writers, and creators who engage with this community daily. The task force conducted extensive research to identify over 100 initial potential candidates. The top 25 were chosen according to impact and the representation of a diverse variety of social causes, fields of work, and communities affected.
This individuals on this year’s Mighty 25 have dedicated their lives to missions that vary greatly: from developing transitioning service members and their spouses into successful entrepreneurs, to helping veterans heal through stand-up comedy training. Yet these exceptional individuals all share one goal: to improve the lives of those who have sacrificed for their country.
We are excited to share these influencers’ stories, highlight their accomplishments to the world, and cheer them on as they continue to make a difference in the lives of many. The 2018 Mighty 25 list is presented here in alphabetical order.
Dr. Jill Biden
Combining a lifetime passion for teaching with her high-profile role as former second lady of the United States, Dr. Jill Biden is able to reach millions as a premier advocate for military service members and their families.
Not long after their husbands took office, Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama teamed up to form “Joining Forces,” a non-profit that partners with the private and public sectors to provide military families with tools to succeed throughout their lives. Their initiative, “Operation Educate the Educator,” was designed to help teachers understand what military families go through, and was introduced at 100 teaching colleges across America.
Biden believes that in addition to military members, families also serve – including children. Her book Don’t Forget, God Bless Our Troops is the story of a little girl coping with her father’s deployment, and is based on the Biden family’s own experiences when their son and father, the late Beau Biden, was deployed to Iraq.
The Biden Foundation, launched Feb. 2017, by Dr. Jill Biden and former Vice President Joe Biden, is a nonprofit organization that looks to “identify policies that advance the middle class, decrease economic inequality, and increase opportunity for all people,” according to its website. One of the organization’s primary focuses is supporting military families.
In April 2017, Biden was appointed to the JP Morgan Chase Military and Veterans’ Affairs External Advisory Council. The council advises the firm on a comprehensive strategy to design programs and products aimed at serving the unique needs of members of the military, veterans and their families.
U.S. Naval Academy graduate and retired Lieutenant Colonel Scott Cooper spent an impressive career in the Marine Corps as an EA-6B Prowler aircrew, serving five tours in Iraq, two in Afghanistan, one in Europe, and one in the Western Pacific. Cooper now serves as the Director of National Security Outreach at Human Rights First, a nonprofit organization that advocates for human rights, especially in encouraging America to be a leader and champion of human rights at home and abroad. In his role, Cooper works to build broad coalitions among military agencies, the national security community, veteran service organizations, and think tanks.
In 2015, Cooper’s passion for advocating for Afghan and Iraqi wartime allies and Syrian refugees led him to found Veterans for American Ideals, a nonpartisan, grassroots, community-based group of veterans aiming to leverage military veteran voices to bridge divides and regain a shared sense of national community. He believes that within this increasingly divisive political climate, veterans can be an important civilizing, unifying force. Their work amplifies veterans’ experiences, leadership abilities, and credibility to combat the erosion of our democratic norms and to challenge the rise of xenophobic, fear-based rhetoric and policies that run counter to our ideals.
In the face of the refugee ban promulgated by the current White House administration, Cooper has dedicated himself to championing the rights of refugees on Capitol Hill, working to educate government officials on the current refugee vetting process, even leading a delegation of refugees to meet with the offices of numerous senators, including John McCain, Jeanne Shaheen, Marco Rubio, Tammy Duckworth, Chuck Grassley, Joe Manchin, and Ed Markey.
Cooper also lends a prominent voice to this public issue as a published author, with his pieces on human rights issues and American values appearing in numerous publications, including the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, The Washington Quarterly, War on the Rocks, Task and Purpose, The American Interest, and Policy Review.
The crown in Elizabeth Dole’s long and varied public career may not lie in her capacity as Federal Trade Commissioner under President Richard Nixon, Secretary of Transportation under President Reagan, or Secretary of Labor under George H.W. Bush — and possibly not even as United States Senator from her home state of North Carolina.
Rather, it is her foundation that may hold more significance for the ordinary Americans it serves every single day. Through the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, Dole has chosen to use her high-profile platform to advocate for those 5.5 million spouses, friends, and family members who care for America’s ill, injured, and wounded veterans.
While visiting her husband at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Dole first became aware of the needs and challenges facing military caregivers. A veteran of World War II, Bob Dole is the recipient of two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star, and has long suffered from the effects of his injuries. As she visited other veterans suffering catastrophic wounds, Dole was drawn to the families, constantly at the side of their loved ones, receiving little or no support.
Under Dole’s leadership, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation has brought national attention to military caregiver issues through its Hidden Heroes Campaign, launched grassroot support initiatives in more than 110 cities across the nation via Hidden Heroes Cities, encouraged innovation and the creation of direct service programming supporting caregivers through Hidden Heroes Fund, empowered and equipped military caregivers in all 50 states and Puerto Rico with tools to advocate on behalf of their caregiver peers though the Dole Caregiver Fellows program, and advocated for national caregiver support with Congressional and VA leaders. The Foundation also launched HiddenHeroes.org, a first-of-its-kind online tool where military caregivers can connect to a peer support community and directory of 200+ carefully vetted resources.
Dole’s impact doesn’t stop there. In October 2017, she was appointed chair of the Veteran Administration’s new family and caregiver advisory committee, which was formed in response to problems with support programs, and is charged with advocating for improvements to VA care and benefits services.
Marjorie K. Eastman
Her 2017 National Independent Publisher Award-winning book The Frontline Generation: How We Served Post 9/11 not only reframes how many thought about those who served in the conflicts following 9/11, it is the first book to define the timeless legacy of anyone who steps up to serve, declaring the most significant call to action for our time. What started as a memoir project that this former enlisted, direct commission Army Reserve officer took on to cope with her infant son’s battle with cancer, it became an informational and inspiring collection of reflections on those with whom she served, and the aftershocks of service, character, and leadership.
She sought to write a book that would help shape the man she hoped her son will become — yet she succeeded in shaping the narrative of post 9/11 veterans as being far more, and better than, the prevailing themes of hero or broken. And the U.S. Army took notice and placed her book on the recommended reading list for the Military Intelligence Center of Excellence library and museum. A 2018 updated version of her book is now available (audio book set to release in late May), with an additional appendix that empowers readers to find a mission — inciting confidence that every one of us can live with purpose, live for each other, and lead.
Named by PBS’s Veterans Coming Home Initiative as a veteran thought leader, Eastman, who was awarded the Bronze Star as a combat commander, as well as the Combat Action Badge, continues to pioneer new ground by positively reinforcing the value of veterans and service as an unmatched currency. She is a frequent public speaker and her articles on topical issues such as the #MeToo movement, veteran entrepreneurs as a force multiplier in our economy, how veterans can bridge the partisan divide, and the potential impact of U.S. State Department cuts have appeared in publications such as The Washington Post, Task Purpose, and USA Today. Make sure to check out her 2018 Deck of 52 Most Wanted post 9/11 Frontline Leaders, a weekly column that is a spin-off and salute to the original deck (2003 Iraqi Playing Cards), highlighting veterans and military families who have launched exceptional businesses and charities.
On Aug. 21, 2009, while enroute from Camp Victory to the International Zone (IZ) in Baghdad, Iraq, then-Army Col. Carol Eggert’s vehicle was struck by an EFP — an explosively formed projectile. She calls it her Gratitude Day. She and all ten service members riding with her that day were wounded. Eggert was in Iraq on a 15-month combat tour as Chief of the Women’s Initiatives Division and Senior Liaison to the U.S. Embassy, Baghdad. In this role, she conducted an analysis of women’s initiatives and engineered a strategic plan to empower Iraqi women economically and politically.
Now as a retired brigadier general in the private sector, Eggert continues to lead through empowerment. She currently serves as the Senior Vice President, Military and Veteran Affairs at Comcast NBCUniversal, executing Comcast NBCUniversal’s commitment to deliver meaningful career opportunities to veterans, National Guard and Reserve members, and military spouses. Eggert recently announced that the company exceeded its goal of hiring 10,000 members of the military community between 2015 and 2017.
Eggert’s selection for this role comes as no surprise. Eggert herself served across several components, including the Regular Army, the Army Reserve, and the National Guard. She also earned several degrees — two master’s and a doctorate in organizational leadership. In addition to the Purple Heart, Eggert is also the recipient of the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Combat Action Badge, and Meritorious Service Medal with 4 Oak Leaf Clusters.
U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former Navy Seal Nick Etten believes that veterans’ quality of life could be improved — and lives could be saved — through access to cannabis for medical treatment. Through his organization, the Veterans Cannabis Project, Etten champions cannabis as a life-saving treatment option. With the prevalence of chronic pain among military veterans leading to a deadly opioid addiction problem within the community, Etten views Cannabidiol (CBD) products as a viable way to help veterans get off opioids.
Access to medical marijuana for veterans, however, is limited. The laws regulating marijuana are currently murky, since it is illegal under federal law, but legal under the law in some states. And because of the current classification of cannabis as a schedule one drug, research on its potential benefits for veterans is limited, and the Department of Veteran affairs does not allow its providers to prescribe or even recommend it to patients.
The Veterans Cannabis Project has been active on Capitol Hill, working to educate lawmakers, and requesting they take action to help clarify the health benefits of cannabis. Etten’s work to educate, advocate, support research, and partner with like-minded organizations is paving the path for future access to alternative treatment options for veterans.
When Justine Evirs joined the Navy, her plan was to make a career out of it. Her early medical discharge, however, forced her back to square one. She ended up in college to study business then spent numerous years in higher education and veteran services. Evirs is now a mother of three, military spouse, and prominent leader and disrupter in the entrepreneurial and veteran military spouse communities, whose ideas are fast-tracking opportunities for veterans entering the civilian workforce or starting their own businesses.
In her previous role as the Executive Director of the nonprofit Bunker Labs Bay Area Evirs helps provide resources and networking opportunities to military veterans and their spouses who are starting and growing their own businesses. Now in her new role as the National Director of Policy at Bunker Labs she is focused on policy solutions for veteran entrepreneurs across the nation.
The Paradigm Switch, a nonprofit founded by Evirs in 2017, originally provided veterans and military spouses access to prestigious certifications and vocational skills-based programs. Fast forward to today, The Paradigm Switch has recently relaunched and is putting military spouses first. Evirs is building a global digital community for military spouses by military spouses, offering a full spectrum of resources that enable spouses to unleash their unlimited potential both personally and professionally. They discover and provide access to resources and communities that empower military spouses to take control of their careers.
Delphine Metcalf-Foster made history in 2017, when she became the first woman ever elected as the National Commander of the Disabled Americans Veterans (DAV) organization.
Metcalf-Foster, whose father was a Buffalo Soldier, joined the military later in life, when her daughter was in high school. Her daughter was convinced people would laugh at her mom because of her age, but Metcalf-Foster went for it, and ended up retiring from the Army Reserve 21 years later. During her service, she deployed to Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield, where she was injured.
Metcalf-Foster’s passion for serving fellow veterans has fueled her work with DAV. With over 1 million members, this nonprofit organization helps injured veterans access benefits and advocates on their behalf. In her role as the DAV National Commander, Metcalf-Foster aims to spotlight the need to close the health care gap that exists for women veterans, as well as the need to expand government support for caregivers of pre 9/11 veterans.
It all started with this former Army captain’s raw, brutally honest and irreverent blog titled Kaboom: a Soldier’s War Journal, which chronicled his 15-month Iraq deployment leading a scout platoon with the 25th Infantry Division. The controversial and popular blog was eventually shut down by Gallagher’s chain-of-command, but was later published as a critically-acclaimed memoir after he left the Army.
Armed with an MFA in fiction from Columbia, Gallagher went on to write for numerous major publications, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Wired. Tackling such dicey issues as whether or not the Iraq War was worth it, the social estrangement of returning veterans, and refugee and immigration rights of Muslims coming to America, Gallagher challenges intellectual and moral complacency. As a veteran directly affected by these issues, Gallagher’s skepticism of the establishment, honest self-reflection, and calls for accountability bring an enormously refreshing and credible perspective to the conversation.
In 2015, Vanity Fair called Matt Gallagher one of the most important voices of a new generation of American war literature. His debut novel Youngblood (2016) portrays a young soldier in his search for meaning during the end of the Iraq War.
As a former intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve, the mayor of Los Angeles has made improving the lives of veterans a priority throughout his tenure. His establishment of the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs aimed to ensure veterans in Los Angeles can access the services they’ve earned. One of Garcetti’s most impressive contributions to the veteran community during his time as mayor has been through the office’s massive hiring campaign called the 10,000 Strong Initiative.
Garcetti’s groundbreaking initiative formed a coalition between the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs and companies and community organizations in Los Angeles over the last three years to reach the goal of hiring 10,000 local veterans. The program utilized the services of local nonprofits and government agencies to match qualified veteran candidates with open positions. The initiative also offered job training to veterans to assist them in transitioning into the civilian workforce, as well as training to companies on how to use tax incentives when hiring veterans.
Through the use of these resources and training programs, Garcetti’s 10,000 Strong Initiative ended up beating its own goal, placing 10,500 veterans with more than 200 companies in the Los Angeles region. In Garcetti’s own words from his Aug 29, 2017 Fleet Week speech, “The men and women who served our country in uniform should come home to opportunity, not obstacles. Veterans are some of the hardest-working, most qualified, and prepared people in Los Angeles — and they should have every chance to succeed in the workplace, and make a living for themselves and their families.”
Jason Hall started his career in Hollywood as an actor. Some might recognize him from his recurring role as the lead singer of a band in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. According to Hall, however, the role that truly made a difference in his life was for a University of Southern California student film in which he portrayed a Marine coming to grips with the loss of a troop. This role would serve as his entry into the fascinating and strange world of American military veterans.
Hall’s Oscar nomination for his adaptation of the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s American Sniper novel for the 2014 film version served as his breakout moment as a major creative force. His success in the powerful telling of that story led him to his next project, Thank You for Your Service, a 2017 film he wrote and directed based on Washington Post reporter David Finkel’s nonfiction book by the same name, which follows the real-life plight of four soldiers returning home from the Iraq War.
Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, had followed these soldiers in the war for 10 months, then continued following them for another 13 months after they came home. What resulted was a gripping account of the challenges faced by veterans following war.
Hall’s film expanded the book’s audience to moviegoers across America, giving a prominent spotlight to the issues faced by returning veterans. It’s his dedication to the careful and accurate depiction of these true-life accounts that demonstrates his commitment to serving veterans through filmmaking. He looks to bring that same accuracy to the story of another well-known veteran: George Washington. He has spent the last year researching and writing the story of Washington’s road to becoming a leader through the French Indian war.
Zach Iscol is a combat decorated Marine veteran who served two tours in Iraq and fought in the second Battle of Fallujah, where he led a combined unit of 30 American and 250 Iraqi National Guard troops, and later helped build US Marine Corps, Special Operations Command.
Through Hirepurpose, Iscol has helped over 50,000 veterans with employment through personalized career guidance, resources, and job matching. Iscol’s Headstrong Project, an affiliate of Weill Cornell Medical Center, has provided cost-free world-class mental healthcare to over 600 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in 14 cities and growing around the Country. Task Purpose is a leading news, culture and lifestyle website with content aimed at military and veteran audiences, and reaching over 50 million people a month.
In 2007, Iscol’s testimony, while on active duty, before the United States Senate, helped establish the Special Immigrant Visa to safeguard and protect our Iraqi and Afghanistan translators.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
Dwayne Johnson comes from a proud military family, and his goal is to give back to the military community. An actor, producer, philanthropist, and former WWE professional wrestler, Johnson uses his super-celebrity status to advocate for the importance of American freedom and to honor its protectors.
At the end of 2016, Johnson was the executive producer and host of the inaugural “Rock the Troops” event at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam for 50,000 military personnel in recognition of the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. For this event, which aired on Spike TV, Johnson assembled an epic cast of fellow celebrities — Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, Keegan Michael-Key, Rob Riggle, Nick Jona, Flo Rider, and more all made special appearances to honor the troops.
Johnson continues his support for military members and their families through his partnership with Under Armour’s Freedom initiative, which supports the military and first responder communities by enhancing their physical and mental wellness.
After serving 25 years in the U.S. Air Force as both a public affairs NCO and officer, Mike Kelly continues serving the military community as a passionate advocate for veterans and military spouses. In his role as an executive at USAA, he leads strategic collaborations with key military, government, nonprofit, and for-profit advocacy groups.
Mike is building collaborative relationships that focus on a national dialogue surrounding important veteran and spouse issues such as financial readiness, navigating successful transitions into the civilian workforce, entrepreneurship, and supportive and impactful military spouse communities.
In 2016, The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation selected Mike as the recipient of the annual Hiring Our Heroes Colonel Michael Endres Leadership Award for Individual Excellence in Veteran Employment. He currently serves on the HOH Veteran and Military Spouse Employment Councils, which focus on actions addressing the unique employment challenges veterans and military spouses face.
Mike is dedicated to connecting, equipping, and inspiring opportunities that benefit the military community at large.
Sam Meek served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps as a Nuclear Biological Chemical Defense (NBCD) Specialist, completing two tours in Iraq. After leaving the military, Meek would eventually end up using his passion for technology to help connect members of the military community. His unique mobile app, Sandboxx, helps give new recruits in basic training — as well as deployed service members without access to their social media apps — a way to stay connected to the outside world.
Sandboxx customers, most of whom are already active users of social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, and SnapChat, are easily able to transition to Sandboxx to communicate with out-of-reach military members. They use the app to upload photos, which get converted into a piece of physical mail, which is sent anywhere in the world it needs to go, even remote locations. Most letters are sent overnight and are delivered the next business day.
Meek launched Sandboxx Travel in 2017, which enables service members to book hotels and flights, often with military discounts, through the Sandboxx app and site. The app also helps provide a way for active and inactive members of the military to connect with any unit they have ever served. As the grandson and great grandson of military service members, Meek was intent on maintaining his connection to the Marines. He now helps people around the world do exactly that.
On April 10, 2012, while serving on his third tour with the 82nd Airborne, Staff Sergeant Travis Mills was critically injured by an IED. He lost both arms and both legs in the blast, and is one of only five quadruple amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to survive those injuries.
Mills spent much of his time during recovery at Walter Reed encouraging and hanging out with fellow injured veterans and their families, earning the nickname the “Mayor.” So it’s not much of a surprise that he ended up deciding that he wanted to do something big — not only for veterans, but their families as well. In 2013, embodying the warrior ethos of “Never give up, never quit,” Travis and his wife started the Travis Mills Foundation.
The Foundation supports veterans and their families through programs that help these heroic men and women overcome physical obstacles, strengthen their families, and provide well-deserved rest and relaxation. Mills’ latest effort to support these veterans and their families is through his Foundation’s national retreat center, located in his home state of Maine.
Since June of 2017, the retreat has served injured veterans and their families, who receive an all-inclusive, all-expenses paid, barrier-free vacation where they participate in adaptive activities, bond with other veteran families, and enjoy the 17-acre grounds of the estate.
You might know Bob Parsons as the larger-than-life billionaire entrepreneur who founded GoDaddy, but his legacy extends far beyond the massively successful internet domain registrar and web hosting company. Parsons served in the United States Marine Corps and, at 18 years old, deployed to Vietnam as a rifleman with Delta Company, earning a Purple Heart, a Combat Action Ribbon, and the Vietnam Gallantry Cross.
Parsons is passionate about creating a positive homecoming experience for veterans returning from war. This was also the inspiration behind those who started the Semper Fi Fund, a charity that provides immediate and long-term resources to post-9/11 military members who have been combat wounded, catastrophically injured, or are critically ill.
Semper Fi Fund also provides services aimed at helping vets throughout their lives, including family and caregiver support, PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury care and education, adaptive housing and transportation, education and career transition assistance, mentoring and apprenticeships, and unit reunions.
As one of the highest-rated charities in the country the Semper Fi Fund’s impact is impressive. According to their website, Semper Fi Fund’s 2017 monetary assistance to service members totaled million dollars. Bob Parsons and his wife Renee are also the founders of the nonprofit organization The Bob Renee Parsons Foundation. For the sixth year in a row, the Foundation recently completed its Double Down for Veterans match campaign with the Semper Fi Fund by matching contributions dollar-for-dollar, exceeding their 2017 goal of million. The Foundation has donated more than million in total to the Semper Fi Fund since its creation. This husband-and-wife philanthropic powerhouse have given an astounding 0 million dollars to charity since 2012.
Coming from three generations of military service, Elizabeth Halperin-Perez spent nine years as an Aviation Logistic Specialist in the U.S. Navy. During a deployments to the Middle East, her friend died in a terrorist attack on the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Cole while it was refueling in Yemen’s Aden Harbor. This event, along with the deep respect for Mother Earth instilled in her from her Mono Indian Native American heritage, sparked her passion for energy policies that advance national security.
Committed to reducing conflict and future wars by furthering sustainable energy practices, Halperin-Perez went on to become the founder and president of the green-build general contracting and consulting firm GCG. Using her experience and network, she also works to help other veterans find clean energy job opportunities, and is passionate about helping them onto an entrepreneurial path. In 2017, Halperin-Perez was chosen by Governor Brown to serve on the California Veterans Board, and most recently was appointed Deputy Secretary of Minority Veterans with the California Department of Veterans Affairs, serving underrepresented veterans in a much larger capacity across California. She was also recognized at the White House in 2013 as a “Champion of Change for Advancing Clean Energy Technologies Climate Security”.
Sam Pressler began his involvement with the veteran community during his time as a student at the College of William Mary, where he majored in government and first learned about the mental health challenges faced by veterans returning from war. Pressler himself had turned to comedy to cope after a suicide in his family, and in response to the challenges affecting veterans and service members he started Comedy Bootcamp, a stand-up comedy class for veterans and their families as a way to help build community and improve well-being through comedy.
This bootcamp eventually grew into the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP), a non-profit founded and led by Pressler that helps veterans, service members, and military family members reintegrate into their communities through the arts. The organization promotes expression, skill-development, and camaraderie through classes, workshops, and performances across a variety of artistic disciplines. ASAP’s focus on consistent programs and community partnerships ensures that members of our community have continuous opportunities for artistic and personal growth.
ASAP has served more than 600 students, and put on over 800 performances for 50,000+ audience members, including a 2016 comedy show at The White House and a performance for President Jimmy Carter. Through these programs and performances, Pressler has helped to create connections and understanding between veterans and members of their local communities. Pressler was honored on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2017, as one of HillVets 100 most influential people in the veterans space in 2016, and as a recipient of the prestigious Echoing Green Fellowship.
His work with ASAP has been featured by numerous media outlets, including the Washington Post, ABC News, NBC, CNN, NPR, PBS, Military Times, Task Purpose, and Stars Stripes.
Jennifer Pritzker (born James Pritzker) enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions while on active duty, then at various units in the Army National Guard until retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 2001. She was later promoted to the honorary rank of Colonel.
Pritzker has been a massive force multiplier through her philanthropic work as the President and Chief Executive Officer of Tawani Enterprises, Inc., President of the Tawani Foundation, and Founder and Chair of the Pritzker Military Museum Library. In these roles, Pritzker makes significant long-term differences for programs and organizations that advocate the role of military in society.
Among her notable contributions is a id=”listicle-2565932886″.3 million donation to the University of California, Santa Barbara to fund studies on how the U.S. military could openly integrate transgender members into its ranks. In 2017, the Pritzker Military Foundation donated id=”listicle-2565932886″ million to fund key initiatives for Elizabeth Dole’s Hidden Heroes campaign, which supports the caregivers of injured and ill veterans and service members. In 2018, the Foundation gave id=”listicle-2565932886″ million to the Army Historical Foundation to help with the construction of the National Museum of the United States Army in Virginia. In 2013, Pritzker came out as transgender and started living as a woman. She is the only known transgender billionaire in the world.
(Photo by Terrilyn Bayne)
Diana & Daniel Rau
Daniel Rau was inspired to serve his country when he saw the Twin Towers fall on 9/11. He joined the Marine Corps and served as a Marine Security Guard protecting embassies around the world. After his service, based on his and his friends’ experiences, he saw an opportunity to radically change the process of how Veterans enter the civilian workforce.
Diana Rau, who was honored as one of Forbes’ 2018 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs, is a Georgetown graduate passionate about solving major social problems. When she met Daniel, the idea for Veterati sparked: build a technology platform to help America’s 1.5 million service members currently transitioning into the civilian workforce as well as 5.5 million underemployed military spouses navigate and break into civilian careers. (A romantic relationship that later led to their marriage also sparked — Veterati’s story is both a startup story a love story!)
Because 80% of job opportunities are never listed, but rather, are advertised and filled through personal networks, the Raus built a digital platform that empower service members and spouses to connect with multiple mentors and build social networks vital to their career search. At Veterati.com, Veterans spouses are matched with successful business people in their area of interest using smart algorithms. Mentors volunteer their time through free, one-hour phone calls facilitated by the platform. Since its 2015 launch, Veterati, which has been called the “Uber-of-mentoring,” has provided thousands of free mentoring conversations for 10k+ members and is partnered with the nation’s leading Veteran Service Organizations and Military Employers to deliver free, on-demand mentoring to our entire military community.
In 2017, Denise Rohan became the first female national commander of the 2 million-member American Legion in its 99-year history. Rohan, who served in the Army’s Quartermaster Corps for two years at the end of the Vietnam War, joined the Legion 33 years ago, working her way up from post-level membership to National Commander.
The American Legion is the nation’s largest veteran service organization and was founded on four pillars: veterans affairs and rehabilitation, national security, Americanism, and children and youth. As their new national commander, Rohan is expanding on those four pillars through her “Family First” platform, which broadens the American Legion’s focus on service members and veterans to include family members as well. As the spouse of a veteran herself, Rohan believes that families serve too; and ensuring those family members are being taken care of at home allows for their loved ones in the fight to focus more on their mission, ultimately strengthening national security.
Rohan’s current special fundraising project is the Legion’s Temporary Financial Assistance program, which awards cash grants to children of veterans in need to help the cost of shelter, food, utilities, and health expenses.
Major Dan Rooney
Major Dan Rooney is a U.S. Air Force Reserve F-16 fighter pilot with the Oklahoma National Guard. It was during his second tour of duty in Iraq that he felt a calling to do something in response to the devastating sacrifices he saw others make fighting for their country. This calling was solidified on a commercial flight Rooney took after returning to the U.S. The plane had just landed and the pilot announced that the remains of Corporal Brock Bucklin were on board. Maj Rooney watched as the flag-draped casket slowly made its way to the awaiting family, which included the fallen hero’s son. Rooney was overwhelmed thinking about the hardship those family members would face due to their loss.
This moment irrecoverably altered Rooney’s trajectory, and he made the decision at that moment to dedicate the rest of his life to helping the family members of those who gave their lives, or were disabled in service to their nation. He recently formed a partnership with Budweiser’s Patriot Beer and in 2007 created the Folds of Honor Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps the more than one million dependents adversely impacted by war through educational scholarships.
Rooney, who is also a PGA golf pro, realized that he could use his platform to help achieve the goals he had for his foundation. The first Folds of Honor golf tournament raised ,000. Since, then Folds of Honor has raised over 0 million and given away over 13,000 educational scholarships. Rooney continues to his work to uphold the mission of his foundation: “Honor their sacrifice. Educate their legacy.”
Actor and humanitarian Gary Sinise has been a strong advocate of American service members for nearly 40 years, starting with his Veterans Night program, which offers free dinners and performances to veterans at the Steppenwolf Theatre, which he co-founded in Chicago. Later, his portrayal of Lt Dan in the film Forrest Gump would create a lasting connection with the disabled military community. Following 9/11 he took part in many USO tours, which led him to form The Lt. Dan Band, which entertains troops at home and abroad and raises awareness at benefit concerts across the country.
Sinise established the Gary Sinise Foundation in 2011, through which he continues to serve and honor America’s defenders, veterans, and first responders as well as their families and those in need. Whether they’re sending WWII veterans to New Orleans to tour the National WWII Museum through its Soaring Valor program or building specially adapted smart homes for severely wounded veterans through its R.I.S.E. (Restoring Independence, Supporting Empowerment) program, Sinise continually demonstrates just how much one person’s commitment can do for an entire community. His Foundation recently added the annual Snowball Express event to its roster of programs. The annual event brings together the children and spouses of fallen military heroes each December for a fun-filled four-day event at Disney World.
Sinise’s forthcoming book Grateful American, which features the author’s life story and passionate advocacy for military service members, is slated for release in 2019.
Jon Stewart, comedian and former host of The Daily Show, is nothing less than passionate about his support for the troops. He continually uses his public platform to stress that the country does not do enough to support service members and veterans. His persistent message to America and its institutions is that supporting the troops shouldn’t be an empty saying, but rather a call to action. Stewart backs up his words with his own remarkable commitment, proving himself a truly dedicated advocate for this community.
During his long tenure as the host of the massively popular satirical news show, Stewart established an internship program for veterans trying to break into the television industry, which continues on to this day. He has also toured with USO three times, entertaining service members all over the world, bringing them laughs and a touch of home. Stewart regularly participates in benefits and campaigns aimed at raising money and awareness for issues impacting veterans.
In 2016, Stewart attended the Warrior Games, an adaptive sports competition in which injured and ill service members and veterans participate. He later pitched the idea of broadcasting the games on television to ESPN — and in 2017, they did exactly that, with Stewart serving as the emcee.
Retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Kaleth Wright’s legacy of service is one of courage, devotion and a pretty creative nickname. But his story is far from over.
Wright candidly shared his path to joining the Air Force. It involved using a bad address that got him kicked out of college and an Air Force recruiter’s card that fell out of his wallet. “I looked down and said, ‘You know what, I’m gonna join the Air Force. A couple months later I was in San Antonio trying to figure out how to be an airman,” he laughed.
He never dreamed he’d eventually become the voice of the enlisted as the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. But he knew he could be. It’s a role he relished and took pride in. What he didn’t know was that not long into his tenure, airmen were really liking all the improvements and changes he was making. They liked him so much they gave him a nickname that he’s never been able to shake: Enlisted Jesus.
“It’s certainly humbling that people think of you in that light – in such a positive manner,” he said with a smile. Wright was careful not to promote the nickname in order to avoid offending anyone, but certainly appreciated the sentiment behind it. As a public figure and leader, Wright recognizes the importance of being a good role model. He hopes to continue to be that and encourage others to do the same.
“The thing that makes me most proud as I look back over my Air Force career are all the young men and women I helped influence and have had a positive impact on. I was the recipient of some really really good mentorship, especially early in my career. So, I always made it a point to try to give back in that same way,” Wright explained. He has been open about sharing his struggles as a young airman and how pivotal having a mentor was for not only his career, but his life.
While Wright continues to receive messages from those he’s mentored throughout the years, it’s the ones he doesn’t know personally who also reach out to share the impact he’s had on them. “That makes me feel like I at least made a difference and was able to give back,” he explained. It was those experiences that challenged him to continue to read, study and develop himself both as an airman and a human being.
As he continued to lead as the voice for the enlisted force, the other leaders within the Air Force began to grow alarmed with rising rates of airmen suicides in 2019. Wright shared a powerful video message as the Air Force signaled a stand down to address suicide prevention. “I recognized that resilience was an issue for us in the Air Force. Just tracking not only the amount of suicides we were having but just realizing how difficult and challenging it was to be a service member in general…I just wanted to impress upon the Air Force… that hey, this is something really important to us,” Wright explained.
One of the things Wright remains extremely proud of is how the military is moving forward, especially as it pertains to removing the stigma associated with mental health. Leadership is now encouraged to openly share vulnerabilities and stories of their own struggles which can have undeniable impact on the Force. The results have been instrumental in reaching airmen to let them know they aren’t alone and there is support for them.
As he planned his transition out of the service, Wright said he wanted to do something that gave him equal purpose. He’s found that as the new CEO of the Air Force Aid Relief Society. “I’ve known for a long time the important work the organization does for Airmen and families. I also saw it as a way for me to continue to serve,” Wright said.
Although many may put him on a pedestal, especially with the nickname that he’ll probably never shake off, Wright remains a humble Airman. There’s some fun things you’d be surprised to learn about him, too. Wright shared that he loves the color pink, he is a poet and an aspiring guitarist. He also wants people to know that they can achieve whatever they set their minds to. It’s his hope that his story resonates and inspires a new generation. His advice for them was simple: be dreamers
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.
Shannon Razsadin wears a lot of hats. Mom, Navy spouse and dedicated advocate are just a few. She’s also the Executive Director for the Military Family Advisory Network, a strong and vital voice and resource for military families everywhere.
Despite having two young children and walking through ongoing challenges associated with being a military spouse, Razsadin has always been devoted to ensuring the wellbeing of military families. When she was selected to be the Executive Director of MFAN, she looked at it as a vocation, not a job.
“I feel really privileged because leading MFAN is more than a job for me. It’s something I am called to. I’m the lucky person that gets to lead it – but it’s a team,” she explained. “Because everyone who works for MFAN has a military connection, there is an innate authenticity that’s part of who we are as an organization and the ability to connect with military families in a way that is real.”
One issue MFAN is spending a lot of time on that may surprise the public is food insecurity for military families. This critical issue is an ongoing and escalating concern that Razsadin and her team remain passionate about researching and finding solutions for. “One in eight of our [survey] respondents in 2019 was food insecure. We are launching a pretty aggressive effort in Texas where one in six of our respondents was food insecure to really understand the underlying factors that lead to food insecurity,” Razsadin said. They will be doing the same outreach in Virginia as well, where one in six families also reported food insecurity.
MFAN works hand and hand with policy makers and the Department of Defense. “We stick to the research and we don’t embellish — really sticking to the facts. Also, we are not shy. But we do it in a way that gets to solutions and not just play a game of ‘gotcha.’ We want to make sure we are building bridges and shortening the amount of time between identifying the problem or issue and deployment with a solution,” Razsadin explained.
This means MFAN brings the information and research right to the doors of the leaders within the DOD before it’s released. Razsadin stated that it’s important to build relationships and sit at a table together to tackle problems and find solutions for military families. “That really helps as we try to get at meaningful change,” she said. It’s approaches like this that have led to budget increases within military housing and new attention placed on food insecurity.
Recent research by MFAN has found instances of military spouses resorting to eating cat food or even ice to fill their empty stomachs. With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the world in so many ways, Razsadin shared that military families are starting to speak out more about food insecurity because they no longer feel alone.
When MFAN or Razsadin share the research regarding food insecurity with people, the first reaction is often shock. “They say, ‘How could military families be struggling for food?’ and I say, ‘Think about it. Think about the out of pocket costs for each PCS, think about that many military families are single income households.’ There’s a lot more to it,” she said. Through research and outreach, MFAN remains excited to use the data to create informed change, Razsadin shared.
Another important point that Razsadin was quick to make was that food insecurity directly impacts the future of the all-volunteer force. She explained the link between food insecurity and obesity as families are forced to eat cheap and unhealthy meals. With the percentage of eligible military service members dwindling drastically over the years, this is one issue that appears to need to be front and center when considering mission readiness.
With the pandemic impacting the world and creating deep isolation due to lack of engagement, military families aren’t immune. The military community is seeing higher rates of suicide and depression, with the trend continuing upward. “It’s very real, the implications that loneliness has on other areas of your life. We need to ask for help and know that there is nothing wrong with doing it,” Razsadin said.
When asked what advice she would give to military families everywhere as they navigate the new normal and ongoing issues, she said to give grace. “Ask people how they are doing, and listen. Right now, people are dealing with a lot,” she said. “Don’t expect to be great at all the things right now. Taking care of yourself and each other is really important.”
Heroes aren’t born; they are made. Medal of Honor recipient and retired Army Colonel Jack Jacobs thinks everyone has it in them to become one for their own community.
“One of the things you learn in uniform but particularly in combat – is that when you are part of something larger than yourself, you really are making a difference,” Jacobs shared. “Secondly, it’s the average person who winds up making the difference between success and failure. I’ve spent much more time in combat than I ever expected or wanted. I can tell you this, that everyday people made a difference in terms of valor. It wasn’t some super person who turned the tide of a battle or saved fellow soldiers, it was just the average soldier. It’s always the average soldier.”
His parents were immigrants from Europe and his father served in the South Pacific in the Army during World War II. Service to country was ingrained. Jacobs himself entered the Army as a Second Lieutenant after graduating from Rutgers ROTC program. Six months later in 1967, he was sent to Vietnam. He has shared the experience of landing in Vietnam and seeing the soldiers heading home, who he said looked like they were about 100 years old. About eight weeks later, he looked like that, too.
After being ambushed due to an enemy informant, Jacobs had shrapnel wounds covering his arms and a critical wound to his head, impairing his vision. Despite all of this – with complete disregard for his own safety – he continued to return to the ‘kill zone’ to evacuate the wounded, saving the lives of 14 soldiers. In an interview with the American Veterans Center he said, “We fight to achieve the mission and we fight for the country. When the bullets and shrapnel start flying around, we do it for each other. You don’t know real love until you are in combat.”
When Jacobs stopped to rest, he discovered he couldn’t get up again. He would undergo dozens of surgeries to piece back together his skull and face. He also never regained his sense of smell or taste. For his heroism and sacrifice, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Jacobs said it was a profound ‘Why me?’ moment. “There were a lot of brave people on that day just like there are a lot of brave people in combat every day,” he explained. Although he doesn’t remember much of the ceremony, he can still recall the vast sea of people who came to watch – stretching as far as the eye could see.
Witnessing that was remarkable considering the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and the civil unrest wreaking havoc on the country at the time. Jacobs feels a lot of the reason troops may be more celebrated now is because it isn’t a draft, instead, a volunteer force. “We love the troops today. One of the reasons is because we don’t have to be the troops,” he said pointedly.
After retiring from the Army, Jacobs led a successful career on Wall Street. He’s a military analyst on NBC and MSNBC, extremely vocal on issues impacting today’s military. Jacobs also co-authored a book about his experiences during the Vietnam War titled, If Not Now, When? Duty and Sacrifice in America’s Time of Need. With brutal honesty he addresses the role of citizenry and necessity of sacrifice.
One of Jacobs’ passions is improving employment opportunities for veterans. “We don’t realize – and indeed the veterans themselves – don’t realize that people in uniform have had authority and responsibility at such a young age, that they are often more qualified to do just about anything,” he explained.
As for the majority of the public that will never serve in the military, he feels they have a duty to those who do raise their hands to defend and protect. “All of us whether we’ve been in uniform or not, benefit from the exertions from the young people wearing the uniform and because of that, we all have the responsibility to ensure their transition out of the military is easy,” Jacobs said. “I strongly encourage people to do what they can to make veterans a bigger part of their community.”
It should also be said that ‘Thank you for your service’ rings hollow to a lot of veterans, seeming more like a platitude Jacobs said. “There’s a certain modicum of guilt from those who say that, because they feel guilty about not serving…What veterans really need is action, if you aren’t doing something local for veterans you aren’t doing anything,” he explained.
Universal service is a concept that Jacobs believes every American should subscribe to. There is an area where you can put words into action, he stated. “You need to do something. If we have not served in some capacity we aren’t doing anything for our country,” he stated. “It’s when you only think about yourself that you wind up drifting away from the American ideal of being a member of the wider American community.”
The advice and words of encouragement from American hero and Medal of Honor recipient Jack Jacobs are quite simple. Go do something. Be a part of something bigger than yourself.
In politics, business, advocacy, and media, there are veterans on the American landscape who have the potential to make a big difference in the months ahead. Some of them are well-known; many of them are not (but should be).
The editors of We Are The Mighty looked across the community and created a diverse list of veterans who continue to serve in a wide variety of high-impact ways. Here are The Mighty 25:
WILLIAM MCNULTY — Managing Director, Team Rubicon Global
William McNulty is a former Marine infantryman who later transitioned into the intelligence community. In 2010 he assumed a new mission with what would eventually become Team Rubicon, a non-profit disaster relief organization he co-founded with fellow Marine Jake Wood.
Since then, Team Rubicon has grown considerably. The permanent staff now oversees some 16,000 volunteers who deploy wherever disaster strikes. Late this year, McNulty stepped back from the main organization to focus on an ambitious project to take TR international.
In 2015, with McNulty now managing director of Team Rubicon Global, look for greater impact from the five-year-old organization as it expands to support relief efforts worldwide. This franchise approach will model Team Rubicon’s successes with American veterans and allow foreign military vets to continue to serve in their communities.
DON FAUL — Director of Operations, Pinterest
Annapolis grad and former Marine Don Faul got to his new job by way of Google and Facebook, a great training track for the task he faces as Pinterest’s head of Operations.
Faul is already making waves with his innovative approach to the site’s ad units, substituting the standard way of charging an advertiser per one thousand impressions for a model that charges by the amount visitors actually click on an ad – a huge benefit for the small businesses that frequent Pinterest. Faul’s leadership could make a big difference in Pinterest’s performance, and beyond that, in how social media is monetized next year and beyond.
JONI ERNST — Senator from Iowa
A day after winning the most contested Senate race in the country — a race punctuated by ads that showcased her talking about castrating cows — Maj. Joni Ernst showed up for duty with the Iowa National Guard where she’s served since 1993.
She now arrives in D.C. as the only female combat veteran in the Senate, and the Republican side of the aisle is ready to use that for all it’s worth. “It’s really good for our National Defense,” Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley told National Review Online, “having [Ernst serve] in the Senate will be good for all debate on national security.”
DAN BRILLMAN — Co-founder, Unite US
Along with co-founder and West Point grad Taylor Justice, Air Force reservist and tanker pilot Dan Brillman has figured out a way to leverage web technology to allow eligible parties to effectively navigate the “Sea of Good Will” — the 40,000 organizations dedicated to helping veterans that have historically presented a challenge because of their sheer number and dizzying overlap.
Brillman created Unite US, a website that uses “interactive, proximity-mapping technology” to match vets to the services they need – sort of like Yelp for the military dot-org ecosystem. If you haven’t used UniteUS.com yet, by the end of 2015 you will have.
SETH MOULTON — Congressman from Massachusetts
Seth Moulton’s reluctant entry into politics was spurred primarily by his experiences as a Marine across four tours during the Iraq War – a war he didn’t believe in. After getting his MBA at Harvard and working for a start-up for a while, he decided to run for Congress as a Democrat in Massachusetts sixth district.
He ultimately won the election after unseating a longstanding incumbent during the primary. The same work ethic, intelligence, and moxie that made him a Gen. Petraeus acolyte should serve him well on the Hill. If anyone has the pedigree and problem solving skills to get something done from across the aisle in a Republican-majority Congress, it’s Moulton.
BRIAN ADAM JONES — Editor-in-Chief, Task & Purpose
After an award-winning career as a Marine Corps combat correspondent, Brian Adam Jones honed his journalism chops at Business Insider, working as a reporting intern for the military section.
This year he joined (and helped launch) the HirePurpose blog “Task & Purpose” as editor-in-chief, and in short order his content choices and writing helped that website become a breakout property among a host of emerging military-affinity destinations.
And he’s just getting started; Jones is currently working on a political science degree at Columbia in addition to his gig at Task & Purpose. Make it a point to find his byline in 2015.
PATRICK MURPHY — Host of MSNBC’s “Taking the Hill”
Patrick Murphy was the first Iraq War vet to be elected to Congress in 2007, but his political career was short-circuited in 2011 when the Tea Party helped orchestrate his defeat in Pennsylvania’s 8th District, primarily because of his work in repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Murphy fell back into legal work until he was approached to host a new show on MSNBC. “Taking the Hill” is the only broadcast network program dedicated to military issues and veteran advocacy, and the show was just picked up for a second season. Look for bigger impact in 2015 as Murphy continues to find his voice as a host and gains more creative control over program topics.
PHIL KLAY — Author of “Redeployment”
The New Yorker said this about Army vet Phil Klay’s debut Redeployment: “The best literary work thus far written by a veteran of America’s recent wars . . . Klay’s fiction peels back every pretty falsehood and self-delusion in the encounter between veterans and the people for whom they supposedly fought.”
This year Klay was awarded National Book Award for Fiction — the first Iraq war veteran do so — and he was also named a National Book Foundation ‘5 Under 35′ honoree. Whenever he puts pen to paper going forward, his will be an important and credible voice on behalf of those who served during our most recent wars.
TOM COTTON — Congressman from Arkansas
Tom Cotton first came to the attention of conservatives when he wrote The New York Times a nastygram from the Iraq War because of a story the paper published that he believed hazarded the safety of his troops. Since that time he’s been shaped into a new breed of veteran politician: an anti-progressive in spite of his Harvard degree, one who’s Tea Party-friendly but whose views are shaped as much by reason as ideology.
A recent Atlantic Monthly article put it this way: “He unites the factions of the Republican civil war: The establishment loves his background, while the Tea Party loves his ideological purity.” That combo could be used to good effect – the kind that actually causes outcomes – as he continues to represent the people of Arkansas’ 4th District next year.
TM GIBBONS-NEFF — Reporter, The Washington Post
While working toward his undergraduate degree at Georgetown University, former Marine and Afghan War vet T.M. Gibbons-Neff has emerged as a high-impact writer with bylines in vaunted publications like The New York Times andThe Washington Post.
As an intern with The Post, Neff landed a significant scoop earlier this year with a story that revealed that Maj. Doug Zembiec, the “lion of Fallujah” who was killed in 2007, was actually working for the CIA at the time.
Gibbons-Neff is a guy to watch in that he shows a deft hand by leveraging his warfighting experience while remaining an objective journalist — a skill few possess who deign to cover the topics surrounding national security.
TULSI GABBARD — Congresswoman from Hawaii
Tulsi Gabbard deployed to Iraq with the Hawaii Army National Guard in 2004, and eight years later she was elected to represent Hawaii’s second congressional district. With a diverse background — she’s just 33, thereby one of just a handful of millennials in the House — and the first member of the Hindu faith to be elected to Congress. She’s also just one of two female combat veterans in office.
“I saw in Congress we had fewer veterans serving than had ever served before in our nation’s history and you have people making very important decisions about where and when our troops go into battle,” Gabbard told Yahoo News. As the Obama Administration continues to struggle with how to best counter threats like ISIS, watch how Gabbard leverages her war experience going forward.
TODD CONNOR — Founder, The Bunker
After earning his MBA, Navy veteran Todd Connor started to miss military life while working as a consultant, so he approached Chicago-based tech incubator 1871 with the idea of creating an effort dedicated to veterans.
The result was “The Bunker,” a group of entrepreneurs helping vets avoid the pitfalls of tech start-up life as they struggle to get their businesses off the ground – sort of like a friendlier version of the TV show “Shark Tank.” Connor has a vision of national dominance, and “The Bunker” detachments have sprouted up from Boston to Austin to Los Angeles.
ANU BHAGWATI — Founder, Service Women’s Action Network
Anu Bhagwati’s path to becoming an advocate on behalf of female service members started during her time in the Marine Corps where she weathered myriad examples of sexual harassment and found no quarter within the system designed to protect her and then found no justice when she attempted to go around it.
She channeled her frustration and anger into action in the form of the Service Women’s Action Network, a nonprofit organization that works to end discrimination, harassment and assault in the military. In short order Bhagwati’s clear voice and unflinching approach to SWAN’s mission has influenced policies at the VA and legislation on Capitol Hill. Look for her to keep the pressure up into the new year.
OWEN WEST — Director, Goldman-Sachs Veterans Network
Business Insider labeled Owen West as “the most badass banker on Wall Street” a couple of years ago, and his efforts since then have done nothing but reinforce that title.
West left his lucrative job at Goldman-Sachs three times to serve during the Iraq War. He defines “Renaissance Man”: Novelist and historian; triathlete, world traveler, and philanthropist. But perhaps most importantly, his day job as the director of Goldman-Sachs’ veterans networkunderwrites the impact of that program and ensures this generation of warfighters have a place in the halls of power on the south end of Manhattan.
DAWN HALFAKER — Board Chairwoman, Wounded Warrior Project
Dawn Halfaker was serving as a military police officer when she lost her right arm in an ambush in Iraq in 2004. Her employment struggles after being medically retired from the Army motivated her to start Halfaker and Associates, a consultant firm that specializes in government tech solutions.
She’s built the business with an eye on veteran hiring, and, in turn, used the lessons learned as a board member for the Wounded Warrior Project, specifically with WWP’s “Warriors to Work” employment program. “A lot of business leaders say they want to hire veterans, but don’t know ultimately how they can bring veterans in and empower them to be successful, given the cultural differences of the military,” Halfaker told The Huffington Post. Look for her to continue bridging that cultural divide in 2015.
ANTHONY NOTO — Chief Financial Officer, Twitter
Army vet Anthony Noto was named Twitter’s CFO this summer after shepherding the social media giant through its IPO, and he’ll need to channel the aggressiveness he used as a football player at West Point as the company attempts to, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “transform its mainstream presence into widespread adoption.”
Noto’s job this year is to diminish investor skepticism by growing Twitter’s user base beyond its already gigantic footprint – a suitable challenge for a former Ranger who honed his business chops at Goldman-Sachs and the NFL.
PAUL RIECKHOFF — Founder, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America marked a decade of existence in 2014, and the organization is showing no signs of slowing down going into next year. Under the leadership of the well-networked and media-savvy founder Paul Rieckhoff, IAVA championed the Clay Hunt SAV Act – legislation designed to combat the veteran suicide rate – at the end of the year, although the bill’s passage was singularly impeded by Sen. Tom Coburn.
As military vets continue to take their own lives at a rate of 22 per day, don’t expect Rieckhoff to give up on this issue in 2015.
GUY FILIPPILLINI — Co-founder and CEO, The Commit Foundation
Former Army intel officer Guy Filippellini co-founded The Commit Foundation to address what he saw as a fundamental flaw in veteran career transition programs he’d seen: One-size-fits-all approaches are largely ineffective.
The Commit Foundation’s mission statement is at once lofty and matter-of-fact: “[The foundation] creates serendipity for veterans by fostering mentorship, extending and growing professional networks, promoting familiar camaraderie, and setting the stage for inspiring moments.”
The foundation’s approach is different than most in that it’s focused on what Filippellini calls “small touch high impact efforts,” which means they focus on small numbers of veterans at a time and give each “sustained attention.” The veteran unemployment problem isn’t going away next year, but Filippellini’s foundation is poised to lessen it.
JOHN MCCAIN — Senator from Arizona, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee
Senator John McCain returned to the spotlight at the end of 2014 when the Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA enhanced interrogation techniques hit the streets. “[The CIA] stained our national honor, did much harm and little practical good,” he said on the senate floor.
McCain also took over as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee this year, which could be sporty considering his criticism of wasteful spending and his currently rocky relationship with the Pentagon. With his unique ability as a Hill provocateur, 2015 could be an exceptionally bad year for weapons programs that are over budget and behind schedule.
ROBERT MCDONALD — Secretary of the Veterans Administration
Former Army Ranger Robert McDonald took the reins of the VA on the backside of a massive scandal that revealed administrative ineptitude at the agency had led to the deaths of more than 40 veterans.
McDonald was brought aboard primarily because of his experience as CEO of Proctor and Gamble, but also because he has more charisma than his predecessor, the phlegmatic Eric Shinseki. McDonald has already been more visible than Shinseki was, threatening to fire large numbers of entrenched bureaucrats and even making his cell phone number public. As more veterans transition to VA care next year, the pressure is on the new secretary to improve the way the agency has performed overall since 9-11.
JASON MANGONE — Director, The Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project
The Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project “envisions a future in which a year of full-time national service — a service year — is a cultural expectation, a common opportunity, and a civic rite of passage for every young American,”according to their website. Jason Mangone is a former Marine Corps infantry officer and the director of the project.
Although he served three tours in Iraq, he is quick to point out that he never saw actual combat and that service is not about that. “While those who bear the costs of battle carry a heavier burden, the rest of us can still rightly say we’ve served our country,” Mangone writes at The Huffington Post. “Serving my country means that I gave up the normal progression of my life — high school, college, work — to do something whose end was civic. The same could be said for the veterans of many other types of national service.”
In an era where the social contract is increasingly challenged by diverging political outlooks, economic circumstances, and cultural backgrounds, Mangone’s effort in leading the Franklin Project may ultimately design the road map toward preserving our national identity.
MAT BEST — Founder, Article 15 Clothing Company
Though Mat Best did five combat tours to Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom with the 2nd Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, he’s best known for his collection of hilarious videos on YouTube. He’s doing something right: His videos that poke fun at military life have been viewed a whopping 13 million+ times.
Besides his videos, he’s also written on important topics like PTSD. Best is also the founder and president of Article 15 Clothing, a successful business selling everything from t-shirts to patches to branded coffee. While 2014 has been a huge year for the company, next year looks to be even better. Article 15 is launching their own whiskey brand and the team is scheduled to appear in major movies outside of YouTube.
TIM KENNEDY — MMA Fighter
Tim Kennedy is many things: Special Forces sniper, YouTube video star, and philanthropist. As if that weren’t enough, his main gig these days is a professional mixed martial arts fighter in the UFC.
Fighting since 2001, the 35-year-old Kennedy now has an 18-5-0 record in the UFC. In 2014, he had two major fights: a dominant win against Michael Bisping, and a controversial loss against Yoel Romero. (Kennedy maintains Romero cheated during the fight by sitting on his stool an extra 30 seconds before the final round).
Look for Kennedy to continue his rise in the UFC next year. Also keep an eye out for more of his hilarious videos, which are usually put together by Ranger Up.
MAXIMILIAN URIARTE — Creator, “Terminal Lance”
In 2010, then-Marine Lance Cpl. Max Uriarte launched “Terminal Lance,” a web comic that captures the grunt-level view of life in the Corps. Drawing on his time in the service — with two deployments to Iraq — Uriarte runs a 300,000+ fan-strong Facebook empire that drives readers to his site where he posts two new comics each week.
Now four years old, the strip has matured into a must-read for military personnel, while also making Uriarte a celebrity among Marines. His Terminal Lance brand helped him fund a successful Kickstarter campaign for a graphic novel he’s working on, which brought in more than $160,000. While he works on the novel — working title “The White Donkey” –Max also has plans to move into animation next year.
JAS BOOTHE — Founder, Final Salute
Jas Boothe was a captain who’d been in the Army for 13 years when she was hit with a double whammy: She found out she had cancer and her home in New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
The single mother was suddenly homeless and unemployed. As she fought for her family and her dignity, she discovered there were many other female veterans suffering the same plight. She founded Final Salute to address the problem, and she created the Ms. Vet America event (don’t call it a “pageant”) to bring visibility to the organization. Look for more from Boothe and the Ms. Vet America event in 2015.
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.
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.
As the United States approaches our 20th year at war, veterans are coming home forever changed. Some suffer unseen wounds that profoundly impact their lives. Others are unable to sustain or find meaningful employment. And one veteran, family-owned business is working to change all of that.
Since Tracy and Jerry Flanagan founded JDog Junk Removal & Hauling, the company has become a nationally recognized brand for many reasons. This junk business looks a little different, for one. When a customer hires JDog, the workers that show up are not just your average employee. They are veterans, donning camo pants and sharp-looking JDog embroidered shirts. The veteran workers arrive on time (which means early), are always polite and refer to customers as “ma’am” and “sir.” The experience is nothing like anything the majority of customers have ever seen. And it all started as a way to save the Flanagan family from financial ruin.
“We started [JDog] in March of 2011 and really it was out of desperation,” Tracy shared with a laugh. She explained that her husband had always been a successful entrepreneur but when the financial crisis hit in 2008, they lost everything. After filing bankruptcy, the Army veteran and his wife had to quickly figure out how they would make it. Unable to even get a sit down interview for a job, Jerry went back to the drawing board to create another business. This time, something he felt would be recession proof. JDog Junk Removal and Hauling was born.
“Jerry started doing a couple of jobs. The phones were ringing and he always showed up early because when you are military, that’s what you do. If you are on time, you are late. He just worked like he does – military style, ” Tracy explained. She shared that customers were stunned by the work ethic and kept asking him where it came from. When they finally found out Jerry was an Army veteran, they encouraged the family to advertise it.
“We put veteran owned and operated on all of our stuff and it was a home run. People wanted to use me because I was a veteran,” Jerry said. The response was overwhelming. They both quickly realized that Jerry couldn’t physically do every single job. But they didn’t want to hire just anyone. They wanted veterans.
Jerry went down to the local VA hospital and met with the director, who discussed the Compensated Work Therapy program with him. The veterans in the program had all been in combat and were struggling with drugs and alcohol, unable to get jobs. “I’m like, bring them to me,” he said. Both Jerry and Tracy were troubled by the reports of high unemployment among veterans. They knew this was a way they could impact those numbers.
“It was the most rewarding experience, to be able to make a difference in a veteran who came back and is struggling and just needs a company or an employer to give them a chance. Not only did we give them a chance, we embraced them. We understood the value of what they brought,” Tracy explained.
When she shared the idea of franchising with Jerry, he was understandably nervous given their past experience with bankruptcy. But Tracy just knew they had something special. “I said, ‘We have to help these guys. We have something here that can give a veteran the opportunity to control their own destiny and be in business for themselves and wow, how many veterans can they hire? How many lives can we affect? We have to do this.’”
A few franchises later, they wanted to go even bigger. After partnering with a capital equity firm, the sky was the limit. “My goal is to get every single zip code in the United States to have a JDog brand,” Jerry shared. He shared that the company is committed to eradicating veteran unemployment.
In 2016 they signed an agreement with the VA Central of Washington. JDog is now connecting new franchises with VA clinics all over the country that have Compensated Work Therapy programs. “It’s a snowball effect and has just been amazing,” Tracy said.
Not only is JDog supporting veterans, they are embracing military spouses too. “I’m proud to be able to be a resource and mentor to them. We have a JDog spouse community and I have a spouse buddy program too,” she shared. “We are offering a culture and mission; it’s so much more than a business.”
In 2019 they took it a step further and created the JDog Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to serving the military community and supporting their needs. Tracy and Jerry hope to impact positive change and support the needs of those who they feel sacrifice so much. “The company is based on people, purpose and patriotism. It’s really simple,” Jerry said.
Through hardship and what seemed like endless challenges, Tracy and Jerry Flanagan created a unique business idea that blossomed into a beacon of hope for veterans. At JDog there is welcoming space for them to be honored, valued and for them to do the same for others. One veteran at a time.