Retired Air Force Colonel Pamela Powers planned to enjoy retirement as she transitioned out of military service in 2018. But life had other plans for her – like becoming the first female Deputy Secretary of the VA.
“I grew up in a small town in Minnesota,” Powers told WATM. “My grandfather served in World War II, but he was part of the generation that didn’t talk about their service. I didn’t know he was in the military until I was an adult.” She also had a great grandfather who served during World War I. “My uncle was the only one I knew at the time who was serving and he was stationed at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.” It would be a visit with him that would lead Powers to an impressive career, spanning 30 years.
Applying and attending the Air Force Academy was easily the best decision she ever made, Powers shared. “It has really been an honor and a privilege to serve this great nation,” she said. It’s one decision that she’s never regretted and one that has created a ripple effect of unique opportunities both professionally and personally.
“The military instills skills like discipline and determination…This was really the foundation of my personal and professional success. I learned that I can be mentally strong and resilient. I also learned that I can pretty much withstand anything that comes my way,” she said with a smile. Powers also credits her time in the military with developing her leadership abilities. “The best leadership is authentic and servant leadership. Bottom line is, I think the military has shaped me into who I am today.”
One of Powers’ passions is serving and supporting women veterans. Powers shared that when she graduated from the Air Force Academy, her class was only the 10th to do so with women. “It was at a time of transition where the military was just starting to see women as an important part of the nation’s defense,” She explained. “I am really excited to see that population grow. As women, we need to be strong enough to believe in ourselves even when others around us may not. It’s also about inspiring other women.”
Powers has found that many female veterans don’t even think of themselves as veterans. One of her priorities with her role has been to educate and inform them of their benefits at the VA. “I want to make sure that our women warriors get the care and recognition that they deserve,” she explained.
Her own experience in a male-dominated military pushed her to work harder and be better, she said. Powers also stated that it helped her create deep resiliency and what she termed “grit.” She would need it, especially as she continued to shock people with her status as an officer. “I went to Army war college and my husband was a United pilot. It was halfway through the year and we were at a party together when [attendees] assumed he was the service member and I was the spouse,” she shared. Although she laughed, it wouldn’t be the last time something like that happened. “The culture is changing in the military and it’s just taking a little bit of time to catch up.”
When Secretary Wilkie approached her to come work for the VA as Chief of Staff as she was poised to retire, she said yes. But she didn’t realize that not even two years later she’d be its number two leader, by the request of the president himself.
She recognizes the significance of being the first female Deputy Secretary of the VA and it’s one she doesn’t take lightly. “I want to be in a room and not be the first or the only female. I want to be recognized for kicking butt and making things happen,” she said with a smile. Despite this, she knows it’s a unique opportunity. “I want women veterans to see that the number two leader of Veterans Affairs is a female. I feel an obligation to make sure their voices are heard and they are understood and respected.”
Prioritizing the needs of female veterans has been at the top of her list in her new role. “We’ve done a lot of outreach and several women veterans events to get the word out. But we are also listening to our women and how they want to be served,” she said. Through her and the team’s innovative efforts, they are seeing more and more women come to the VA to seek resources.
Powers also remains deeply passionate about modernizing the VA. “We’ve implemented a number of really important and critical change-modernizing efforts,” she said. With her leadership, the organization has focused on improving access to care for the nation’s veterans. “We’ve really seen the difference just in three years; trust in the VA has jumped 25 percent. We know we are on the right path.”
The positive change and deep impact Powers has made through serving her country — both in the Air Force and now as the second highest leader of the VA — cannot truly be measured. It is her hope that her story will inspire a new generation of servant-leaders ready to stand up and make a difference.
Throughout the year, the team at We Are The Mighty has the privilege of learning about and meeting people doing extraordinary things in the military-veteran community. This is the inspiration behind our annual Mighty 25: Influencers Supporting the Military Community in 2018 — a list of individuals who are making a difference for military service members, veterans, and their families.
This year, we expanded our list to include not just veterans, prior service members, and reservists, but also civilians who are doing exemplary work in this community.
The Mighty 25 Committee utilized a set of specific criteria to select 25 members of the military-veteran community currently making a significant impact. The committee was comprised of the diverse WATM team of veteran editors, writers, and creators who engage with this community daily. The task force conducted extensive research to identify over 100 initial potential candidates. The top 25 were chosen according to impact and the representation of a diverse variety of social causes, fields of work, and communities affected.
This individuals on this year’s Mighty 25 have dedicated their lives to missions that vary greatly: from developing transitioning service members and their spouses into successful entrepreneurs, to helping veterans heal through stand-up comedy training. Yet these exceptional individuals all share one goal: to improve the lives of those who have sacrificed for their country.
We are excited to share these influencers’ stories, highlight their accomplishments to the world, and cheer them on as they continue to make a difference in the lives of many. The 2018 Mighty 25 list is presented here in alphabetical order.
Dr. Jill Biden
Combining a lifetime passion for teaching with her high-profile role as former second lady of the United States, Dr. Jill Biden is able to reach millions as a premier advocate for military service members and their families.
Not long after their husbands took office, Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama teamed up to form “Joining Forces,” a non-profit that partners with the private and public sectors to provide military families with tools to succeed throughout their lives. Their initiative, “Operation Educate the Educator,” was designed to help teachers understand what military families go through, and was introduced at 100 teaching colleges across America.
Biden believes that in addition to military members, families also serve – including children. Her book Don’t Forget, God Bless Our Troops is the story of a little girl coping with her father’s deployment, and is based on the Biden family’s own experiences when their son and father, the late Beau Biden, was deployed to Iraq.
The Biden Foundation, launched Feb. 2017, by Dr. Jill Biden and former Vice President Joe Biden, is a nonprofit organization that looks to “identify policies that advance the middle class, decrease economic inequality, and increase opportunity for all people,” according to its website. One of the organization’s primary focuses is supporting military families.
In April 2017, Biden was appointed to the JP Morgan Chase Military and Veterans’ Affairs External Advisory Council. The council advises the firm on a comprehensive strategy to design programs and products aimed at serving the unique needs of members of the military, veterans and their families.
U.S. Naval Academy graduate and retired Lieutenant Colonel Scott Cooper spent an impressive career in the Marine Corps as an EA-6B Prowler aircrew, serving five tours in Iraq, two in Afghanistan, one in Europe, and one in the Western Pacific. Cooper now serves as the Director of National Security Outreach at Human Rights First, a nonprofit organization that advocates for human rights, especially in encouraging America to be a leader and champion of human rights at home and abroad. In his role, Cooper works to build broad coalitions among military agencies, the national security community, veteran service organizations, and think tanks.
In 2015, Cooper’s passion for advocating for Afghan and Iraqi wartime allies and Syrian refugees led him to found Veterans for American Ideals, a nonpartisan, grassroots, community-based group of veterans aiming to leverage military veteran voices to bridge divides and regain a shared sense of national community. He believes that within this increasingly divisive political climate, veterans can be an important civilizing, unifying force. Their work amplifies veterans’ experiences, leadership abilities, and credibility to combat the erosion of our democratic norms and to challenge the rise of xenophobic, fear-based rhetoric and policies that run counter to our ideals.
In the face of the refugee ban promulgated by the current White House administration, Cooper has dedicated himself to championing the rights of refugees on Capitol Hill, working to educate government officials on the current refugee vetting process, even leading a delegation of refugees to meet with the offices of numerous senators, including John McCain, Jeanne Shaheen, Marco Rubio, Tammy Duckworth, Chuck Grassley, Joe Manchin, and Ed Markey.
Cooper also lends a prominent voice to this public issue as a published author, with his pieces on human rights issues and American values appearing in numerous publications, including the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, The Washington Quarterly, War on the Rocks, Task and Purpose, The American Interest, and Policy Review.
The crown in Elizabeth Dole’s long and varied public career may not lie in her capacity as Federal Trade Commissioner under President Richard Nixon, Secretary of Transportation under President Reagan, or Secretary of Labor under George H.W. Bush — and possibly not even as United States Senator from her home state of North Carolina.
Rather, it is her foundation that may hold more significance for the ordinary Americans it serves every single day. Through the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, Dole has chosen to use her high-profile platform to advocate for those 5.5 million spouses, friends, and family members who care for America’s ill, injured, and wounded veterans.
While visiting her husband at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Dole first became aware of the needs and challenges facing military caregivers. A veteran of World War II, Bob Dole is the recipient of two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star, and has long suffered from the effects of his injuries. As she visited other veterans suffering catastrophic wounds, Dole was drawn to the families, constantly at the side of their loved ones, receiving little or no support.
Under Dole’s leadership, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation has brought national attention to military caregiver issues through its Hidden Heroes Campaign, launched grassroot support initiatives in more than 110 cities across the nation via Hidden Heroes Cities, encouraged innovation and the creation of direct service programming supporting caregivers through Hidden Heroes Fund, empowered and equipped military caregivers in all 50 states and Puerto Rico with tools to advocate on behalf of their caregiver peers though the Dole Caregiver Fellows program, and advocated for national caregiver support with Congressional and VA leaders. The Foundation also launched HiddenHeroes.org, a first-of-its-kind online tool where military caregivers can connect to a peer support community and directory of 200+ carefully vetted resources.
Dole’s impact doesn’t stop there. In October 2017, she was appointed chair of the Veteran Administration’s new family and caregiver advisory committee, which was formed in response to problems with support programs, and is charged with advocating for improvements to VA care and benefits services.
Marjorie K. Eastman
Her 2017 National Independent Publisher Award-winning book The Frontline Generation: How We Served Post 9/11 not only reframes how many thought about those who served in the conflicts following 9/11, it is the first book to define the timeless legacy of anyone who steps up to serve, declaring the most significant call to action for our time. What started as a memoir project that this former enlisted, direct commission Army Reserve officer took on to cope with her infant son’s battle with cancer, it became an informational and inspiring collection of reflections on those with whom she served, and the aftershocks of service, character, and leadership.
She sought to write a book that would help shape the man she hoped her son will become — yet she succeeded in shaping the narrative of post 9/11 veterans as being far more, and better than, the prevailing themes of hero or broken. And the U.S. Army took notice and placed her book on the recommended reading list for the Military Intelligence Center of Excellence library and museum. A 2018 updated version of her book is now available (audio book set to release in late May), with an additional appendix that empowers readers to find a mission — inciting confidence that every one of us can live with purpose, live for each other, and lead.
Named by PBS’s Veterans Coming Home Initiative as a veteran thought leader, Eastman, who was awarded the Bronze Star as a combat commander, as well as the Combat Action Badge, continues to pioneer new ground by positively reinforcing the value of veterans and service as an unmatched currency. She is a frequent public speaker and her articles on topical issues such as the #MeToo movement, veteran entrepreneurs as a force multiplier in our economy, how veterans can bridge the partisan divide, and the potential impact of U.S. State Department cuts have appeared in publications such as The Washington Post, Task Purpose, and USA Today. Make sure to check out her 2018 Deck of 52 Most Wanted post 9/11 Frontline Leaders, a weekly column that is a spin-off and salute to the original deck (2003 Iraqi Playing Cards), highlighting veterans and military families who have launched exceptional businesses and charities.
On Aug. 21, 2009, while enroute from Camp Victory to the International Zone (IZ) in Baghdad, Iraq, then-Army Col. Carol Eggert’s vehicle was struck by an EFP — an explosively formed projectile. She calls it her Gratitude Day. She and all ten service members riding with her that day were wounded. Eggert was in Iraq on a 15-month combat tour as Chief of the Women’s Initiatives Division and Senior Liaison to the U.S. Embassy, Baghdad. In this role, she conducted an analysis of women’s initiatives and engineered a strategic plan to empower Iraqi women economically and politically.
Now as a retired brigadier general in the private sector, Eggert continues to lead through empowerment. She currently serves as the Senior Vice President, Military and Veteran Affairs at Comcast NBCUniversal, executing Comcast NBCUniversal’s commitment to deliver meaningful career opportunities to veterans, National Guard and Reserve members, and military spouses. Eggert recently announced that the company exceeded its goal of hiring 10,000 members of the military community between 2015 and 2017.
Eggert’s selection for this role comes as no surprise. Eggert herself served across several components, including the Regular Army, the Army Reserve, and the National Guard. She also earned several degrees — two master’s and a doctorate in organizational leadership. In addition to the Purple Heart, Eggert is also the recipient of the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Combat Action Badge, and Meritorious Service Medal with 4 Oak Leaf Clusters.
U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former Navy Seal Nick Etten believes that veterans’ quality of life could be improved — and lives could be saved — through access to cannabis for medical treatment. Through his organization, the Veterans Cannabis Project, Etten champions cannabis as a life-saving treatment option. With the prevalence of chronic pain among military veterans leading to a deadly opioid addiction problem within the community, Etten views Cannabidiol (CBD) products as a viable way to help veterans get off opioids.
Access to medical marijuana for veterans, however, is limited. The laws regulating marijuana are currently murky, since it is illegal under federal law, but legal under the law in some states. And because of the current classification of cannabis as a schedule one drug, research on its potential benefits for veterans is limited, and the Department of Veteran affairs does not allow its providers to prescribe or even recommend it to patients.
The Veterans Cannabis Project has been active on Capitol Hill, working to educate lawmakers, and requesting they take action to help clarify the health benefits of cannabis. Etten’s work to educate, advocate, support research, and partner with like-minded organizations is paving the path for future access to alternative treatment options for veterans.
When Justine Evirs joined the Navy, her plan was to make a career out of it. Her early medical discharge, however, forced her back to square one. She ended up in college to study business then spent numerous years in higher education and veteran services. Evirs is now a mother of three, military spouse, and prominent leader and disrupter in the entrepreneurial and veteran military spouse communities, whose ideas are fast-tracking opportunities for veterans entering the civilian workforce or starting their own businesses.
In her previous role as the Executive Director of the nonprofit Bunker Labs Bay Area Evirs helps provide resources and networking opportunities to military veterans and their spouses who are starting and growing their own businesses. Now in her new role as the National Director of Policy at Bunker Labs she is focused on policy solutions for veteran entrepreneurs across the nation.
The Paradigm Switch, a nonprofit founded by Evirs in 2017, originally provided veterans and military spouses access to prestigious certifications and vocational skills-based programs. Fast forward to today, The Paradigm Switch has recently relaunched and is putting military spouses first. Evirs is building a global digital community for military spouses by military spouses, offering a full spectrum of resources that enable spouses to unleash their unlimited potential both personally and professionally. They discover and provide access to resources and communities that empower military spouses to take control of their careers.
Delphine Metcalf-Foster made history in 2017, when she became the first woman ever elected as the National Commander of the Disabled Americans Veterans (DAV) organization.
Metcalf-Foster, whose father was a Buffalo Soldier, joined the military later in life, when her daughter was in high school. Her daughter was convinced people would laugh at her mom because of her age, but Metcalf-Foster went for it, and ended up retiring from the Army Reserve 21 years later. During her service, she deployed to Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield, where she was injured.
Metcalf-Foster’s passion for serving fellow veterans has fueled her work with DAV. With over 1 million members, this nonprofit organization helps injured veterans access benefits and advocates on their behalf. In her role as the DAV National Commander, Metcalf-Foster aims to spotlight the need to close the health care gap that exists for women veterans, as well as the need to expand government support for caregivers of pre 9/11 veterans.
It all started with this former Army captain’s raw, brutally honest and irreverent blog titled Kaboom: a Soldier’s War Journal, which chronicled his 15-month Iraq deployment leading a scout platoon with the 25th Infantry Division. The controversial and popular blog was eventually shut down by Gallagher’s chain-of-command, but was later published as a critically-acclaimed memoir after he left the Army.
Armed with an MFA in fiction from Columbia, Gallagher went on to write for numerous major publications, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Wired. Tackling such dicey issues as whether or not the Iraq War was worth it, the social estrangement of returning veterans, and refugee and immigration rights of Muslims coming to America, Gallagher challenges intellectual and moral complacency. As a veteran directly affected by these issues, Gallagher’s skepticism of the establishment, honest self-reflection, and calls for accountability bring an enormously refreshing and credible perspective to the conversation.
In 2015, Vanity Fair called Matt Gallagher one of the most important voices of a new generation of American war literature. His debut novel Youngblood (2016) portrays a young soldier in his search for meaning during the end of the Iraq War.
As a former intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve, the mayor of Los Angeles has made improving the lives of veterans a priority throughout his tenure. His establishment of the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs aimed to ensure veterans in Los Angeles can access the services they’ve earned. One of Garcetti’s most impressive contributions to the veteran community during his time as mayor has been through the office’s massive hiring campaign called the 10,000 Strong Initiative.
Garcetti’s groundbreaking initiative formed a coalition between the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs and companies and community organizations in Los Angeles over the last three years to reach the goal of hiring 10,000 local veterans. The program utilized the services of local nonprofits and government agencies to match qualified veteran candidates with open positions. The initiative also offered job training to veterans to assist them in transitioning into the civilian workforce, as well as training to companies on how to use tax incentives when hiring veterans.
Through the use of these resources and training programs, Garcetti’s 10,000 Strong Initiative ended up beating its own goal, placing 10,500 veterans with more than 200 companies in the Los Angeles region. In Garcetti’s own words from his Aug 29, 2017 Fleet Week speech, “The men and women who served our country in uniform should come home to opportunity, not obstacles. Veterans are some of the hardest-working, most qualified, and prepared people in Los Angeles — and they should have every chance to succeed in the workplace, and make a living for themselves and their families.”
Jason Hall started his career in Hollywood as an actor. Some might recognize him from his recurring role as the lead singer of a band in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. According to Hall, however, the role that truly made a difference in his life was for a University of Southern California student film in which he portrayed a Marine coming to grips with the loss of a troop. This role would serve as his entry into the fascinating and strange world of American military veterans.
Hall’s Oscar nomination for his adaptation of the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s American Sniper novel for the 2014 film version served as his breakout moment as a major creative force. His success in the powerful telling of that story led him to his next project, Thank You for Your Service, a 2017 film he wrote and directed based on Washington Post reporter David Finkel’s nonfiction book by the same name, which follows the real-life plight of four soldiers returning home from the Iraq War.
Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, had followed these soldiers in the war for 10 months, then continued following them for another 13 months after they came home. What resulted was a gripping account of the challenges faced by veterans following war.
Hall’s film expanded the book’s audience to moviegoers across America, giving a prominent spotlight to the issues faced by returning veterans. It’s his dedication to the careful and accurate depiction of these true-life accounts that demonstrates his commitment to serving veterans through filmmaking. He looks to bring that same accuracy to the story of another well-known veteran: George Washington. He has spent the last year researching and writing the story of Washington’s road to becoming a leader through the French Indian war.
Zach Iscol is a combat decorated Marine veteran who served two tours in Iraq and fought in the second Battle of Fallujah, where he led a combined unit of 30 American and 250 Iraqi National Guard troops, and later helped build US Marine Corps, Special Operations Command.
Through Hirepurpose, Iscol has helped over 50,000 veterans with employment through personalized career guidance, resources, and job matching. Iscol’s Headstrong Project, an affiliate of Weill Cornell Medical Center, has provided cost-free world-class mental healthcare to over 600 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in 14 cities and growing around the Country. Task Purpose is a leading news, culture and lifestyle website with content aimed at military and veteran audiences, and reaching over 50 million people a month.
In 2007, Iscol’s testimony, while on active duty, before the United States Senate, helped establish the Special Immigrant Visa to safeguard and protect our Iraqi and Afghanistan translators.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
Dwayne Johnson comes from a proud military family, and his goal is to give back to the military community. An actor, producer, philanthropist, and former WWE professional wrestler, Johnson uses his super-celebrity status to advocate for the importance of American freedom and to honor its protectors.
At the end of 2016, Johnson was the executive producer and host of the inaugural “Rock the Troops” event at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam for 50,000 military personnel in recognition of the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. For this event, which aired on Spike TV, Johnson assembled an epic cast of fellow celebrities — Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, Keegan Michael-Key, Rob Riggle, Nick Jona, Flo Rider, and more all made special appearances to honor the troops.
Johnson continues his support for military members and their families through his partnership with Under Armour’s Freedom initiative, which supports the military and first responder communities by enhancing their physical and mental wellness.
After serving 25 years in the U.S. Air Force as both a public affairs NCO and officer, Mike Kelly continues serving the military community as a passionate advocate for veterans and military spouses. In his role as an executive at USAA, he leads strategic collaborations with key military, government, nonprofit, and for-profit advocacy groups.
Mike is building collaborative relationships that focus on a national dialogue surrounding important veteran and spouse issues such as financial readiness, navigating successful transitions into the civilian workforce, entrepreneurship, and supportive and impactful military spouse communities.
In 2016, The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation selected Mike as the recipient of the annual Hiring Our Heroes Colonel Michael Endres Leadership Award for Individual Excellence in Veteran Employment. He currently serves on the HOH Veteran and Military Spouse Employment Councils, which focus on actions addressing the unique employment challenges veterans and military spouses face.
Mike is dedicated to connecting, equipping, and inspiring opportunities that benefit the military community at large.
Sam Meek served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps as a Nuclear Biological Chemical Defense (NBCD) Specialist, completing two tours in Iraq. After leaving the military, Meek would eventually end up using his passion for technology to help connect members of the military community. His unique mobile app, Sandboxx, helps give new recruits in basic training — as well as deployed service members without access to their social media apps — a way to stay connected to the outside world.
Sandboxx customers, most of whom are already active users of social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, and SnapChat, are easily able to transition to Sandboxx to communicate with out-of-reach military members. They use the app to upload photos, which get converted into a piece of physical mail, which is sent anywhere in the world it needs to go, even remote locations. Most letters are sent overnight and are delivered the next business day.
Meek launched Sandboxx Travel in 2017, which enables service members to book hotels and flights, often with military discounts, through the Sandboxx app and site. The app also helps provide a way for active and inactive members of the military to connect with any unit they have ever served. As the grandson and great grandson of military service members, Meek was intent on maintaining his connection to the Marines. He now helps people around the world do exactly that.
On April 10, 2012, while serving on his third tour with the 82nd Airborne, Staff Sergeant Travis Mills was critically injured by an IED. He lost both arms and both legs in the blast, and is one of only five quadruple amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to survive those injuries.
Mills spent much of his time during recovery at Walter Reed encouraging and hanging out with fellow injured veterans and their families, earning the nickname the “Mayor.” So it’s not much of a surprise that he ended up deciding that he wanted to do something big — not only for veterans, but their families as well. In 2013, embodying the warrior ethos of “Never give up, never quit,” Travis and his wife started the Travis Mills Foundation.
The Foundation supports veterans and their families through programs that help these heroic men and women overcome physical obstacles, strengthen their families, and provide well-deserved rest and relaxation. Mills’ latest effort to support these veterans and their families is through his Foundation’s national retreat center, located in his home state of Maine.
Since June of 2017, the retreat has served injured veterans and their families, who receive an all-inclusive, all-expenses paid, barrier-free vacation where they participate in adaptive activities, bond with other veteran families, and enjoy the 17-acre grounds of the estate.
You might know Bob Parsons as the larger-than-life billionaire entrepreneur who founded GoDaddy, but his legacy extends far beyond the massively successful internet domain registrar and web hosting company. Parsons served in the United States Marine Corps and, at 18 years old, deployed to Vietnam as a rifleman with Delta Company, earning a Purple Heart, a Combat Action Ribbon, and the Vietnam Gallantry Cross.
Parsons is passionate about creating a positive homecoming experience for veterans returning from war. This was also the inspiration behind those who started the Semper Fi Fund, a charity that provides immediate and long-term resources to post-9/11 military members who have been combat wounded, catastrophically injured, or are critically ill.
Semper Fi Fund also provides services aimed at helping vets throughout their lives, including family and caregiver support, PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury care and education, adaptive housing and transportation, education and career transition assistance, mentoring and apprenticeships, and unit reunions.
As one of the highest-rated charities in the country the Semper Fi Fund’s impact is impressive. According to their website, Semper Fi Fund’s 2017 monetary assistance to service members totaled million dollars. Bob Parsons and his wife Renee are also the founders of the nonprofit organization The Bob Renee Parsons Foundation. For the sixth year in a row, the Foundation recently completed its Double Down for Veterans match campaign with the Semper Fi Fund by matching contributions dollar-for-dollar, exceeding their 2017 goal of million. The Foundation has donated more than million in total to the Semper Fi Fund since its creation. This husband-and-wife philanthropic powerhouse have given an astounding 0 million dollars to charity since 2012.
Coming from three generations of military service, Elizabeth Halperin-Perez spent nine years as an Aviation Logistic Specialist in the U.S. Navy. During a deployments to the Middle East, her friend died in a terrorist attack on the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Cole while it was refueling in Yemen’s Aden Harbor. This event, along with the deep respect for Mother Earth instilled in her from her Mono Indian Native American heritage, sparked her passion for energy policies that advance national security.
Committed to reducing conflict and future wars by furthering sustainable energy practices, Halperin-Perez went on to become the founder and president of the green-build general contracting and consulting firm GCG. Using her experience and network, she also works to help other veterans find clean energy job opportunities, and is passionate about helping them onto an entrepreneurial path. In 2017, Halperin-Perez was chosen by Governor Brown to serve on the California Veterans Board, and most recently was appointed Deputy Secretary of Minority Veterans with the California Department of Veterans Affairs, serving underrepresented veterans in a much larger capacity across California. She was also recognized at the White House in 2013 as a “Champion of Change for Advancing Clean Energy Technologies Climate Security”.
Sam Pressler began his involvement with the veteran community during his time as a student at the College of William Mary, where he majored in government and first learned about the mental health challenges faced by veterans returning from war. Pressler himself had turned to comedy to cope after a suicide in his family, and in response to the challenges affecting veterans and service members he started Comedy Bootcamp, a stand-up comedy class for veterans and their families as a way to help build community and improve well-being through comedy.
This bootcamp eventually grew into the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP), a non-profit founded and led by Pressler that helps veterans, service members, and military family members reintegrate into their communities through the arts. The organization promotes expression, skill-development, and camaraderie through classes, workshops, and performances across a variety of artistic disciplines. ASAP’s focus on consistent programs and community partnerships ensures that members of our community have continuous opportunities for artistic and personal growth.
ASAP has served more than 600 students, and put on over 800 performances for 50,000+ audience members, including a 2016 comedy show at The White House and a performance for President Jimmy Carter. Through these programs and performances, Pressler has helped to create connections and understanding between veterans and members of their local communities. Pressler was honored on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2017, as one of HillVets 100 most influential people in the veterans space in 2016, and as a recipient of the prestigious Echoing Green Fellowship.
His work with ASAP has been featured by numerous media outlets, including the Washington Post, ABC News, NBC, CNN, NPR, PBS, Military Times, Task Purpose, and Stars Stripes.
Jennifer Pritzker (born James Pritzker) enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions while on active duty, then at various units in the Army National Guard until retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 2001. She was later promoted to the honorary rank of Colonel.
Pritzker has been a massive force multiplier through her philanthropic work as the President and Chief Executive Officer of Tawani Enterprises, Inc., President of the Tawani Foundation, and Founder and Chair of the Pritzker Military Museum Library. In these roles, Pritzker makes significant long-term differences for programs and organizations that advocate the role of military in society.
Among her notable contributions is a id=”listicle-2565932886″.3 million donation to the University of California, Santa Barbara to fund studies on how the U.S. military could openly integrate transgender members into its ranks. In 2017, the Pritzker Military Foundation donated id=”listicle-2565932886″ million to fund key initiatives for Elizabeth Dole’s Hidden Heroes campaign, which supports the caregivers of injured and ill veterans and service members. In 2018, the Foundation gave id=”listicle-2565932886″ million to the Army Historical Foundation to help with the construction of the National Museum of the United States Army in Virginia. In 2013, Pritzker came out as transgender and started living as a woman. She is the only known transgender billionaire in the world.
(Photo by Terrilyn Bayne)
Diana & Daniel Rau
Daniel Rau was inspired to serve his country when he saw the Twin Towers fall on 9/11. He joined the Marine Corps and served as a Marine Security Guard protecting embassies around the world. After his service, based on his and his friends’ experiences, he saw an opportunity to radically change the process of how Veterans enter the civilian workforce.
Diana Rau, who was honored as one of Forbes’ 2018 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs, is a Georgetown graduate passionate about solving major social problems. When she met Daniel, the idea for Veterati sparked: build a technology platform to help America’s 1.5 million service members currently transitioning into the civilian workforce as well as 5.5 million underemployed military spouses navigate and break into civilian careers. (A romantic relationship that later led to their marriage also sparked — Veterati’s story is both a startup story a love story!)
Because 80% of job opportunities are never listed, but rather, are advertised and filled through personal networks, the Raus built a digital platform that empower service members and spouses to connect with multiple mentors and build social networks vital to their career search. At Veterati.com, Veterans spouses are matched with successful business people in their area of interest using smart algorithms. Mentors volunteer their time through free, one-hour phone calls facilitated by the platform. Since its 2015 launch, Veterati, which has been called the “Uber-of-mentoring,” has provided thousands of free mentoring conversations for 10k+ members and is partnered with the nation’s leading Veteran Service Organizations and Military Employers to deliver free, on-demand mentoring to our entire military community.
In 2017, Denise Rohan became the first female national commander of the 2 million-member American Legion in its 99-year history. Rohan, who served in the Army’s Quartermaster Corps for two years at the end of the Vietnam War, joined the Legion 33 years ago, working her way up from post-level membership to National Commander.
The American Legion is the nation’s largest veteran service organization and was founded on four pillars: veterans affairs and rehabilitation, national security, Americanism, and children and youth. As their new national commander, Rohan is expanding on those four pillars through her “Family First” platform, which broadens the American Legion’s focus on service members and veterans to include family members as well. As the spouse of a veteran herself, Rohan believes that families serve too; and ensuring those family members are being taken care of at home allows for their loved ones in the fight to focus more on their mission, ultimately strengthening national security.
Rohan’s current special fundraising project is the Legion’s Temporary Financial Assistance program, which awards cash grants to children of veterans in need to help the cost of shelter, food, utilities, and health expenses.
Major Dan Rooney
Major Dan Rooney is a U.S. Air Force Reserve F-16 fighter pilot with the Oklahoma National Guard. It was during his second tour of duty in Iraq that he felt a calling to do something in response to the devastating sacrifices he saw others make fighting for their country. This calling was solidified on a commercial flight Rooney took after returning to the U.S. The plane had just landed and the pilot announced that the remains of Corporal Brock Bucklin were on board. Maj Rooney watched as the flag-draped casket slowly made its way to the awaiting family, which included the fallen hero’s son. Rooney was overwhelmed thinking about the hardship those family members would face due to their loss.
This moment irrecoverably altered Rooney’s trajectory, and he made the decision at that moment to dedicate the rest of his life to helping the family members of those who gave their lives, or were disabled in service to their nation. He recently formed a partnership with Budweiser’s Patriot Beer and in 2007 created the Folds of Honor Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps the more than one million dependents adversely impacted by war through educational scholarships.
Rooney, who is also a PGA golf pro, realized that he could use his platform to help achieve the goals he had for his foundation. The first Folds of Honor golf tournament raised ,000. Since, then Folds of Honor has raised over 0 million and given away over 13,000 educational scholarships. Rooney continues to his work to uphold the mission of his foundation: “Honor their sacrifice. Educate their legacy.”
Actor and humanitarian Gary Sinise has been a strong advocate of American service members for nearly 40 years, starting with his Veterans Night program, which offers free dinners and performances to veterans at the Steppenwolf Theatre, which he co-founded in Chicago. Later, his portrayal of Lt Dan in the film Forrest Gump would create a lasting connection with the disabled military community. Following 9/11 he took part in many USO tours, which led him to form The Lt. Dan Band, which entertains troops at home and abroad and raises awareness at benefit concerts across the country.
Sinise established the Gary Sinise Foundation in 2011, through which he continues to serve and honor America’s defenders, veterans, and first responders as well as their families and those in need. Whether they’re sending WWII veterans to New Orleans to tour the National WWII Museum through its Soaring Valor program or building specially adapted smart homes for severely wounded veterans through its R.I.S.E. (Restoring Independence, Supporting Empowerment) program, Sinise continually demonstrates just how much one person’s commitment can do for an entire community. His Foundation recently added the annual Snowball Express event to its roster of programs. The annual event brings together the children and spouses of fallen military heroes each December for a fun-filled four-day event at Disney World.
Sinise’s forthcoming book Grateful American, which features the author’s life story and passionate advocacy for military service members, is slated for release in 2019.
Jon Stewart, comedian and former host of The Daily Show, is nothing less than passionate about his support for the troops. He continually uses his public platform to stress that the country does not do enough to support service members and veterans. His persistent message to America and its institutions is that supporting the troops shouldn’t be an empty saying, but rather a call to action. Stewart backs up his words with his own remarkable commitment, proving himself a truly dedicated advocate for this community.
During his long tenure as the host of the massively popular satirical news show, Stewart established an internship program for veterans trying to break into the television industry, which continues on to this day. He has also toured with USO three times, entertaining service members all over the world, bringing them laughs and a touch of home. Stewart regularly participates in benefits and campaigns aimed at raising money and awareness for issues impacting veterans.
In 2016, Stewart attended the Warrior Games, an adaptive sports competition in which injured and ill service members and veterans participate. He later pitched the idea of broadcasting the games on television to ESPN — and in 2017, they did exactly that, with Stewart serving as the emcee.
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.
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.”
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.”
In politics, business, advocacy, and media, there are veterans on the American landscape who have the potential to make a big difference in the months ahead. Some of them are well-known; many of them are not (but should be).
The editors of We Are The Mighty looked across the community and created a diverse list of veterans who continue to serve in a wide variety of high-impact ways. Here are The Mighty 25:
WILLIAM MCNULTY — Managing Director, Team Rubicon Global
William McNulty is a former Marine infantryman who later transitioned into the intelligence community. In 2010 he assumed a new mission with what would eventually become Team Rubicon, a non-profit disaster relief organization he co-founded with fellow Marine Jake Wood.
Since then, Team Rubicon has grown considerably. The permanent staff now oversees some 16,000 volunteers who deploy wherever disaster strikes. Late this year, McNulty stepped back from the main organization to focus on an ambitious project to take TR international.
In 2015, with McNulty now managing director of Team Rubicon Global, look for greater impact from the five-year-old organization as it expands to support relief efforts worldwide. This franchise approach will model Team Rubicon’s successes with American veterans and allow foreign military vets to continue to serve in their communities.
DON FAUL — Director of Operations, Pinterest
Annapolis grad and former Marine Don Faul got to his new job by way of Google and Facebook, a great training track for the task he faces as Pinterest’s head of Operations.
Faul is already making waves with his innovative approach to the site’s ad units, substituting the standard way of charging an advertiser per one thousand impressions for a model that charges by the amount visitors actually click on an ad – a huge benefit for the small businesses that frequent Pinterest. Faul’s leadership could make a big difference in Pinterest’s performance, and beyond that, in how social media is monetized next year and beyond.
JONI ERNST — Senator from Iowa
A day after winning the most contested Senate race in the country — a race punctuated by ads that showcased her talking about castrating cows — Maj. Joni Ernst showed up for duty with the Iowa National Guard where she’s served since 1993.
She now arrives in D.C. as the only female combat veteran in the Senate, and the Republican side of the aisle is ready to use that for all it’s worth. “It’s really good for our National Defense,” Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley told National Review Online, “having [Ernst serve] in the Senate will be good for all debate on national security.”
DAN BRILLMAN — Co-founder, Unite US
Along with co-founder and West Point grad Taylor Justice, Air Force reservist and tanker pilot Dan Brillman has figured out a way to leverage web technology to allow eligible parties to effectively navigate the “Sea of Good Will” — the 40,000 organizations dedicated to helping veterans that have historically presented a challenge because of their sheer number and dizzying overlap.
Brillman created Unite US, a website that uses “interactive, proximity-mapping technology” to match vets to the services they need – sort of like Yelp for the military dot-org ecosystem. If you haven’t used UniteUS.com yet, by the end of 2015 you will have.
SETH MOULTON — Congressman from Massachusetts
Seth Moulton’s reluctant entry into politics was spurred primarily by his experiences as a Marine across four tours during the Iraq War – a war he didn’t believe in. After getting his MBA at Harvard and working for a start-up for a while, he decided to run for Congress as a Democrat in Massachusetts sixth district.
He ultimately won the election after unseating a longstanding incumbent during the primary. The same work ethic, intelligence, and moxie that made him a Gen. Petraeus acolyte should serve him well on the Hill. If anyone has the pedigree and problem solving skills to get something done from across the aisle in a Republican-majority Congress, it’s Moulton.
BRIAN ADAM JONES — Editor-in-Chief, Task & Purpose
After an award-winning career as a Marine Corps combat correspondent, Brian Adam Jones honed his journalism chops at Business Insider, working as a reporting intern for the military section.
This year he joined (and helped launch) the HirePurpose blog “Task & Purpose” as editor-in-chief, and in short order his content choices and writing helped that website become a breakout property among a host of emerging military-affinity destinations.
And he’s just getting started; Jones is currently working on a political science degree at Columbia in addition to his gig at Task & Purpose. Make it a point to find his byline in 2015.
PATRICK MURPHY — Host of MSNBC’s “Taking the Hill”
Patrick Murphy was the first Iraq War vet to be elected to Congress in 2007, but his political career was short-circuited in 2011 when the Tea Party helped orchestrate his defeat in Pennsylvania’s 8th District, primarily because of his work in repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Murphy fell back into legal work until he was approached to host a new show on MSNBC. “Taking the Hill” is the only broadcast network program dedicated to military issues and veteran advocacy, and the show was just picked up for a second season. Look for bigger impact in 2015 as Murphy continues to find his voice as a host and gains more creative control over program topics.
PHIL KLAY — Author of “Redeployment”
The New Yorker said this about Army vet Phil Klay’s debut Redeployment: “The best literary work thus far written by a veteran of America’s recent wars . . . Klay’s fiction peels back every pretty falsehood and self-delusion in the encounter between veterans and the people for whom they supposedly fought.”
This year Klay was awarded National Book Award for Fiction — the first Iraq war veteran do so — and he was also named a National Book Foundation ‘5 Under 35′ honoree. Whenever he puts pen to paper going forward, his will be an important and credible voice on behalf of those who served during our most recent wars.
TOM COTTON — Congressman from Arkansas
Tom Cotton first came to the attention of conservatives when he wrote The New York Times a nastygram from the Iraq War because of a story the paper published that he believed hazarded the safety of his troops. Since that time he’s been shaped into a new breed of veteran politician: an anti-progressive in spite of his Harvard degree, one who’s Tea Party-friendly but whose views are shaped as much by reason as ideology.
A recent Atlantic Monthly article put it this way: “He unites the factions of the Republican civil war: The establishment loves his background, while the Tea Party loves his ideological purity.” That combo could be used to good effect – the kind that actually causes outcomes – as he continues to represent the people of Arkansas’ 4th District next year.
TM GIBBONS-NEFF — Reporter, The Washington Post
While working toward his undergraduate degree at Georgetown University, former Marine and Afghan War vet T.M. Gibbons-Neff has emerged as a high-impact writer with bylines in vaunted publications like The New York Times andThe Washington Post.
As an intern with The Post, Neff landed a significant scoop earlier this year with a story that revealed that Maj. Doug Zembiec, the “lion of Fallujah” who was killed in 2007, was actually working for the CIA at the time.
Gibbons-Neff is a guy to watch in that he shows a deft hand by leveraging his warfighting experience while remaining an objective journalist — a skill few possess who deign to cover the topics surrounding national security.
TULSI GABBARD — Congresswoman from Hawaii
Tulsi Gabbard deployed to Iraq with the Hawaii Army National Guard in 2004, and eight years later she was elected to represent Hawaii’s second congressional district. With a diverse background — she’s just 33, thereby one of just a handful of millennials in the House — and the first member of the Hindu faith to be elected to Congress. She’s also just one of two female combat veterans in office.
“I saw in Congress we had fewer veterans serving than had ever served before in our nation’s history and you have people making very important decisions about where and when our troops go into battle,” Gabbard told Yahoo News. As the Obama Administration continues to struggle with how to best counter threats like ISIS, watch how Gabbard leverages her war experience going forward.
TODD CONNOR — Founder, The Bunker
After earning his MBA, Navy veteran Todd Connor started to miss military life while working as a consultant, so he approached Chicago-based tech incubator 1871 with the idea of creating an effort dedicated to veterans.
The result was “The Bunker,” a group of entrepreneurs helping vets avoid the pitfalls of tech start-up life as they struggle to get their businesses off the ground – sort of like a friendlier version of the TV show “Shark Tank.” Connor has a vision of national dominance, and “The Bunker” detachments have sprouted up from Boston to Austin to Los Angeles.
ANU BHAGWATI — Founder, Service Women’s Action Network
Anu Bhagwati’s path to becoming an advocate on behalf of female service members started during her time in the Marine Corps where she weathered myriad examples of sexual harassment and found no quarter within the system designed to protect her and then found no justice when she attempted to go around it.
She channeled her frustration and anger into action in the form of the Service Women’s Action Network, a nonprofit organization that works to end discrimination, harassment and assault in the military. In short order Bhagwati’s clear voice and unflinching approach to SWAN’s mission has influenced policies at the VA and legislation on Capitol Hill. Look for her to keep the pressure up into the new year.
OWEN WEST — Director, Goldman-Sachs Veterans Network
Business Insider labeled Owen West as “the most badass banker on Wall Street” a couple of years ago, and his efforts since then have done nothing but reinforce that title.
West left his lucrative job at Goldman-Sachs three times to serve during the Iraq War. He defines “Renaissance Man”: Novelist and historian; triathlete, world traveler, and philanthropist. But perhaps most importantly, his day job as the director of Goldman-Sachs’ veterans networkunderwrites the impact of that program and ensures this generation of warfighters have a place in the halls of power on the south end of Manhattan.
DAWN HALFAKER — Board Chairwoman, Wounded Warrior Project
Dawn Halfaker was serving as a military police officer when she lost her right arm in an ambush in Iraq in 2004. Her employment struggles after being medically retired from the Army motivated her to start Halfaker and Associates, a consultant firm that specializes in government tech solutions.
She’s built the business with an eye on veteran hiring, and, in turn, used the lessons learned as a board member for the Wounded Warrior Project, specifically with WWP’s “Warriors to Work” employment program. “A lot of business leaders say they want to hire veterans, but don’t know ultimately how they can bring veterans in and empower them to be successful, given the cultural differences of the military,” Halfaker told The Huffington Post. Look for her to continue bridging that cultural divide in 2015.
ANTHONY NOTO — Chief Financial Officer, Twitter
Army vet Anthony Noto was named Twitter’s CFO this summer after shepherding the social media giant through its IPO, and he’ll need to channel the aggressiveness he used as a football player at West Point as the company attempts to, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “transform its mainstream presence into widespread adoption.”
Noto’s job this year is to diminish investor skepticism by growing Twitter’s user base beyond its already gigantic footprint – a suitable challenge for a former Ranger who honed his business chops at Goldman-Sachs and the NFL.
PAUL RIECKHOFF — Founder, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America marked a decade of existence in 2014, and the organization is showing no signs of slowing down going into next year. Under the leadership of the well-networked and media-savvy founder Paul Rieckhoff, IAVA championed the Clay Hunt SAV Act – legislation designed to combat the veteran suicide rate – at the end of the year, although the bill’s passage was singularly impeded by Sen. Tom Coburn.
As military vets continue to take their own lives at a rate of 22 per day, don’t expect Rieckhoff to give up on this issue in 2015.
GUY FILIPPILLINI — Co-founder and CEO, The Commit Foundation
Former Army intel officer Guy Filippellini co-founded The Commit Foundation to address what he saw as a fundamental flaw in veteran career transition programs he’d seen: One-size-fits-all approaches are largely ineffective.
The Commit Foundation’s mission statement is at once lofty and matter-of-fact: “[The foundation] creates serendipity for veterans by fostering mentorship, extending and growing professional networks, promoting familiar camaraderie, and setting the stage for inspiring moments.”
The foundation’s approach is different than most in that it’s focused on what Filippellini calls “small touch high impact efforts,” which means they focus on small numbers of veterans at a time and give each “sustained attention.” The veteran unemployment problem isn’t going away next year, but Filippellini’s foundation is poised to lessen it.
JOHN MCCAIN — Senator from Arizona, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee
Senator John McCain returned to the spotlight at the end of 2014 when the Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA enhanced interrogation techniques hit the streets. “[The CIA] stained our national honor, did much harm and little practical good,” he said on the senate floor.
McCain also took over as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee this year, which could be sporty considering his criticism of wasteful spending and his currently rocky relationship with the Pentagon. With his unique ability as a Hill provocateur, 2015 could be an exceptionally bad year for weapons programs that are over budget and behind schedule.
ROBERT MCDONALD — Secretary of the Veterans Administration
Former Army Ranger Robert McDonald took the reins of the VA on the backside of a massive scandal that revealed administrative ineptitude at the agency had led to the deaths of more than 40 veterans.
McDonald was brought aboard primarily because of his experience as CEO of Proctor and Gamble, but also because he has more charisma than his predecessor, the phlegmatic Eric Shinseki. McDonald has already been more visible than Shinseki was, threatening to fire large numbers of entrenched bureaucrats and even making his cell phone number public. As more veterans transition to VA care next year, the pressure is on the new secretary to improve the way the agency has performed overall since 9-11.
JASON MANGONE — Director, The Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project
The Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project “envisions a future in which a year of full-time national service — a service year — is a cultural expectation, a common opportunity, and a civic rite of passage for every young American,”according to their website. Jason Mangone is a former Marine Corps infantry officer and the director of the project.
Although he served three tours in Iraq, he is quick to point out that he never saw actual combat and that service is not about that. “While those who bear the costs of battle carry a heavier burden, the rest of us can still rightly say we’ve served our country,” Mangone writes at The Huffington Post. “Serving my country means that I gave up the normal progression of my life — high school, college, work — to do something whose end was civic. The same could be said for the veterans of many other types of national service.”
In an era where the social contract is increasingly challenged by diverging political outlooks, economic circumstances, and cultural backgrounds, Mangone’s effort in leading the Franklin Project may ultimately design the road map toward preserving our national identity.
MAT BEST — Founder, Article 15 Clothing Company
Though Mat Best did five combat tours to Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom with the 2nd Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, he’s best known for his collection of hilarious videos on YouTube. He’s doing something right: His videos that poke fun at military life have been viewed a whopping 13 million+ times.
Besides his videos, he’s also written on important topics like PTSD. Best is also the founder and president of Article 15 Clothing, a successful business selling everything from t-shirts to patches to branded coffee. While 2014 has been a huge year for the company, next year looks to be even better. Article 15 is launching their own whiskey brand and the team is scheduled to appear in major movies outside of YouTube.
TIM KENNEDY — MMA Fighter
Tim Kennedy is many things: Special Forces sniper, YouTube video star, and philanthropist. As if that weren’t enough, his main gig these days is a professional mixed martial arts fighter in the UFC.
Fighting since 2001, the 35-year-old Kennedy now has an 18-5-0 record in the UFC. In 2014, he had two major fights: a dominant win against Michael Bisping, and a controversial loss against Yoel Romero. (Kennedy maintains Romero cheated during the fight by sitting on his stool an extra 30 seconds before the final round).
Look for Kennedy to continue his rise in the UFC next year. Also keep an eye out for more of his hilarious videos, which are usually put together by Ranger Up.
MAXIMILIAN URIARTE — Creator, “Terminal Lance”
In 2010, then-Marine Lance Cpl. Max Uriarte launched “Terminal Lance,” a web comic that captures the grunt-level view of life in the Corps. Drawing on his time in the service — with two deployments to Iraq — Uriarte runs a 300,000+ fan-strong Facebook empire that drives readers to his site where he posts two new comics each week.
Now four years old, the strip has matured into a must-read for military personnel, while also making Uriarte a celebrity among Marines. His Terminal Lance brand helped him fund a successful Kickstarter campaign for a graphic novel he’s working on, which brought in more than $160,000. While he works on the novel — working title “The White Donkey” –Max also has plans to move into animation next year.
JAS BOOTHE — Founder, Final Salute
Jas Boothe was a captain who’d been in the Army for 13 years when she was hit with a double whammy: She found out she had cancer and her home in New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
The single mother was suddenly homeless and unemployed. As she fought for her family and her dignity, she discovered there were many other female veterans suffering the same plight. She founded Final Salute to address the problem, and she created the Ms. Vet America event (don’t call it a “pageant”) to bring visibility to the organization. Look for more from Boothe and the Ms. Vet America event in 2015.
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.
Elaine Rogers has been leading the USO-Metro in the Washington DC area since 1977 and has grown it to the largest USO affiliate in the world. Her dedication to the military community has made her a pioneer for social services. And she’s not done yet.
Rogers was born to a father who served with Patton during World War II. It was his service that inspired her. “I’ve always had that passion for the military. When Vietnam fell they had just set up camps in the United States as I finished college. I worked in one of those camps for the American Red Cross, alongside the military and our State Department. Then someone told me about a job at the USO,” she explained.
Rogers took a chance and a trip to D.C. and was hired on the spot. She worked alongside Bob Hope and after only a year of being a program director, she was made the president of USO-Metro. “When the draft stopped and the all-volunteer force came in, all of a sudden there were families coming in, too. We were the first USO to actually start family programming and really help spouses as they came into the military. I am so proud of that,” Rogers said.
What followed was a complete change from what the USO had been known for — Saturday night dances and entertainment. “We became a true social service organization. It was very difficult in the beginning because the people running the military didn’t understand what family programming was,” Rogers explained. “It was also difficult to raise money because the Vietnam war was so unpopular, so getting people to give money to an organization that served the military was challenging.” But, she persisted – deeply believing in the USO’s potential.
Rogers worked hard to get permission to put USOs on installations, a feat that would change the scope of the organization’s ability to directly serve those in uniform and their families. “We started doing heavy outreach and continuing to grow programs. Our entertainment has never gone away but it’s a very small piece of what we do now,” she shared. When the attacks of 9/11 occurred, her USO was poised as a first responding organization, welcoming thousands after the plane hit the Pentagon. “We were literally working with the military to figure out what our USO could do and how we could house all the families.”
As the War on Terror began, the USO-Metro began supporting the wounded and their families – a task they were ready and able to do, with honor. Almost 20 years since then, they are still caring for the fallen, wounded and their families. The comfort and support offered to the military community is no small gift. It’s a blessing that has changed and impacted countless lives.
The USO has grown in spades since the early days, working hand in hand with the military. Watching the change has been a beautiful experience, Rogers shared. “I’ve had the experience of watching the first female commander of Walter Reed. The first woman who became a Master Chief Petty Officer. Witnessing the evolution of the military – especially for the women – has been amazing and really something to watch,” she said.
When Rogers was named one of the Mighty 25, she was shocked. “I always feel guilty because I don’t feel I deserve anything. I have the best job in the world,” she said. “What better could you do? I get to meet heroes every day!” She was also quick to say that without the USO’s incredible volunteers, they wouldn’t be in existence. In the USO-Metro area alone, there are over 1,200 volunteers willingly giving their time.
Despite an impressive career that has spanned over 40 years in the USO, there’s no end in sight for Rogers. With her innovation, dedication and tireless belief in service, she’s changed the landscape of giving back to the military. She’s been asked numerous times if she’s tired yet, which makes her laugh. “I tell people no – I am more energized today than I’ve ever been,” she said with a smile. Rogers encourages people to find the things that bring them joy and purpose. Then, never look back.
Paul Szoldra is deeply familiar with being challenged; he spent eight years as a Marine infantryman. This Mighty 25er is not only a combat veteran but also a trail-blazing journalist devoted to uncovering the truth at all costs.
Szoldra’s father was a helicopter mechanic for the Army during the Vietnam War, which left Szoldra always thinking about military service. “I would see his uniform in the closet growing up. It was one of those kid moments, seeing all those ribbons and medals and thinking it was super cool,” he explained. When America was attacked on 9/11, Szoldra was a senior in high school and watched it unfold in his history class. Like so many others, it was a pivotal moment that would change his life.
He arrived at boot camp on the one year anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
Although he joined the Marine Corps, he was almost an Airman. “It was the biggest cliché. The Air Force office was closed that day and I was knocking on the door and I heard this voice behind me – a Marine gunny,” Szoldra said with a laugh. That gunny brought him to the Marine Corps office and gave him the full impressive rundown of why he should join the Marines. “I’m just like, wow this is incredible stuff! That’s how it started, they got me good – they got me really good.”
His time as a Marine changed him in many ways. Szoldra shared that he lost friends in combat and more recently, to suicide. It’s an experience that had him questioning whether serving was worth it at times. “If I hadn’t joined the Marine Corps I wouldn’t have the pain of knowing and losing these people in the back of my mind…but, I also think of all the great things that came as well,” he explained. Despite the losses and challenges, he doesn’t regret serving and if anything, finds himself glad he joined the Marine Corps, seeing it as a stepping stone on the path for his life.
That stepping stone led him to journalism and an unwavering search for the truth. “I think the service aspect is an important one. Most people join the military because they are compelled to serve something higher than themselves… how I go about my day to day is that,” Szoldra said. Although he’s hung up his uniform, his days are still spent serving the military through journalism.
Although his serious and truthful journalism can be found at Task & Purpose, where he is the Editor in Chief, he also likes to have a little fun. He is the founder of The Duffel Blog, widely acclaimed military satire, or “fake news” site, enjoyed by the likes of General Mattis himself.
Despite the frequent negative commentary about the media, Szoldra remains positive about the work reporters do and feels it’s vital. He also encourages people to always have questions and to stay informed. “I can tell you that there are a lot of great journalists that are doing hard work all over the world. A lot of them are paid very little money to do so and some of them even are in war zones, risking their lives to get that information. Many times, it’s simply because they believe it’s so important to get the information out,” he explained.
Szoldra doesn’t hold back from finding the truth, even when it makes the military look bad. His pursuit of this led him to successfully sue the Department of Defense in early 2020. Szoldra discussed his concerns regarding things like mold in the barracks and increased rates of veteran suicide, saying that without journalism – change wouldn’t happen. “All of these things are huge issues and without the media to put a spotlight on them, none of these issues get fixed. Especially in the military. My experience has been to see an organization that is reactive rather than proactive,” he stated.
Szoldra shared that it sometimes takes the media to push issues in order to force the military’s hand in correcting wrongs or addressing issues that maybe weren’t prioritized. He’s made it his mission to tell the truth, at all costs. “Keeping people honest – that’s essentially what it boils down to,” he said with a laugh.
As for what Szoldra hopes readers take away from his story, his words were simple: “Find your purpose,” he said. “Fight for what’s right and seek the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. Serve your community in whatever capacity. There are ways that you can serve that do not require you to carry a weapon.”
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.”
Ryan Manion’s journey to leading The Travis Manion Foundation began with her brother’s legacy and her mother’s love. In a time of deep sorrow and almost unbearable loss – both would create a mission of hope and purpose for generations of Americans to come.
On April 29, 2007, First Lieutenant Travis Manion and his fellow Marines were ambushed while on patrol in Iraq. He willingly led counterattacks to draw fire away by entering the kill zone numerous times to retrieve wounded Marines. He was fatally wounded by a sniper. Manion’s heroic actions undoubtedly saved the lives of everyone on the patrol.
Before he left for the second tour of duty in Iraq which would ultimately claim his life, Travis was asked numerous times why he would go back. His response paints a vivid and compelling picture of the hero and servant-leader that he was: If not me, then who? It would be those words that would spur his mother to create a foundation of purposeful service that would grow far beyond her family’s wildest dreams.
“If he was here, he would 100 percent be a part of this organization and be all about it. But he wouldn’t like that it was named the Travis Manion Foundation,” Ryan said with a laugh. She herself joined the foundation in 2009, two years after it was formed by her mother, Janet. Ryan said it was her mom’s vision that led the Foundation to where it is and without her, it wouldn’t exist.
Originally, Ryan said that she and her father saw the Foundation as a labor of love for her Janet – a way to channel deep grief. “While she talked about big things that she wanted to do, we didn’t really think it was going to happen…I certainly never could have envisioned where it was going to go,” she said with a smile. Ryan worked alongside her mother for over two years until Janet lost her battle with cancer in 2012.
The board of directors unanimously voted for Ryan to step into her mother’s role as president, a role Ryan admits she wasn’t fully prepared to fill. “I had to learn so much on the fly. I brought in some really talented people to help us grow. It was from there that we took off and I think a lot of it was because of the things my mom put in place,” she shared.
The organization works directly with veterans and family members of the fallen to create a deep sense of purpose and undeniable social impact in communities throughout the country. Through innovative programming, training and events, The Travis Manion Foundation is changing lives.
One of the programs Ryan herself is most proud of is Character Does Matter. Veteran mentors work with youth in schools to develop leadership and character through relationship building events. Youth also participate in service projects to honor the fallen, which can be a life-changing experience. Case studies over the last two years have showcased extraordinary health and wellbeing scores for the veteran mentors in the program, demonstrating the importance of a purpose filled life. “Everything we do at TMF is with that same holistic approach. For us it’s about providing opportunities for veterans to be engaged,” Ryan explained.
Another thing that makes Ryan incredibly proud is how the organization hasn’t lost who they were at the beginning. “At the end of the day, this was a family that started a nonprofit – not because they came up with some grand idea but because they lost their loved one and were trying to decide what to do next…That same sentiment of being a part of a family – still exists today,” she explained.
Ryan spends a lot of her time speaking about resiliency through loss and even wrote a book – The Knock at the Door – with other Gold Star family members about turning loss into purpose. “We are all going to receive knocks at the door. You are not going to escape this life without setbacks,” she explained. Ryan shared that it’s what you do in those moments after that will set the tone for life after hardship.
Despite the undeniable, vital impact that Travis’ life and legacy has had, Ryan and her family will never stop hurting or missing him. “I would throw it all away to have my brother back with me,” Ryan said. “But I do feel incredibly blessed that I have the opportunity every day to wake up with purpose and passion. That I get to do something for my brother and his legacy – there’s not much more you can ask for.”
Harris Faulkner is an Emmy-winning anchor for the daytime Fox News shows Outnumbered and Outnumbered Overtime. She’s also a military kid who recognizes the deep impact her father’s Army career has had on her life and who she has become.
When asked what her reaction was after receiving the news of being selected for the Mighty 25, Faulkner said she immediately thought of her dad. “There have been so many times in my life when I’ve paused for a moment to think of the successes… and they are always because of my parents,” she said. “I am really blessed with military leadership in my family – that made such a huge difference in one’s ability to be resilient, innovative, creative and believe all things are possible.”
Faulkner’s father is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel who served multiple tours during the Vietnam war as a combat pilot. She candidly shared how hard her parents worked to instill a deep sense of values within her and that she learned from an early age the importance of a strong work ethic. “It doesn’t surprise me that I can be successful at something because I truly can follow the mission until it’s over. I don’t quit,” she said with a laugh.
Stories and news were always a part of her life. Faulkner recalled that her father would have her read the paper every night at the dinner table and they would talk about what was going on. “I would learn about the world that way,” she said. “From a very young age I knew I would always vote and knew the cost in and out of the country for that right.” By the time she was 10 years old in 1975, there was a whole lot going on in the world. One vital piece of advice that her father imparted on her was to always have questions.
“My father fought for this country when Blacks were not allowed to drink at the same water fountains, sit at the same counters or use the same restrooms [as whites],” she explained. When she asked her father once about why he wanted to serve a country where he wasn’t treated equally because he was Black – his response was memorable. “He said, ‘There will be times where it will feel like we are bending or even breaking but I would rather fight for the democracy and potential of America than look from afar and wonder what difference I could have made if I had stuck in the fight,’” Faulkner shared.
Journalism and investigating the truth came naturally to Faulkner, and her parents always pushed her to use her voice. She’s come a long way since she was that little girl reading the newspaper to her parents; she’s earned six Emmy awards and is a best-selling author. But it didn’t come easy.
Faulkner discussed the challenges of often being the first or only woman of color throughout her career. “By my sixth Emmy I did start to wonder, ‘Why me?’ I was incredibly blessed. Now I do question, ‘What’s next?’ I want to create a legacy for people of every stripe,” she explained. She also hopes that her story will inspire the next generation to chase dreams and excellence. “I want people to know that doing your best isn’t overrated.”
With the media coming under attacks as the ‘enemy,’ Faulkner hasn’t found herself overwhelmed. Instead, she sees it as the opportunity to get it right. This is where that fierce work ethic her military father instilled comes into play. “In my life, when I have gone for a job or a promotion…If you see me coming and I am your competition, you’d better be ready – because I am not showing up to get ready. I am already there,” Faulkner said with a smile.
With the country currently divided in the midst of a pandemic, the news is often fraught with emotionally-charged stories and unkindness. It’s difficult to navigate but Faulkner still sees the good in America and has an easy solution for healing: love. “That’s what this is all about. It’s not complicated to want to spread what you know works. I think sometimes we forget that,” she explained. “What I want people to know is, our journey is really all about love. If I can leave people with one notion it is this…we don’t know the end of our story yet so let’s make the middle be about something that works… and love cures everything.”
Harris Faulkner has come a long way since the days of being a military kid, hungry to read the news and discuss politics with her father. Despite her success, she’s never forgotten her foundation. And for Faulkner, there’s no end in sight.
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.”