The COVID-19 pandemic and the required restrictions led to a halt in any activity outside the home in March. On Sept. 24, Georgia’s Camp Southern Ground, a non-profit organization founded by GRAMMY Award-winning artist Zac Brown, announced it is reopening for on-site veteran programming, Warrior Week and Warrior PATHH (Progressive Alternative Training for Healing Heroes).
This year has been especially difficult for many veterans, specifically those that are experiencing mental health issues. Camp Southern Ground was focused on re-opening so they can continue to provide the services many veterans need.
“The impact this year has had on the mental health and wellbeing of our nation’s veterans cannot be understated,” Camp Southern Ground said in a statement on its website.
Camp Southern Ground’s CEO Mike Dobbs shared in a press release that the camp “remained connected with our veterans through virtual programming, but we know the importance of building community and support face-to-face.” Camp Southern Ground’s motto is “where goodness grows” and that is their mission. The goal of their veteran programming is to provide and build supportive networks for transitioning post-9/11 veterans.
About Camp Southern Ground
Warrior Week is a 12-month workforce and wellness program that begins with six days at camp. The camp week focuses on identifying strengths through team-building exercises, training sessions with world-class instructors about Clifton Strengths (90% Fortune 500 Companies use this, read: marketable assessment) and Enneagram assessments that prepare the attendees for the transition from military life. Team efforts of shared meals, ropes exercises and other events help build the veteran community outside of their immediate units in the military. The goal of the program is to help transitioning veterans build an action plan for their life after service after determining their strengths and purpose for their life to transform what they do as a career but also personally.
One veteran’s testimony shared “This program provided me what I needed to understand what my experiences, feelings, and reactions are. Now I am aware of my strengths and know how to capitalize on these strengths to help me focus on my career and wellbeing. I know now what I need to do moving forward. I cannot say thank you enough for helping navigate out of the fog.”
When Meredith Willcox learned some Veterans had issues with comprehension because of COVID-19 masking policies, she did something about it.
Willcox, of Kirksville, Missouri, is the 95-year-old grandmother of a health provider at Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital. She used the internet and her sewing skills to make specialized masks to help Veterans with significant hearing loss.
“Hearing aids are wonderful tools,” said Laura Jacobs, an audiologist at Truman VA and Willcox’s granddaughter. “We use them to treat hearing loss in our Veteran patient population.
“The VA offers our Veterans state-of-the-art hearing devices that utilize Bluetooth technology. Our devices are the best of the best in hearing aids. However, even with extremely high-quality aids, some of our Veterans have such significant hearing loss that this technology isn’t enough for them to comprehend speech.”
Meredith Willcox, a 95-year-old grandmother from Kirksville, Missouri, displays some of the specialty hand-sewn masks she donated to Truman VA’s Audiology team.
Reading lips impossible with standard mask
Jacobs said that in extreme cases, some Veterans must rely on a combination of hearing aids and visually reading a speaker’s lips to understand conversations. This is extremely important during clinic visits with their providers. However, because clinicians must wear a mask, reading lips has been impossible ― that is, until now.
“After mentioning this issue to my grandmother, she went online and learned how to make masks that incorporate a clear mouth covering,” Jacobs said. “So far, she has made 40 specialized face masks for our clinic. I’ve always known that she was an amazing person. However, for her to take the ball and run with it as she’s done with these masks. Well, let’s just say I’m extremely proud of her!”
In the photo above, Jacobs wears one of her grandmother’s handmade masks while caring for a Veteran with profound hearing loss.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Truman VA has received an outpouring of support from the mid-Missouri community.
“I can’t put into words what it means to have this level of support,” said Patricia Hall, medical center director of Truman VA. “So many have come forward at a time of extreme uncertainty. I believe without a doubt that their generosity and support helped our team get through these dark times.”
“We truly appreciate everyone’s generosity,” said Ron Graves, Chief of Voluntary Services at Truman VA. “I especially want to thank Veterans United Home Loans. They provided daily meals for our front line staff for almost three straight months. They also made sure to use area businesses to help stimulate our local economy. I thought that was an amazing gesture.”
“There are too many individuals to name who have made reusable cloth face masks for our Veterans, visitors and staff,” Graves said. “But just to show you the level of support we’ve received in this area, Quilts of Valor, Central Missouri Mask Makers and Hanes Brands, Inc., together provided us with more than 3,000 donated cloth masks.”
Heather Black, LPN, Truman VA’s own Betsy Ross, displays just a few of the 623 masks she’s sewn for Truman VA Veterans, visitors and staff.
Nurse sewed over 600 masks…on her breaks!
Graves said Truman VA staff also should be recognized. Housekeepers, warehouse employees, frontline staff and other support personnel ― all have been important in the fight against COVID-19. However, he acknowledged one individual for going above and beyond in support of her colleagues and the Veterans that receive care at Truman VA.
“Heather Black, a nurse in Specialty Care Clinic, donated 623 hand-sewn masks,” Graves said. “She works full time on-site. She brought her sewing machine to work and makes masks before and after her shifts. Also, during her breaks. How can you not be awed by such dedication?”
“For those individuals who have made masks for us, provided meals or in any other way supported us throughout this global pandemic, we truly appreciate your efforts,” Hall said. “Each one of you has made such a positive impact on our team, and we thank you!”
Former Marine First Lieutenant William Broyles deployed to Vietnam, served as an infantry platoon commander and earned a Bronze Star and a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star before his illustrious Hollywood career began. Broyles is known for creating the TV show China Beach and for writing such great screenplays as Apollo 13, directed by Ron Howard. Broyles also wrote Castaway and Polar Express, both directed by Robert Zemeckis, Jarhead, directed by Sam Mendes and Flags of Our Fathers, directed by Clint Eastwood. Broyles’ films have won Academy Awards for their merits.
Broyles starts off our interview saying, “I will do anything for the Corps,” which led the interview to take off as quickly and smoothly as an F-4 Phantom. Broyles was born during World War II and his parents were both very young. His mother learned of the Pearl Harbor attack while coming home from a football game with her then-boyfriend. Broyles grew up in a blue-collar factory town outside of Houston, Texas, named Baytown, home to the largest refinery in the world. Most of his friends’ fathers were World War II veterans. He idolized them in their experience of the war. Broyles shared, “It was this sort of mysterious experience they had all had and I kind of inhaled. I didn’t particularly want to repeat it. I was just fascinated by it.”
He went to a segregated high school, which deeply impacted his world view. He went to Robert E. Lee High School where the marching band wore confederate uniforms and the school’s fight song was Dixie. He saw photographs of Blacks protesting segregation so he began to question his identity and got involved in the Civil Rights Movement. When the Vietnam War started, he went from the Civil Rights Movement to the anti-Vietnam war movement. In January 1968, he was in a basement of the Oxford University where he was a Marshall Scholar at the school, and witnessed a news report on the Battle of Hue in Vietnam that deeply affected him. Broyles shared about the Marine he saw on TV being interviewed about his survival:
“I thought, ‘Oh my God! That is the same kid I went to high school with….so many of my friends went to Vietnam. Some of them had been wounded and some had been killed. It sunk in on me then that I had this moral clash that I didn’t believe in the war, but also my deferment meant that other kids I knew were going instead and I was taking advantage of that with the privilege I had to avoid it. It was just confusion.”
Broyles had two ethical values that clashed: one, all humans being equal in the sight of God and, two, he thought the Vietnam war was wrong. He joined the Peace Corps, but that was eliminated as a deferment. In October 1968, Broyles got his draft notice. He decided he was going to serve and not try to go to Canada — he thought dodging was morally wrong. He went to multiple different branches in an attempt to find what fit him. The Coast Guard, Air Force and the Reserves were unavailable. He walked by the Marine Corps recruiting office, which didn’t have a line and decided to walk in. The Marine recruiter was reading a novel by Charles Dickens which surprised Broyles. Upon speaking to the recruiter, Broyles was amazed at the Marine’s depth of knowledge and worldliness. The recruiter discussed with Broyles about how the Corps has programs for educated young men and women to serve the Corps with the opportunity for distinction. Broyles joined the Corps right then and there, and showed up to serve on January 2nd, 1969, in a coat and tie “to look presentable.” He recalled his Officer Candidate School (OCS) experience:
“…of course, we are sitting in there (a hall) and these enlisted guys are very helpful….to fill out this application….we are sitting there, and it is just really quiet. Suddenly these double doors at the back open and we all turn around. The wind blows snow in and we hear, ‘Get the F&$# out of here you maggots you have two minutes.’ So, we all jumped up and I don’t know where my suit is. Lost in the snow.”
Broyles graduated OCS and worked extremely hard to be the number two officer out of the 250 in his class at The Basic School so he could go to the Defense Language Institute to utilize his Masters in English from Oxford. He was assigned to report to Vietnam per his paperwork. His roommate got into the DLI instead of Broyles. Broyles was told by the Colonel of TBS that his leadership was needed in Vietnam with Marines in the fight. He was sent to a three-week Vietnamese language course before heading to Vietnam, which was offered to him by the colonel. He was stationed up close to Da Nang and then he was sent to a small outpost. The camp had been bombed the night before his arrival and was shot up pretty bad. Broyles said,
“Of those 55 guys I spent six months with, they were 18, 19, 20, 21. I might have had 15 high school graduates and I learned more from them than I did from Oxford. We were so tight. The only question they had about me was not my resume or what I did…they just wanted to know if this guy will get us killed….the war was winding down at that point…it was almost lost…what really comes out is that whole bedrock Marine Corps ethic of brotherhood…as an officer you eat last, you take care of your men’s feet before you take care of yours…. I was the only officer….the whole time we were out I might have seen my company commander….two times. My radio man, a 19-year-old kid from Jersey, totally had an attitude, he saved my ass a couple of times. Totally. I am still in touch with him. A few weeks before we had been hit I went into Da Nang to visit some guys in the Naval Hospital….I saw this window into the Naval Hospital in Da Nang and it looked like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where they take the Ark of the Covenant into the warehouse and all you can see is boxes, all you could see was wounded teenagers….to see a concentrated thing… I literally fainted and broke my nose.
“I came to with this nurse and thought, ‘How can you do this? You volunteered.’ When I came back (from the hospital)… I was on this ridge (in the jungle outside of Da Nang) and I was lying there thinking all night – friends from Oxford or college they are not here… they are going to law school, starting to work at Goldman Sachs, they are becoming doctors or dentists…and here I am in the mud with my guys…my platoon. I had such high hopes for myself and this is the end. You are going to buy it here and all those things you want to do are hopeless. I saw this light streaking across the star….thought it was a shooting star…to cut to the future that experience in the hospital was the basis for the TV show China Beach and that light that went across the sky was Apollo 13 on its way to the moon. So, at that moment when I thought my whole life was over…at that moment of deepest kind of failure and despair…at the same time I couldn’t feel like that because I had all these men, I was responsible for. There was the groundwork for the best things I did in my future.
“If I had been in law school or had been some schmuck at Goldman Sachs, I wouldn’t have met those guys and had that experience and I wouldn’t have learned what I learned in the Marines Corps…the pillars of my life were formed there and as well as my sense of discipline and teamwork and loyalty down. Lots of people have loyalty up, but loyalty down….my commanders were always just guys on the radio…that sense of loyalty down and how we are all in it together and each person counts….to see this kind of love these guys had for each other….they would give their last drop of water in the canteen or their last c-ration or their lives really for each other. It was exactly what I had not wanted….but it is exactly what I needed. It’s what made me who I am….also the best Marine officers I met in Vietnam….were some of the smartest, disciplined, most on task, most focused people I have ever met up to this day. The sense of commitment to your work and to the people who depended on you and to see what you do in your life not as a job but as a calling, that made an impression on me that I have never forgotten.”
Broyles said the most specific thing he learned from his time in the Corps was if you think you can’t take another step and keep going, you can. Put your foot in front of the next one and keep going. He describes this thought process as a “muscle” that is not easy to teach people. Broyles believes people have to experience it for themselves just like he did, and many others have. He also shared that when in command to lead with body language. “[You have to] project a sense of confidence, not just in yourself but in them. It was key to my leadership learning in magazines, Newsweek, Texas Monthly and TV shows. You don’t learn that in college, you don’t learn that sitting in a classroom.”
Broyles believes showing up on time is simply a great leadership trait to have and he believes people that pull rank in a military setting are “very ineffective.” He said, “If you have to say you are the boss or say you are in command, chances are you are really not.” Broyles felt his Marine experience in Vietnam was more of a horizontal command structure in many ways because it was so collaborative — the decision was passed along to him for final call. He believes to get buy in by leading by example and not ordering others around. He stated, “I could order people around in my platoon, but if I ordered them around too much, I would have gotten a grenade rolled under my hooch and that was it.”
Broyles learned skills to take care of every specific item. He recalled learning to sew, something he didn’t know how to do before the Corps. He reflected upon how if he got things wrong with his Master’s in Philosophy, people could tell him he was just “wrong,” but if he got things wrong as a lieutenant in the mountains of Vietnam, he could get people killed. He believes a leader must be aware of the conditions and morale of a team, which he learned in the Corps.
He loves China Beach, Castaway, Apollo 13, Jarhead and Unfaithful. Castaway was the most collaborative, with so many people at the top of their game. Broyles feels that as a writer, sometimes the reality of the film falls short based on expectations and who is involved while other times it exceeds expectations. He shared, “You can have a wonderful time and make a bad movie. You can have a miserable time and make a great movie…when you have a great time and make a great movie then you are blessed. You are blessed with your collaborators, Tom Hanks, Bob Zemeckis, Don Burgess our DP, everybody was at the top of their game. China Beach was close to the heart because it was the first one and also used Vietnam…it was that nurse. To try to honor the women that have been ignored and done so much in the war as nurses or support.” Broyles said about Castaway, “…it was my coming home from Vietnam movie.”
He believes you would never know watching it, but it’s about a person living their life normally, and is drafted into a new world that he had no idea about. He had experiences he couldn’t share with other people and then he was brought back to the world. When the person comes back, the world he had left was the same, but the man wasn’t, which is the story of Castaway on one level. As Broyles said, “….my plane didn’t crash like it did in Castaway it just left me in Vietnam.” Broyles describes Hanks’ character as being in one place and his mind is still back on the island, similar to his Vietnam experience and he didn’t want to make a traditional coming home from Vietnam experience. Castaway had similarities to the truths Broyles lived coming home from Vietnam and the Corps. Castaway to him had many similarities to the Marines Corps with people working together in the prime of their careers. He said,
“I have great learning experiences out of all the ones that have gotten film and still have senses of loss about the ones that haven’t been made…I have gotten 10 made out of 30 scripts I have written….which is like a .333 batting average. That gets me into the Hall of Fame….I feel pretty lucky about that.”
When asked about Apollo 13, Broyles smiled. He was speaking with Jim Lovell when Lovell shared when things started going wrong on the mission it was time to focus on the problem and fix it. Broyles likened this mindset to the Marines when things go wrong it is time to think, adapt and improvise. The astronauts were on their own in many ways and had to work the problem out. Understanding the thought process of the astronauts as engineers helped, “…the tonal quality of the script…there would be no drama in the capsule…the antagonist was not a traditional human being….it was the problem and then outer space.” He wanted to show everyone working for a common goal in Apollo 13.
For Jarhead, Broyles put the Vietnam Veteran getting on the bus at the end in the film because of how he felt as a Marine having served in Vietnam. The scene in the film about the Marines watching Apocalypse Now was a recruiting film scene even though it is really an anti-war film. Jarhead was the opportunity to do a Samuel Beckett play into a film. One scene in Jarhead that reflects Broyles’ experiences was when the Swofford character played by Jake Gyllenhaal sees a group of Iraqi soldiers burned to a crisp sitting in a circle — likely where the Iraqis were eating their food rations. Broyles said of that scene, “I am always fascinated with what it is that lets us treat other human beings as less than human…we are raised to not kill.”
He returned to Vietnam in 1984 to make peace with his experience. He purposely sought out people he fought against to make peace with those of the NVA and VC. The Vietnamese didn’t rotate home; they were in the fight for seven or eight years. Broyles wanted to meet these men he fought while in Vietnam over tea or food. A point of the film Jarhead was: what is the point of training for war and then not employing your training — which in turn makes the Marines angry for not getting to use their training. Flags of our Fathers is the opposite of Jarhead as it features mythical characters Broyles experienced in his coming of age as a Marine. Those Marines fought the great war and won, he fought in the jungle and didn’t.
Broyles believes we need to find good stories and especially good Marine stories to tell. Hollywood is cyclical as well with the types of stories the film industry wants. We are currently in the longest war we ever fought with Afghanistan which makes people weary. He stated, “People aren’t just going to see a Marine Corps film they are going to go see a great film that features a great story that features Marines. It’s just getting good stories. If you do a really good story and a really good script it will eventually get noticed.” Broyles is incredibly proud of Texas Monthly, China Beach,Castaway, Apollo 13 and Jarhead, but mainly he is proud of his five children and of “…having raised really good human beings in the meantime.”
A few interesting notes, Broyles has a Marines Corps award named after him titled ‘The Lieutenant William Broyles Award’ and it is given for a distinguished play or screenplay by a playwright or screenwriter dealing with U.S. Marine Corps heritage or Marine Corps life. The award is given yearly through the Marines Corps Heritage Foundation. Broyles’ son David served as a Pararescue Jumper in the Air Force and conducted special operations missions during the War on Terror. David is now a writer in Hollywood and has worked on History’s TV show Six. Broyles also got to hear President Kennedy speak at his college, Rice University, about the plan for the United States to go to the moon.
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.
Everyone can use a little good news. VA employees are no exception. One program office within VHA recently created an opportunity for employees and staff members to share uplifting stories with one another.
Employees within Palliative and Hospice Care at VHA hosted a “Silver Lining Stories” discussion during their national call in May. Staff members from VA medical centers and facilities across the country lifted each other’s spirits with stories about all the good that is happening for Veterans at their facilities as well as in their own lives.
Mary Jo Hughes is the hospice and palliative care program manager at the Grand Junction, Colorado, medical center. She and her team have been using the VA Video Connect (VVC) program to help patients stay in touch with their loved ones. One patient undergoing treatment for cancer was able to speak with their spouse and children by way of VVC.
Family sang for the patient
“It was the most moving experience. I was in tears, along with our chaplain, when the family sang ‘You Are My Sunshine’ to the patient. There is nothing like the power of seeing your family members and feeling nurtured and cared for by them.”
Carisa Sullivan is a hospice nurse practitioner within the Amarillo VA Health Care System Community Living Center (CLC) in Texas. She recently was “part of one of the most memorable things I’ve ever experienced as a hospice nurse practitioner.” Her colleagues organized a drive-by parade for Veterans at that facility.
180 cars in parade for Veterans
“There were supposed to be 55 cars. Somehow it got out into the community and we had 180 vehicles come by. It was just a phenomenal experience for these Veterans to enjoy safely.” Sullivan encouraged other CLCs to explore if something similar could be arranged at their facilities.
Focus on social connectedness
These stories focused on people’s sense of social connectedness, an important social determinant of health (SDOH). SDOH are conditions in the environment in which Veterans live, learn, work, play, worship and age.
“VHA and VA colleagues are collaborating to help Veterans, and each other, by sharing good news,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “It’s critical that Veterans and staff members uplift positive events and find social connection right now, through initiatives such as this one.”
Appearing May 3 before the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations’ Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies, Shulkin told lawmakers the VA had compiled a list of 1,165 vacant or underused buildings that could be closed, saving the federal government $25 million annually.
Shulkin didn’t specify which facilities would close and local VA officials didn’t return messages seeking comment that afternoon.
Shulkin, a deputy holdover from President Barack Obama’s administration whom Congress then unanimously approved to run the VA earlier this year, said Congress needs to determine how the facilities would be closed. He suggested the Pentagon’s Base Realignment and Closure — or BRAC — process might be a good model.
But Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R- Nebraska, urged him to never “use the term BRAC because it brings up a lot of bad memories” and sets up the VA “for a lot of controversy.”
President Donald Trump seeks $78.9 billion in discretionary funding for the VA, a 6 percent increase from the 2017 fiscal year level. Trump’s budget plan requests $3.5 billion to expand the Veterans Choice Program, which enables veterans to receive certain kinds of treatment outside of the VA system.
If enacted, Trump’s proposal also would add $4.6 billion in funding to spur better patient access and greater timeliness of medical services for the agency’s more than 9 million patients.
Shulkin said the VA authorized 3.6 million patient visits at private-sector health-care facilities between Feb. 1, 2016 and Jan. 31, 2017 — a 23 percent boost compared to the previous year.
With more than 370,000 employees, the VA has the second-largest workforce in the federal government. Shulkin said it must become more efficient at delivering services to veterans. Some of the most entrenched problems are in the appeals process for veterans who have lodged disability claims following their military service.
Currently, the VA has nearly 470,000 such cases pending appeal. For cases awaiting action by the Board of Veterans Appeals, the typical wait time is six years for a decision. The ranking Democrat on the subcommittee that hosted Shulkin on May 3, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, termed the appellate system an “absolute mess.”
Shulkin conceded that it “undoubtedly needs further improvements” and urged Congress to legislate reforms and streamline the process into a “modernized” system. The longer Capitol Hill waits to fix the process, he said, “the more appeals will enter the current broken system.”
At the outbreak of the Korean War, Hector Cafferata, Jr. was a semi-professional football player serving in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. He received just two weeks of additional training before being shipped overseas.
Assigned to Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines just days before landing at Inchon, he, along with the rest of the 1st Marine Division, battled his way into North Korea. By November 1950, Cafferata and the Marines were preparing for an offensive in the vicinity of the Chosin Reservoir.
As the Battle of Chosin Reservoir began, the Marines of Fox Company were defending the Toktong pass. On the night of Nov. 28, the Chinese attacked to dislodge them.
What happened next is a legendary story in the Marine Corps — and Cafferata had a large role to play in that.
Due to an intelligence failure, the Marines were unaware that the entire Chinese 9th Army was advancing on their position. That night they crawled into their sleeping bags with minimal security on watch.
At around 0130, the Marines of Fox Company were awoken to a terrible surprise as all hell broke loose around their position. An entire Chinese division, the 59th, were attacking into the Toktong pass to cut off the 1st Marine Division.
The only things standing in their way were Cafferata and the rest of Fox Company.
He was joined by another Marine, Kenneth Benson, who was temporarily blinded after a grenade explosion had ripped his glasses right off his face. Together they made their way to a small depression and set up to make their stand against the Chinese onslaught.
As the Chinese pressed forward, Cafferata, a crack shot with his M-1 Garand, would empty his clip into the advancing infantry — eight shots, eight communists down.
He would then hand the weapon to Benson to reload while he threw grenades. When the Chinese attacked with their own grenades, he threw them back.
At one point he picked up his entrenching tool and batted the enemy’s grenades right back at them. According to a 2001 interview, Cafferata said he “must have whacked a dozen grenades that night.”
As the Chinese continued to advance, threatening to breakthrough his thinly held portion of the line, he gave them everything he had. He fired his weapon so much he had to pack snow on it to cool it off.
Eventually, Cafferata’s luck began to run out. As he hurled back yet another Chinese grenade, it went off just after leaving his hand. The explosion severed part of his finger and severely damaged his right hand and arm.
Though he was injured, Cafferata’s quick reaction saved several of his comrades.
Despite his wounds, he fought on. The Chinese couldn’t get past him.
Finally, just after daybreak, Cafferata was wounded by a sniper’s bullet and evacuated from the line. When the medics brought him to the aid station, they realized he was suffering from frostbite after fighting in subzero temperatures in his socks all night.
Despite Cafferata being out of action, the rest of Fox Company and the Marines at Chosin Reservoir still had quite a fight on their hands.
According to the Medal of Honor citation for Capt. William Barber, Fox Company’s commander, his 220 Marines held out “5 days and 6 nights against repeated onslaughts by fanatical aggressors.”
And of those 220 Marines, only 82 “were able to walk away from the position so valiantly defended against insuperable odds.” They carried their wounded out with them, including Cafferata and Barber who were both wounded on the first day of fighting.
Cafferata’s wounds earned him 18 months of recovery in various hospitals. His actions earned him the Medal of Honor.
The day after Cafferata’s amazing stand, the Marines “counted approximately one hundred Chinese dead around the ditch where he fought that night,” but according to one source, they “decided not to put that figure in their report because they thought no one would believe it.”
Cafferata was officially credited with fifteen enemy kills.
Cafferata, always humble, would later state, “I did my duty. I protected my fellow Marines. They protected me. And I’m prouder of that than the fact that the government decided to give me the Medal of Honor.”
Hector Cafferata, Jr. passed away on April 12, 2016 at the age of 86.
The La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness (Collaborative) announced today [Monday, Dec. 19, 2016] that it met the ambitious goal they set in September of this year: to end homelessness for veterans in the City within 100 days (by Christmas Day). This makes La Crosse the first city in Wisconsin to end homelessness among veterans.
Over the 100 days, the Collaborative increased its monthly housing placement rate for veterans by 400%, demonstrating what’s possible when multiple agencies join forces and focus on clear, measurable goals.
This goal was not accomplished by doing business as usual. It was accomplished by unprecedented cross-agency collaboration between over thirty agencies, including: the Tomah VA Medical Center, Couleecap, Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, La Crosse Police Department, and the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs (full list of Design and Leadership Team members).
This effort elevated action-oriented problem-solving over traditional planning.
With the support of Gundersen Health System’s Office of Population Health, the Collaborative is using a proven innovation and improvement model (adapted from one developed by Community Solutions and the Rapid Results Institute for the 100,000 Homes Campaign) to accelerate housing placements and profoundly improve system performance.
“The key to our success has been the amazing collaboration within our initiative and a strong shared focus from everyone on the team”, said Kim Cable, Design Team member and Housing and Community Services Director at Couleecap). “This is just the beginning of our journey to end all homelessness in the City of La Crosse. We are excited and inspired by our initial success and the support from the community.”
“I am so proud of the La Crosse Collaborative’s incredible efforts to end veteran homelessness here in our community”, said Mayor Tim Kabat, a Leadership Team member.
“La Crosse signed on to the national effort, as part of the Mayor’s Challenge, to work together and provide permanent housing for our homeless veterans and it is awe-inspiring to see this dream realized. We are so fortunate to live in such a caring, compassionate, and hard-working community.”
“This is a tremendous achievement and milestone for our community,” said Victoria Brahm, Acting Director of the Tomah VA Medical Center. “I am extremely proud of our staff members who worked with the Collaborative. This is the result of a lot of hard work – getting to functional zero was a tough challenge, but one that we were never going to give up on.”
“Gunderson’s Office of Population Health is focusing on elevating the health of the community by engaging beyond the health system walls, and partnering with organizations in communities who are going upstream to prevent illness, disease, injury, and crisis”, said Sandy Brekke, Senior Consultant, Office of Population Health, Gundersen Health System.
“It’s hard to be healthy when you go to sleep hungry, homeless, or in substandard housing. As an institution, GHS recognizes that safe, secure housing is foundational to the health of individuals and families in our community and are proud to support the effort to end homelessness in La Crosse. We are grateful to the Design Team of the La Crosse Collaborative to End Homelessness, they have brought the community together and have worked incredibly hard to make sure that our Veterans have a warm place to call home.”
The Collaborative will celebrate its success tomorrow afternoon, December 20th, at the Waterfront Banquet Room, hosted by Don Weber, CEO of LHI and Leadership Team member, who said: “Veteran homelessness is our nation’s silent shame. It goes without saying that any who has served and protected our nation should not have to worry whether they will have a roof over their heads. In dedicating ourselves to ending Veteran homelessness in our region, our community has proven that the story does not have to end here. Our Veterans deserve our lifelong commitment to returning to them the same comfort and safety they’ve so selflessly secured for us through their service.”
For more information on what it means to end homelessness (defined nationally as reaching “functional zero”), visit the FAQ section on the Collaborative’s website. On the website, you can also donate to ongoing efforts to end homelessness, sign up to volunteer or—if you are a landlord—offer housing to others who are homeless in La Crosse.
Peter MacDonald is one of the last remaining Navajo Code Talkers. The former chairman of the Navajo Nation recently sat down with VAntage Point staff to explain what made the “unbreakable” code so effective, and how it helped save lives and secure victory in the Pacific.
“Without Navajo, Marines would never have taken the island of Iwo Jima,” he said. “That’s how critical Navajo Code was to the war in the Pacific.”
The Unbreakable Code
Code Talkers used native languages to send military messages before World War II. Choctaw, for example, was used during World War I. The Marine Corps, however, needed an “unbreakable” code for its island-hopping campaign in the Pacific. Navajo, which was unwritten and known by few outside the tribe, seemed to fit the Corps’ requirements.
Twenty-nine Navajos were recruited to develop the code in 1942. They took their language and developed a “Type One Code” that assigned a Navajo word to each English letter. They also created special words for planes, ships and weapons.
Understanding Navajo didn’t mean a person could understand the code. While a person fluent in the language would hear a message that translated into a list of words that seemingly had no connection to each other, a code talker would hear a very clear message.
Here is an example:
Navajo Code: DIBEH, AH-NAH, A-SHIN, BE, AH-DEEL-TAHI, D-AH, NA-AS-TSO-SI, THAN-ZIE, TLO-CHIN Translation: SHEEP, EYES, NOSE, DEER, BLOW UP, TEA, MOUSE, TURKEY, ONION Deciphered Code: SEND DEMOLITION TEAM TO …
In addition to being unbreakable, the new code also reduced the amount of time it took to transmit and receive secret messages. Because all 17 pages of the Navajo code were memorized, there was no need to encrypt and decipher messages with the aid of coding machines. So, instead of taking several minutes to send and receive one message, Navajo code talkers could send several messages within seconds. This made the Navajo code talker an important part of any Marine unit.
Long before the pandemic began impacting visiting resident veterans in VA homes, a sense of isolation and being forgotten was ever-present. One virtual reality company is working hard to change that.
Chris Brickler is the CEO of MyndVR, which aims to lift the isolation of older adults in nursing homes and improve their lives. By creating settings where veterans can relive cherished memories or create new ones, they are on the cusp of leading research that is seeing health benefits to virtual reality for these older adults. For Brickler though, this technology is personal.
“Someone like myself that has come from a military family background, [I have a] deep respect for the service provided. When I hear my grandfather’s stories of World War II — those will live with me for the rest of my life,” Brickler explained.
Part of what MyndVR hopes to accomplish is to create that engagement piece, especially in the face of so much isolation from the world.
“My theory is that as people age their 4 walls get smaller. If there is anything that we can do as a company and society to keep those walls expanding instead of shrinking, VR seems like a cool way to do it because we can bring the world with infinite possibilities to these folks,” Brinkler said.
Research has indicated that virtual reality is beneficial for dementia patients as well as those suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. While the use of VR technology is still relatively new, it is promising. MyndVR’s website shares that the company has found a reduction in stress and anxiety and stimulation of memory and cognition. The best part of it all is the smiles it puts on the faces of those who use it.
MyndVR began its work with veterans’ homes in 2017 with the Long Island State Veterans Home. It was there that they launched their veteran’s initiative.
“When you take a war veteran on a magical airplane ride taking off the USS Roosevelt in the Atlantic Ocean … It’s mind-blowing,” Brinkler shared.
The company also uses a lot of music with their technology. Brinkler shared that research has demonstrated the positive impact music has on parts of the brain, even in the midst of deteriorating dementia.
“We’ve taken a night scene from the 1950s and reenacted and allowed a time teleportation for the viewer to go back to a table with a cocktail and a band playing songs from 60 years ago. We can now bring that with the music therapy aspect and socialization to them. It’s a really immersive way to inspire and help from a therapy point of view,” he explained.
As the pandemic hit, an already bleak reality for many nursing homes got ever bleaker as they were forced to stop leaving their rooms completely. And this Veterans Day, many of the nation’s heroes are still stuck in isolation.
“When COVID hit, it amplified everything we do,” Brinkler said.
The company also uses a lot of music with their technology. Brinkler shared that research has demonstrated the positive impact music has on parts of the brain, even in the midst of deteriorating dementia.
The company went into overdrive to create a safe way to bring MyndVR into veteran’s rooms so that they could have some joy amid increasing isolation and fear due to the pandemic.
With research indicating that seniors are at the most risk from the COVID-19 virus, safety protocols to protect them will most likely stay in place for some time. It is with this in mind that MyndVR is working hard to get this technology into every veteran’s home possible to provide joy and escape for those who need and deserve it the most.
With many veterans unable to physically leave and go anywhere due to their health restrictions and now the ongoing pandemic, this technology brings the world to them instead. Scenes of Paris, flying and musicals are just the tip of the spear for what MyndVR can create in experiences for America’s heroes and aging population.
“What I want people to know is that we are deeply committed to the health of our seniors and so many of them are veterans. We’ve created an entire channel in our company called Project Hero,” Brinkler shared.
“Building content for this audience to help in that overall healing modality is our deep commitment to veterans and their families.”
Navy SEAL James Hatch was on a mission to find Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan in 2009. It would be his last. After 26 years in the Navy, he was seriously wounded and eventually left the military. Since then, he has done a number of interesting things, but he is now set for the next iteration of his life – the Ivy League.
Hatch was wounded in Afghanistan while looking for Bow Bergdahl. The wound ended his career.
If you didn’t quite catch how long Hatch had been in the Navy before Bergdahl walked off his post, his 26 years as a Navy SEAL and dog handler before leaving the service in 2009 makes Hatch a 52-year-old freshman today. But as daunting as the first day in a new school can be, Hatch is unlikely to be deterred by social anxiety. If anything the former special operator sees it as another challenge to be handled.
“My experience in academia is somewhat limited, at best,” he told NBC News. “But I want to learn, and I feel this can make me a better person. I also feel my life experience, maybe with my maturity — which my wife would say is laughable — I think I can help some of the young people out.”
James Hatch and his service dog, Mina at Yale.
Hatch joined the military right after high school instead of going to college. He joined the Navy and became a SEAL spending his career serving in some of the most dangerous and topical areas in the world. After leaving the military in 2009 four years shy of a 30-year career, he suffered from depression like many separating vets. Drinking, drugs, and attempted suicide became the norm. But Hatch sought help and is now turning everything around. Aside from joining the ranks of the Ivy League elite, he also runs Spikes K-9 Fund, a non-profit that pays for healthcare and protective gear for police and military working dogs.
He got into the school through the Eli Whitney Students Program at Yale. The Eli Whitney program is for students with “extraordinary backgrounds” who have had their educational journeys interrupted for some reason. Hatch seems to be the perfect fit for such a program. On top of that, the GI Bill, scholarships, and Yale itself will cover the costs of his tuition.
“He brings just an incredibly different perspective,” the Director of Admissions for the Eli Whitney Students Program told NBC. “We don’t have anyone here that is like Jimmy and just his life and professional experiences will add tremendously to the Yale classroom, to the Yale community.”
In particular, his fellow Yale students will see Hatch in class with his service dog, Mina – whom they already love.
President-elect Donald Trump announced at a rally in Cincinnati that retired Marine Gen. James Mattis is his choice to serve as Secretary of Defense.
Mattis, whose service included command of the 1st Marine Division during the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom and United States Central Command until being retired early after clashing with the Obama Administration over its nuclear deal with Iran, was seen as the front-runner for the position.
Mattis is not the first retired general to be asked to hold the position. In 1950, General of the Army and former Secretary of State George C. Marshall took over after Louis Johnson was fired by President Harry S Truman, and held the position for a year before stepping down. Like Marshall, Mattis will require a waiver from Congress to fill the position.
Mattis served in the Marine Corps from 1969 to 2013. He received his commission through ROTC after graduating from Central Washington University. He commanded 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, assigned to Task Force Ripper, during Desert Storm. He later commanded the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade, and in the initial part of Operation Enduring Freedom, became the first Marine general to command a naval task force. His decorations include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal with oak leaf cluster in lieu of a second award, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star with Combat Distinguishing Device, and the Meritorious Service Medal with two Gold Stars in lieu of a third award.
The decision drew praise from many. David French, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, wrote at National Review Online, “He is clear about the Iranian threat, has worked closely with Israel, and has served as the supreme allied commander of transformation for NATO and the chief of Central Command. In other words, few men have been as closely involved in American military planning and war fighting as Mattis.”
Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness called the nomination “great news” when contacted by the author. In a follow-up e-mail with WATM, she said, “I could not be more pleased by the news.”
“President-elect Donald Trump has just lifted the spirits of men and women in all branches of the services, worldwide. Our allies and Americans who voted with national security in mind have good reason to be pleased by this choice,” she added. “Since 2009, the armed forces have suffered due to resources taken away and burdens of social engineering loaded on.
“Friends of mine who know Gen. Mattis or have served under his command are confident that he will turn things around by restoring sound priorities: combat readiness and lethality, not politically-correct mandates and social goals,” Donnelly said. “I expect that that there will be carefully-considered, incremental changes, which will put the needs of our military and national security first.”
Mattis does have a history of colorful comments. In a speech on Feb. 1, 2005, he said, “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. Actually, it’s a lot of fun to fight. You know, it’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right upfront with you, I like brawling.” The comments did not result in any formal discipline.
After being lost for 66 years on a battlefield a world away, Sgt. Philip James Iyotte returned home to South Dakota last week. In so doing, the Army veteran killed so long ago in the Korean Conflict brought with him the tears of a nation melded with the happiness of his homecoming.
As a young man, Iyotte was given the Lakota name Akicita Isnala Najin, meaning “Soldier Who Stands Alone.” But in two days of observances on Oct. 24 and 25, Iyotte was feted as a proud warrior who paid the ultimate sacrifice so that his countrymen could live in peace. And he will never again stand alone.
Just 20 years old when he enlisted in the Army in 1950, Iyotte was assigned to the 21st Infantry Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division and soon was deployed to the Korean theater. Seriously injured in battle by fragments from an enemy missile on Sept. 2, 1950, Iyotte was hospitalized for treatment but returned to his regiment in just 19 days.
Then, on Feb. 9, 1951, while in the heat of battle yet again near Seoul, Iyotte and several of his fellow soldiers were captured by Chinese forces and marched to a prisoner of war camp. Shot in the stomach by his captors and suffering from gangrene, Iyotte could not join two of his fellow Native American POWs in their flight for freedom. Instead, the young warrior sang them a Lakota honor song before their successful escape.
Then, the Lakota warrior disappeared for more than six decades, leaving behind anguished parents and 13 siblings who knew not what had become of their fearless son and eldest brother.
In the years since the last word of the Lakota warrior filtered down to rural South Dakota, the Iyotte family never gave up hope for the warrior who mysteriously disappeared at the hands of his Chinese captors. They maintained contact with the Army and attended meetings conducted by the Army’s Past Conflict Repatriations Branch, also known as the Army Casualty Office. And they provided DNA samples and contacted their state’s congressional delegation asking for assistance in finding their lost sergeant.
Eva Iyotte, 63, the youngest child of the large family, wasn’t even born when her oldest brother disappeared into the Chinese POW camp. But as she grew up, revering a soldier she had never met, Eva promised her father on his deathbed that she would work to bring her brother home.
In August, the Army informed the family that Sgt. Iyotte’s remains had been identified with the assistance of Chinese officials. In short order, the serviceman’s remains were transported to Hawaii before being transferred to his South Dakota homeland.
On Oct. 24, Eva and her 40-year-old daughter, Dera, made the trek from their White River residence to a funeral home in Rapid City to retrieve the serviceman’s remains and begin two days of observances in honor of Sgt. Iyotte and his service to a grateful nation.
But what they encountered left them in wonderment. And what Sgt. Iyotte’s return created over the ensuing two days united Native nations, veterans of all colors and stripes, and a handful of remote reservation communities that dot western South Dakota.
“When we arrived at Kirk Funeral Home, there were probably 75 people waiting, including the Black Hills Chapter of the American Legion Motorcycle Riders, two honor guards, including Chauncey Eagle Horn and the Rosebud Legion Post honor guard, and the Oglala Sioux Tribe veteran’s group,” Dera said. “It was so amazing.”
Promptly at 10 a.m., the procession left Rapid City with an escort from the South Dakota Highway Patrol and stopped in Interior to top off the bikes, before being met at the reservation border by an escort from the Oglala Sioux Tribal Police. Along the way, the procession grew to two miles in length. At Wanblee and a stop at the Eagle Nest College Center, virtually the entire town and tribal elders greeted the procession, before Richard Moves Camp offered prayers and the Eagle Nest singers sang a Korean honor song.
“It was a riveting moment, and we were so overwhelmed with love,” Dera recalled last week. “I could not believe how much love our people poured out to Philip. It was the most beautiful moment of my life, the whole day.”
“This was a man they never met, but a warrior, a hero,” she added. “They came out en masse to greet him. I loved the unity and happiness he brought to the whole state of South Dakota.”
As the procession departed Wanblee, Dera and Eva began noticing rural residents standing along the highway at the end of their driveways, many waving, others with their hand over their heart. Veterans stood alone on that endless highway, several in their uniforms, saluting the fallen soldier.
“Somewhere along the way, we passed a young man, maybe 14 years old, who was standing on the side of the road with his hand on his heart, just crying,” Dera said. “It was clear that Philip had brought the tears of a nation and happiness to his home. It’s been a long time since our nation cried tears of happiness, and that’s what he brought.”
Leaving Wanblee and proceeding toward the Rosebud Indian Reservation, still more local residents stood along the highway paying tribute to the soldier. At the reservation line, Rosebud Tribal Police Capt. Hawkeye Waln greeted the procession and escorted it to the Corn Creek community, with families standing at every turnout, many with American flags. Rosebud Councilman Russell Eagle Bear joined the motorcade, which headed south to the Black Pipe community, where they discovered every student and teacher with the Head Start program standing outside, all smiling and waving.
“I even saw a couple of homeless veterans carrying flags,” Eva said, her voice breaking as her eyes teared. “That really touched me. They showed such heart and such compassion in bringing this warrior home.”
“They say there are bad relations in South Dakota, but everyone knows Philip was just a veteran like them. Perhaps it’s time for healing and reconciliation.”
At Parmelee, known to the Lakota as Wososo, once the capital of the reservation, the entire town turned out to welcome their lost warrior.
“They had it decked out so beautifully, with random soldiers, brothers, and sisters of the struggle standing at attention,” Dera remembered. “I just cried. To see them come to attention after so many years, their pride so evident, was all you could ask out of your people.”
And the procession continued to grow. Dera’s brother, tribal policeman Bryan Waukazoo, estimated the line of the procession at seven miles.
Moving forward on BIA Highway 1 past the Ironwood community, with observers manning every approach, the convoy drove through the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Forest, sacred as the final resting place of many of the tribe’s legendary warriors.
“I wanted Philip to go by our leaders because he was a great warrior, so that they could see him as well and sense the forest because that is our greatest resource as a nation – our land and water,” Dera noted.
But the surviving Iyottes were unprepared for their greeting at the town of Rosebud. As they crested the hill above the community, they were met by the students and teachers of St. Francis Indian School and stopped for two Korean honor songs, and enough time for them to show appropriate respect for Eva, who had spent a lifetime looking for her brother. In turn, each student gave the lone sibling survivor a handshake or a hug.
As the throng headed down the hill to Rosebud, a fire engine from nearby Valentine, Neb., had its ladder extended, supporting a giant American flag, while townspeople lined the streets.
“As we neared the fairgrounds at Rosebud, we were met by at least 2,000 people, a huge crowd, and they greeted my uncle like he was sitting in the back of a convertible,” Dera observed. “The unity was simply amazing.”
Still 30 miles from their destination, trailing nine miles of cars, the procession turned north onto US Highway 18 for White River. Ten miles from that town stood Navy veteran Leonard Wright, decked out in his dress whites, saluting his fellow serviceman in the middle of nowhere.
Horseback riders joined the solemn parade six miles from White River and Philip’s remains, contained in a simple pine casket, were transferred from a hearse to a horse-drawn wagon driven by John Farmer, whose parents, the late Eddie and Tressie Farmer, had long supported Eva’s quest to bring her brother home.
Ever so slowly, the procession now estimated at 12-15 miles long, then followed the wagon through White River to Sgt. Iyotte’s sister’s home, where a tipi stood on the lawn in the Swift Bear community. A medicine man offered a homecoming prayer and the Red Leaf Singers, led by Pat Bad Hand Sr., sang several Wakte Gli (coming home) songs, which told the story of Philip’s enlisting, of his injuries suffered in battle, of his rejoining the war, getting captured, and, ultimately, his untimely death.
“It was powerful and one of the most riveting experiences I’ve ever seen, a tribute to Philip’s sacrifice in serving his country and his people,” Dera said.
As the sun set that Oct. 24, Philip’s casket was loaded into a pickup and taken to the White River School gymnasium, which had been decorated by family members and local veterans. Prayers were said and a POW/MIA dinner took place, conducted by retired US Marine Corps veteran Brenda White Bull, the granddaughter of Sitting Bull, One Bull, and White Bull, all noted Sioux warriors.
During a veterans roll call, Korean vets Dennis Spotted Tail, Homer Whirlwind Soldier, and Eugene Iron Shell Sr., the latter of whom attended school with Philip, were recognized. As the roll call, conducted in darkness, concluded, the final name called was Sgt.Philip J. Iyotte, whose name was repeated three times. Then someone spoke for the fallen warrior and said, “Sgt. Iyotte has gone to the great beyond.”
As the long day and reverential evening ceremony came to its finale, taps was played, followed by the Lakota Flag Song. Then every woman in attendance gave Philip a trill, the highest form of respect a woman can give a warrior.
“Never have I heard that many trills in my life,” Dera said, the memory still sending a chill up her spine. “I think some were from woman of the past, from every corner, from every place, a powerful thing in our nation.”
Laid to rest
Last week, on the sunny morning of Oct. 25, at the urging of Gov. Dennis Daugaard, flags in South Dakota were lowered to half-staff in recognition of Sgt. Iyotte’s service and sacrifice. In Washington, DC, flags also were lowered and the serviceman’s name and honors were entered into the Congressional Record.
Half a nation away, at the tiny White River School gymnasium, Larry Zimmerman, secretary of the state Department of Veterans Affairs, gave remarks, followed by short speeches from representatives of US Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds, all lauding the young serviceman lost so long ago.
Before embarking on Sgt. Iyotte’s final journey to his resting place, Vietnam Army veteran Trudell Guerue, whose own uncle, John, is still missing in action from an American conflict, presented Eva with a handmade 24th Infantry Division flag made by his wife. Episcopal Church Bishop John Tarrant provided a blessing.
Sgt. Iyotte took his last ride on earth in a horse-drawn wagon to the family plot in a Two Kettle cemetery, escorted by horseback riders and making a slow, plodding trek up a hill, flags at half-staff streaming in a gentle breeze.
More prayers were made at the cemetery, followed by a 21-gun salute and the playing of taps. As the final notes spread across the prairie, a Black Hawk helicopter flew in from the east, passing over the assembled crowd and leaving several hundred people in awe in its wake. A member of the honor guard reverentially presented Eva with the folded flag that had cloaked her brother’s casket.
Wrapped in a buffalo robe, handmade moccasins with porcupine quillwork at his feet, and enough wasna (pemmican with crushed berries and buffalo jerky) “to last him long enough on his final journey to the new camp where he will find his relatives,” Sgt.Philip James Iyotte was laid to rest, ending a 66-year odyssey that took him from the rolling plains of South Dakota to a Korean battlefield and back home again.
As the graveside ceremony concluded, the serviceman’s nephews and grandsons began covering his casket with sacred soil. As they did, two bald eagles soared on the updrafts overhead, as if acknowledging the return of a young man taken too soon and a warrior never to be forgotten.