Retired Air Force Colonel Nicole Malachowski didn’t set out to make history as a female fighter pilot but… she did. As for making waves with her passionate advocacy on behalf of veterans? Absolutely on purpose.
“It goes back to 1979; I was five years old and went to a local air show,” Malachowski shared. “There was a plane flying, the F4 Phantom – a workhorse fighter aircraft in the Vietnam War. I remember when it came by… it was so loud, I could smell the jet fuel and it just shook my chest. I remember thinking – I want to be a fighter pilot someday.” What she didn’t know was at the time, women were forbidden from being fighter pilots and that only recently had women even been allowed to go to flight school at all.
Despite the challenges associated with achieving her dream, Malachowski maintained an unwavering commitment to becoming a combat fighter pilot. She joined the civil air patrol and then the Air Force ROTC, which she credits with building a strong foundation to support her focus. Her hard work paid off – she was accepted to both the Air Force and Naval Academy. “I chose the Air Force Academy because I knew my chances of getting a pilot slot were the highest,” she explained.
Despite the fact that she knew how hard she worked for it, Malachowski acknowledges that she had a privilege growing up in the family and supportive environment that she did. “Timing, luck and circumstance were on my side. It’s important to recognize that I had a lot of opportunities that a lot of people around this world are never given,” she said.
Malachowski got into flight school, became a pilot and saw her first combat time in 1999 while stationed in England during Operation Deliberate Forge. It was during this time that she met her husband Paul, who was a Weapons Systems Officer in the Air Force. When they were both sent back to the states, the wedding planning commenced.
Then, America was attacked on September 11, 2001. Their wedding was sparsely attended, as many of the guests were deployed or afraid to fly. On the day they said “I do,” the United States military dropped the first bombs in Afghanistan. It’s something she’ll never forget.
Malachowski spent the next few years teaching and leading her peers in and out of combat over Iraq. “It was during this time that I got the crazy idea to apply to be a Thunderbird,” she said with a laugh. Not only would she become a Thunderbird, she would be the first female to do so.
After two years as a Thunderbird, she was selected as a White House Fellow. This was a monumental time in our nation’s history as she bore witness to the peaceful transition of power from President Bush to President Obama. “I was just a Major in the Air Force, I had no business being where I was,” she confessed. During her time there, Malachowski advocated for and was able to secure the Congressional Gold Medal for the Women Air Force Pilots (WASPs) of World War II. This was personal to Malachowski as she was adamant about correcting a wrong and ensuring that these women received the recognition, benefits and credit for their service to the nation.
Malachowski wasn’t done yet. Over the next few years she shocked the Saudi Arabian government by showing up to brief their military’s chief of staff. “I briefed everything in my uniform and the reception in the room was mixed. But every question they had I could answer because I was credible and I was good,” she shared. At the time, she was responsible for the largest foreign arms sale in the United States.
She went on to attend the Naval War College, which was male dominated. Two days before graduation, she found out she was the honor graduate. Malachowski was the first Air Force officer to hold that position in its 250 year history. Notable assignments followed but one that she found incredibly rewarding was commanding 333rd Fighter Squadron. What people don’t know is that when she accomplished all of this, she was critically ill from a tick borne illness.
Unfortunately, Malachowski was misdiagnosed with Lyme disease. Unbeknownst to her or her medical team, she had three separate tick borne pathogens running through her body. “That would set me on a horrific four years of medical craziness,” she explained. Two years into her illness, she was asked to be the Executive Director of the Joining Forces program created by then First Lady Michelle Obama and Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden.
Although she was asked to stay on, she became too sick. “I woke up one day and I was basically paralyzed. I ended up having an infectious lesion on my brain stem,” Malachowski shared. What she wasn’t aware of at the time was that tick borne illness, if not treated properly and immediately, leads to lifelong disability. It was a fact she was never made aware of as she crawled through the tick laden grounds of North Carolina during survivor training.
It’s a fact she is announcing far and wide to veterans and military families in order to prevent the debilitating illness she experienced herself. “Lyme disease is just the tip of the iceberg of what North American ticks can carry,” Malachowski explained. During her transition out of the Air Force, she put all her cards on the table – including writing to military leadership to plead her case.
The Chief of Staff of the Air Force directed the foundation of a “Task Force on Support to Airmen with Complex Medical Conditions” and appointed her to it. Malachowski was also asked to serve on the Department of Health and Human Services Tick Borne Diseases Working Group.
When asked what she wants people to take away from her story, she smiled. “I want people to realize they have the power to change things for the better. For themselves, their families and their communities. Never accept the status quo because it’s easier,” she said. “The runway behind you is always unusable. All you have is the runway in front of you.”
WWC Global has exploded into a government contracting firm that employs more than 300 employees in 24 contract locations on four different continents. But it started simply as a way for two military-connected spouses to be able to work.
Donna Huneycutt was a successful corporate lawyer and Lauren Weiner was thriving in her position at the White House. Both were forced to leave their careers in 2004 to follow their husbands when they were stationed in Italy. Despite their impressive resumes, they were being offered entry-level administrative positions. During a random encounter on a base-sponsored bus tour, they became fast friends. WWC Global was born over coffee and a shared frustration over the dismal reality of employment for military spouses.
They’ve come a long way since that bus tour. In 2018, WWC Global was awarded the largest contract to a woman-owned business in the history of the U.S. Special Operations Command. Huneycutt and Weiner have become a powerhouse leading the way for military spouses everywhere – tackling military spouse employment long before it was a hot media topic or lobbied issue.
WWC Global has since expanded to hiring veterans and other under-tapped labor pools and aligning them with the critical needs of the government. Seventy four percent of the WWC Global workforce is veterans and military spouses. They are the fire starters, lighting the way for countless spouses and vets to come behind them.
“During the time period that WWC Global was founded, the employment offered to military spouses was often limited only to the Exchange or the commissary. WWC Global offered a novel solution and continues to offer this today,” Weiner shared. Huneycutt expounded, saying, “We translated an existing situation into business sense. Employees are excited and relieved to be able to apply their talents and education to professional careers, without having to separate from their active duty spouse on military installations abroad, where they are also prohibited from working on the economy.”
Around one in four military spouses remain unemployed. Often, this can be attributed to frequent moves causing the inability to find opportunities for work in their field. If they are overseas, the barrier to employment becomes even greater. This is where WWC Global steps in.
“When a military spouse has a rewarding, challenging career that he or she loves, this contributes to the overall satisfaction of the family. This also leads to military retention,”
Huneycutt explained. “The structure of the military family has changed. We believe it is possible and vital to provide military spouses with ongoing meaningful employment.”
Both wanted to take their advocacy efforts a step further, which is why they co-founded In Gear Career, a non-profit organization that supports military spouse career development and networking opportunities in their communities. It is now known as the Hiring Our Heroes Military Spouse Professional Network and is part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Huneycutt and Weiner established Home Front Rising, a nonpartisan effort that encourages military spouses to speak up and get involved in the political process.
“Spouses can be their own advocates and be the voices that they are listening to on all the issues that impact military families,” Weiner stated. She also believes that there are opportunities across all sectors for military spouses to become change makers.
They are also focused on supporting those working to improve things for the military community as a whole. “I would love to continue to do away with the artificial barriers keeping our military from retaining the best troops,” Huneycutt shared. She referenced honing in on issues like dependent education, license reciprocity and PCS reform.
Huneycutt was recently named a finalist for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award for the Florida region and was also selected to receive the Kathleen Sridhar Small Business Executive of the Year Award by the NDIA (National Defense Industrial Association), the trade association for the U.S. government and defense industrial base. Despite the success they’ve achieved, there’s no end in sight.
As they approach their 17-year mark in business, both are inspired by what they are seeing. They also want the spouses coming in behind them to know that it isn’t going to be easy or without failures. The key to their success has been tenacity, grit and the refusal to acknowledge any ceilings on any goal. “You get there by working harder than everyone else. If you put your head down and don’t let anyone tell you ‘no’ and blow through obstacles, making them challenges instead of stopping points. That is how you get where you want to be,” Weiner said. Huneycutt echoed that sentiment saying, “There is no one way to do anything. Respond to your environment. Just keep showing up! Don’t get discouraged by setbacks, keep coming back. Every single day.”
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.”
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.
Naveed Jamali has worn a lot of hats. Veteran, intelligence analyst, diversity advocate, Editor at Large for Newsweek and if that wasn’t enough, undercover double agent.
“I am a child of immigrants but also someone who grew up post 9/11. It was the defining moment for my life,” Jamali shared. He was working at a university at the time and after the attacks, his role felt almost meaningless. “It felt very much like it was up to people who look like me to say we are patriotic.”
His father immigrated from Pakistan and his mother France, with them eventually meeting and marrying in New York City. Jamali wanted to become an Intelligence Officer for the Navy, but he didn’t get in the first time he applied. Although understandably let down by the denial, his recruiter wouldn’t let him give up. “He basically said apply again and show growth. True to form, my growth was I had this connection with the FBI. I thought if I helped them with the Russians, they would write a letter of recommendation for me to get in the Navy. So, I spent three years working undercover for them,” he explained.
His parents had worked alongside the FBI for years after discovering their bookstore was being used by Russian intelligence agents seeking hard to find government documents. When they retired, he used that connection to offer his services to the FBI. Jamali spent those three years luring Russian intelligence officers and being paid by them for what they thought were classified documents. It ended when Jamali was “arrested” and the diplomatic cover for that undercover Russian officer was blown. He co-wrote a book about the experience which is now being developed into a movie.
Although he loved his time serving and has enjoyed working with leaders since leaving the Navy Reserve after 10 years, Jamali doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the change and deep growth the military itself needs. “It is still very much an honorable profession, one that offers opportunity. But, we also have to come to grips with the fact that today of the 40 plus four star generals and admirals – there are only two who are Black. It’s not a slight on them, but we have to do better,” he explained.
“This year the Navy had its first Black [female] fighter pilot. It’s 2020 – we shouldn’t be having firsts. It should be so commonplace that we don’t even think about it but yet here we are. There are obviously barriers and reasons why; the first thing we can do is have an honest discussion about it,” Jamali shared. The military recently did away with having pictures being included in packages for promotion boards, a good step in the right direction he said.
But it isn’t just the military struggling with ensuring persons of color are represented in senior leadership. “As a person of color, I can attest to the fact that we are expected to work twice as hard with half of the return. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t opportunity, but clearly the numbers don’t lie…Do we really believe there just aren’t people qualified to rise to that level? Honestly, that’s racism. If you really believe there aren’t women or qualified people of color, that’s a problem,” Jamali said.
The lack of diversity also means minimal mentorship for those who are striving to rise, he said. Jamali highlighted the deep need for more seasoned professionals in any field to ensure that they are supporting those coming behind them. He himself continues to ensure he mentors others and advises them to then pay it forward. “I was really lucky to have some great mentors and people who pushed me along the way. Commander Julie Schmit was actually my recruiter for getting into the Navy. I want to say I am grateful for her help and incredibly proud of her career. It’s important to not only have these people but also acknowledge them,” he explained.
Jamali remains focused and deeply committed to increasing diversity both in the military and the civilian sector. But he’s also passionate about challenging citizens of this country to find their purpose and use their voices for good. “It’s really easy to use a hashtag or throw on a bumper sticker, but that isn’t activism,” he said with a laugh. “It doesn’t matter what you do. If you believe in something, go out there and do it. We all have the responsibility of ensuring the next generation is better off than us and more successful. Let’s commit to making sure that this country and this world is better.”
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
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.
After their service, many veterans find ways to continue to make great strides across the nation and the globe — from the arts to politics to non-profit organizations. One of the great privileges we enjoy here at We Are The Mighty is that we learn about and meet veterans who are doing really incredible, meaningful and sometimes truly badass things, every day.
Each year, we have the honor of choosing The Mighty 25 — a list of veterans whose amazing accomplishments suggest they are poised for major impact in the coming year.
It’s always tough narrowing those who’ve really made an impression — veterans we want other veterans to know about — to a list of 25, because for every individual selected, there are several others who could easily take their place.
Certainly, there are veterans we’d be honored to highlight year after year. In order to keep things fresh, however, we try to cover a broad sweep of the veteran community and to highlight people we think our readers might like to track in the coming year. These are vets who make us proud, and we’re excited to follow their work as the year progresses.
In alphabetical order, The Mighty 25 of 2017 are:
1. Daniel Alarik — CEO Grunt Style / Alpha Outpost
Grunt Style sells unabashedly pro-military shirts and clothing to a veteran and civilian market proud to wear pride of service on their sleeve.
In 2016 Alarik started Alpha Outpost — a subscription box company for men with curated high-quality items focused on everything from cooking to survival.
Between these two companies, Alarik employs around 100 veterans, and his businesses are packed with patriotism and personality. But more than that, they’re kicking ass — just what we like to see from veteran-run businesses. Here’s to their bright and glorious future.
2. Lieutenant General (Ret.) David Barno — Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, School of International Service, at American University
Widely considered among the nation’s leading defense intellectuals, David Barno is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who commanded coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. He is currently a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at the School of International Service at American University.
Barno recently co-authored a ground-breaking analysis of military leadership principles that challenged decades of Army policy, and his work for War on The Rocks remains highly influential as our country grapples with persistent global conflict and a changing political climate.
Barno’s broad intellect, wide-ranging expertise, and undying commitment to a better Army inspire WATM to watch and learn from his continued impact.
3. Tim Bomke — Military Program Manager at Amazon
Tim Bomke is an Army veteran who was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart and was medically retired in 2008 due to wounds sustained in combat in Iraq. After retiring, Tim went to work on the Department of Defense’s Troops to Teachers program, as well as the Army Continuing Education System aboard Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Bomke is now the Military Manager for Amazon helping to lead their veteran and military spouse hiring initiatives. His work this year will help employ a multitude of members our community.
4. Bonnie Carroll — President and Founder, TAPS
Bonnie Carroll is one of the 2015 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions. Ms. Carroll received the honor, and is admired throughout the entire U.S. military, for her selfless leadership at the forefront of the greatest battle our military families ever fight: that of the ultimate sacrifice.
A retired Air Force Major and the surviving spouse of Brigadier General Tom Carroll, Bonnie is the founder and president of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or “TAPS,” which provides much needed compassionate care, casework assistance, and lifetime round-the-clock emotional support for those affected by the loss of a service member.
A staffer in both the Reagan and Bush White Houses, Bonnie Carroll was appointed as the White House Liaison for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, DC. Before that, however, Ms. Carroll’s own military career was one of distinction; Carroll retired as a Major in the Air Force Reserve following 30 years of service, including 16 years in the Air National Guard.
For her impactful, often life-saving work providing bereavement support for the families of our fallen, Bonnie Carroll has been recognized by the American Legion, the Department of Defense, and President Obama. We Are The Mighty salutes her, too.
5. Phillip Carter — Senior Fellow and Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security
Phillip Carter is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. Carter’s research focuses on issues facing veterans and military personnel, force structure and readiness, and the relationship between civilians and military.
Carter served in the Army for nine years, including an 11-month deployment to Iraq as an embedded advisor for the Iraqi police in Baquba. In 2008, Carter joined the Obama campaign as the National Veterans Director; he went on to serve as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense.
In addition to his military and government experience, Carter writes extensively on veterans and military issues for Foreign Policy, the Washington Post, and other publications, and serves on numerous boards and advisory councils in the veterans and military community.
Whether it’s working with donors and grantmaking organizations to help them understand the needs of veterans, leading research that informs policy change, or convening leaders poised to make a difference in the lives of veterans, Phil Carter’s influence is large and growing.
6. Mike Dowling — Producer, Author, Veteran Advocate
Mike Dowling, a U.S. Marine and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran has dedicated his entire post-service life to his fellow veterans, servicemembers, and military families, and has become a much-admired leader of the greater Los Angeles veteran community.
Mike is a co-founder of the nonprofit Veterans in Film Television which serves as both a networking organization and a way for the film and television industry to connect with the veteran community working in it.
He also founded the LA Veterans Orientation, which helps connect veterans newly transitioning from service in the L.A. area and helped develop and lead VA The Right Way, an initiative supported by veteran, nonprofit and governmental stakeholders alike that seeks to give veterans a greater voice in the redesign of the VA and to help build 1,200 permanent veterans housing units on the Los Angeles VA campus.
Dowling served as Director of Community Outreach here at We Are The Mighty, and in 2017 is leaving to be involved in the production for a major network based on military subject matter he is passionate about. We can’t wait to see it.
7. Adam Driver — Actor, Arts in the Armed Forces Founder
Adam Driver is a Marine veteran who rose to fame on the hit HBO show “Girls,” and who skyrocketed after starring as the villain Kylo Ren in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, a role he’ll reprise in Episode VIII later this year. Driver’s impressive and growing film career has afforded him the opportunity to work with luminaries such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.
In 2016, his performance in “Paterson” earned Driver critical acclaim and multiple awards. Coming soon, he will team up with Sylvester Stallone to star in the film “Tough As They Come,” based on the bestselling book by former Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, a quadruple amputee who lost his limbs in a roadside bomb attack during his third tour to Afghanistan.
Driver founded the nonprofit organization Arts in the Armed Forces, which performs theater for all branches of the military at U.S. installations domestically and around the world. As Driver’s star continues to brighten, so too does his commitment to helping veterans heal the scars of war and telling their inspiring stories.
8. Sen. Tammy Duckworth — U.S. Senator
Fresh off an upset victory over longtime Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, Army veteran Tammy Duckworth is on her way to the U.S. Senate with an eye toward giving former service members a greater voice at the national level.
Duckworth, a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot who lost her legs after a crash during combat in Iraq, previously served as a senior official at the Department of Veterans Affairs and as a U.S. congresswoman from Illinois’ 8th District. The Asian-American lawmaker has consistently charted her own political course, but with a laser beam focus on supporting today’s military and veteran community.
She’s passed legislation aimed at helping veterans have more access to mental health care and made it easier for vets to get civilian certifications for skills they acquired in the military. We’re looking forward to seeing what Senator Duckworth will do in Congress this year.
9. Ken Falke — Chairman and Founder, Boulder Crest Retreat; CEO, Shoulder 2 Shoulder
Ken Falke is a 21-year service-disabled combat veteran of the U.S. Navy and retired Master Chief Petty Officer. His first business, A-T Solutions, is internationally recognized for its expertise and consulting services in combating the war or terror. Ken is now the CEO of organizational improvement solutions company Shoulder 2 Shoulder, Inc.
Falke is also an innovator in the world of warrior care. In 2013 after Falke and his wife Julia witnessed first-hand the desolation and frustration the wounded experienced while spending time in military hospitals, they founded the exceptional Boulder Crest Retreat for Military and Veteran Wellness. Situated on a massive swath of pristine Blue Ridge Mountain land donated by the Falkes, Boulder Crest’s mission is “To provide world class, short-duration, high-impact retreats for combat veterans and their families”, in an environment “of healing that integrates evidence-based therapies, a safe, peaceful space and unparalleled customer service to improve physical, emotional, spiritual and economic well-being.” The Retreat has hosted more than 1,000 veterans and their loved ones looking to reconnect and heal after service, with all services provided for free.
Ken is also the founder and Chairman of the EOD Warrior Foundation, which provides financial assistance and support to active-duty and veteran wounded, injured or ill warriors, families of the wounded and fallen from the Explosive Ordnance Disposal community, and maintains the EOD Memorial.
Falke is passionate about educating our nation on issues regarding the long-term care of the returning military members and families who’ve borne the burden of our nation’s longest wars. We Are The Mighty salutes this exceptional veteran, businessman and philanthropist for his thoughtful, generous, family-centered and solution-oriented approaches to the unique challenges facing post 9/11 veterans and their loved ones.
10. Matt Flavin — President, Concord Energy Holdings, LLC
Matt Flavin is a former Navy intelligence officer who deployed with SEAL teams and previously worked at the White House as its first director of the Office of Veterans and Wounded Warrior Policy under President Obama. After leaving the White House, Flavin went into the private sector as a senior executive with energy-related businesses. He is currently the CEO of Concord Energy Holdings.
At only 29 when he became director of the Office of Veteran and Wounded Warrior Policy in 2009, Flavin was one of the youngest vets to earn a senior White House position and marked a generational shift in veterans advocacy at the highest levels of government.
Now at the helm of one of the fastest growing energy companies in America, Flavin has demonstrated through his tireless advocacy at the White House and his innovation in business that this millennial generation of veterans is poised for greatness.
11. Brenda “Sue” Fulton — Board of Visitors at West Point, Advocate for LGBT Equality in the Military
Sue Fulton is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy’s first-ever co-ed class and is the first female and openly gay person to hold a position as a member of the West Point Board of Visitors.
Fulton has become a passionate advocate for the inclusion and rights of LGBT service members, and for women and people of color in the military. She is a founding board member of OutServe which provides legal assistance for openly gay service members and is a founder of Knights Out, an LGBT rights organization.
With her combination of fierce pride in her alma mater, the branch of service whose leaders it prepares and in the under-represented groups whose civil rights as soldiers concern her, Fulton strikes us as a military influencer to watch in 2017.
12. Dan Goldenberg — Executive Director, Call of Duty Endowment
Dan Goldenberg is a Naval Academy grad, Harvard Business School alum, and Air Command and Staff College graduate. He’s also a Navy captain with over 24 years of active and reserve military experience and the executive director of Activision’s Call of Duty Endowment.
Through the Call of Duty Endowment, Goldenberg’s helping veterans find high-quality careers by supporting groups that prepare them for the job market and by raising awareness of the value that veterans bring to the workplace. So far his organization has helped place more than 25,000 post-9/11 vets in jobs that average a more than $50,000 salary.
The Call of Duty Endowment has set a goal to help 50,000 post-9/11 vets find jobs by 2019. Goldenberg and his team are poised for an aggressive push in 2017.
13. Matthew Griffin and Donald Lee — Co-founders, Combat Flip Flops
As former Army Rangers with several Afghanistan tours behind them, Matthew Griff and Donald Lee saw a country filled with hard-working, creative people who wanted jobs, not handouts. Terrorist organizations would target people who couldn’t make ends meet, so Griffin and Lee created Combat Flip Flops as a way to help the people of Kabul, Afghanistan, create a sustainable economy.
Today, the company has expanded to Colombia, Laos, and Afghanistan, and they support charities like Aid Afghanistan for Education, which helps marginalized Afghans attend school. With the help of Combat Flip Flops, over 3,000 female students currently attend an AAE school. Additionally, some revenue from certain products is spent to clear 3-square meters of unexploded ordnance from a region rocked by long-term war.
We’ll be continuing to watch how Combat Flip Flops uses its double bottom line to help make the world a better and safer place.
14. Florent Groberg — Director of Veteran Outreach at Boeing, MOH recipient
A French-born naturalIzed citizen who joined the US Army in 2008 and went on to receive numerous awards, decorations and the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in Afghanistan, retired Capt. Florent Groberg is now the Director of Veterans Outreach at Boeing, where he’s responsible for the company’s support of military veterans and their families. He’s a member of Keppler Speakers where he uses his experience to inspire audiences under the most adverse conditions.
He’s also an advisor at Mission 6 Zero, a leadership development company created by for U.S. special operators.
For the past year, Groberg has been helping his peers prepare for life after the military through his partnership with LinkedIn’s Veteran Program, in which the veteran community connects, networks, and grows professionally via the powerful LinkedIn platform. A passionate advocate for the veteran community, Groberg’s every public appearance emphasizes education, transition planning and career development, all of which is inspired by the love and memory he has for those who gave their lives on the day for which his actions have been so prestigiously honored.
And for those so inspired, check out Capt. Groberg’s moving interview with Stephen Colbert last year. Many of the female veterans we know are hoping to hear him speak a little more French in the coming year.
15. Dr. Anthony Hassan — CEO and President, Cohen Veteran Network
Dr. Anthony Hassan is a retired Air Force officer with over 30 years of leadership, mental health, and military social work experience. As the CEO and President of the Cohen Veterans Network, he’s in charge of spearheading the organization’s mission to improve the mental health of veterans across the nation.
Hassan lead one of the first-ever Air Force combat stress control and prevention teams embedded with Army units during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004. His groundbreaking work in military mental health and substance abuse treatment has paved the way for a variety of military medical innovations and programs.
With his work for the Cohen Veterans Network, Hassan is establishing 25 high-quality, free or low-cost outpatient mental health clinics in cities throughout the country. Additionally, Hassan continues to lead efforts to advance the mental health treatment profession through funded research initiatives and training programs to improve care within the network and beyond.
We’re rooting for Hassan’s success in 2017 as it lifts our community and improves the lives of veterans and their families.
Jaslow was previously Chief of Staff for Illinois Democrat Rep. Cheri Bustos and was the Press Secretary for Virginia Democrat and former Navy Secretary Sen. Jim Webb.
IAVA has quickly become one of the nation’s top veterans advocacy organizations, and Jaslow’s political experience on Capitol Hill and her recent military service will surely help continue her organization’s fluency in the issues facing the post-9/11 veteran community.
Jaslow is an up-and-comer and is someone we’ll definitely be watching as IAVA works to help recent vets navigate their post-service lives.
17. William McNulty — Co-Founder and CEO, Team Rubicon Global
Marine Corps veteran William McNulty is CEO of Team Rubicon Global, the disaster response organization he co-founded after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which offers veterans around the world opportunities to serve others in the wake of disasters. McNulty has worked in support of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, and the National Security Council’s Iraq Threat Finance Cell. Among the vast community of veteran-serving nonprofits, McNulty is broadly admired for his success in scaling the Team Rubicon model internationally.
McNulty also serves on the Board of Directors of Airlink Flight, an international non-profit organization that connects commercial airlines with humanitarian initiatives, and on the Advisory Board of the Truman National Security Project, a policy advocacy organization that encourages the use of diplomacy, free trade, and democratic ideals to help resolve complex international challenges.
From Team Rubicon deployments with Prince Harry in Nepal to bringing veterans together with POS REP, 2016 was a busy year for McNulty, and we’re excited to see what his veteran service organizations have in store for 2017.
18. Donny O’Malley — Founder and President, VET Tv
Danny Maher, a combat Marine veteran, goes by the stage name Donny O’Malley and is the founder of Irreverent Warriors (home of The Silkies Hike) and now VET Tv, the first video channel created by and for post 9/11 veterans. O’Malley’s mission for VET Tv is to create high-quality, targeted entertainment for the veteran community that is therapeutic in order to promote camaraderie and prevent veteran suicide.
After a successful crowdfunding campaign, VET Tv is off and running, producing content “by bloodthirsty veterans and made for veterans with dark and twisted humor.” Their programming plan is laid out on their website and quite frankly, we’re subscribing to see what they come up.
19. Range15 Crew — Producers and Cast Members from the Feature Film
While some of these cast members (Mat Best, Nick Palmisciano, and Evan Hafer) have been highlighted in previous years for their successful veteran-owned and run companies, this band of brothers brought humor and in many ways a form of therapy to our community in a way that no other film has. Here’s to hoping it’s one of many to come.
20. Rob Riggle — Actor, Comedian
Rob Riggle is an actor, comedian, and Marine veteran. Riggle retired from the Marine Corps Reserves as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2013 after serving for 23 years, 9 of which he served on Active Duty and 14 more in the Reserves. Despite his growing career on screen, Riggle served as a pilot, Civil Affairs Officer and a Public Affairs Officer across numerous deployments to Liberia, Kosovo, Albania and Afghanistan.
Of his decision to finally retire, Riggle has said, “I may have retired from the Marine Corps in 2013, but you never really stop being a Marine” — a statement borne out by his Iraq tour with the USO. In the years since, Riggle has done his part to advocate for and raise awareness of our veterans, attending numerous events that support our military family and most recently, co-hosting the first Rob Riggle InVETational Golf Classic with We Are The Mighty, to benefit the Semper Fi Fund.
Rob Riggle’s star continues to rise. He’s best known for his work as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” from 2006 to 2008, and as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live” from 2004 to 2005, despite still being in the Reserves at the time! Riggle’s also beloved for his comedic roles in numerous television shows and films. This year, we look forward to Rob debuting his own series on TBS.
21. Mark Rockefeller — CEO/Co-Founder of StreetShares
Mark Rockefeller is an Air Force veteran who later transitioned into a law career to help veterans secure financing for businesses and protect against predatory lending. Early in his post-Air Force career, Rockefeller worked on a pro bono micro-finance project in Africa which inspired him to help establish StreetShares, Inc.
StreetShares uses a combination of technology and social networking to obtain financial services for the military and veteran communities and to help veterans build businesses.
As the company puts it, “we’ve got red, white and blue running through our veins.”
As more veterans leave the service and look for innovative ways to enter the workforce, groups like StreetShares are poised to make a major impact on helping veteran-owned businesses become a larger part of the American economy.
22. Vincent Viola — Secretary of the Army (Select)
Vincent Viola is the epitome of a self-made man. An Army veteran of the 101st, Viola has a Juris Doctorate from New York Law School but chose to focus on becoming a businessman rather than practice law.
In the course of his civilian career, Viola made his fortune by focusing his efforts on the oil industry. Viola has created a number of businesses in the tech, oil, and financial industries, among others. He currently owns the Florida Panthers.
After 9/11, Viola founded the Combating Terrorism Center, an academic institute that studies the terrorist threat and provides education towards mitigating it. He is President Trump’s nomination as the Secretary of the Army.
With an increasingly tumultuous world and an Army poised for big changes, we’ll be watching as Viola takes takes charge of America’s largest service and shapes it for the future.
23. Kayla Williams — Director of VA’s Center for Women Veterans
Williams was previously a project associate for the RAND Corporation and is the author of “Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army,” a memoir about her experiences negotiating the changing demands on today’s military.
Kayla is a White House Women Veteran Champion of Change, a Truman National Security Project Fellow, and a former member of the VA Advisory Committee on Women Veterans.
As the principal advisor on female veterans issues to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Williams will play a big role in shaping the policies, programs, and legislation that affect an increasing population women veterans in the coming years.
24. Eli Williamson — Co-Founder and President, Leave No Veteran Behind; Director of the Veterans Program for the Robert R. McCormick Foundation
An Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, Williamson was an Arab linguist and worked with Army Special Operations psychological operations teams.
After his time in the Army, Williamson created the non-profit Leave No Veteran Behind to invest in veterans and help build better communities through employment training, transitional jobs, and an educational debt relief scholarship. Williamson was also recently named as a member of the new Obama Foundation’s Inclusion Council.
With a strong influence in the minority community and a business outlook that believes “veterans are not a charity, but a strategic social investment,” Williamson embodies the spirit of We Are The Mighty, and we look forward to many great things from him in the year ahead.
25. Brandon Young — Director of Development, Team RWB
Brandon Young is the Director of Development at Team Red, White, and Blue. An Army veteran, Young joined the military before 9/11 and served 11 years, mostly conducting Special Operations missions in support of the Global War on Terror.
Brandon is a speaker and contributor on podcasts and the Havok Journal where he shares his myriad experiences while in the service. His aim and sincere hope is to “give words to the voiceless who are struggling to find them; or the courage to say what’s really on their hearts.”
Young’s primary focus with Team RWB is to develop and maintain strategic partnerships and identify growth opportunities that ensure the success of the nonprofit’s programs. He recently handed over the Denver RWB Chapter where in the past two years he helped grow membership from 400 to 1,200.
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.
Mike Erwin was a senior at West Point when the events of 9/11 unfolded. He would go on to complete 12 years on active duty for the Army as an intelligence officer, with three combat tours. Erwin was then picked up for graduate school, where he found himself being the only military member – something that impacted him greatly. Especially when he thought about the friends he left behind in Afghanistan. In the midst of a rigorous psychology program and then eventually as a professor at West Point, he founded Team Red White & Blue.
“I was rowing really hard,” Erwin said with a laugh. “My passion for the mission was centered around how we can take this knowledge of positive psychology that I was teaching and bring it to more veterans. To do that, we have to help them meet new people, stay physically active and feel that they belong to something bigger than themselves.”
He initially didn’t think of himself as an entrepreneur. Instead, he felt he was just working hard for volunteer-based nonprofits and doing some good things. But in 2013 after a successful Team RWB conference, membership just exploded. “We started to see the numbers grow… I said whoa, we are growing by 40 or 50 veterans a day! That’s when it became real that we knew we had a chance to scale and grow this organization to thousands and eventually millions of veterans,” he said.
What started out as a small idea has morphed into an explosive movement that has touched the lives of so many in the military community. In 2019 alone, they engaged with 216,717 people, hosted 34,582 events and now boast 203,301 members.
“We’ve really evolved. Yes, veterans still need help connecting but we are starting to clearly articulate to the world and the veteran community that we are focusing on veteran health and wellness,” Erwin explained. “If you look at the mental, physical and emotional health of society and the veteran community, there’s a lot of room to improve.”
The organization itself doesn’t claim to be the solution for everyone, but rather a tool to be utilized as veterans are navigating life stressors. “Team RWB isn’t going to be a magic potion. But, you will have a supportive group of people who are fellow veterans or supportive civilians that want to help you,” Erwin said.
Team RWB and Erwin want veterans to know that in moments of stress or volatility, that’s when it really is vital that they get themselves moving. “While it’s harder to do it on those days, it’s way more important on those days,” he explained. “When you sense from a mental health standpoint, you have to be able to step back and know you have to do something different. Those kinds of things are really critical to anyone but especially veterans.”
Erwin left active duty for the Army reserves after 13 years to continue to not only grow Team RWB, but do some other pretty incredible things. He co-founded The Positivity Project, 501c3 nonprofit in 2015. Based on a 15 minute curriculum for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, it’s aimed at helping youth build positive relationships and self-worth through the 24 character strengths and the mindset that other people matter.
Suicide was the second leading cause of death in 2018 among people between the ages of 10-34, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Erwin and his co-founder, fellow Army Veteran Jeff Bryan, knew they had to do something to reach America’s struggling youth.
“While society is telling us that happiness is driven by wealth, success, the size of your social media following etcetera – positive psychology research has made it clear that the number one driver of life satisfaction is the quality of our relationships with family, friends, co-workers, teammates,” Erwin explained. “The Positivity Project is on a mission to make sure children in our country know that, so they prioritize the role of relationships in their lives – and how they show up for other people.”
With his leadership roles within his nonprofit organizations, he’s just a little busy. But, he doesn’t stop there. Erwin also co-authored the book, Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude and is working on a new one, Leadership is a Relationship – to be released in November of 2021.
Despite all of his success, Erwin has had his own struggles along the way. He credits following the ethos of Team RWB for avoiding a lot of situations or issues that could have occurred if he wasn’t so committed to keeping his body moving and staying active. As for others who are seeking to change up or find a missing piece to combat their own adversities, Team RWB wants you. Erwin’s message is simple: Join the team.
Learn more about the mission of Team RWB by visiting their website. You can even download the app to start connecting and participating in events even faster and easier.
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.
Serving your country and serving others was ingrained into Mississippi native Chef Andre Rush. He is one of eight children, all of whom were encouraged to serve in some capacity. His path of service led him to becoming the ‘strongest chef’ in the United States Army.
“Cooking was a comfort for me, something I did with my mom. But I had to hide it. As a matter of fact, my dad didn’t even know I was a cook until a few years ago,” Rush said with a laugh. He describes his dad as a very intimidating and ‘macho’ guy, but credits him with developing a strong work ethic. “In the South, men didn’t cook. So, I used to sneak and cook with my mom. It gave me such a calm feeling.”
Rush became a master chef – cooking for generals, foreign heads of state and perhaps most impressive, four different presidents. He eventually found himself cooking at the White House, laser-focused on his job. Then, a photo of him cooking on the White House lawn in 2018 changed everything. “I remember that I wanted it to be over with,” he said with a laugh. “When it happened, it was such a whirlwind. I remember avoiding them [the media] the entire time but they kept swarming around me…The reporter came up to me later and said, ‘I’m going to make you famous.’”
The photo seen around the world created a wave of clever memes featuring his 24 inch biceps. Unending requests for Rush to be on various media outlets and even a television series soon followed.
For the humble Army combat veteran, it was the opposite of anything he’d ever experienced in his lifetime. Although he was unbelievably busy, he was trying to go all in and enjoy the ride after he retired from the Army. It was in the middle of this that he received a phone call that his mother was dying. Rush shared that his mother had hidden her illness from him because she knew all the opportunities coming to him and didn’t want to stop him from saying yes.
After her funeral, Rush wanted to take a break to mourn his mother. Then, an old picture went viral – causing a new and even bigger wave of attention. “I got anxiety from it because it was so much. But I had a moment of calmness. I looked up and I said, ‘You did this.’ My mom always said to me, ‘Never give up and keep going.’ So, I kept going,” Rush said with a smile.
Growing up in Mississippi, building his 24 inch biceps and dedication to fitness took ingenuity. There were no gyms around, so Rush spent his time doing pushups and using items laying around for weight lifting. During his time in the military, he came across Arnold Schwarzenegger’s encyclopedia and developed a passion for body building – creating the physique that made him famous. After his cooking photo went viral, he received a call from the big man himself and has collaborated with him on numerous charity works, something Rush is very proud of.
Although Rush has had many offers to be a private chef or work in big restaurants, he has his sights on something more. He’s working on two books, one that will focus on his life growing up in Mississippi and serving in the military. Rush said it will be raw and go deep into his experiences. He’s also working on two television series, and if that wasn’t enough, he founded a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention, an issue he is extremely passionate about.
His advocacy around prevention is personal. In 2011, he lost a soldier to suicide. Despite Rush doing everything in his power to mentor and support this soldier, it’s a loss he carries with him everywhere.
Rush has caught some flak from people who have criticized his push up challenges for suicide prevention, but he doesn’t let it bother him. He knows that by using his position of influence in this way, he’s making a difference. Rush shared that he responds to every single message he receives on social media and has talked to hundreds of people struggling with suicidal ideations. He knows that without those push ups, those conversations would never have occurred.
Despite Rush’s continued success, this master chef and Army veteran’s focus remains on serving others in order to make a difference in the world. Rush considers himself to be an advocate for humanity and building communities, above everything else. His advice to those looking to find their way and purpose is simple, “Be kind to one another, be considerate and… be grateful. Humility is everything.”
In 2010, after an earthquake ravaged Haiti, a small team of veterans responded in support. A decade later, Team Rubicon has become a leading force in disaster response – all over the world.
When Marine veteran Jake Wood co-founded Team Rubicon, he never imagined on its 10 year anniversary he would be responding to a global pandemic. However, he shared that they recognized the severity of COVID-19 long before it reached the United States and immediately began making plans. “We adapted very early to the crisis. That allowed us to move pretty quickly and we reorganized our entire organization which allowed us to pivot into the fight,” he explained.
Team Rubicon got their volunteers on the ground doing food bank operations, testing clinics and PPE distribution. But while they were busy supporting COVID-19 relief efforts, mother nature continued to wreak havoc with continuous natural disasters. “We were able to continue to answer the bell for these communities. We’re really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish,” Wood said.
Wood had always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but wanted to do something that would add value to the world at the same time. Although Wood recognizes the impact Team Rubicon has had and the incredible growth they’ve achieved, it hasn’t come without failures or personal cost. His advice to others is to make sure they are fully committed to everything that comes with diving into a goal. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Jake said. “I’ve been so stressed at certain points in the last 10 years that I was grinding my teeth. I’ve broken three molars in half.”
Standing beside Wood to shoulder the responsibility of leading the global crisis response organization is its President and Chief Operating Officer Art delaCruz, a 22 year Navy veteran. When delaCruz took off his uniform and transitioned into civilian life with a role at a large corporation, something was missing. “I don’t think that’s uncommon. I think that’s where Team Rubicon and other organizations that serve veterans are uniquely positioned to have people plug in,” he explained.
The conversations around the leadership table these days revolve around what Team Rubicon will look like in 100 years, because they aren’t going anywhere. The team aims to be the best disaster response organization in the world. “We hope we can grow in the impact we can provide to the world and make Team Rubicon a household name. We also want the men and women who volunteer to serve in the military to view Team Rubicon as a part of their journey in life,” delaCruz said.
Team Rubicon helps veterans continue their service but also helps maintain that sense of community, something many lose when they take off the uniform. It also focuses on giving veterans back their sense of purpose and identity. After losing one of its initial team members, Marine veteran Clay Hunt in 2011, Team Rubicon honed in the need to be a vital resource for veterans. The organization developed The Clay Hunt Fellows Program to support personal growth and development for struggling veterans.
Team Rubicon has also become a leading voice on veteran issues. Wood himself has briefed multiple presidents on veteran transition and has also testified in front of Congress to champion improving mental health care services for returning veterans.
DelaCruz himself is passionate about those issues but also wants employers to think about hiring veterans and to recognize their unmatched value. “Military veterans are uniquely equipped and bring this incredible context, skill and capabilities that we generally, as a society, don’t ask them to use later on. People who might be hiring, don’t be afraid to take that bet on that veteran,” delaCruz said.
Military members develop skills and abilities at a young age. The responsibility they undertake is also unmatched, something hiring organizations need to recognize. “I flew airplanes in the Navy. I would walk up on a flight deck and stare at a 19 year old kid and salute him and say, ‘Is this jet ready to go?’ knowing that one lost tool, a hydraulic system not being serviced properly or a cap being left off a system – means losing a $60 million dollar jet. Then knowing that kid may leave the military and not be trusted to lock up a building at night…That’s just unbelievable,” delaCruz said.
Team Rubicon remains passionate about helping people recognize their ability to make a difference. “I think for us at Team Rubicon, everybody has some intrinsic value. There’s so much you can do,” delaCruz said.
Both Wood and delaCruz expressed feeling deeply honored to be named in the Mighty 25 for 2020. Both acknowledged that it’s only possible because of the dedicated work of their team and the incredible volunteers who make what Team Rubicon does for the world possible. It is their hope that their story will inspire others to add purpose to their lives. All it takes is a heart for service and a commitment to make a difference.