MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate - We Are The Mighty
Mighty 25

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Retired Air Force Colonel Nicole Malachowski didn’t set out to make history as a female fighter pilot but… she did. As for making waves with her passionate advocacy on behalf of veterans? Absolutely on purpose.  

“It goes back to 1979; I was five years old and went to a local air show,” Malachowski shared. “There was a plane flying, the F4 Phantom – a workhorse fighter aircraft in the Vietnam War. I remember when it came by… it was so loud, I could smell the jet fuel and it just shook my chest. I remember thinking – I want to be a fighter pilot someday.” What she didn’t know was at the time, women were forbidden from being fighter pilots and that only recently had women even been allowed to go to flight school at all. 

Despite the challenges associated with achieving her dream, Malachowski maintained an unwavering commitment to becoming a combat fighter pilot. She joined the civil air patrol and then the Air Force ROTC, which she credits with building a strong foundation to support her focus. Her hard work paid off – she was accepted to both the Air Force and Naval Academy. “I chose the Air Force Academy because I knew my chances of getting a pilot slot were the highest,” she explained.

Despite the fact that she knew how hard she worked for it, Malachowski acknowledges that she had a privilege growing up in the family and supportive environment that she did. “Timing, luck and circumstance were on my side. It’s important to recognize that I had a lot of opportunities that a lot of people around this world are never given,” she said. 

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Malachowski got into flight school, became a pilot and saw her first combat time in 1999 while stationed in England during Operation Deliberate Forge. It was during this time that she met her husband Paul, who was a Weapons Systems Officer in the Air Force. When they were both sent back to the states, the wedding planning commenced. 

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Then, America was attacked on September 11, 2001. Their wedding was sparsely attended, as many of the guests were deployed or afraid to fly. On the day they said “I do,” the United States military dropped the first bombs in Afghanistan. It’s something she’ll never forget. 

Malachowski spent the next few years teaching and leading her peers in and out of combat over Iraq. “It was during this time that I got the crazy idea to apply to be a Thunderbird,” she said with a laugh. Not only would she become a Thunderbird, she would be the first female to do so. 

After two years as a Thunderbird, she was selected as a White House Fellow. This was a monumental time in our nation’s history as she bore witness to the peaceful transition of power from President Bush to President Obama. “I was just a Major in the Air Force, I had no business being where I was,” she confessed. During her time there, Malachowski advocated for and was able to secure the Congressional Gold Medal for the Women Air Force Pilots (WASPs) of World War II. This was personal to Malachowski as she was adamant about correcting a wrong and ensuring that these women received the recognition, benefits and credit for their service to the nation. 

Malachowski wasn’t done yet. Over the next few years she shocked the Saudi Arabian government by showing up to brief their military’s chief of staff. “I briefed everything in my uniform and the reception in the room was mixed. But every question they had I could answer because I was credible and I was good,” she shared. At the time, she was responsible for the largest foreign arms sale in the United States. 

She went on to attend the Naval War College, which was male dominated. Two days before graduation, she found out she was the honor graduate. Malachowski was the first Air Force officer to hold that position in its 250 year history. Notable assignments followed but one that she found incredibly rewarding was commanding 333rd Fighter Squadron. What people don’t know is that when she accomplished all of this, she was critically ill from a tick borne illness. 

Unfortunately, Malachowski was misdiagnosed with Lyme disease. Unbeknownst to her or her medical team, she had three separate tick borne pathogens running through her body. “That would set me on a horrific four years of medical craziness,” she explained. Two years into her illness, she was asked to be the Executive Director of the Joining Forces program created by then First Lady Michelle Obama and Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden. 

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate
First Lady Michelle Obama participates in a promotion ceremony for Col. Nichole Malachowski in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Sept. 16, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy) This photograph is provided by THE WHITE HOUSE as a courtesy and may be printed by the subject(s) in the photograph for personal use only. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not otherwise be reproduced, disseminated or broadcast, without the written permission of the White House Photo Office. This photograph may not be used in any commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

Although she was asked to stay on, she became too sick. “I woke up one day and I was basically paralyzed. I ended up having an infectious lesion on my brain stem,” Malachowski shared. What she wasn’t aware of at the time was that tick borne illness, if not treated properly and immediately, leads to lifelong disability. It was a fact she was never made aware of as she crawled through the tick laden grounds of North Carolina during survivor training. 

It’s a fact she is announcing far and wide to veterans and military families in order to prevent the debilitating illness she experienced herself. “Lyme disease is just the tip of the iceberg of what North American ticks can carry,” Malachowski explained. During her transition out of the Air Force, she put all her cards on the table – including writing to military leadership to plead her case. 

They listened.

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

The Chief of Staff of the Air Force directed the foundation of a “Task Force on Support to Airmen with Complex Medical Conditions” and appointed her to it. Malachowski was also asked to serve on the Department of Health and Human Services Tick Borne Diseases Working Group. 

When asked what she wants people to take away from her story, she smiled. “I want people to realize they have the power to change things for the better. For themselves, their families and their communities. Never accept the status quo because it’s easier,” she said. “The runway behind you is always unusable. All you have is the runway in front of you.”

Mighty 25

Meet the MIGHTY 25: The strongest leaders, most passionate advocates and biggest disruptors of 2020

The year of 2020 will go down in history for many reasons. Despite the overwhelming challenges, there were some incredible people doing extraordinary things for the military community. It was a year of pivoting, creativity and resilience. The team at We Are The Mighty is honored to introduce this year’s Mighty 25. 

The selection process for the 2020 slate was daunting. Our internal committee started with a list of over 100 veterans, service members, military spouses and civilians doing exceptional things to support the community. 

The Mighty 25 is a recognition We Are The Mighty bestows each year on individuals in the military community that have gone above and beyond. In partnership with the Military Influencer Conference, We Are The Mighty recognizes the change makers in the veteran, active duty and military family space. Selectees are advocates utilizing their influence and voices to impact policies; entrepreneurs with a passion for service; disrupters forcing accountability and meaningful change; volunteers giving so much of themselves to better our world; and leaders whose vision and actions inspire us all. The Mighty 25 encompasses everything it takes to truly Be Mighty.

Meet your 2020 MIGHTY 25: 

  1. Jennifer Campbell 
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Army veteran and only the second female to be elected as Commander for the Hollywood American Legion, Jennifer Campbell has been instrumental in creating programs and events to support Hollywood’s veterans. When the pandemic hit, she and her team worked quickly to establish support and engagement for veterans to avoid the negative impacts that isolation can bring. She is a dedicated servant-leader who believes deeply in living a purpose-filled life. One of her other passions is health and wellness, especially for the military community. She uses her voice as a wellness coach and personal trainer to educate and support, creating better outcomes for our nation’s heroes. 

  1. Brent Cooper
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Veteran Green Beret, Brent Cooper is the Executive Director of the Green Beret Foundation. This nonprofit has given over $15 million in assistance. His passion and purpose remains to serve the Special Operations Forces community. When he went into the Army, it was to fulfill a deep need to give back and serve his country; and he left a well-paying corporate career to do it. Cooper remains a champion for universal service and encourages people to get involved in their communities. 

  1. Scott Eastwood
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate
(Wikimedia Commons)

The son of renowned World War II veteran, Clint Eastwood, honoring America’s troops has always been on Scott’s mind. Not only has he sought out and played instrumental roles in military films but he is an avid voice and supporter of the community. Recently, Eastwood co-founded Made Here, a company dedicated to working with American manufacturers to create and source products Made Here, in America.  

  1. Mike Erwin
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

West Point graduate and combat experienced soldier Mike Erwin has been dedicated to serving the military and vulnerable communities for a long time. He is the founder of Team Red White & Blue. His nonprofit utilizes positive psychology combined with physical fitness to improve the health and wellbeing of veterans. In 2019 alone, the organization hosted 34,582 events and now has 203,301 members. He also created The Positivity Project, a nonprofit that teaches character and positive relationship building to today’s youth. He remains passionate about encouraging veterans and others in the military community to find their purpose and stay active. 

  1. Harris Faulkner
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Despite an impressive career and six Emmys, Harris Faulkner remembers where she came from and who she is. An Army brat, she’s spent her life finding ways to connect and serve the military. Her father served as a combat jet pilot in the Vietnam War, building the foundation of patriotism in her heart. She remains committed to service, kindness and encouraging people to find their purpose and make a difference in the world. 

  1. Tracy and Jerry Flanagan
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

The founders of JDog Junk Removal and Hauling have impacted countless veterans’ lives. What began as a business to take care of their own family turned into so much more. This company franchises directly to veterans, giving them a chance to build something of their own. The team is filled with workers from the VA’s compensated work program, directly impacting and supporting struggling veterans. Recently, the Flanagans formed a nonprofit to focus on suicide prevention and honoring the fallen. They encourage all veterans and military families to find their purpose and know that there’s always a space for them at JDog.

  1. Sherman Gillums
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Once a Marine, always a Marine, Sherman Gillums is a passionate advocate that blows past barriers. Despite suffering a critical spinal injury in a training accident while active duty, he’s spent his time since impacting countless veterans’ lives. Known for his honesty and his ability to be direct when targeting problems within the VA, Gillums is an undeniable change maker. He is now the Chief Strategy Officer for AMVETS, one of the most influential congressionally-chartered service organizations. He encourages everyone to find their voice and use it to make a difference. 

  1. Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate
FORT BENNING, Ga. – Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston visits the Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning to observe one station unit training including the 1st 100 Yards, a training event to teach Warrior Ethos and esprit de corps, Oct. 22, 2020. (U.S. Army photo by Patrick A. Albright, Fort Benning Maneuver Center of Excellence photographer)

Known as a soldier’s soldier, SMA Grinston remains dedicated to the Army and their families. Since becoming the voice for the enlisted he’s made an impact in a big way. As the racial divide grew in America and the world watched the murder of George Floyd, Grinston was one of the first to speak out. He shared his story of growing up biracial in Alabama, no easy feat. The video was seen by millions and touched more than he ever realized it would. His deepest passion is to leave the world better and make a difference. 

  1. HRH Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate
(Wikimedia Commons)

A veteran of the British Royal Army, Prince Harry has spent his life dedicated to serving his country and the world. He remains a vocal advocate for mental health and has been open about his own struggles throughout his life. After visiting the United States during the Wounded Warrior games, he left inspired. Not long after, Prince Harry founded The Invictus Games – bringing wounded warriors in from all over the world to compete in sports. More than physical activity, it has brought healing.

  1. Donna Huneycutt and Lauren Weiner
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

The power duo of Donna Huneycutt and Lauren Weiner has been making waves in the military community for decades. They founded WWC Global when they couldn’t find competitive employment as military spouses, and the firm has become synonymous with success and quality work. They are advocates for military spouses and veterans’ needs, especially surrounding employment. This year, WWC Global secured a three-year contract with Defense Information Systems Agency, which will span between $18 million and $24 million. Long before spouse employment was a hot topic, these ladies were talking about it and making changes, paving the way for spouses across the world. 

  1. Medal of Honor Recipient and Retired Army Colonel Jack Jacobs
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Col. Jack Jacobs’ heroic efforts despite a critical head wound incurred in combat during the Vietnam War earned him a Medal of Honor. While many men would have seized the opportunity to medically retire, Jacobs requested to go back to Vietnam after healing — and did, serving with distinction. When he retired, he began a successful career on Wall Street and has impacted countless lives through his public speaking. Jacobs encourages universal service and insists that it doesn’t take a weapon to serve your country. 

  1. Naveed Jamali
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Naveed Jamali is a force to be reckoned with. His commitment to service began in the FBI. After a member of the Russian GRU tried to recruit him, Jamali spent four years as a double agent, feeding falsified classified documents to Russia. His incredible work led him to the US Navy Reserve, where he served as an intelligence officer. While Jamali’s path shifted – he is now the Editor at Large for Newsweek – his passion for truth and justice remained. The child of immigrants, he’s using his voice to make a difference, advocating for equality and uncovering and stopping systemic racism. Jamali’s fight for accessible, true information for citizens around the world is just as impressive – and important – as his career in espionage. 

  1. Chris Kaag
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Marine veteran Chris Kaag has spent the last half of his life turning “I Can’t” into “I will.” After receiving a service ending diagnosis, Kaag didn’t allow it to stop him from making a difference and continuing to serve. Deeply passionate about fitness and wellness, he got creative with how he could do it. After forming a coaching company, he realized something was missing and IM ABLE was born. A nonprofit dedicated to encouraging youth with disabilities and showing them that their abilities are limitless, his impact is immeasurable. He’s expanded IM ABLE to include having veterans work directly with the youth, giving them purpose and an avenue for healing. He shows us that anything is possible. 

  1. Dale King
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Army veteran and business owner Dale King is making deep impacts in his hometown. Located in the heart of the opioid epidemic, he began offering free work outs to recovering addicts at his gym. After partnering with an instructor, he co-founded Doc Spartan. The company boasts skincare that is made in house and with all natural ingredients. Their following grew exponentially after a Shark Tank experience. But it’s the compassionate commerce that has made an undeniable impact in the lives of so many. King began employing recovering addicts, many of whom were veterans – giving them their dignity and a purpose in life again. 

  1. Air Force Colonel Nicole Malachowski (ret)
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Col. Nicole Malachowski’s incredible 22-year career as a female fighter pilot is legendary. From leading peers in combat to being the first female Thunderbird, she’s been a role model to many. But it was her courage and voice after receiving a debilitating diagnosis that sets her apart from the rest. After contracting a tick borne illness, Malachowski became gravely ill and disabled. After being misdiagnosed because the military medical system was unaware of ticks and the various pathogens they carry, Malachowski has become an outspoken advocate. She sat on numerous panels and testified about the perils of tick borne illnesses, educating the system that failed her in order to prevent future service members from enduring her same fate.

  1. Ryan Manion
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

After losing her brother in combat while deployed to Iraq, Ryan Manion’s family founded the Travis Manion Foundation. Started as a way for her mother to channel her grief, it morphed into a nonprofit that has served countless Gold Star families and veterans. Ryan became president of the Foundation after her mother passed away, leading the organization to make an even greater impact in the lives of the men, women and children left behind. She is an inspirational public speaker on resiliency and challenges us all to find our purpose. 

  1. Phyllis Newhouse
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Army veteran Phyllis Newhouse is a pioneer for women in a male-dominated businesses. After spending her career focusing on national security, she formed Xtreme Solutions. Her company focuses on cyber security, a feat that was relatively rare in the women-owned business space. In 2017, Newhouse became the first woman to earn the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in technology. Wanting to make a difference in the lives of women led her to co-founding ShoulderUp, a nonprofit that offers support and relationships for women in business. 

  1. Deputy Secretary of the VA, Pamela Powers
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Deputy Secretary of the VA and Air Force veteran Pamela Powers has spent her life in service. Instead of heading into retirement, she made the decision to serve the nation’s veterans. This extremely passionate advocate is committed to improving access to care and the quality of services received. She’s especially focused on improving the lives of female veterans who often feel forgotten in the military community space. 

  1. Shannon Razsadin
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Shannon Razsadin wears many hats. This Navy spouse, mother and Executive Director of the Military Families Advisory Network has consistently leveraged a volunteer Board of Advisors composed of military family members to find the pulse of the military community and create meaningful programming to address systemic gaps.MFAN is dedicated to research that leads to solutions for the issues plaguing military families, to include safety in base housing, military spouse employment, financial security and one issue very near and dear to her heart: ending food insecurity for military families. With Shannon’s lead, MFAN has made monumental changes to positively benefit military families. 

  1. Curtez Riggs
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Army veteran Curtez Riggs from Flint, Michigan has come a long way. Always an entrepreneur, now he makes his living encouraging others to find their passion and purpose. The founder of the Military Influencer Conference, Riggs has created an unprecedented platform where the military, veterans, spouses and civilian sector can come together to network and support each other in business. He remains devoted to using his voice for equality and people of color, and sets the standard for turning an idea into a global reality. 

  1. Elaine Rogers
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

With a career as the leader of the USO-Metro that has spanned almost 47 years, you’d be hard pressed to find another woman as dedicated to service members and their families as Elaine Rogers. Raised by a father who was a World War II veteran, she’s always been passionate about serving her country. Rogers took that dedication to the USO and never looked back, growing the USO to include family programs and revamping their image of simply entertainment to one of actionable resources for the military community. 

  1. Chef Andre Rush
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

For Chef Andre Rush, it all started with a photo of him cooking on the White House lawn. There was no hiding his impressive 24 inch biceps and he quickly became a viral sensation. But this Army veteran is more than that. He is a dedicated chef that has spent much of his career mentoring others. After losing a fellow soldier to suicide, he made it his mission to focus on suicide prevention. 

  1. Paul Szoldra
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Marine veteran turned journalist is a seeker of the truth and has remained devoted to the military community long after he hung up his uniform. He is the founder of the sensational satire site, The Duffel Blog and the Editor in Chief of Task and Purpose. He successfully sued the Department of Defense in 2020 to gain access to information that should have been publicly available. Szoldra is a deeply patriotic American who believes in information and honesty, even if it steps on toes. 

  1. Jake Wood and Art delaCruz

The leaders of the only veteran-led world disaster response organization, Jake Wood and Art delaCruz have impacted hundreds of thousands of lives in 2020 through Team Rubicon. Despite not having a playbook for COVID-19 or a global pandemic, they sprang into action running testing sites, delivering PPE and still responding to an unforgiving hurricane season. They remain fearlessly dedicated to serving and promoting universal service, especially for America’s veterans. Their volunteer programs give veterans a sense of purpose and unity that they may have lost when exiting the military. 

  1. Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright (ret)
MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Although he never dreamed he’d be the voice for the enlisted in the Air Force, he knew he was fully capable. He quickly proved his genuine dedication to Airmen and their families earning the nickname “Enlisted Jesus.” Wright became known for his honesty and openness, sharing his devastation with the suicides in the Air Force as well as his experience as a black man in America. He is a leader, champion for equality and forever coach for those coming up behind him. 

Mighty 25

MIGHTY 25: Meet Phyllis Newhouse, dedicated to empowering women while dominating the cyber security world

Phyllis Newhouse is used to shattering glass ceilings. As a woman of color working in national security in the Army, Newhouse broke all sorts of barriers. She’s doing it again, this time with her award-winning and innovative cyber security company. 

Growing up as one of 11 children, discipline was a must in her home. Newhouse jokingly said her house prepared her well for the military. “I grew up during the Civil Rights Movement so drive, determination was important. I took that with me to the military. That enhanced what I already had as a foundation,” she explained.  

When asked what drove her to service, Newhouse laughed. She explained that her first introduction to the military was being awed by a chance sighting of Air Force women in flight suits. “I remember seeing these women in uniform and saying, ‘Wow look how powerful they look.’ From that day, I never got the image out of my mind and thought those women were superheroes,” she said. That moment was the deciding factor for her to enlist.

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Newhouse took her oath of enlistment on Veterans Day in 1977, beginning a career that would span 22 years. She became passionately focused on national security and protecting the assets of the United States. She worked her way up to eventually establishing the Cyber Espionage Task Force within the Army. But when she was offered a senior level position, she turned it down – deciding instead to retire and create her own company. Xtreme Solutions, Inc. was formed in 2002 and is now located in 42 states with 40 percent of its workforce made up of veterans. 

In 2017, Newhouse received the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in the field of technology. She was the first woman to receive the honor.

Despite undeniable success, Newhouse found herself wanting to do more. She also didn’t want to be the first or only anymore. A passionate advocate for women in business,  Newhouse wanted to support women in a bigger way. A partnership with Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis led to forming ShoulderUp, a nonprofit completely dedicated to supporting women in entrepreneurship. 

Newhouse and Davis recognized that it was connection that could pave the way for women everywhere. “What we realized is that no matter what industry we were in – as women we were always able to identify with a part of each other’s stories. We have a stronger connection, regardless of our backgrounds or foundation,” she explained. “We wanted to use our economic power and our platform to create change and empower women around the world.”

By opening the door for other women, Newhouse knew it would lead to positive impacts all around, even for those doing the mentoring. By giving advice woman-to-woman in ShoulderUp circles, the organization has been able to bridge a gap and assist women in reaching their greatest potential. 

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Newhouse herself credits her time in the military as transformative, sharing that it absolutely made her who she is today and created a foundation for success. She also recognizes that it imparted vital leadership abilities she’d need to become an entrepreneur. “I think veterans make the most incredible entrepreneurs. We always say in the military that there is a difference between a good leader and a great leader. If they were great they have the confidence to know that they still have the ability to serve, but serve in a different capacity…You can do things that still have purpose,” she explained. 

WATM spoke to Newhouse on election day — arguably one of the most critical days in America. Asked what issues she was focused on lending her voice and advocacy efforts to the most, she didn’t hold back. “I think about, how did we get here – with so much divisiveness in this country. No matter what side of the fence you are on, we serve one America. Veterans and military folks go off to serve this country, one country. I want to focus on how we bridge the gap and work together in America as one,” she explained. 

Newhouse expressed that veterans often feel like they are invisible and don’t matter. It’s something she wants to change. “We need to build America again. We have to do it together and that’s why I am working on the Honor2Lead project. It’s getting people who know how to serve, to serve again,” she said. 

It’s that passion for service that Newhouse feels will change the world. When asked what advice she would give transitioning veterans, she was quick to answer. “I challenge those in the military community to live up to their God-given potential,” she stated. “Go find something that you can impact because great leaders can make incredible impact.”

Phyllis Newhouse is living proof of that … and she’s just getting started.

Mighty 25

MIGHTY 25: Meet Ryan Manion, a Gold Star sister leading a legacy of purpose

Ryan Manion’s journey to leading The Travis Manion Foundation began with her brother’s legacy and her mother’s love. In a time of deep sorrow and almost unbearable loss – both would create a mission of hope and purpose for generations of Americans to come.

On April 29, 2007, First Lieutenant Travis Manion and his fellow Marines were ambushed while on patrol in Iraq. He willingly led counterattacks to draw fire away by entering the kill zone numerous times to retrieve wounded Marines. He was fatally wounded by a sniper. Manion’s heroic actions undoubtedly saved the lives of everyone on the patrol. 

Before he left for the second tour of duty in Iraq which would ultimately claim his life, Travis was asked numerous times why he would go back. His response paints a vivid and compelling picture of the hero and servant-leader that he was: If not me, then who? It would be those words that would spur his mother to create a foundation of purposeful service that would grow far beyond her family’s wildest dreams. 

“If he was here, he would 100 percent be a part of this organization and be all about it. But he wouldn’t like that it was named the Travis Manion Foundation,” Ryan said with a laugh. She herself joined the foundation in 2009, two years after it was formed by her mother, Janet. Ryan said it was her mom’s vision that led the Foundation to where it is and without her, it wouldn’t exist.  

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Originally, Ryan said that she and her father saw the Foundation as a labor of love for her Janet – a way to channel deep grief. “While she talked about big things that she wanted to do, we didn’t really think it was going to happen…I certainly never could have envisioned where it was going to go,” she said with a smile. Ryan worked alongside her mother for over two years until Janet lost her battle with cancer in 2012. 

The board of directors unanimously voted for Ryan to step into her mother’s role as president, a role Ryan admits she wasn’t fully prepared to fill. “I had to learn so much on the fly. I brought in some really talented people to help us grow. It was from there that we took off and I think a lot of it was because of the things my mom put in place,” she shared. 

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

The organization works directly with veterans and family members of the fallen to create a deep sense of purpose and undeniable social impact in communities throughout the country. Through innovative programming, training and events, The Travis Manion Foundation is changing lives.

One of the programs Ryan herself is most proud of is Character Does Matter. Veteran mentors work with youth in schools to develop leadership and character through relationship building events. Youth also participate in service projects to honor the fallen, which can be a life-changing experience. Case studies over the last two years have showcased extraordinary health and wellbeing scores for the veteran mentors in the program, demonstrating the importance of a purpose filled life. “Everything we do at TMF is with that same holistic approach. For us it’s about providing opportunities for veterans to be engaged,” Ryan explained. 

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Another thing that makes Ryan incredibly proud is how the organization hasn’t lost who they were at the beginning. “At the end of the day, this was a family that started a nonprofit – not because they came up with some grand idea but because they lost their loved one and were trying to decide what to do next…That same sentiment of being a part of a family – still exists today,” she explained. 

Ryan spends a lot of her time speaking about resiliency through loss and even wrote a book – The Knock at the Door – with other Gold Star family members about turning loss into purpose. “We are all going to receive knocks at the door. You are not going to escape this life without setbacks,” she explained. Ryan shared that it’s what you do in those moments after that will set the tone for life after hardship. 

Despite the undeniable, vital impact that Travis’ life and legacy has had, Ryan and her family will never stop hurting or missing him. “I would throw it all away to have my brother back with me,” Ryan said. “But I do feel incredibly blessed that I have the opportunity every day to wake up with purpose and passion. That I get to do something for my brother and his legacy – there’s not much more you can ask for.”

Mighty 25

MIGHTY 25: Meet MOH recipient Col Jack Jacobs whose bravery should inspire us all

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. 

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

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. 

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

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.”

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

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.

Mighty 25

MIGHTY 25: From secret combat missions in Afghanistan to encouraging wounded warriors, meet Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex

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.” 

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

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.

Mighty 25

MIGHTY 25: Meet Mike Erwin: Founder of TEAM RWB and committed servant leader standing in the gap for those in need

Mike Erwin was a senior at West Point when the events of 9/11 unfolded. He would go on to complete 12 years on active duty for the Army as an intelligence officer, with three combat tours. Erwin was then picked up for graduate school, where he found himself being the only military member – something that impacted him greatly. Especially when he thought about the friends he left behind in Afghanistan. In the midst of a rigorous psychology program and then eventually as a professor at West Point, he founded Team Red White & Blue.

“I was rowing really hard,” Erwin said with a laugh. “My passion for the mission was centered around how we can take this knowledge of positive psychology that I was teaching and bring it to more veterans. To do that, we have to help them meet new people, stay physically active and feel that they belong to something bigger than themselves.” 

He initially didn’t think of himself as an entrepreneur. Instead, he felt he was just working hard for volunteer-based nonprofits and doing some good things. But in 2013 after a successful Team RWB conference, membership just exploded. “We started to see the numbers grow… I said whoa, we are growing by 40 or 50 veterans a day! That’s when it became real that we knew we had a chance to scale and grow this organization to thousands and eventually millions of veterans,” he said.

What started out as a small idea has morphed into an explosive movement that has touched the lives of so many in the military community. In 2019 alone, they engaged with 216,717 people, hosted 34,582 events and now boast 203,301 members. 

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

“We’ve really evolved. Yes, veterans still need help connecting but we are starting to clearly articulate to the world and the veteran community that we are focusing on veteran health and wellness,” Erwin explained. “If you look at the mental, physical and emotional health of society and the veteran community, there’s a lot of room to improve.”

The organization itself doesn’t claim to be the solution for everyone, but rather a tool to be utilized as veterans are navigating life stressors. “Team RWB isn’t going to be a magic potion. But, you will have a supportive group of people who are fellow veterans or supportive civilians that want to help you,” Erwin said. 

Team RWB and Erwin want veterans to know that in moments of stress or volatility, that’s when it really is vital that they get themselves moving. “While it’s harder to do it on those days, it’s way more important on those days,” he explained. “When you sense from a mental health standpoint, you have to be able to step back and know you have to do something different. Those kinds of things are really critical to anyone but especially veterans.”

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Erwin left active duty for the Army reserves after 13 years to continue to not only grow Team RWB, but do some other pretty incredible things. He co-founded The Positivity Project, 501c3 nonprofit in 2015. Based on a 15 minute curriculum for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, it’s aimed at helping youth build positive relationships and self-worth through the 24 character strengths and the mindset that other people matter. 

Suicide was the second leading cause of death in 2018 among people between the ages of 10-34, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Erwin and his co-founder, fellow Army Veteran Jeff Bryan, knew they had to do something to reach America’s struggling youth.

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

“While society is telling us that happiness is driven by wealth, success, the size of your social media following etcetera – positive psychology research has made it clear that the number one driver of life satisfaction is the quality of our relationships with family, friends, co-workers, teammates,” Erwin explained. “The Positivity Project is on a mission to make sure children in our country know that, so they prioritize the role of relationships in their lives – and how they show up for other people.”

With his leadership roles within his nonprofit organizations, he’s just a little busy. But, he doesn’t stop there. Erwin also co-authored the book, Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude and is working on a new one, Leadership is a Relationship – to be released in November of 2021.

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Despite all of his success, Erwin has had his own struggles along the way. He credits following the ethos of Team RWB for avoiding a lot of situations or issues that could have occurred if he wasn’t so committed to keeping his body moving and staying active. As for others who are seeking to change up or find a missing piece to combat their own adversities, Team RWB wants you. Erwin’s message is simple: Join the team. 

Learn more about the mission of Team RWB by visiting their website. You can even download the app to start connecting and participating in events even faster and easier.

Mighty 25

MIGHTY 25: Meet Harris Faulkner, an Army brat shattering barriers in television

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. 

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

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.” 

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

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.

Mighty 25

MIGHTY 25: Meet “Enlisted Jesus” aka CMSAF Kaleth Wright

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.

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

“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. 

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

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

Mighty 25

MIGHTY 25: Meet Chris Kaag, a Marine veteran instilling hope in the face of great adversity

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.

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

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. 

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

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.  

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

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.” 

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

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.

Mighty 25

MIGHTY 25: Meet Michael Grinston, the Sergeant Major of the Army committed to getting it right

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.

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

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. 

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

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.”

Mighty 25

MIGHTY 25: Meet Chef Andre Rush, an Army veteran with a heart as big as his biceps

Serving your country and serving others was ingrained into Mississippi native Chef Andre Rush. He is one of eight children, all of whom were encouraged to serve in some capacity. His path of service led him to becoming the ‘strongest chef’ in the United States Army. 

“Cooking was a comfort for me, something I did with my mom. But I had to hide it. As a matter of fact, my dad didn’t even know I was a cook until a few years ago,” Rush said with a laugh. He describes his dad as a very intimidating and ‘macho’ guy, but credits him with developing a strong work ethic. “In the South, men didn’t cook. So, I used to sneak and cook with my mom. It gave me such a calm feeling.”

Rush became a master chef – cooking for generals, foreign heads of state and perhaps most impressive, four different presidents. He eventually found himself cooking at the White House, laser-focused on his job. Then, a photo of him cooking on the White House lawn in 2018 changed everything. “I remember that I wanted it to be over with,” he said with a laugh. “When it happened, it was such a whirlwind. I remember avoiding them [the media] the entire time but they kept swarming around me…The reporter came up to me later and said, ‘I’m going to make you famous.’”

The photo seen around the world created a wave of clever memes featuring his 24 inch biceps. Unending requests for Rush to be on various media outlets and even a television series soon followed. 

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

For the humble Army combat veteran, it was the opposite of anything he’d ever experienced in his lifetime. Although he was unbelievably busy, he was trying to go all in and enjoy the ride after he retired from the Army. It was in the middle of this that he received a phone call that his mother was dying. Rush shared that his mother had hidden her illness from him because she knew all the opportunities coming to him and didn’t want to stop him from saying yes. 

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

After her funeral, Rush wanted to take a break to mourn his mother. Then, an old picture went viral – causing a new and even bigger wave of attention. “I got anxiety from it because it was so much. But I had a moment of calmness. I looked up and I said, ‘You did this.’ My mom always said to me, ‘Never give up and keep going.’ So, I kept going,” Rush said with a smile. 

Growing up in Mississippi, building his 24 inch biceps and dedication to fitness took ingenuity. There were no gyms around, so Rush spent his time doing pushups and using items laying around for weight lifting. During his time in the military, he came across Arnold Schwarzenegger’s encyclopedia and developed a passion for body building – creating the physique that made him famous. After his cooking photo went viral, he received a call from the big man himself and has collaborated with him on numerous charity works, something Rush is very proud of.  

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Although Rush has had many offers to be a private chef or work in big restaurants, he has his sights on something more. He’s working on two books, one that will focus on his life growing up in Mississippi and serving in the military. Rush said it will be raw and go deep into his experiences. He’s also working on two television series, and if that wasn’t enough, he founded a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention, an issue he is extremely passionate about.

His advocacy around prevention is personal. In 2011, he lost a soldier to suicide. Despite Rush doing everything in his power to mentor and support this soldier, it’s a loss he carries with him everywhere.

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Rush has caught some flak from people who have criticized his push up challenges for suicide prevention, but he doesn’t let it bother him. He knows that by using his position of influence in this way, he’s making a difference. Rush shared that he responds to every single message he receives on social media and has talked to hundreds of people struggling with suicidal ideations. He knows that without those push ups, those conversations would never have occurred. 

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

Despite Rush’s continued success, this master chef and Army veteran’s focus remains on serving others in order to make a difference in the world. Rush considers himself to be an advocate for humanity and building communities, above everything else. His advice to those looking to find their way and purpose is simple, “Be kind to one another, be considerate and… be grateful. Humility is everything.”

Mighty 25

MIGHTY 25: Meet Naveed Jamali, a double agent with a passion for helping the underserved

Naveed Jamali has worn a lot of hats. Veteran, intelligence analyst, diversity advocate, Editor at Large for Newsweek and if that wasn’t enough, undercover double agent.

“I am a child of immigrants but also someone who grew up post 9/11. It was the defining moment for my life,” Jamali shared. He was working at a university at the time and after the attacks, his role felt almost meaningless. “It felt very much like it was up to people who look like me to say we are patriotic.”

His father immigrated from Pakistan and his mother France, with them eventually meeting and marrying in New York City. Jamali wanted to become an Intelligence Officer for the Navy, but he didn’t get in the first time he applied. Although understandably let down by the denial, his recruiter wouldn’t let him give up. “He basically said apply again and show growth. True to form, my growth was I had this connection with the FBI. I thought if I helped them with the Russians, they would write a letter of recommendation for me to get in the Navy. So, I spent three years working undercover for them,” he explained. 

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

His parents had worked alongside the FBI for years after discovering their bookstore was being used by Russian intelligence agents seeking hard to find government documents. When they retired, he used that connection to offer his services to the FBI. Jamali spent those three years luring Russian intelligence officers and being paid by them for what they thought were classified documents. It ended when Jamali was “arrested” and the diplomatic cover for that undercover Russian officer was blown. He co-wrote a book about the experience which is now being developed into a movie. 

Although he loved his time serving and has enjoyed working with leaders since leaving the Navy Reserve after 10 years, Jamali doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the change and  deep growth the military itself needs. “It is still very much an honorable profession, one that offers opportunity. But, we also have to come to grips with the fact that today of the 40 plus four star generals and admirals – there are only two who are Black. It’s not a slight on them, but we have to do better,” he explained. 

“This year the Navy had its first Black [female] fighter pilot. It’s 2020 – we shouldn’t be having firsts. It should be so commonplace that we don’t even think about it but yet here we are. There are obviously barriers and reasons why; the first thing we can do is have an honest discussion about it,” Jamali shared. The military recently did away with having pictures being included in packages for promotion boards, a good step in the right direction he said.   

MIGHTY 25: Meet Nicole Malachowski, from first female Thunderbird pilot to health advocate

But it isn’t just the military struggling with ensuring persons of color are represented in senior leadership. “As a person of color, I can attest to the fact that we are expected to work twice as hard with half of the return. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t opportunity, but clearly the numbers don’t lie…Do we really believe there just aren’t people qualified to rise to that level? Honestly, that’s racism. If you really believe there aren’t women or qualified people of color, that’s a problem,” Jamali said. 

The lack of diversity also means minimal mentorship for those who are striving to rise, he said. Jamali highlighted the deep need for more seasoned professionals in any field to ensure that they are supporting those coming behind them. He himself continues to ensure he mentors others and advises them to then pay it forward. “I was really lucky to have some great mentors and people who pushed me along the way. Commander Julie Schmit was actually my recruiter for getting into the Navy. I want to say I am grateful for her help and incredibly proud of her career. It’s important to not only have these people but also acknowledge them,” he explained. 

Jamali remains focused and deeply committed to increasing diversity both in the military and the civilian sector. But he’s also passionate about challenging citizens of this country to find their purpose and use their voices for good. “It’s really easy to use a hashtag or throw on a bumper sticker, but that isn’t activism,”  he said with a laugh. “It doesn’t matter what you do. If you believe in something, go out there and do it. We all have the responsibility of ensuring the next generation is better off than us and more successful. Let’s commit to making sure that this country and this world is better.”

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