Shannon Razsadin wears a lot of hats. Mom, Navy spouse and dedicated advocate are just a few. She’s also the Executive Director for the Military Family Advisory Network, a strong and vital voice and resource for military families everywhere.
Despite having two young children and walking through ongoing challenges associated with being a military spouse, Razsadin has always been devoted to ensuring the wellbeing of military families. When she was selected to be the Executive Director of MFAN, she looked at it as a vocation, not a job.
“I feel really privileged because leading MFAN is more than a job for me. It’s something I am called to. I’m the lucky person that gets to lead it – but it’s a team,” she explained. “Because everyone who works for MFAN has a military connection, there is an innate authenticity that’s part of who we are as an organization and the ability to connect with military families in a way that is real.”
One issue MFAN is spending a lot of time on that may surprise the public is food insecurity for military families. This critical issue is an ongoing and escalating concern that Razsadin and her team remain passionate about researching and finding solutions for. “One in eight of our [survey] respondents in 2019 was food insecure. We are launching a pretty aggressive effort in Texas where one in six of our respondents was food insecure to really understand the underlying factors that lead to food insecurity,” Razsadin said. They will be doing the same outreach in Virginia as well, where one in six families also reported food insecurity.
MFAN works hand and hand with policy makers and the Department of Defense. “We stick to the research and we don’t embellish — really sticking to the facts. Also, we are not shy. But we do it in a way that gets to solutions and not just play a game of ‘gotcha.’ We want to make sure we are building bridges and shortening the amount of time between identifying the problem or issue and deployment with a solution,” Razsadin explained.
This means MFAN brings the information and research right to the doors of the leaders within the DOD before it’s released. Razsadin stated that it’s important to build relationships and sit at a table together to tackle problems and find solutions for military families. “That really helps as we try to get at meaningful change,” she said. It’s approaches like this that have led to budget increases within military housing and new attention placed on food insecurity.
Recent research by MFAN has found instances of military spouses resorting to eating cat food or even ice to fill their empty stomachs. With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the world in so many ways, Razsadin shared that military families are starting to speak out more about food insecurity because they no longer feel alone.
When MFAN or Razsadin share the research regarding food insecurity with people, the first reaction is often shock. “They say, ‘How could military families be struggling for food?’ and I say, ‘Think about it. Think about the out of pocket costs for each PCS, think about that many military families are single income households.’ There’s a lot more to it,” she said. Through research and outreach, MFAN remains excited to use the data to create informed change, Razsadin shared.
Another important point that Razsadin was quick to make was that food insecurity directly impacts the future of the all-volunteer force. She explained the link between food insecurity and obesity as families are forced to eat cheap and unhealthy meals. With the percentage of eligible military service members dwindling drastically over the years, this is one issue that appears to need to be front and center when considering mission readiness.
With the pandemic impacting the world and creating deep isolation due to lack of engagement, military families aren’t immune. The military community is seeing higher rates of suicide and depression, with the trend continuing upward. “It’s very real, the implications that loneliness has on other areas of your life. We need to ask for help and know that there is nothing wrong with doing it,” Razsadin said.
When asked what advice she would give to military families everywhere as they navigate the new normal and ongoing issues, she said to give grace. “Ask people how they are doing, and listen. Right now, people are dealing with a lot,” she said. “Don’t expect to be great at all the things right now. Taking care of yourself and each other is really important.”
As the United States approaches our 20th year at war, veterans are coming home forever changed. Some suffer unseen wounds that profoundly impact their lives. Others are unable to sustain or find meaningful employment. And one veteran, family-owned business is working to change all of that.
Since Tracy and Jerry Flanagan founded JDog Junk Removal & Hauling, the company has become a nationally recognized brand for many reasons. This junk business looks a little different, for one. When a customer hires JDog, the workers that show up are not just your average employee. They are veterans, donning camo pants and sharp-looking JDog embroidered shirts. The veteran workers arrive on time (which means early), are always polite and refer to customers as “ma’am” and “sir.” The experience is nothing like anything the majority of customers have ever seen. And it all started as a way to save the Flanagan family from financial ruin.
“We started [JDog] in March of 2011 and really it was out of desperation,” Tracy shared with a laugh. She explained that her husband had always been a successful entrepreneur but when the financial crisis hit in 2008, they lost everything. After filing bankruptcy, the Army veteran and his wife had to quickly figure out how they would make it. Unable to even get a sit down interview for a job, Jerry went back to the drawing board to create another business. This time, something he felt would be recession proof. JDog Junk Removal and Hauling was born.
“Jerry started doing a couple of jobs. The phones were ringing and he always showed up early because when you are military, that’s what you do. If you are on time, you are late. He just worked like he does – military style, ” Tracy explained. She shared that customers were stunned by the work ethic and kept asking him where it came from. When they finally found out Jerry was an Army veteran, they encouraged the family to advertise it.
“We put veteran owned and operated on all of our stuff and it was a home run. People wanted to use me because I was a veteran,” Jerry said. The response was overwhelming. They both quickly realized that Jerry couldn’t physically do every single job. But they didn’t want to hire just anyone. They wanted veterans.
Jerry went down to the local VA hospital and met with the director, who discussed the Compensated Work Therapy program with him. The veterans in the program had all been in combat and were struggling with drugs and alcohol, unable to get jobs. “I’m like, bring them to me,” he said. Both Jerry and Tracy were troubled by the reports of high unemployment among veterans. They knew this was a way they could impact those numbers.
“It was the most rewarding experience, to be able to make a difference in a veteran who came back and is struggling and just needs a company or an employer to give them a chance. Not only did we give them a chance, we embraced them. We understood the value of what they brought,” Tracy explained.
When she shared the idea of franchising with Jerry, he was understandably nervous given their past experience with bankruptcy. But Tracy just knew they had something special. “I said, ‘We have to help these guys. We have something here that can give a veteran the opportunity to control their own destiny and be in business for themselves and wow, how many veterans can they hire? How many lives can we affect? We have to do this.’”
A few franchises later, they wanted to go even bigger. After partnering with a capital equity firm, the sky was the limit. “My goal is to get every single zip code in the United States to have a JDog brand,” Jerry shared. He shared that the company is committed to eradicating veteran unemployment.
In 2016 they signed an agreement with the VA Central of Washington. JDog is now connecting new franchises with VA clinics all over the country that have Compensated Work Therapy programs. “It’s a snowball effect and has just been amazing,” Tracy said.
Not only is JDog supporting veterans, they are embracing military spouses too. “I’m proud to be able to be a resource and mentor to them. We have a JDog spouse community and I have a spouse buddy program too,” she shared. “We are offering a culture and mission; it’s so much more than a business.”
In 2019 they took it a step further and created the JDog Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to serving the military community and supporting their needs. Tracy and Jerry hope to impact positive change and support the needs of those who they feel sacrifice so much. “The company is based on people, purpose and patriotism. It’s really simple,” Jerry said.
Through hardship and what seemed like endless challenges, Tracy and Jerry Flanagan created a unique business idea that blossomed into a beacon of hope for veterans. At JDog there is welcoming space for them to be honored, valued and for them to do the same for others. One veteran at a time.
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”?
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.”
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.”
Brent Cooper is the Executive Director of the Green Beret Foundation. A Green Beret himself, he’s aiming to motivate and encourage everyone to live a life of purpose with service to others.
When Cooper received the message that he’d been named one of the Mighty 25 for 2020, he was shocked. He shared that he just kept thinking, ‘Why me?’ He explained, “Green Berets aren’t trained to seek accolades – we are trained to get the job done. My mission is to help people. I find what needs to be done and I get it done, that’s my job. To me, success is seeing people being helped. That’s the motivator that keeps me going.”
It’s that specific motivator that pushed him to leave the corporate world to become the Executive Director of the Green Beret Foundation. When he was active duty, Cooper was attached to 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. When he left employment at a good job to join the military, things were going well – until they weren’t. “The night before I went to Special Forces selection, my wife at the time called me and told me she wanted a divorce,” he shared. After the dust settled, he had nothing left from that chapter of his life except his Army bag of clothing. “The point was, I had a choice. I had an opportunity and goal in front of me and I chose to not let anything stop me from achieving that goal,” Cooper explained.
Cooper became a Green Beret and faithfully served the Army for five years. He met his now wife, Shelley, and decided to leave the military to focus on his family. When he found himself back in what he deemed the hamster wheel of the corporate world, he began looking for purpose. He found it in the Green Beret Foundation.
The Green Beret Foundation is the only Special Operation Forces benevolent organization solely dedicated to supporting and serving Green Berets that has received a four star rating from Charity Navigator, which is the highest rating awarded by the nation’s largest independent charity evaluator. GBF’s mission is to provide support to special forces soldiers and their families. It’s a focus that Cooper is deeply proud to be a part of.
When asked if he would be who he is today without his military service, Cooper was quick to say no. Although he feels his character traits were absolutely always there, his service in the Army taught him what he was actually capable of. “There are times I’ll look back on training, deployment or what we went through and I’ll think, how did I not quit or not fall over,” he said with a laugh. “Break through barriers, I promise you that you can.”
The other point Cooper really wants to make is that life itself isn’t easy and neither was his eventual success. He shared his struggle walking through what he called ‘dark times.’ But he feels that it’s how you get back up and tackle it that really matters. “I grew up cleaning homes with my mother, free lunches at school… my past has helped me become who I am today. There were a lot of times of falling on my face and wondering how you can get up again. It boils down to a choice,” Cooper explained.
What makes Cooper different is his ability to utilize empathy as a focus, putting aside any textbook response or tough guy façade. “Leading a nonprofit foundation that is helping Green Berets go through all the myriad of things in life that get you down – I have been there. I can sympathize and empathize with them. It is a real life response coming from my heart. That is what I love,” he explained. “I don’t have to carry a heavy ruck or shoot weapons anymore. I get to help these guys take off that burden now instead.”
When he goes to work at the Green Beret Foundation, it’s with a smile and a renewed sense of purpose. It’s something he hopes everyone can find for themselves. “If you are able to change someone’s perspective even one degree, monumental change can happen. I am all for universal service and serving something bigger than yourself – it doesn’t have to be the military, it can be anything. He has a challenge for everyone, too. “Empathize and sympathize with each other. Once we can learn to do that, humanity will be a better place.”
To learn more about the Green Beret Foundation and how you can support their mission, click here.
Dale King is an Army veteran and cofounder of Doc Spartan – an all-natural and American made skin care company. He’s not just supporting the economy of a small town — King offers recovery support to veterans and others coming back from drug addiction.
After owning his CrossFit gym for 10 years, King approached a long-term member who made all natural products to ask if she’d create a first aid ointment. He explained that his members were always ripping their skin with weights or from rucking and he wanted an in-house solution. “We started to get great feedback from the members immediately. So, we sketched out a napkin agreement in the kitchen and a year later we were filming an episode with Shark Tank,” King said with a laugh.
Doc Spartan products are handcrafted in small batches, with all natural ingredients. King and his co-founder had a lot of success thanks to the show but it was really important for him to support his local community and bring them along on the ride. “We are located in one of the worst drug addicted and economically depressed areas in Ohio. When we were on Shark Tank, we wanted to show them you could own a successful business in a small town,” he explained.
King’s hometown had become an epicenter for the opioid crisis. He shared that one of the original doctors who was part of the pain pill mills was prescribing the drugs right down the street from his gym. When the crackdown began on opioid prescriptions in 2010, heroin flooded the streets – causing the addiction and overdose rates to climb at alarming rates.
“You need to find that something in your heart that sets you on fire,” King shared. That’s what the military and deployments taught us – life is short, we don’t have a whole lot of time. So, we might as well use the time we have to make our own neighborhoods a little better.” With that in mind, they dove in to try to make a difference.
Through the gym, King was given the opportunity to provide CrossFit classes for patients at a treatment center. This gave them all an opportunity to get to know the people and their stories. “There was this one guy who had finished the program but had nowhere to go, so he checked himself into a homeless shelter,” King said. This didn’t sit right with him or the other trainers, so they told the guy to come back the next day and they’d find something for him to do.
King gave him odd jobs to do and allowed him to work out at the gym for free. When he needed someone part-time for Doc Spartan, he trained him on how to do the orders and ship the products. “He really took to that. He was the first example of how long-term recovery is more than 90 days of treatment. It’s like basic training, that doesn’t make you a soldier – you need the advanced training for that,” King explained.
One guy became two. Eventually, the entire workforce of Doc Spartan was filled with individuals who were in recovery. “It’s a very fulfilling and rewarding thing,” King said of creating the program. “They need a safe place, to be around safe people and they need a new purpose in life. In our position, they earn their recovery through working out. Then we give them an opportunity to earn a paycheck to earn their way back into society.”
Asked if he felt his time in service has had an impact on who he’s become and how he approaches life, he was quick to say yes. “Any success I have is from the time and lessons I learned in the military. I wouldn’t be who I am today without serving, there’s no doubt,” King said. “It gives you perspective. A valid lesson in what is really important in life. From sacrifice, time and the fragility of life. That’s what it teaches you.”
The mission of Doc Spartan is to help heal the local economy and community, while creating quality American-made products for everyone. The company follows a process that King learned while deployed to Iraq for two tours during his time in the Army: Foreign Internal Defense. They train, develop, mentor and fight alongside those in recovery – just like he did with the allies overseas.
Doc Spartan plans to continue to be a vital resource in recovery and hopes to be a recognizable brand, everywhere. “The long term vision and how we can make the most impact is to land ourselves in a retail store. We have to take our time and scale up. We’d love to grow, the more we grow – the more opportunities we can provide,” King shared. It isn’t easy, but King and his team at Doc Spartan are making a difference – one life at a time.
To learn more about Doc Spartan, its mission and to purchase their quality American made skin care products – click here.
Heroes aren’t born; they are made. Medal of Honor recipient and retired Army Colonel Jack Jacobs thinks everyone has it in them to become one for their own community.
“One of the things you learn in uniform but particularly in combat – is that when you are part of something larger than yourself, you really are making a difference,” Jacobs shared. “Secondly, it’s the average person who winds up making the difference between success and failure. I’ve spent much more time in combat than I ever expected or wanted. I can tell you this, that everyday people made a difference in terms of valor. It wasn’t some super person who turned the tide of a battle or saved fellow soldiers, it was just the average soldier. It’s always the average soldier.”
His parents were immigrants from Europe and his father served in the South Pacific in the Army during World War II. Service to country was ingrained. Jacobs himself entered the Army as a Second Lieutenant after graduating from Rutgers ROTC program. Six months later in 1967, he was sent to Vietnam. He has shared the experience of landing in Vietnam and seeing the soldiers heading home, who he said looked like they were about 100 years old. About eight weeks later, he looked like that, too.
After being ambushed due to an enemy informant, Jacobs had shrapnel wounds covering his arms and a critical wound to his head, impairing his vision. Despite all of this – with complete disregard for his own safety – he continued to return to the ‘kill zone’ to evacuate the wounded, saving the lives of 14 soldiers. In an interview with the American Veterans Center he said, “We fight to achieve the mission and we fight for the country. When the bullets and shrapnel start flying around, we do it for each other. You don’t know real love until you are in combat.”
When Jacobs stopped to rest, he discovered he couldn’t get up again. He would undergo dozens of surgeries to piece back together his skull and face. He also never regained his sense of smell or taste. For his heroism and sacrifice, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Jacobs said it was a profound ‘Why me?’ moment. “There were a lot of brave people on that day just like there are a lot of brave people in combat every day,” he explained. Although he doesn’t remember much of the ceremony, he can still recall the vast sea of people who came to watch – stretching as far as the eye could see.
Witnessing that was remarkable considering the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and the civil unrest wreaking havoc on the country at the time. Jacobs feels a lot of the reason troops may be more celebrated now is because it isn’t a draft, instead, a volunteer force. “We love the troops today. One of the reasons is because we don’t have to be the troops,” he said pointedly.
After retiring from the Army, Jacobs led a successful career on Wall Street. He’s a military analyst on NBC and MSNBC, extremely vocal on issues impacting today’s military. Jacobs also co-authored a book about his experiences during the Vietnam War titled, If Not Now, When? Duty and Sacrifice in America’s Time of Need. With brutal honesty he addresses the role of citizenry and necessity of sacrifice.
One of Jacobs’ passions is improving employment opportunities for veterans. “We don’t realize – and indeed the veterans themselves – don’t realize that people in uniform have had authority and responsibility at such a young age, that they are often more qualified to do just about anything,” he explained.
As for the majority of the public that will never serve in the military, he feels they have a duty to those who do raise their hands to defend and protect. “All of us whether we’ve been in uniform or not, benefit from the exertions from the young people wearing the uniform and because of that, we all have the responsibility to ensure their transition out of the military is easy,” Jacobs said. “I strongly encourage people to do what they can to make veterans a bigger part of their community.”
It should also be said that ‘Thank you for your service’ rings hollow to a lot of veterans, seeming more like a platitude Jacobs said. “There’s a certain modicum of guilt from those who say that, because they feel guilty about not serving…What veterans really need is action, if you aren’t doing something local for veterans you aren’t doing anything,” he explained.
Universal service is a concept that Jacobs believes every American should subscribe to. There is an area where you can put words into action, he stated. “You need to do something. If we have not served in some capacity we aren’t doing anything for our country,” he stated. “It’s when you only think about yourself that you wind up drifting away from the American ideal of being a member of the wider American community.”
The advice and words of encouragement from American hero and Medal of Honor recipient Jack Jacobs are quite simple. Go do something. Be a part of something bigger than yourself.
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.
When Jennifer Campbell was selected for 2020’s Mighty 25, it came as a complete shock. “It was a genuine surprise,” she shared with a laugh. Considering everything she’s accomplished with her health advocacy efforts, Army service and now, leading the Hollywood American legion as its Commander, Campbell was an easy choice.
Campbell is only the second female in the Hollywood post’s 100 year history to lead as its commander. Not only does it surprise a lot of people, but many often don’t realize or think she is a veteran herself, assuming instead she is the daughter of one. She is quickly changing perceptions and shattering barriers.
Not only is this post paving the way in leadership, its membership is much different than the average American Legion. The Hollywood post has more post 9/11 veterans than any other era combined. “We’re very fortunate that we’re not the stereotypical American Legion. There’s so much culture and history to draw upon but it’s also so motivating to see young people want to get involved,” Campbell explained.
She was quick to admit that she didn’t know much about the American Legion when she was asked to join. But after hearing good things from a friend, she went to an event. She quickly dove into volunteering her time and serving, something she was deeply familiar with as an Army veteran and had always enjoyed. It wasn’t too long after that when she stepped into the leadership position. “I never in a million years thought I would be doing this. But all you have to do is care. Get involved and serve,” Campbell said.
Military service was something she was familiar with growing up. Her father served in the Navy as did many other family members. “I was motivated and excited to do it [join the Army]. I wanted to show that I could do it just as well as any of the guys. When I called my dad to tell him I joined I am sure he said ‘What!’” Campbell shared with a laugh. After serving four years in the Army, she went on to earn her Master’s in nutrition and became a personal trainer.
She has been a vocal advocate of health and wellness, especially for America’s veterans. Campbell wants to help motivate people to be their best selves both outside and inside. “Veterans have a 70 percent higher likelihood of developing obesity than the general public, that’s something I really want to focus on. How to take care of yourself and your family,” Campbell explained. She does this through her personal training, speaking and nutrition coaching.
She has enjoyed life outside of the military, finding her purpose and passion within her industry and volunteerism efforts. “I know a lot of people when they exit the military, it’s still all about that. But for me, it doesn’t define me completely. It has definitely shaped me in what I’ve learned about what I will and will not put up with as far as leadership and being squared away,” Campbell explained. “It has been a massive part of my growth and expansion in leadership.”
While she recognizes that her leadership position in a traditionally male led organization is unique, she doesn’t want it to be. “I want people to understand that this isn’t just a man’s game. There are so many powerful women in leadership that have incredible drive and ability to problem solve in a way that is very different,’ she stated. It’s her hope that her story will resonate and spark others to step forward.
For those looking for a way to stay healthy and motivated in a purpose filled life – she was quick to say people need each other in order to be successful. “Find a base. Find people who you can challenge and together you can do a lot of great things. The more that you can engage your friends, family and colleagues the more you will stick with something – especially a higher calling or purpose,” Campbell said. “When you get to be a part of a team and serve yourself, your family or your community – those are the things that will help you really make an impact and difference.” One thing Campbell really hopes to see in the future is more young veterans and especially women in leading roles. “There are so few women in leadership and it takes that person to demand to be included and heard,” she said. She is encouraging them to be the person who bridges the gap and makes people notice them, saying it isn’t enough to get a seat at the table – it’s what you do when you get there that matters, too. Campbell’s advice is simple: step up and make your voice heard.
In 2010, after an earthquake ravaged Haiti, a small team of veterans responded in support. A decade later, Team Rubicon has become a leading force in disaster response – all over the world.
When Marine veteran Jake Wood co-founded Team Rubicon, he never imagined on its 10 year anniversary he would be responding to a global pandemic. However, he shared that they recognized the severity of COVID-19 long before it reached the United States and immediately began making plans. “We adapted very early to the crisis. That allowed us to move pretty quickly and we reorganized our entire organization which allowed us to pivot into the fight,” he explained.
Team Rubicon got their volunteers on the ground doing food bank operations, testing clinics and PPE distribution. But while they were busy supporting COVID-19 relief efforts, mother nature continued to wreak havoc with continuous natural disasters. “We were able to continue to answer the bell for these communities. We’re really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish,” Wood said.
Wood had always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but wanted to do something that would add value to the world at the same time. Although Wood recognizes the impact Team Rubicon has had and the incredible growth they’ve achieved, it hasn’t come without failures or personal cost. His advice to others is to make sure they are fully committed to everything that comes with diving into a goal. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Jake said. “I’ve been so stressed at certain points in the last 10 years that I was grinding my teeth. I’ve broken three molars in half.”
Standing beside Wood to shoulder the responsibility of leading the global crisis response organization is its President and Chief Operating Officer Art delaCruz, a 22 year Navy veteran. When delaCruz took off his uniform and transitioned into civilian life with a role at a large corporation, something was missing. “I don’t think that’s uncommon. I think that’s where Team Rubicon and other organizations that serve veterans are uniquely positioned to have people plug in,” he explained.
The conversations around the leadership table these days revolve around what Team Rubicon will look like in 100 years, because they aren’t going anywhere. The team aims to be the best disaster response organization in the world. “We hope we can grow in the impact we can provide to the world and make Team Rubicon a household name. We also want the men and women who volunteer to serve in the military to view Team Rubicon as a part of their journey in life,” delaCruz said.
Team Rubicon helps veterans continue their service but also helps maintain that sense of community, something many lose when they take off the uniform. It also focuses on giving veterans back their sense of purpose and identity. After losing one of its initial team members, Marine veteran Clay Hunt in 2011, Team Rubicon honed in the need to be a vital resource for veterans. The organization developed The Clay Hunt Fellows Program to support personal growth and development for struggling veterans.
Team Rubicon has also become a leading voice on veteran issues. Wood himself has briefed multiple presidents on veteran transition and has also testified in front of Congress to champion improving mental health care services for returning veterans.
DelaCruz himself is passionate about those issues but also wants employers to think about hiring veterans and to recognize their unmatched value. “Military veterans are uniquely equipped and bring this incredible context, skill and capabilities that we generally, as a society, don’t ask them to use later on. People who might be hiring, don’t be afraid to take that bet on that veteran,” delaCruz said.
Military members develop skills and abilities at a young age. The responsibility they undertake is also unmatched, something hiring organizations need to recognize. “I flew airplanes in the Navy. I would walk up on a flight deck and stare at a 19 year old kid and salute him and say, ‘Is this jet ready to go?’ knowing that one lost tool, a hydraulic system not being serviced properly or a cap being left off a system – means losing a $60 million dollar jet. Then knowing that kid may leave the military and not be trusted to lock up a building at night…That’s just unbelievable,” delaCruz said.
Team Rubicon remains passionate about helping people recognize their ability to make a difference. “I think for us at Team Rubicon, everybody has some intrinsic value. There’s so much you can do,” delaCruz said.
Both Wood and delaCruz expressed feeling deeply honored to be named in the Mighty 25 for 2020. Both acknowledged that it’s only possible because of the dedicated work of their team and the incredible volunteers who make what Team Rubicon does for the world possible. It is their hope that their story will inspire others to add purpose to their lives. All it takes is a heart for service and a commitment to make a difference.
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.
Retired Air Force Colonel Pamela Powers planned to enjoy retirement as she transitioned out of military service in 2018. But life had other plans for her – like becoming the first female Deputy Secretary of the VA.
“I grew up in a small town in Minnesota,” Powers told WATM. “My grandfather served in World War II, but he was part of the generation that didn’t talk about their service. I didn’t know he was in the military until I was an adult.” She also had a great grandfather who served during World War I. “My uncle was the only one I knew at the time who was serving and he was stationed at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.” It would be a visit with him that would lead Powers to an impressive career, spanning 30 years.
Applying and attending the Air Force Academy was easily the best decision she ever made, Powers shared. “It has really been an honor and a privilege to serve this great nation,” she said. It’s one decision that she’s never regretted and one that has created a ripple effect of unique opportunities both professionally and personally.
“The military instills skills like discipline and determination…This was really the foundation of my personal and professional success. I learned that I can be mentally strong and resilient. I also learned that I can pretty much withstand anything that comes my way,” she said with a smile. Powers also credits her time in the military with developing her leadership abilities. “The best leadership is authentic and servant leadership. Bottom line is, I think the military has shaped me into who I am today.”
One of Powers’ passions is serving and supporting women veterans. Powers shared that when she graduated from the Air Force Academy, her class was only the 10th to do so with women. “It was at a time of transition where the military was just starting to see women as an important part of the nation’s defense,” She explained. “I am really excited to see that population grow. As women, we need to be strong enough to believe in ourselves even when others around us may not. It’s also about inspiring other women.”
Powers has found that many female veterans don’t even think of themselves as veterans. One of her priorities with her role has been to educate and inform them of their benefits at the VA. “I want to make sure that our women warriors get the care and recognition that they deserve,” she explained.
Her own experience in a male-dominated military pushed her to work harder and be better, she said. Powers also stated that it helped her create deep resiliency and what she termed “grit.” She would need it, especially as she continued to shock people with her status as an officer. “I went to Army war college and my husband was a United pilot. It was halfway through the year and we were at a party together when [attendees] assumed he was the service member and I was the spouse,” she shared. Although she laughed, it wouldn’t be the last time something like that happened. “The culture is changing in the military and it’s just taking a little bit of time to catch up.”
When Secretary Wilkie approached her to come work for the VA as Chief of Staff as she was poised to retire, she said yes. But she didn’t realize that not even two years later she’d be its number two leader, by the request of the president himself.
She recognizes the significance of being the first female Deputy Secretary of the VA and it’s one she doesn’t take lightly. “I want to be in a room and not be the first or the only female. I want to be recognized for kicking butt and making things happen,” she said with a smile. Despite this, she knows it’s a unique opportunity. “I want women veterans to see that the number two leader of Veterans Affairs is a female. I feel an obligation to make sure their voices are heard and they are understood and respected.”
Prioritizing the needs of female veterans has been at the top of her list in her new role. “We’ve done a lot of outreach and several women veterans events to get the word out. But we are also listening to our women and how they want to be served,” she said. Through her and the team’s innovative efforts, they are seeing more and more women come to the VA to seek resources.
Powers also remains deeply passionate about modernizing the VA. “We’ve implemented a number of really important and critical change-modernizing efforts,” she said. With her leadership, the organization has focused on improving access to care for the nation’s veterans. “We’ve really seen the difference just in three years; trust in the VA has jumped 25 percent. We know we are on the right path.”
The positive change and deep impact Powers has made through serving her country — both in the Air Force and now as the second highest leader of the VA — cannot truly be measured. It is her hope that her story will inspire a new generation of servant-leaders ready to stand up and make a difference.