I just flew cross country, from my home in Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Florida, to give a speech. It’s my first time out and about since becoming a father in October. In fact, it was the voice of my sweet daughter, Valija, that served as my way-too-early-morning wake-up call, much to my sleep deprived chagrin.
I’d been on paternity leave since my wife, Indra, and I brought our first-born home from the hospital a little more than a month ago. The time off made me appreciate a lot of things about being a first-time father. There are all these new discoveries — sounds, smells, tastes, emotions — and all these new challenges to my endurance and personal hygiene. I admit there were a few times there where I suddenly realized I’d gone several days without showering, shaving or brushing my teeth.
If you’re a parent, younger or older, I know you can relate.
Being the CEO of Team Rubicon is my calling and my passion, but it was good to get away from the day-to-day for a while.
TR is a non-governmental service organization for military veterans that I helped create in 2010. We respond to disasters all around the world — earthquakes, floods, fires, tornadoes — organizing and deploying 90,000 U.S. veterans as volunteers. We’re always busy, always thinking, always on alert. We’ve assisted in over 300 global emergencies and counting. It’s important, satisfying, gratifying work.
But stepping away from it for a few weeks was good for me. Not only did I connect with my wife and our precious child, I had a chance to look back on the path that brought me here on Veteran’s Day.
I’m just a kid from Bettendorf, Iowa, lucky enough to get a college education thanks to a football scholarship to Wisconsin. Someone who first began thinking about being a Marine when he was 7. Someone who enlisted in the Marine Corps after four years on campus in Madison. Someone who did two tours of duty, one in Iraq in 2007 and one in Afghanistan in 2008. Someone who returned home in one piece after being honorably discharged in 2009.
One of the things that struck me during my paternity leave is how it must have been for the guys I served with to leave families behind. I always had guys in my platoon who were married. Some had kids. Some had wives who were pregnant. Meanwhile, I always deployed as a bachelor, entirely unencumbered.
I always thought it was hard to leave home, but now, being a father, I try to imagine how much harder it must have been for the guys with families. Knowing how many guys we lost over there who left widows and kids without fathers… it breaks my heart.
. . .
Looking back, there were three moments in my life that pushed me toward the military. The first occurred when I was 7 and, during a family trip to Europe, we visited Mauthausen, a World War II concentration camp in Austria.
I was pretty young, but not so young where you can’t think through cause and effect or think through consequences. Kids can process reactions to events. There are few places that elicit as much emotion in a 7-year-old as a concentration camp, particularly as you’re walking through and seeing these exhibits and in half of them there are children clinging to their mothers and walking off to gas chambers. The other exhibits that caught my eye were the ones of the liberation, when the US Army came in and saved the remaining Jews.
Inspired by that, when I was in high school I thought I wanted to attend one of the service academies — Air Force, Army and Navy — and even began the process of soliciting nominations from my congressman when I was a sophomore.
But then I started getting recruited for football, which brought me to the University of Wisconsin and another nudge toward being a Marine. I was a freshman when terrorists attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001.
I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but Veteran's Day has always made me feel a little uncomfortable. A lot of the veterans I know, who I’m close with, get a little uncomfortable when people thank us for our service or make a big deal out of our service. I don’t know what to say when someone thanks me for my service. I usually mumble something.
Historically at Team Rubicon we’ve tried to take an approach of, hey, we don’t need to march in a parade - we’d rather be out working in the community, demonstrating the kind of service that perhaps does differentiate us.
When I wake up on Veteran’s Day, I’ll certainly spend some time thinking about the guys I served with — reminisce a little bit — but I won’t spend a whole lot of time on it.
I’ve had the honor of meeting with three U.S. presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — to discuss veterans’ issues. To that end, I’m on the advisory board for Global War on Terror War Memorial. It hasn’t been built yet — it will cost between $40 million and $50 million — but legislation authorizing it has been passed.