Raised in a military family, my childhood was special. Before facetime, skype or the internet, we sat in our cramped living room listening to reel to reel tapes from my father in Vietnam. He hailed from a small town in South Carolina and joined the military at an early age. As a helicopter pilot, my father completed multiple combat tours and later flew collection missions on the front lines of the Cold War. Over his career, we spent considerable time moving from home to home. My mother, a former Air Force flight attendant from New York City and a woman with an uncanny sense of detail, managed every move down to our seat positions in the car.
A few years later I found myself hiding in the bushes next to American housing in Berlin. Periodically, heavy M60 tanks rolled down our residential streets for what I believed was a show of force if not a parade. Lacking sufficient playgrounds and ball fields, my friends and I would take up positions in the hedges and play out our Soldier fantasies. For us, it was easy. We lived in the shadows of the Berlin Wall and several abandoned World War II bunkers that provided plenty of hide sites and lasting memories. As a child, this is how I grew up.
We traveled Europe in a converted VW van boldly painted as an American flag. With just 53 horsepower and pulling a pop-up camper and a family of six, the van barely reached a top speed of 50 miles an hour. Traveling the steep mountain roads of the Bavarian Alps, we backed up traffic for miles. Never deterred, my parents did their best to provide us the European experience. Fortunately, they reserved our spacious 1965 Ford Galaxy 500 for trips into East Berlin.
We routinely crossed into East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie. Encouraged by my parents, my sister and I always carried a stash of bubble gum, hard candy and assorted goodies. Like clockwork, kids appeared from the shadows the moment my parents left the car to enter a local shop. Hastily, my sister and I passed candy through our window, remembering to never leave the car. Periodically, a designated lookout would spot State Security (STASI) and the kids scrambled back into the shadows. While they never caught us in the act, the Stasi knew our game. They couldn’t detain us, but it was crystal clear we annoyed them with our "candy bomb" method of diplomacy. To us, this was normal. We assumed all American kids did the same.
In 1988, I found myself back in Europe. This time as a young lieutenant. Following my father’s advice, I opted for a commission as a military intelligence officer. By chance, I landed in Third Squadron, Second Armored Cavalry Regiment. At the time, a forward deployed armored cavalry squadron was as good as it gets. We lived under constant threat of attack and trained as Europe’s first line of defense. As an extra duty, I managed the unit’s nuclear release authentication program. For a 23-year-old lieutenant, this was an amazing experience. It provided clear focus and a real-world reminder of why we serve.
Constantly deployed and working among some of the finest leaders I’ve ever known, I quickly realized the power of our team. Leading with passion and integrity, our squadron commander molded together the finest team I’ve ever seen. By any measure, we set a high bar. While others received greater notoriety, no team achieved more as a collective body. Many in the Regiment advanced to senior ranks. Today, they are transforming the Army. Through it all, I learned two valuable lessons - surround yourself by people that are better than you and teams always out-perform individuals.
Following the Cold War, I transitioned to a less conventional team. Again, I worked for some amazing and talented leaders. Raised as I was, I’ve always been drawn to engagement and restless on the sidelines. As a husband and father, this is not a boast but an indictment. The next 21 years saw multiple deployments throughout Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, South Asia and Southeast Asia. As millions who served know, this is the greatest career one could have. Its also the absolute toughest thing you can ask a family to endure. Yet, our spouses and children weather it with tremendous grace and resiliency.
Finally, in 2017 I retired and took off the uniform for the last time. What an amazing ride. I’ve worked with true American heroes. From uniquely talented special operators to the dedicated men and women of the Intelligence Community, its humbling to see what people do and achieve for no other reason than the good of humanity. Our Nation is blessed to have the finest Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and first responders in the World. I’m awed by the service and sacrifice I saw on a routine basis. I’ve seen American humanity and kindness in the darkest places on earth. America is special. There is no other. When asked why I serve…this is my response.