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.
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.”
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.”
Paul Szoldra is deeply familiar with being challenged; he spent eight years as a Marine infantryman. This Mighty 25er is not only a combat veteran but also a trail-blazing journalist devoted to uncovering the truth at all costs.
Szoldra’s father was a helicopter mechanic for the Army during the Vietnam War, which left Szoldra always thinking about military service. “I would see his uniform in the closet growing up. It was one of those kid moments, seeing all those ribbons and medals and thinking it was super cool,” he explained. When America was attacked on 9/11, Szoldra was a senior in high school and watched it unfold in his history class. Like so many others, it was a pivotal moment that would change his life.
He arrived at boot camp on the one year anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
Although he joined the Marine Corps, he was almost an Airman. “It was the biggest cliché. The Air Force office was closed that day and I was knocking on the door and I heard this voice behind me – a Marine gunny,” Szoldra said with a laugh. That gunny brought him to the Marine Corps office and gave him the full impressive rundown of why he should join the Marines. “I’m just like, wow this is incredible stuff! That’s how it started, they got me good – they got me really good.”
His time as a Marine changed him in many ways. Szoldra shared that he lost friends in combat and more recently, to suicide. It’s an experience that had him questioning whether serving was worth it at times. “If I hadn’t joined the Marine Corps I wouldn’t have the pain of knowing and losing these people in the back of my mind…but, I also think of all the great things that came as well,” he explained. Despite the losses and challenges, he doesn’t regret serving and if anything, finds himself glad he joined the Marine Corps, seeing it as a stepping stone on the path for his life.
That stepping stone led him to journalism and an unwavering search for the truth. “I think the service aspect is an important one. Most people join the military because they are compelled to serve something higher than themselves… how I go about my day to day is that,” Szoldra said. Although he’s hung up his uniform, his days are still spent serving the military through journalism.
Although his serious and truthful journalism can be found at Task & Purpose, where he is the Editor in Chief, he also likes to have a little fun. He is the founder of The Duffel Blog, widely acclaimed military satire, or “fake news” site, enjoyed by the likes of General Mattis himself.
Despite the frequent negative commentary about the media, Szoldra remains positive about the work reporters do and feels it’s vital. He also encourages people to always have questions and to stay informed. “I can tell you that there are a lot of great journalists that are doing hard work all over the world. A lot of them are paid very little money to do so and some of them even are in war zones, risking their lives to get that information. Many times, it’s simply because they believe it’s so important to get the information out,” he explained.
Szoldra doesn’t hold back from finding the truth, even when it makes the military look bad. His pursuit of this led him to successfully sue the Department of Defense in early 2020. Szoldra discussed his concerns regarding things like mold in the barracks and increased rates of veteran suicide, saying that without journalism – change wouldn’t happen. “All of these things are huge issues and without the media to put a spotlight on them, none of these issues get fixed. Especially in the military. My experience has been to see an organization that is reactive rather than proactive,” he stated.
Szoldra shared that it sometimes takes the media to push issues in order to force the military’s hand in correcting wrongs or addressing issues that maybe weren’t prioritized. He’s made it his mission to tell the truth, at all costs. “Keeping people honest – that’s essentially what it boils down to,” he said with a laugh.
As for what Szoldra hopes readers take away from his story, his words were simple: “Find your purpose,” he said. “Fight for what’s right and seek the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. Serve your community in whatever capacity. There are ways that you can serve that do not require you to carry a weapon.”
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
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.”
After their service, many veterans find ways to continue to make great strides across the nation and the globe — from the arts to politics to non-profit organizations. One of the great privileges we enjoy here at We Are The Mighty is that we learn about and meet veterans who are doing really incredible, meaningful and sometimes truly badass things, every day.
Each year, we have the honor of choosing The Mighty 25 — a list of veterans whose amazing accomplishments suggest they are poised for major impact in the coming year.
It’s always tough narrowing those who’ve really made an impression — veterans we want other veterans to know about — to a list of 25, because for every individual selected, there are several others who could easily take their place.
Certainly, there are veterans we’d be honored to highlight year after year. In order to keep things fresh, however, we try to cover a broad sweep of the veteran community and to highlight people we think our readers might like to track in the coming year. These are vets who make us proud, and we’re excited to follow their work as the year progresses.
In alphabetical order, The Mighty 25 of 2017 are:
1. Daniel Alarik — CEO Grunt Style / Alpha Outpost
Grunt Style sells unabashedly pro-military shirts and clothing to a veteran and civilian market proud to wear pride of service on their sleeve.
In 2016 Alarik started Alpha Outpost — a subscription box company for men with curated high-quality items focused on everything from cooking to survival.
Between these two companies, Alarik employs around 100 veterans, and his businesses are packed with patriotism and personality. But more than that, they’re kicking ass — just what we like to see from veteran-run businesses. Here’s to their bright and glorious future.
2. Lieutenant General (Ret.) David Barno — Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, School of International Service, at American University
Widely considered among the nation’s leading defense intellectuals, David Barno is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who commanded coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. He is currently a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at the School of International Service at American University.
Barno recently co-authored a ground-breaking analysis of military leadership principles that challenged decades of Army policy, and his work for War on The Rocks remains highly influential as our country grapples with persistent global conflict and a changing political climate.
Barno’s broad intellect, wide-ranging expertise, and undying commitment to a better Army inspire WATM to watch and learn from his continued impact.
3. Tim Bomke — Military Program Manager at Amazon
Tim Bomke is an Army veteran who was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart and was medically retired in 2008 due to wounds sustained in combat in Iraq. After retiring, Tim went to work on the Department of Defense’s Troops to Teachers program, as well as the Army Continuing Education System aboard Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Bomke is now the Military Manager for Amazon helping to lead their veteran and military spouse hiring initiatives. His work this year will help employ a multitude of members our community.
4. Bonnie Carroll — President and Founder, TAPS
Bonnie Carroll is one of the 2015 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions. Ms. Carroll received the honor, and is admired throughout the entire U.S. military, for her selfless leadership at the forefront of the greatest battle our military families ever fight: that of the ultimate sacrifice.
A retired Air Force Major and the surviving spouse of Brigadier General Tom Carroll, Bonnie is the founder and president of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or “TAPS,” which provides much needed compassionate care, casework assistance, and lifetime round-the-clock emotional support for those affected by the loss of a service member.
A staffer in both the Reagan and Bush White Houses, Bonnie Carroll was appointed as the White House Liaison for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, DC. Before that, however, Ms. Carroll’s own military career was one of distinction; Carroll retired as a Major in the Air Force Reserve following 30 years of service, including 16 years in the Air National Guard.
For her impactful, often life-saving work providing bereavement support for the families of our fallen, Bonnie Carroll has been recognized by the American Legion, the Department of Defense, and President Obama. We Are The Mighty salutes her, too.
5. Phillip Carter — Senior Fellow and Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security
Phillip Carter is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. Carter’s research focuses on issues facing veterans and military personnel, force structure and readiness, and the relationship between civilians and military.
Carter served in the Army for nine years, including an 11-month deployment to Iraq as an embedded advisor for the Iraqi police in Baquba. In 2008, Carter joined the Obama campaign as the National Veterans Director; he went on to serve as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense.
In addition to his military and government experience, Carter writes extensively on veterans and military issues for Foreign Policy, the Washington Post, and other publications, and serves on numerous boards and advisory councils in the veterans and military community.
Whether it’s working with donors and grantmaking organizations to help them understand the needs of veterans, leading research that informs policy change, or convening leaders poised to make a difference in the lives of veterans, Phil Carter’s influence is large and growing.
6. Mike Dowling — Producer, Author, Veteran Advocate
Mike Dowling, a U.S. Marine and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran has dedicated his entire post-service life to his fellow veterans, servicemembers, and military families, and has become a much-admired leader of the greater Los Angeles veteran community.
Mike is a co-founder of the nonprofit Veterans in Film Television which serves as both a networking organization and a way for the film and television industry to connect with the veteran community working in it.
He also founded the LA Veterans Orientation, which helps connect veterans newly transitioning from service in the L.A. area and helped develop and lead VA The Right Way, an initiative supported by veteran, nonprofit and governmental stakeholders alike that seeks to give veterans a greater voice in the redesign of the VA and to help build 1,200 permanent veterans housing units on the Los Angeles VA campus.
Dowling served as Director of Community Outreach here at We Are The Mighty, and in 2017 is leaving to be involved in the production for a major network based on military subject matter he is passionate about. We can’t wait to see it.
7. Adam Driver — Actor, Arts in the Armed Forces Founder
Adam Driver is a Marine veteran who rose to fame on the hit HBO show “Girls,” and who skyrocketed after starring as the villain Kylo Ren in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, a role he’ll reprise in Episode VIII later this year. Driver’s impressive and growing film career has afforded him the opportunity to work with luminaries such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.
In 2016, his performance in “Paterson” earned Driver critical acclaim and multiple awards. Coming soon, he will team up with Sylvester Stallone to star in the film “Tough As They Come,” based on the bestselling book by former Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, a quadruple amputee who lost his limbs in a roadside bomb attack during his third tour to Afghanistan.
Driver founded the nonprofit organization Arts in the Armed Forces, which performs theater for all branches of the military at U.S. installations domestically and around the world. As Driver’s star continues to brighten, so too does his commitment to helping veterans heal the scars of war and telling their inspiring stories.
8. Sen. Tammy Duckworth — U.S. Senator
Fresh off an upset victory over longtime Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, Army veteran Tammy Duckworth is on her way to the U.S. Senate with an eye toward giving former service members a greater voice at the national level.
Duckworth, a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot who lost her legs after a crash during combat in Iraq, previously served as a senior official at the Department of Veterans Affairs and as a U.S. congresswoman from Illinois’ 8th District. The Asian-American lawmaker has consistently charted her own political course, but with a laser beam focus on supporting today’s military and veteran community.
She’s passed legislation aimed at helping veterans have more access to mental health care and made it easier for vets to get civilian certifications for skills they acquired in the military. We’re looking forward to seeing what Senator Duckworth will do in Congress this year.
9. Ken Falke — Chairman and Founder, Boulder Crest Retreat; CEO, Shoulder 2 Shoulder
Ken Falke is a 21-year service-disabled combat veteran of the U.S. Navy and retired Master Chief Petty Officer. His first business, A-T Solutions, is internationally recognized for its expertise and consulting services in combating the war or terror. Ken is now the CEO of organizational improvement solutions company Shoulder 2 Shoulder, Inc.
Falke is also an innovator in the world of warrior care. In 2013 after Falke and his wife Julia witnessed first-hand the desolation and frustration the wounded experienced while spending time in military hospitals, they founded the exceptional Boulder Crest Retreat for Military and Veteran Wellness. Situated on a massive swath of pristine Blue Ridge Mountain land donated by the Falkes, Boulder Crest’s mission is “To provide world class, short-duration, high-impact retreats for combat veterans and their families”, in an environment “of healing that integrates evidence-based therapies, a safe, peaceful space and unparalleled customer service to improve physical, emotional, spiritual and economic well-being.” The Retreat has hosted more than 1,000 veterans and their loved ones looking to reconnect and heal after service, with all services provided for free.
Ken is also the founder and Chairman of the EOD Warrior Foundation, which provides financial assistance and support to active-duty and veteran wounded, injured or ill warriors, families of the wounded and fallen from the Explosive Ordnance Disposal community, and maintains the EOD Memorial.
Falke is passionate about educating our nation on issues regarding the long-term care of the returning military members and families who’ve borne the burden of our nation’s longest wars. We Are The Mighty salutes this exceptional veteran, businessman and philanthropist for his thoughtful, generous, family-centered and solution-oriented approaches to the unique challenges facing post 9/11 veterans and their loved ones.
10. Matt Flavin — President, Concord Energy Holdings, LLC
Matt Flavin is a former Navy intelligence officer who deployed with SEAL teams and previously worked at the White House as its first director of the Office of Veterans and Wounded Warrior Policy under President Obama. After leaving the White House, Flavin went into the private sector as a senior executive with energy-related businesses. He is currently the CEO of Concord Energy Holdings.
At only 29 when he became director of the Office of Veteran and Wounded Warrior Policy in 2009, Flavin was one of the youngest vets to earn a senior White House position and marked a generational shift in veterans advocacy at the highest levels of government.
Now at the helm of one of the fastest growing energy companies in America, Flavin has demonstrated through his tireless advocacy at the White House and his innovation in business that this millennial generation of veterans is poised for greatness.
11. Brenda “Sue” Fulton — Board of Visitors at West Point, Advocate for LGBT Equality in the Military
Sue Fulton is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy’s first-ever co-ed class and is the first female and openly gay person to hold a position as a member of the West Point Board of Visitors.
Fulton has become a passionate advocate for the inclusion and rights of LGBT service members, and for women and people of color in the military. She is a founding board member of OutServe which provides legal assistance for openly gay service members and is a founder of Knights Out, an LGBT rights organization.
With her combination of fierce pride in her alma mater, the branch of service whose leaders it prepares and in the under-represented groups whose civil rights as soldiers concern her, Fulton strikes us as a military influencer to watch in 2017.
12. Dan Goldenberg — Executive Director, Call of Duty Endowment
Dan Goldenberg is a Naval Academy grad, Harvard Business School alum, and Air Command and Staff College graduate. He’s also a Navy captain with over 24 years of active and reserve military experience and the executive director of Activision’s Call of Duty Endowment.
Through the Call of Duty Endowment, Goldenberg’s helping veterans find high-quality careers by supporting groups that prepare them for the job market and by raising awareness of the value that veterans bring to the workplace. So far his organization has helped place more than 25,000 post-9/11 vets in jobs that average a more than $50,000 salary.
The Call of Duty Endowment has set a goal to help 50,000 post-9/11 vets find jobs by 2019. Goldenberg and his team are poised for an aggressive push in 2017.
13. Matthew Griffin and Donald Lee — Co-founders, Combat Flip Flops
As former Army Rangers with several Afghanistan tours behind them, Matthew Griff and Donald Lee saw a country filled with hard-working, creative people who wanted jobs, not handouts. Terrorist organizations would target people who couldn’t make ends meet, so Griffin and Lee created Combat Flip Flops as a way to help the people of Kabul, Afghanistan, create a sustainable economy.
Today, the company has expanded to Colombia, Laos, and Afghanistan, and they support charities like Aid Afghanistan for Education, which helps marginalized Afghans attend school. With the help of Combat Flip Flops, over 3,000 female students currently attend an AAE school. Additionally, some revenue from certain products is spent to clear 3-square meters of unexploded ordnance from a region rocked by long-term war.
We’ll be continuing to watch how Combat Flip Flops uses its double bottom line to help make the world a better and safer place.
14. Florent Groberg — Director of Veteran Outreach at Boeing, MOH recipient
A French-born naturalIzed citizen who joined the US Army in 2008 and went on to receive numerous awards, decorations and the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in Afghanistan, retired Capt. Florent Groberg is now the Director of Veterans Outreach at Boeing, where he’s responsible for the company’s support of military veterans and their families. He’s a member of Keppler Speakers where he uses his experience to inspire audiences under the most adverse conditions.
He’s also an advisor at Mission 6 Zero, a leadership development company created by for U.S. special operators.
For the past year, Groberg has been helping his peers prepare for life after the military through his partnership with LinkedIn’s Veteran Program, in which the veteran community connects, networks, and grows professionally via the powerful LinkedIn platform. A passionate advocate for the veteran community, Groberg’s every public appearance emphasizes education, transition planning and career development, all of which is inspired by the love and memory he has for those who gave their lives on the day for which his actions have been so prestigiously honored.
And for those so inspired, check out Capt. Groberg’s moving interview with Stephen Colbert last year. Many of the female veterans we know are hoping to hear him speak a little more French in the coming year.
15. Dr. Anthony Hassan — CEO and President, Cohen Veteran Network
Dr. Anthony Hassan is a retired Air Force officer with over 30 years of leadership, mental health, and military social work experience. As the CEO and President of the Cohen Veterans Network, he’s in charge of spearheading the organization’s mission to improve the mental health of veterans across the nation.
Hassan lead one of the first-ever Air Force combat stress control and prevention teams embedded with Army units during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004. His groundbreaking work in military mental health and substance abuse treatment has paved the way for a variety of military medical innovations and programs.
With his work for the Cohen Veterans Network, Hassan is establishing 25 high-quality, free or low-cost outpatient mental health clinics in cities throughout the country. Additionally, Hassan continues to lead efforts to advance the mental health treatment profession through funded research initiatives and training programs to improve care within the network and beyond.
We’re rooting for Hassan’s success in 2017 as it lifts our community and improves the lives of veterans and their families.
Jaslow was previously Chief of Staff for Illinois Democrat Rep. Cheri Bustos and was the Press Secretary for Virginia Democrat and former Navy Secretary Sen. Jim Webb.
IAVA has quickly become one of the nation’s top veterans advocacy organizations, and Jaslow’s political experience on Capitol Hill and her recent military service will surely help continue her organization’s fluency in the issues facing the post-9/11 veteran community.
Jaslow is an up-and-comer and is someone we’ll definitely be watching as IAVA works to help recent vets navigate their post-service lives.
17. William McNulty — Co-Founder and CEO, Team Rubicon Global
Marine Corps veteran William McNulty is CEO of Team Rubicon Global, the disaster response organization he co-founded after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which offers veterans around the world opportunities to serve others in the wake of disasters. McNulty has worked in support of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, and the National Security Council’s Iraq Threat Finance Cell. Among the vast community of veteran-serving nonprofits, McNulty is broadly admired for his success in scaling the Team Rubicon model internationally.
McNulty also serves on the Board of Directors of Airlink Flight, an international non-profit organization that connects commercial airlines with humanitarian initiatives, and on the Advisory Board of the Truman National Security Project, a policy advocacy organization that encourages the use of diplomacy, free trade, and democratic ideals to help resolve complex international challenges.
From Team Rubicon deployments with Prince Harry in Nepal to bringing veterans together with POS REP, 2016 was a busy year for McNulty, and we’re excited to see what his veteran service organizations have in store for 2017.
18. Donny O’Malley — Founder and President, VET Tv
Danny Maher, a combat Marine veteran, goes by the stage name Donny O’Malley and is the founder of Irreverent Warriors (home of The Silkies Hike) and now VET Tv, the first video channel created by and for post 9/11 veterans. O’Malley’s mission for VET Tv is to create high-quality, targeted entertainment for the veteran community that is therapeutic in order to promote camaraderie and prevent veteran suicide.
After a successful crowdfunding campaign, VET Tv is off and running, producing content “by bloodthirsty veterans and made for veterans with dark and twisted humor.” Their programming plan is laid out on their website and quite frankly, we’re subscribing to see what they come up.
19. Range15 Crew — Producers and Cast Members from the Feature Film
While some of these cast members (Mat Best, Nick Palmisciano, and Evan Hafer) have been highlighted in previous years for their successful veteran-owned and run companies, this band of brothers brought humor and in many ways a form of therapy to our community in a way that no other film has. Here’s to hoping it’s one of many to come.
20. Rob Riggle — Actor, Comedian
Rob Riggle is an actor, comedian, and Marine veteran. Riggle retired from the Marine Corps Reserves as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2013 after serving for 23 years, 9 of which he served on Active Duty and 14 more in the Reserves. Despite his growing career on screen, Riggle served as a pilot, Civil Affairs Officer and a Public Affairs Officer across numerous deployments to Liberia, Kosovo, Albania and Afghanistan.
Of his decision to finally retire, Riggle has said, “I may have retired from the Marine Corps in 2013, but you never really stop being a Marine” — a statement borne out by his Iraq tour with the USO. In the years since, Riggle has done his part to advocate for and raise awareness of our veterans, attending numerous events that support our military family and most recently, co-hosting the first Rob Riggle InVETational Golf Classic with We Are The Mighty, to benefit the Semper Fi Fund.
Rob Riggle’s star continues to rise. He’s best known for his work as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” from 2006 to 2008, and as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live” from 2004 to 2005, despite still being in the Reserves at the time! Riggle’s also beloved for his comedic roles in numerous television shows and films. This year, we look forward to Rob debuting his own series on TBS.
21. Mark Rockefeller — CEO/Co-Founder of StreetShares
Mark Rockefeller is an Air Force veteran who later transitioned into a law career to help veterans secure financing for businesses and protect against predatory lending. Early in his post-Air Force career, Rockefeller worked on a pro bono micro-finance project in Africa which inspired him to help establish StreetShares, Inc.
StreetShares uses a combination of technology and social networking to obtain financial services for the military and veteran communities and to help veterans build businesses.
As the company puts it, “we’ve got red, white and blue running through our veins.”
As more veterans leave the service and look for innovative ways to enter the workforce, groups like StreetShares are poised to make a major impact on helping veteran-owned businesses become a larger part of the American economy.
22. Vincent Viola — Secretary of the Army (Select)
Vincent Viola is the epitome of a self-made man. An Army veteran of the 101st, Viola has a Juris Doctorate from New York Law School but chose to focus on becoming a businessman rather than practice law.
In the course of his civilian career, Viola made his fortune by focusing his efforts on the oil industry. Viola has created a number of businesses in the tech, oil, and financial industries, among others. He currently owns the Florida Panthers.
After 9/11, Viola founded the Combating Terrorism Center, an academic institute that studies the terrorist threat and provides education towards mitigating it. He is President Trump’s nomination as the Secretary of the Army.
With an increasingly tumultuous world and an Army poised for big changes, we’ll be watching as Viola takes takes charge of America’s largest service and shapes it for the future.
23. Kayla Williams — Director of VA’s Center for Women Veterans
Williams was previously a project associate for the RAND Corporation and is the author of “Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army,” a memoir about her experiences negotiating the changing demands on today’s military.
Kayla is a White House Women Veteran Champion of Change, a Truman National Security Project Fellow, and a former member of the VA Advisory Committee on Women Veterans.
As the principal advisor on female veterans issues to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Williams will play a big role in shaping the policies, programs, and legislation that affect an increasing population women veterans in the coming years.
24. Eli Williamson — Co-Founder and President, Leave No Veteran Behind; Director of the Veterans Program for the Robert R. McCormick Foundation
An Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, Williamson was an Arab linguist and worked with Army Special Operations psychological operations teams.
After his time in the Army, Williamson created the non-profit Leave No Veteran Behind to invest in veterans and help build better communities through employment training, transitional jobs, and an educational debt relief scholarship. Williamson was also recently named as a member of the new Obama Foundation’s Inclusion Council.
With a strong influence in the minority community and a business outlook that believes “veterans are not a charity, but a strategic social investment,” Williamson embodies the spirit of We Are The Mighty, and we look forward to many great things from him in the year ahead.
25. Brandon Young — Director of Development, Team RWB
Brandon Young is the Director of Development at Team Red, White, and Blue. An Army veteran, Young joined the military before 9/11 and served 11 years, mostly conducting Special Operations missions in support of the Global War on Terror.
Brandon is a speaker and contributor on podcasts and the Havok Journal where he shares his myriad experiences while in the service. His aim and sincere hope is to “give words to the voiceless who are struggling to find them; or the courage to say what’s really on their hearts.”
Young’s primary focus with Team RWB is to develop and maintain strategic partnerships and identify growth opportunities that ensure the success of the nonprofit’s programs. He recently handed over the Denver RWB Chapter where in the past two years he helped grow membership from 400 to 1,200.
Ryan Manion’s journey to leading The Travis Manion Foundation began with her brother’s legacy and her mother’s love. In a time of deep sorrow and almost unbearable loss – both would create a mission of hope and purpose for generations of Americans to come.
On April 29, 2007, First Lieutenant Travis Manion and his fellow Marines were ambushed while on patrol in Iraq. He willingly led counterattacks to draw fire away by entering the kill zone numerous times to retrieve wounded Marines. He was fatally wounded by a sniper. Manion’s heroic actions undoubtedly saved the lives of everyone on the patrol.
Before he left for the second tour of duty in Iraq which would ultimately claim his life, Travis was asked numerous times why he would go back. His response paints a vivid and compelling picture of the hero and servant-leader that he was: If not me, then who? It would be those words that would spur his mother to create a foundation of purposeful service that would grow far beyond her family’s wildest dreams.
“If he was here, he would 100 percent be a part of this organization and be all about it. But he wouldn’t like that it was named the Travis Manion Foundation,” Ryan said with a laugh. She herself joined the foundation in 2009, two years after it was formed by her mother, Janet. Ryan said it was her mom’s vision that led the Foundation to where it is and without her, it wouldn’t exist.
Originally, Ryan said that she and her father saw the Foundation as a labor of love for her Janet – a way to channel deep grief. “While she talked about big things that she wanted to do, we didn’t really think it was going to happen…I certainly never could have envisioned where it was going to go,” she said with a smile. Ryan worked alongside her mother for over two years until Janet lost her battle with cancer in 2012.
The board of directors unanimously voted for Ryan to step into her mother’s role as president, a role Ryan admits she wasn’t fully prepared to fill. “I had to learn so much on the fly. I brought in some really talented people to help us grow. It was from there that we took off and I think a lot of it was because of the things my mom put in place,” she shared.
The organization works directly with veterans and family members of the fallen to create a deep sense of purpose and undeniable social impact in communities throughout the country. Through innovative programming, training and events, The Travis Manion Foundation is changing lives.
One of the programs Ryan herself is most proud of is Character Does Matter. Veteran mentors work with youth in schools to develop leadership and character through relationship building events. Youth also participate in service projects to honor the fallen, which can be a life-changing experience. Case studies over the last two years have showcased extraordinary health and wellbeing scores for the veteran mentors in the program, demonstrating the importance of a purpose filled life. “Everything we do at TMF is with that same holistic approach. For us it’s about providing opportunities for veterans to be engaged,” Ryan explained.
Another thing that makes Ryan incredibly proud is how the organization hasn’t lost who they were at the beginning. “At the end of the day, this was a family that started a nonprofit – not because they came up with some grand idea but because they lost their loved one and were trying to decide what to do next…That same sentiment of being a part of a family – still exists today,” she explained.
Ryan spends a lot of her time speaking about resiliency through loss and even wrote a book – The Knock at the Door – with other Gold Star family members about turning loss into purpose. “We are all going to receive knocks at the door. You are not going to escape this life without setbacks,” she explained. Ryan shared that it’s what you do in those moments after that will set the tone for life after hardship.
Despite the undeniable, vital impact that Travis’ life and legacy has had, Ryan and her family will never stop hurting or missing him. “I would throw it all away to have my brother back with me,” Ryan said. “But I do feel incredibly blessed that I have the opportunity every day to wake up with purpose and passion. That I get to do something for my brother and his legacy – there’s not much more you can ask for.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.