While Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex might only be known to some for his name or standing, to the military community at large, he is so much more.
Despite the opportunities available to him after graduating from high school, Prince Harry entered Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 2005. After finishing his rigorous officer training, Prince Harry was commissioned into the British Royal Army. Soon after, his unit was scheduled to deploy to Iraq and Harry fought to go with them. “There’s no way I’m going to put myself through Sandhurst and then sit on my arse back home while my boys are out fighting for their country,” he said in an interview with BBC at the time.
His insistence that he fight alongside his countryman in service of his country and the world’s allies is just one of the many reasons Prince Harry is admired. Although he ultimately did not go to Iraq due to threats on his life, he secretly served in combat with the British Royal Army in Afghanistan. It was the first time a member of the royal family had served in combat since Prince Andrew served during the Falklands War in the 80’s.
Following deployment, Prince Harry went to the Army Air Corps to learn to fly Apache helicopters. A year later he was flying in combat as a co-pilot and gunner, unbeknownst to the public. “I joined the Army because, for a long time, I just wanted to be one of the guys,” he shared at the 2016 Invictus Games. “But what I learned through serving was that the extraordinary privileges of being a prince gave me an extraordinary opportunity to help my military family.”
In the podcast Declassified that dropped over the weekend, Prince Harry reflected upon his time in the military. He said, “Service is what happens in the quiet and in the chaos. It’s what happens in the darkness, it’s what happens when people aren’t looking. It’s what happens on and off the battlefield. It’s about carrying out our duty as soldiers,” Prince Harry said. “For me as a father, a husband and as a human being, it’s about how we uphold these values in every aspect of our lives.”
During a visit to the United States Wounded Warrior Games in 2013, Prince Harry was astounded. It drove him to want to create a world-wide sporting event for wounded warriors of all Allied countries. The Invictus Games were born.
Since its inception, Invictus has grown considerably. “These Games have been about seeing guys sprinting for the finish line and then turning round to clap the last man in,” Prince Harry said at the Invictus Games in 2014. “They have been about teammates choosing to cross the line together; not wanting to come second, but not wanting the other guys too either. These Games have shown the very best of the human spirit.”
One thing unique to the Invictus Games is that each warrior can bring two family members with them. This is all thanks to incredible partnerships with organizations like The Fisher House.
“Above all, Invictus is about the example to the world that all service men and women –
injured or not – provide about the importance of service and duty.The true scale of this example was brought home to me when I left Afghanistan after my first deployment there in 2008. As I was waiting to board the plane, the coffin of a Danish soldier was loaded on by his friends. Once on the flight, I was confronted with three British soldiers, all in induced comas, with missing limbs, and wrapped in plastic. The way I viewed service and sacrifice changed forever and the direction of my life changed with it.
I knew that it was my responsibility to use the great platform that I have to help the world understand and be inspired by the spirit of those who wear the uniform,” Prince Harry said at the 2017 Invictus Games.
He lives by those words.
“The Invictus Games Foundation brings together the international community of wounded, injured and sick service personnel and veterans through the power of sport,” Rominic Reid, CEO of The Invictus Games Foundation said. “We are honoured and delighted that We Are The Mighty, in all they do for veterans, have recognized the Foundation and our Patron, The Duke of Sussex, for the role that Invictus plays within this community. We thank them and you, for all the support.”
Not only is he dedicated to veterans, Prince Harry also remains deeply passionate about serving vulnerable populations and increasing awareness around mental health and racial inequality. In October 2020, he and his wife, Meghan Markle, did a soft launch of their new nonprofit, Archewell. Although the full details of the nonprofit haven’t been unveiled, Archewell appears to be focused on increasing global generosity and kindness.
Prince Harry remains a committed humanitarian, patriot and servant leader. His inspired efforts remind us that our words, empathy and actions matter.
Within the worlds of politics, business, advocacy, and media there are veterans who continue to serve in a wide variety of ways. Men and women who once fought the nation’s wars now shape the American landscape by doing everything from building cars with 3D printers to creating fashion trends, from making major motion pictures to passing laws.
The editors of WATM (with inputs from a proprietary panel of influencers) scanned the community and came up with a diverse list of those with the highest impact potential in the year ahead.
Here are The Mighty 25 for 2016:
1. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL — Co-Founder, The McChrystal Group
After a legendary career as an Army special operator, highlighted by effectively re-organizing JSOC and leading the war effort in Afghanistan, General McChrystal accelerated into the normally pedestrian world of business consulting. The same drive that made him an effective leader has informed the McChrystal Group‘s innovative approaches to the problems facing their clients. The company’s offices outside of DC feel like those of a Silicon Valley tech startup rather than a traditional Beltway firm, more Menlo Park than K Street, and he’s aggregated a hyper-talented team — including a number of veterans — who are changing the way consulting is done. McChrystal also serves as the Chair of the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute, advocating for a “service year” as an American cultural expectation. Watch for him to keep the press on there this year.
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’s Sixth District. His first year in office was punctuated by efforts to improve veteran health care through the VA. He also opposed attempts to block Syrian refugees from entering the country. Expect more impact from this veteran lawmaker as his comfort level goes up in 2016.
3. LOREE SUTTON — New York City Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs Commissioner
Retired Army Brigadier General Loree Sutton was appointed as New York City’s VA commissioner just over a year ago, and she hit the ground running, leveraging her experiences at places like the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury and the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center at Fort Hood to solve the immediate issues facing Gotham’s veteran community. Her approaches to resilience, using a “working community” model that scales problems at the lowest level, have proved very effective in dealing with issues like claims backlogs and appointment wait times. Her successes in 2016 could well inform how other cities better serve veterans going forward.
4. TM GIBBONS-NEFF — Reporter, The Washington Post
TM Gibbons-Neff served as a rifleman in 1st Battalion, 6th Marines and participated in two combat deployments to Helmand Province, Afghanistan before entering Georgetown University to pursue his English degree. He graduated this year and went from working as an intern at The Washington Post to earning a spot as one of their full-time reporters. As part of the Post’s national security staff, TM has reported on everything from the ISIS threat to the San Bernadino shootings. Watch for his reach to grow in 2016 as he continues to hones his already substantial journalism skills.
5. NICK PALMISCIANO — Founder, CEO, Ranger Up!
After serving as an Army infantry officer, Nick Palmisciano came up with the idea of creating a military-focused clothing company while earning his MBA at Duke University. He founded Ranger Up! in 2006, and since that time he has led the way in leveraging the power of user-generated content and social media to create a brand that is as much identity as apparel to the company’s loyal consumer base. Nick also walked the walk by deliberately hiring veterans to staff Ranger Up!. Watch for his star to rise this year with the release of “Range 15” — an independent horror-comedy produced in collaboration with fellow military apparel company Article 15 — hitting theaters in May.
6. MAT BEST — President, Article 15 Clothing
Article 15‘s motto is “hooligans with a dream,” and that atmosphere permeates all of the company’s products and productions. Mat Best brought the same attributes that made him an effective warfighter to the marketplace and those have made him a successful entrepreneur, but even more important to the military community is how his unapologetic brio has shaped attitudes around the veteran experience. Mat and his posse are the antithesis of the “vets as victims” narrative; these guys live life on their terms and that lesson has been prescriptive for legions of their peers looking for fun and meaningful ways to contribute at every level. Mat has meteoric impact potential this year as the star of the movie “Range 15,” which Article 15 co-created with Ranger Up!.
After graduating West Point and studying as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, Craig Mullaney served in the Army for 8 years as an infantry officer, including a combat tour in Afghanistan. After he got out he was on the national security policy staff of President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. He also served as the Pentagon’s Principal Director for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia Policy and later on the Development Innovation Ventures team at the U.S. Agency for International Development. He is the author of the 2009 New York Times bestseller The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier’s Education. This year he’ll continue his influence in his role as strategic partnerships manager at Facebook, and among his duties is convincing global influencers and business executives to maintain personal Facebook pages.
8. DAVID CHO — Co-founder, Soko Glam
This West Pointer and artillery officer took his Columbia MBA and joined his wife in the cosmetics business. Their company, Soko Glam, specializes in introducing Western customers to Korean cosmetics, beauty trends, and skincare regimens. David’s wife Charlotte Cho scours the market for the best and most trusted selection of products to bring to the U.S. while he handles the details around the business including biz dev and accounting. Together they have built Soko Glam into an international player in a very short time. Soko Glam also contributes to the veteran community by donating a percentage of profits to the USO.
9. SARAH FORD — Founder, Ranch Road Boots
Texas born and bred, Sarah Ford was a Marine Corps logistics officer who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. After leaving active duty she received her MBA from Harvard and used that knowledge (along with a Kickstarter campaign) to launch Ranch Road Boots, a company founded on, as their website states, “love—for freedom, West Texas and a hell-bent determination to craft good-looking, well-made footwear.” Sarah continues to honor the branch in which she served; Ranch Road Boots donates a portion of all sales to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund.
10. TAYLOR JUSTICE — Co-Founder and Chief Business Officer, Unite US
Taylor Justice honed the grit he now brings to the business world during his days on the football team at West Point. Along with co-founder Dan Brillman, an Air Force tanker pilot, he’s created software that helps organizations to 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. The Unite US site uses what the company describes as “interactive, proximity-mapping technology” to match vets to the services they need — sort of like Yelp for the military dot-org ecosystem. As the Sea of Good Will continues to grow in 2016, the demand on Unite US’s expertise is sure to increase.
11. BOB McDONALD — Secretary of Veterans Affairs
This year Secretary McDonald continued his attempts to leverage his successes in the private sector to solve the daunting problems facing the VA. As he promised at the outset of his tenure he has remained very visible, even going so far as to broadcast his cell phone number to large crowds during his speaking engagements. In 2016 watch for his leadership to be focused on the West Los Angeles VA campus where a recent settlement in favor of improving veteran healthcare in the region has introduced as many challenges as it has created the potential for real change across the entire agency. (For more on that issue check out vatherightway.org.)
12. MARTY SKOVLUND — Freelance writer and film producer
Marty Skovlund has made his mark in media by bridging the gap between compelling content and deserving veteran causes. His company, Blackside Concepts, spawned six subsidiary brands — all high impact — in only three years. The sale of Blackside in 2015 has freed him to focus on his third book and various film and video projects, including a show idea that involves veteran teams racing across the world for charity. With the luxury of bandwidth, watch for this talented former Ranger to continue to build his portfolio in 2016.
13. BLAKE HALL — CEO, ID.me
Blake Hall’s company, ID.me, first came to light among the military community as an easy way for veterans to verify their status to obtain discounts and services, but his ambitions live well beyond that utility. “We want to become an inseparable part of Internet identity,” Hall told The Washington Business Journal last spring. His strategy focuses on the twin prongs of identity: portability and acceptance, and if he continues his path of cracking those codes, ID.me has the potential to be ubiquitous in e-commerce, national security, and inter-agency coordination in 2016.
14. JIM MURPHY — Founder and CEO, Invicta Challenge
After serving as a Marine Corps infantry officer in Iraq, Jim Murphy earned his MBA at the University of Southern California. During his studies he interned at Mattel, and that exposure sparked an idea. The Invicta Challenge combines online gaming, action figures, flash cards, and graphic novels to create a one-of-a-kind learning experience. The prototype, called “Flash & Thunder,” profiles Turner Turnbull’s actions on D-Day, but it’s not just a history lesson. It’s an interactive leadership challenge that brings history to life. While the Invicta Challenge is a natural for school-aged audiences, its unique presentation could also prove effective around military centers of excellence. With more games in the hopper, 2016 could be a year where Jim shifts into the next gear.
15. JARED LYON — Chief Development Officer, Student Veterans of America
Jared Lyon went from a life beneath the waves as a Navy submariner and diver to a life of the mind as a student and academic. In the process of making that transition he became an ambassador for other student veterans. While the Post-9/11 GI Bill is arguably the best military benefit in history, trying to use it can present roadblocks — both academic and environmental — that can keep qualified veterans from earning their degrees. As Jared enters his second year on SVA‘s professional staff watch for him to continue to make life easier for those who’ve followed him back to school.
16. TYLER MERRITT — Co-founder, Nine Line Apparel
Tyler Merritt founded Nine Line Apparel with his brother Daniel, also a former Army officer. From the start Savannah-based Nine Line was built with a specific purpose in mind, as expressed in the company’s mission statement: “It’s about being proud of who you are, what you wear, and how you walk through life . . . We don’t apologize for our love of country. We are America’s next greatest generation.” After one of Tyler’s West Point classmates lost three limbs fighting in Afghanistan in 2013, Nine Line added a foundation that gives a portion of proceeds to severely wounded veterans and their families.
17. AMBER SCHLEUNING — Deputy Director, VA Center for Innovation
After five years and multiple tours to Iraq as an Army Engineer focused on counter-IED ops, Amber Schleuning returned to school to study post-conflict mental health. She’s held a wide variety of consulting and advisory roles with both public and private organizations including the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict and COMMIT Foundation. As VACI‘s Deputy Director, Amber is in charge of building a portfolio of partnerships with creative, innovative, and disruptive organizations to ensure effective services are available to veterans.
18. NATE BOYER — Philanthropist, media personality
After multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan as a Green Beret, Nate Boyer left active duty in 2012 and made the unorthodox move of returning to college to play football. His success as the Texas Longhorn’s long snapper led to a pre-season bid with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Although he was ultimately released by the team, the exposure helped him with other elements of his Renaissance Man portfolio, specifically Waterboys.org, a not-for-profit dedicated to providing clean drinking water to remote regions of Africa. This year Nate is poised to increase his impact with “MVP,” an organization formed with Fox Sports personality Jay Glazer that partners professional athletes with special operators to deal with the common challenges of career transition.
19. BRAD HARRISON — Founder and managing partner, Scout Ventures
The same drive that got Brad Harrison through Airborne School and earned him his Ranger tab has served him well in the private sector. After honing his tech chops while working as AOL’s Director of Media Strategy and Development, he pivoted into the venture capital space where he’s been able to use his passion for technology, media, entertainment and lifestyle to assist fledgling businesses. His company, Scout Ventures, has quickly blossomed into one of the premier angel-to-institutional investment firms in New York.
20. BRAD HUNSTABLE — Founder and CEO, Ustream
Brad Hunstable started Ustream in 2007 to connect service members to family and friends, but his vision has grown since then to include everybody, everywhere. Ustream is now the largest platform for enterprise and media video in the world with clients including Facebook, NBC, Cisco, Sony, Intuit, NASA and Salesforce. Ustream’s product suite is evidence of a company that intends to be a tool for both broadcast networks and citizen journalists. As more and more organization turn to video for effective impact, look for this West Pointer’s company to grow even more in 2016.
21. JESSE IWUJI — Professional racecar driver
Jesse Iwuji started racing cars on a whim during his last semester as a midshipman at the Naval Academy, once Division I football was over for good. Since that time he’s moved up the ranks of American stock car racing, balancing time commitments at the track and juggling sponsors with his duties as a Navy surface warfare officer. Most recently he’s partnered with the Phoenix Patriot Foundation. “We dedicate each race weekend to a wounded veteran and his family,” he said. Jesse plans on getting out of the Navy at the end of his current tour to pursue bigger things as a NASCAR driver. He hopes to move up to the K&N Pro Series soon, driving a bigger car in front of bigger crowds. After that he wants to make it to the Xfinity series and, finally, the Sprint Cup.
Evan Hafer always cared about a good cup of coffee regardless of where his Army duties took him, even when serving with the Green Beret in a variety of hostile regions. He founded Black Rifle Coffee — a “small batch roasting” company — this year with a simple motto: “Strong coffee for strong people.” In a commerce ecosystem known more for hipster baristas and progressive causes than unflinching patriotism and weapons expertise, BRCC is unique. (It’s doubtful any other coffee company would call a product “AK-47 Blend,” for instance.) BRCC’s attitude has caught on with the veteran audience; look for more warfighting grinds as well as a growing inventory of merchandize with a similar type-A tone in 2016.
23. BRIAN STANN — President and CEO, Hire Heroes USA
Brian Stann has been labeled a “hero” in a couple of phases of his life, most notably when serving as a Marine Corps platoon leader in Iraq — actions that earned him the Silver Star — and winning titles as an ultimate fighter, including the WEC Light Heavyweight Championship in 2008. After announcing his retirement from the UFC in 2013 the Naval Academy alum assumed the role of President and CEO of Hire Heroes USA. Hire Heroes focuses on three different elements of the veteran hiring equation: empowering vets to find great jobs by building their confidence and skills, collaborating with military leaders and transition coordinators to build awareness of the company’s capabilities, and partnering with more than 200 companies, like Comcast and Deloitte, to find vets great jobs. This year Hire Heroes could emerge as the vet job board of choice as the company works to improve on its already impressive metric of 60 hires per week.
24. JEREMY GOCKE — Founder and CEO, Ampsy
There are veterans who work in the tech sector, and then there are veterans like Jeremy Gocke who carve the leading edge of the tech sector. After getting an “Accelerator Finalist” nod at SXSW in 2014, the West Point grad and former Army Airborne officer founded Ampsy to slow the rate at which content falls into what he calls the “social media abyss.” Ampsy has a suite of social aggregation tools designed to improve a brand’s reach across the Twittersphere by solving what the company website calls “a major leakage problem in the customer acquisition and retention funnel.” Look for Jeremy to continue to stay ahead of the digital pack in 2016.
25. JOHN B. ROGERS, JR. — CEO and Co-founder, Local Motors
Former Marine Corps infantry officer John B. Rogers, Jr.’s love of automobiles is only rivaled by his hatred of inefficient processes, which is why he created Local Motors, a company that uses Direct Digital Manufacturing (a.k.a. “3D printing”) to build cars. “Car manufacturers have been stamping parts the same way for more than 100 years,” he said. “We now have the technology to make the process and products better and faster by linking the online to the offline through DDM.” With the upcoming launch of the LM3D — the company’s first 3D printed car model — 2016 has the potential to be huge for Local Motors. Can you say “microfactory”?
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.
Army and service disabled veteran Curtez Riggs is making waves in the veteran entrepreneurial space. He aspires to help others to find their passion and purpose in it, too.
Riggs was always a scrappy kid. Growing up in Flint, Michigan he knew he’d have to work hard to make it. He was raised in a two bedroom home that housed six of his family members. “I didn’t have a lot, $20 meant a lot to us growing up,” he said. He started his entrepreneurial journey by picking up used bottles and turning them back into stores for cash. Before long, Riggs was doing it from his couch, running a team of pre-teens to do the heavy lifting while he managed the business. When he got older and got his first job, he passed the torch to his little brother to run.
Surrounded by blue-collar workers, college was never really on his radar. As the factories and shop work started to shut down, he knew he’d have to do something. Watching his family struggling or going into questionable activities, he wanted more for his own life. So, he graduated high school early and joined the Army. “I graduated in January and shipped out in February. To be honest – I’ve never looked back,” Riggs shared.
Although he knows that his values and character were well-established by his upbringing, Riggs recognizes that both the streets and the Army created a strong foundation for who he is today. “I grew up in a single parent home. My dad wasn’t around until I was older. The lessons that I learned were from a wide variety of people… some I shouldn’t have been around,” he explained. “So, for the first time in my life I am entered into an environment where everything is structured and disciplined. It’s the first time in my life that I had a sense of purpose. Loyalty, discipline, respect, honor and integrity. Those are the things the Army taught me that affect every decision that I make today.”
Although he knew how to hustle and work hard, he didn’t realize what it was. “I’ve always had the heart and mind of an entrepreneur, I just didn’t know what to call it,” Riggs explained. After going through a tough divorce, he devoted himself to improving his credit score and his life. As he was trying different things, Riggs was exposed to creating content which led to a relationship with USAA.
That relationship with USAA resulted in Riggs cultivating his first conference, although he didn’t realize that’s what it was at the time. “They gave me my very first check, $12,500. I thought I was ballin,” Riggs said with a laugh. “I had successfully sold a brand on an idea that I had. The faith and trust they had in me allowed me to do something small for the community.”
The mix of 80 veterans, active duty, military spouses and civilians that came together at that first event to network struck him as pivotal. The years after that saw tremendous growth in participation, with more than 900 attendees in 2019. “When you talk about entrepreneurship and where it comes from… it has always come from a desire for me to help someone else, and to give back to a community that raised all of us that were essentially lost,” Riggs shared.
The Military Influencer Conference is about relationships, Riggs said. People from all walks of life and communities can come together in a shared mission of service and entrepreneurship. “At the end of the day, it’s an inclusive community where we can connect and grow together,” he said. Although the Military Influencer Conference brand is very successful, it’s not the only thing he remains deeply passionate about.
The racial divide in the country hits home for Riggs. “The color of my skin, right? I am Black, I can’t color my skin anything else,” he shared. But Riggs said that he has what those in the community call a ‘Harvard voice’. He shared a story of talking to a high six figure sponsor on the phone and that everything was going incredible, the sponsor was ready to invest. When they switched to a video call to continue the conversation, things went downhill fast.
“I guess that guy never Googled my name. He kept calling me ‘Curtis,’” he explained. As they switched to video, Riggs’ son came into the room. “The executive introduced himself and I said that it was great to talk to him again. He gave me an odd look and then asked me, ‘When is Curtis going to get on the call?’ My 7 year old son said, ‘Curtis? Who’s Curtis? His name is Curtez.’ The gentleman then realized I wasn’t white; it was clearly shown on his face. The questions went from, ‘How can I invest in your brand,’ to asking me, ‘How did you get the money to afford to do this?’ And, ‘What city are you from?’
Riggs said his son asked him afterward why the gentleman kept asking him all of those questions and eventually, his son told him he shouldn’t do business with him. Then, it clicked. “My 7 year old son realized that this man had a problem with me because of who I am before I did. So, I am very passionate about the health and well-being of people that look like me,” he said.
Riggs discussed the racial unrest and police brutality cases against those who are Black and the impact it has had on him. “If we want to save Black lives we need to elevate Black leaders. We need more positive role models besides athletes. We need more people who have grown from the gutter and gone on to do phenomenal things who can then reach back and help the next generation grow,” he explained. “Our goal by creating this brand is to educate and empower.”
It’s Riggs’ hope that his story and journey will inspire others to dive into their own hopes and dreams. Riggs shared that “no” just means new opportunity and everyone has the power to create their own futures. All they have to do is step forward and do it.
Sherman Gillums is a proud Marine Corps veteran who served on active duty for 12 years before being critically injured in a training accident. What could have ended a career of service was only the beginning.
Although Gillums is proud to call himself a Marine, he was almost a sailor. As fate would have it, his recruiter was late to a scheduled meeting when he overheard the Marine recruiters down the hall. “I walked in there and there was this energy. It was this imposing presence! My dad died when I was a kid and I was always looking for that… that’s what got me,” he said. Gillums shared that his grandfather was a Korean War veteran and was very influential in his decision to serve.
At just 17 years old, Gillums enlisted before he even graduated high school.
Gillums quickly rose within the ranks, making Chief Warrant Officer in 2001. A critical training injury not long after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, would prematurely end his military career, but not his commitment to serving.
“After rehab, I fell into veteran advocacy,” Gillums explained. “I was helping some other guys on the spinal cord injury unit figure stuff out since I’d already been through my own benefits case. I found a knack for speaking up for veterans. When the opportunity opened up for me to join Paralyzed Veterans of America as a Service Officer, I thought it was the perfect job,” he shared.
At one point, Gillums thought of becoming a lawyer, but with his new role he was able to do the same type of work without going to law school. “I was presenting cases before veterans law judges. I could have done it forever but it was during a time where the VA backlog was getting pretty bad,” Gillums explained. During all of this, he earned his Master of Business Administration degree from the University of San Diego School of Business.
“I left the grunt work, which I loved, but now I was able to influence policy,” Gillums said. “I was then thrusted into VA health care and doing site visits at the facilities. That’s what made me unique, I got to see the VA from the perspective of a user everywhere.”
It wasn’t long before Gillums was thought of as a sort of insider. “I would speak truth to power and that gave me a little bit of notice and pushed me into senior leadership at Paralyzed Veterans of America where I really began to get vocal,” Gillums shared. He continued his climb within PVA, becoming the Associate Executive Director of Veterans Benefits in 2011, the Deputy Executive Director in 2014 and eventually, leading the organization as its Executive Director in 2016.
Gillums spent a lot of time meeting with members of congress and both the Obama and Trump Administrations, advocating for the needs of America’s veterans. He quickly became known for his honesty and directness, writing articles for publications like The New York Times and The Hill.
“I developed a great rapport at the VA but also this reputation for shooting straight with them because I knew what I was talking about,” he explained. “What made me unique was I started on the benefits side, stayed there for years. I went on the health care side – was also a patient – then went to the policy level. I am one of the few people who actually and truly understands the VA from top to bottom and left to right.”
He also applied his direct approach to veteran suicide rates, an issue he didn’t hold back on. “Suicide was a big thing and I heard all these great things but then I would talk to all of these Suicide Prevention Coordinators who didn’t have a seat at the table when it came to the status of veterans or their treatment,” Gillums shared. This drove him to become heavily involved with policy changes and implementation within the organization, lending his voice on many of the briefings and changes.
Gillums assumed the role as the Chief Strategy Officer for American Veterans in 2018. AMVETS is arguably one of the most influential, congressionally chartered veterans service organizations, serving veterans since 1944. In a memo after his hiring, the National Commander Marion Polk stated that, “AMVETS is very proud to have one of America’s foremost and most distinguished voices in veteran’s advocacy join our team.”
Although his voice is powerful, Gillums remains modest and humble about his success and service. However, he stated that it is vitally important that citizens realize how influential their own voices can be. “It’s a matter of allowing yourself to be human and at the same time thinking more of yourself then being a cog in the wheel. You can really make a difference. If you think you are too small to make a difference try sleeping in a tent with a mosquito,” he said with a laugh.
The advice of this incredible Marine veteran, advocate and servant to citizens everywhere is simple: Go be that mosquito.
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.
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.”
Chris Kaag is a second generation Marine veteran who, when faced with unfathomable adversity, refused to let it stop him. He’s spent almost 20 years trying to instill that same never-quit attitude in others, too.
Kaag describes himself as a lazy kid, but the military completely changed that. “Three months in boot camp totally changed my entire perspective on life and what I was able to accomplish. I never quit on anything,” he explained. He gives credit to his drill instructor, who wouldn’t let him. “We were on a four mile run at the end of boot camp and I was about to drop out when he yelled, ‘Don’t quit on me Kaag!’ It’s because of him that I didn’t stop. As I started to have issues later on in my life, that day was a defining moment for me.”
At 21 years old, Kaag found himself enjoying life and happily stationed overseas in Italy when everything changed. While out on a run, he noticed a drag in his feet. Doctors initially thought he had a tumor on his spine and immediately sent him stateside. “They sent me back to the states where I spent nine weeks at Walter Reed Hospital in DC. I was diagnosed with Adrenomyeloneuropathy, ” he shared.
The spinal cord disease is genetic, and unfortunately Kaag and his two younger brothers inherited the gene from their mother. “I sustained a head injury in the Marine Corps that they linked to my early onset of the disease. I wanted to be a Marine ever since I was seven years old, but unfortunately my Marine Corps career was done,” Kaag said.
He headed home to Pennsylvania to work things out, refusing to let his tight-knit family see how much this life change was impacting him. “The Marine Corps instilled that improvise, adapt, overcome – they don’t like excuses too much, so I basically figured it out. Everyone has their own challenges and crosses to bear and you can see mine now. But everyone can figure things out and live a fulfilling life,” Kaag shared. As the disease progressed, Kaag went from using a cane, to two canes, to having to use a wheelchair within just five years of his diagnosis with the disease.
Despite the overwhelming challenges and change, Kaag was motivated to be an example to others going through similar situations. “That’s the cool thing about veterans, we don’t lay down and give up,” he said. Kaag attended Penn State University, earning a degree in business but had difficulty finding employment.
So, he decided to hire himself. “I started Corps Fitness out of the back of my truck. I didn’t get to become a drill instructor, but now I had a chance to motivate and inspire civilians to get out there and do more than they thought they could,” Kaag said. Although meaningful, he wanted to do even more. In 2007, he founded IM ABLE.
Time spent in a Baltimore children’s hospital years before inspired the foundation. “I would see kids on breathing and feeding tubes in chairs and not able to do a lot of things. That made a huge impact on me. I wanted to provide these kids with a ‘normal’ childhood,” Kaag said. He shared a story of gifting a little boy with a hand operated bike, who was finally able to ride around with kids, completely transforming his life. Kaag had found purpose.
IM ABLE seeks to transform lives by removing obstacles for those diagnosed with physical, cognitive or behavioral challenges by being physically active and redefining what is possible.
“I’m trying to bring everyone on the same page. I want everyone to do the things they can do, but I also want people who are able-bodied to feel guilty as sh** that they are not doing as much as the guy in the wheelchair, riding around every day and working out,” Kaag admitted with a smile.
When asked if he would have responded to his diagnosis if he hadn’t become a Marine, he was quick to answer. “I really think the Marine Corps saved my life. It gave me that ability and that defining moment I needed. It comes to the point that you have to dig so deep in your soul to find out who you are and that’s what the Marine Corps did for me.” Kaag explained. “People look at me funny when I say this, but my diagnosis was the best thing that ever happened to me…I wouldn’t have been able to have had the impacts on people that I’ve had without it.”
Kaag felt compelled to bring that deep feeling of fulfillment to others. IM ABLE recently started Operation Lead From the Front, teaming up law enforcement and veterans with the youth the foundation serves. The results have been extraordinary.
Kaag shared a story about a Marine he knew who had been battling PTSD for four or five years. Kaag saw him at an event and invited him to come to one of his IM Fit classes. “I paired him with Robert, a youth with cerebral palsy using a walker. I told him, ‘It’s your responsibility to train him, get it done.’ I watched them for an hour; the connection was instantaneous,” Kaag recalled. Later that night he received a text message from that struggling Marine – the words were striking:
“That kid just saved my life.”
Kaag hopes that his story will challenge people to find their ability in the face of adversity. He also remains committed to reaching veterans, showing them a path to a purpose-filled life. Despite all the challenges Kaag has faced and overcome, his accomplishments and commitment to uplifting others is awe inspiring. And he’s just getting started.
To learn more about IM ABLE and how you can support its incredible mission, click here.
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.”
Phyllis Newhouse is used to shattering glass ceilings. As a woman of color working in national security in the Army, Newhouse broke all sorts of barriers. She’s doing it again, this time with her award-winning and innovative cyber security company.
Growing up as one of 11 children, discipline was a must in her home. Newhouse jokingly said her house prepared her well for the military. “I grew up during the Civil Rights Movement so drive, determination was important. I took that with me to the military. That enhanced what I already had as a foundation,” she explained.
When asked what drove her to service, Newhouse laughed. She explained that her first introduction to the military was being awed by a chance sighting of Air Force women in flight suits. “I remember seeing these women in uniform and saying, ‘Wow look how powerful they look.’ From that day, I never got the image out of my mind and thought those women were superheroes,” she said. That moment was the deciding factor for her to enlist.
Newhouse took her oath of enlistment on Veterans Day in 1977, beginning a career that would span 22 years. She became passionately focused on national security and protecting the assets of the United States. She worked her way up to eventually establishing the Cyber Espionage Task Force within the Army. But when she was offered a senior level position, she turned it down – deciding instead to retire and create her own company. Xtreme Solutions, Inc. was formed in 2002 and is now located in 42 states with 40 percent of its workforce made up of veterans.
In 2017, Newhouse received the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in the field of technology. She was the first woman to receive the honor.
Despite undeniable success, Newhouse found herself wanting to do more. She also didn’t want to be the first or only anymore. A passionate advocate for women in business, Newhouse wanted to support women in a bigger way. A partnership with Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis led to forming ShoulderUp, a nonprofit completely dedicated to supporting women in entrepreneurship.
Newhouse and Davis recognized that it was connection that could pave the way for women everywhere. “What we realized is that no matter what industry we were in – as women we were always able to identify with a part of each other’s stories. We have a stronger connection, regardless of our backgrounds or foundation,” she explained. “We wanted to use our economic power and our platform to create change and empower women around the world.”
By opening the door for other women, Newhouse knew it would lead to positive impacts all around, even for those doing the mentoring. By giving advice woman-to-woman in ShoulderUp circles, the organization has been able to bridge a gap and assist women in reaching their greatest potential.
Newhouse herself credits her time in the military as transformative, sharing that it absolutely made her who she is today and created a foundation for success. She also recognizes that it imparted vital leadership abilities she’d need to become an entrepreneur. “I think veterans make the most incredible entrepreneurs. We always say in the military that there is a difference between a good leader and a great leader. If they were great they have the confidence to know that they still have the ability to serve, but serve in a different capacity…You can do things that still have purpose,” she explained.
WATM spoke to Newhouse on election day — arguably one of the most critical days in America. Asked what issues she was focused on lending her voice and advocacy efforts to the most, she didn’t hold back. “I think about, how did we get here – with so much divisiveness in this country. No matter what side of the fence you are on, we serve one America. Veterans and military folks go off to serve this country, one country. I want to focus on how we bridge the gap and work together in America as one,” she explained.
Newhouse expressed that veterans often feel like they are invisible and don’t matter. It’s something she wants to change. “We need to build America again. We have to do it together and that’s why I am working on the Honor2Lead project. It’s getting people who know how to serve, to serve again,” she said.
It’s that passion for service that Newhouse feels will change the world. When asked what advice she would give transitioning veterans, she was quick to answer. “I challenge those in the military community to live up to their God-given potential,” she stated. “Go find something that you can impact because great leaders can make incredible impact.”
Phyllis Newhouse is living proof of that … and she’s just getting started.
Scott Eastwood has always had deep respect for this country’s armed forces. His father, Clint, was a soldier during the Korean War, and patriotism was ingrained in Scott from a young age. Some things don’t change.
As an actor, Eastwood has had the opportunity to play a number of powerful and memorable parts. One of his most recent films brought the military community to its knees with its accuracy and intensity. Journalist Jake Tapper’s book, The Outpost, tells the story of an Army location deep in a valley of Afghanistan. This outpost was home to the bloodiest attack on United States troops in 2009, The Battle of Kamdesh. The soldiers within the unit would also become the most decorated of all units in the war’s almost 20 year history. When the book was optioned for a movie, Eastwood was cast as Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha, whose real life heroic efforts to save his fellow soldiers earned him the Medal of Honor.
In a previous interview, Eastwood stated that he “just had to tell this story.” He also shared that what stuck with him most was the heroism from everyday people, who did extraordinary things.
When we spoke to Eastwood about his thoughts about the military and those who serve, he was quick to answer. “Veterans are the backbone of this country. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the freedoms we all are able to exercise.”
Not only has Eastwood become a leading voice both professionally and personally for the military community, he remains deeply passionate about the American worker. In 2020, he and co-founder Dane Chapin launched Made Here. “I want to honor the iconic heritage of American manufacturing and let people know it’s very much alive and well,” he said in a previous interview with WATM.
The goal of Made Here is to celebrate American workers by having a shop filled with high quality items created by them, right here in America. On the website Scott says that, “These people make up your family, your neighbors and your community and they deserve to be celebrated.” Made Here products can be found on their website but the company also recently launched a storefront on Amazon, making it even easier to get American-made goods.
The duo also launched the series, Made Here in a Day. The show brings viewers on an impactful journey around the country to learn about American craftsmanship. Their first stop? The USS Nimitz, where they spent 24 hours learning about US Naval operations. Of the sailors he met, Eastwood commented that he couldn’t believe, “how down to earth, humble and hardworking these people are.” The time aboard one of the Navy’s vital ships in her fleet as the first stop for the series further demonstrated Eastwood’s appreciation for America’s service members.
The intent of the series is to show the exceptionalism of the American worker and encourage citizens to buy items that are created by American manufacturers. It is a compelling look at the importance of serving our country in another vital way. When we purchase something made locally, we are putting food on American tables and supporting our fellow citizens in an undeniable way.
It was Eastwood’s commitment to America and unwavering support of the military community that made him an obvious choice for 2020’s Mighty 25. When we asked him how he felt about landing on the list, he expressed his humble and heartfelt thanks. “I’m extremely grateful for what We Are The Mighty stands for and does in support of our veterans. I’m touched and honored to be named as a Mighty 25.”
The year of 2020 will go down in history for many reasons. Despite the overwhelming challenges, there were some incredible people doing extraordinary things for the military community. It was a year of pivoting, creativity and resilience. The team at We Are The Mighty is honored to introduce this year’s Mighty 25.
The selection process for the 2020 slate was daunting. Our internal committee started with a list of over 100 veterans, service members, military spouses and civilians doing exceptional things to support the community.
The Mighty 25 is a recognition We Are The Mighty bestows each year on individuals in the military community that have gone above and beyond. In partnership with the Military Influencer Conference, We Are The Mighty recognizes the change makers in the veteran, active duty and military family space. Selectees are advocates utilizing their influence and voices to impact policies; entrepreneurs with a passion for service; disrupters forcing accountability and meaningful change; volunteers giving so much of themselves to better our world; and leaders whose vision and actions inspire us all. The Mighty 25 encompasses everything it takes to truly Be Mighty.
Army veteran and only the second female to be elected as Commander for the Hollywood American Legion, Jennifer Campbell has been instrumental in creating programs and events to support Hollywood’s veterans. When the pandemic hit, she and her team worked quickly to establish support and engagement for veterans to avoid the negative impacts that isolation can bring. She is a dedicated servant-leader who believes deeply in living a purpose-filled life. One of her other passions is health and wellness, especially for the military community. She uses her voice as a wellness coach and personal trainer to educate and support, creating better outcomes for our nation’s heroes.
Veteran Green Beret, Brent Cooper is the Executive Director of the Green Beret Foundation. This nonprofit has given over $15 million in assistance. His passion and purpose remains to serve the Special Operations Forces community. When he went into the Army, it was to fulfill a deep need to give back and serve his country; and he left a well-paying corporate career to do it. Cooper remains a champion for universal service and encourages people to get involved in their communities.
The son of renowned World War II veteran, Clint Eastwood, honoring America’s troops has always been on Scott’s mind. Not only has he sought out and played instrumental roles in military films but he is an avid voice and supporter of the community. Recently, Eastwood co-founded Made Here, a company dedicated to working with American manufacturers to create and source products Made Here, in America.
West Point graduate and combat experienced soldier Mike Erwin has been dedicated to serving the military and vulnerable communities for a long time. He is the founder of Team Red White & Blue. His nonprofit utilizes positive psychology combined with physical fitness to improve the health and wellbeing of veterans. In 2019 alone, the organization hosted 34,582 events and now has 203,301 members. He also created The Positivity Project, a nonprofit that teaches character and positive relationship building to today’s youth. He remains passionate about encouraging veterans and others in the military community to find their purpose and stay active.
Despite an impressive career and six Emmys, Harris Faulkner remembers where she came from and who she is. An Army brat, she’s spent her life finding ways to connect and serve the military. Her father served as a combat jet pilot in the Vietnam War, building the foundation of patriotism in her heart. She remains committed to service, kindness and encouraging people to find their purpose and make a difference in the world.
The founders of JDog Junk Removal and Hauling have impacted countless veterans’ lives. What began as a business to take care of their own family turned into so much more. This company franchises directly to veterans, giving them a chance to build something of their own. The team is filled with workers from the VA’s compensated work program, directly impacting and supporting struggling veterans. Recently, the Flanagans formed a nonprofit to focus on suicide prevention and honoring the fallen. They encourage all veterans and military families to find their purpose and know that there’s always a space for them at JDog.
Once a Marine, always a Marine, Sherman Gillums is a passionate advocate that blows past barriers. Despite suffering a critical spinal injury in a training accident while active duty, he’s spent his time since impacting countless veterans’ lives. Known for his honesty and his ability to be direct when targeting problems within the VA, Gillums is an undeniable change maker. He is now the Chief Strategy Officer for AMVETS, one of the most influential congressionally-chartered service organizations. He encourages everyone to find their voice and use it to make a difference.
Known as a soldier’s soldier, SMA Grinston remains dedicated to the Army and their families. Since becoming the voice for the enlisted he’s made an impact in a big way. As the racial divide grew in America and the world watched the murder of George Floyd, Grinston was one of the first to speak out. He shared his story of growing up biracial in Alabama, no easy feat. The video was seen by millions and touched more than he ever realized it would. His deepest passion is to leave the world better and make a difference.
A veteran of the British Royal Army, Prince Harry has spent his life dedicated to serving his country and the world. He remains a vocal advocate for mental health and has been open about his own struggles throughout his life. After visiting the United States during the Wounded Warrior games, he left inspired. Not long after, Prince Harry founded The Invictus Games – bringing wounded warriors in from all over the world to compete in sports. More than physical activity, it has brought healing.
The power duo of Donna Huneycutt and Lauren Weiner has been making waves in the military community for decades. They founded WWC Global when they couldn’t find competitive employment as military spouses, and the firm has become synonymous with success and quality work. They are advocates for military spouses and veterans’ needs, especially surrounding employment. This year, WWC Global secured a three-year contract with Defense Information Systems Agency, which will span between $18 million and $24 million. Long before spouse employment was a hot topic, these ladies were talking about it and making changes, paving the way for spouses across the world.
Col. Jack Jacobs’ heroic efforts despite a critical head wound incurred in combat during the Vietnam War earned him a Medal of Honor. While many men would have seized the opportunity to medically retire, Jacobs requested to go back to Vietnam after healing — and did, serving with distinction. When he retired, he began a successful career on Wall Street and has impacted countless lives through his public speaking. Jacobs encourages universal service and insists that it doesn’t take a weapon to serve your country.
Naveed Jamali is a force to be reckoned with. His commitment to service began in the FBI. After a member of the Russian GRU tried to recruit him, Jamali spent four years as a double agent, feeding falsified classified documents to Russia. His incredible work led him to the US Navy Reserve, where he served as an intelligence officer. While Jamali’s path shifted – he is now the Editor at Large for Newsweek – his passion for truth and justice remained. The child of immigrants, he’s using his voice to make a difference, advocating for equality and uncovering and stopping systemic racism. Jamali’s fight for accessible, true information for citizens around the world is just as impressive – and important – as his career in espionage.
Marine veteran Chris Kaag has spent the last half of his life turning “I Can’t” into “I will.” After receiving a service ending diagnosis, Kaag didn’t allow it to stop him from making a difference and continuing to serve. Deeply passionate about fitness and wellness, he got creative with how he could do it. After forming a coaching company, he realized something was missing and IM ABLE was born. A nonprofit dedicated to encouraging youth with disabilities and showing them that their abilities are limitless, his impact is immeasurable. He’s expanded IM ABLE to include having veterans work directly with the youth, giving them purpose and an avenue for healing. He shows us that anything is possible.
Army veteran and business owner Dale King is making deep impacts in his hometown. Located in the heart of the opioid epidemic, he began offering free work outs to recovering addicts at his gym. After partnering with an instructor, he co-founded Doc Spartan. The company boasts skincare that is made in house and with all natural ingredients. Their following grew exponentially after a Shark Tank experience. But it’s the compassionate commerce that has made an undeniable impact in the lives of so many. King began employing recovering addicts, many of whom were veterans – giving them their dignity and a purpose in life again.
Col. Nicole Malachowski’s incredible 22-year career as a female fighter pilot is legendary. From leading peers in combat to being the first female Thunderbird, she’s been a role model to many. But it was her courage and voice after receiving a debilitating diagnosis that sets her apart from the rest. After contracting a tick borne illness, Malachowski became gravely ill and disabled. After being misdiagnosed because the military medical system was unaware of ticks and the various pathogens they carry, Malachowski has become an outspoken advocate. She sat on numerous panels and testified about the perils of tick borne illnesses, educating the system that failed her in order to prevent future service members from enduring her same fate.
After losing her brother in combat while deployed to Iraq, Ryan Manion’s family founded the Travis Manion Foundation. Started as a way for her mother to channel her grief, it morphed into a nonprofit that has served countless Gold Star families and veterans. Ryan became president of the Foundation after her mother passed away, leading the organization to make an even greater impact in the lives of the men, women and children left behind. She is an inspirational public speaker on resiliency and challenges us all to find our purpose.
Army veteran Phyllis Newhouse is a pioneer for women in a male-dominated businesses. After spending her career focusing on national security, she formed Xtreme Solutions. Her company focuses on cyber security, a feat that was relatively rare in the women-owned business space. In 2017, Newhouse became the first woman to earn the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in technology. Wanting to make a difference in the lives of women led her to co-founding ShoulderUp, a nonprofit that offers support and relationships for women in business.
Deputy Secretary of the VA and Air Force veteran Pamela Powers has spent her life in service. Instead of heading into retirement, she made the decision to serve the nation’s veterans. This extremely passionate advocate is committed to improving access to care and the quality of services received. She’s especially focused on improving the lives of female veterans who often feel forgotten in the military community space.
Shannon Razsadin wears many hats. This Navy spouse, mother and Executive Director of the Military Families Advisory Network has consistently leveraged a volunteer Board of Advisors composed of military family members to find the pulse of the military community and create meaningful programming to address systemic gaps.MFAN is dedicated to research that leads to solutions for the issues plaguing military families, to include safety in base housing, military spouse employment, financial security and one issue very near and dear to her heart: ending food insecurity for military families. With Shannon’s lead, MFAN has made monumental changes to positively benefit military families.
Army veteran Curtez Riggs from Flint, Michigan has come a long way. Always an entrepreneur, now he makes his living encouraging others to find their passion and purpose. The founder of the Military Influencer Conference, Riggs has created an unprecedented platform where the military, veterans, spouses and civilian sector can come together to network and support each other in business. He remains devoted to using his voice for equality and people of color, and sets the standard for turning an idea into a global reality.
With a career as the leader of the USO-Metro that has spanned almost 47 years, you’d be hard pressed to find another woman as dedicated to service members and their families as Elaine Rogers. Raised by a father who was a World War II veteran, she’s always been passionate about serving her country. Rogers took that dedication to the USO and never looked back, growing the USO to include family programs and revamping their image of simply entertainment to one of actionable resources for the military community.
For Chef Andre Rush, it all started with a photo of him cooking on the White House lawn. There was no hiding his impressive 24 inch biceps and he quickly became a viral sensation. But this Army veteran is more than that. He is a dedicated chef that has spent much of his career mentoring others. After losing a fellow soldier to suicide, he made it his mission to focus on suicide prevention.
Marine veteran turned journalist is a seeker of the truth and has remained devoted to the military community long after he hung up his uniform. He is the founder of the sensational satire site, The Duffel Blog and the Editor in Chief of Task and Purpose. He successfully sued the Department of Defense in 2020 to gain access to information that should have been publicly available. Szoldra is a deeply patriotic American who believes in information and honesty, even if it steps on toes.
The leaders of the only veteran-led world disaster response organization, Jake Wood and Art delaCruz have impacted hundreds of thousands of lives in 2020 through Team Rubicon. Despite not having a playbook for COVID-19 or a global pandemic, they sprang into action running testing sites, delivering PPE and still responding to an unforgiving hurricane season. They remain fearlessly dedicated to serving and promoting universal service, especially for America’s veterans. Their volunteer programs give veterans a sense of purpose and unity that they may have lost when exiting the military.
Although he never dreamed he’d be the voice for the enlisted in the Air Force, he knew he was fully capable. He quickly proved his genuine dedication to Airmen and their families earning the nickname “Enlisted Jesus.” Wright became known for his honesty and openness, sharing his devastation with the suicides in the Air Force as well as his experience as a black man in America. He is a leader, champion for equality and forever coach for those coming up behind him.
Retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Kaleth Wright’s legacy of service is one of courage, devotion and a pretty creative nickname. But his story is far from over.
Wright candidly shared his path to joining the Air Force. It involved using a bad address that got him kicked out of college and an Air Force recruiter’s card that fell out of his wallet. “I looked down and said, ‘You know what, I’m gonna join the Air Force. A couple months later I was in San Antonio trying to figure out how to be an airman,” he laughed.
He never dreamed he’d eventually become the voice of the enlisted as the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. But he knew he could be. It’s a role he relished and took pride in. What he didn’t know was that not long into his tenure, airmen were really liking all the improvements and changes he was making. They liked him so much they gave him a nickname that he’s never been able to shake: Enlisted Jesus.
“It’s certainly humbling that people think of you in that light – in such a positive manner,” he said with a smile. Wright was careful not to promote the nickname in order to avoid offending anyone, but certainly appreciated the sentiment behind it. As a public figure and leader, Wright recognizes the importance of being a good role model. He hopes to continue to be that and encourage others to do the same.
“The thing that makes me most proud as I look back over my Air Force career are all the young men and women I helped influence and have had a positive impact on. I was the recipient of some really really good mentorship, especially early in my career. So, I always made it a point to try to give back in that same way,” Wright explained. He has been open about sharing his struggles as a young airman and how pivotal having a mentor was for not only his career, but his life.
While Wright continues to receive messages from those he’s mentored throughout the years, it’s the ones he doesn’t know personally who also reach out to share the impact he’s had on them. “That makes me feel like I at least made a difference and was able to give back,” he explained. It was those experiences that challenged him to continue to read, study and develop himself both as an airman and a human being.
As he continued to lead as the voice for the enlisted force, the other leaders within the Air Force began to grow alarmed with rising rates of airmen suicides in 2019. Wright shared a powerful video message as the Air Force signaled a stand down to address suicide prevention. “I recognized that resilience was an issue for us in the Air Force. Just tracking not only the amount of suicides we were having but just realizing how difficult and challenging it was to be a service member in general…I just wanted to impress upon the Air Force… that hey, this is something really important to us,” Wright explained.
One of the things Wright remains extremely proud of is how the military is moving forward, especially as it pertains to removing the stigma associated with mental health. Leadership is now encouraged to openly share vulnerabilities and stories of their own struggles which can have undeniable impact on the Force. The results have been instrumental in reaching airmen to let them know they aren’t alone and there is support for them.
As he planned his transition out of the service, Wright said he wanted to do something that gave him equal purpose. He’s found that as the new CEO of the Air Force Aid Relief Society. “I’ve known for a long time the important work the organization does for Airmen and families. I also saw it as a way for me to continue to serve,” Wright said.
Although many may put him on a pedestal, especially with the nickname that he’ll probably never shake off, Wright remains a humble Airman. There’s some fun things you’d be surprised to learn about him, too. Wright shared that he loves the color pink, he is a poet and an aspiring guitarist. He also wants people to know that they can achieve whatever they set their minds to. It’s his hope that his story resonates and inspires a new generation. His advice for them was simple: be dreamers