In honor of National Veterans and Military Families Month, today’s episode examines life after serving in the military as told by two veterans. We invited Aaron Gladd, chief of staff of the State University of New York and former platoon leader in the US Army, and Colonel Jim McDonough, CEO of the Headstrong Project and former director of New York State’s Division of Veterans’ Services, to share their experiences joining, serving, and transitioning out of the military. They describe the challenges many veterans face moving back into civilian life and discuss how communities and non-profits are working to fill the gaps in veterans’ services left by local, state, and federal governments.
Jim McDonough, CEO of the Headstrong Project
Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors.
Alexander Morse 00:32
Hi and welcome to a special episode of Policy Outsider presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. In honor of National Veterans and Military Families month, we’re inviting Aaron Gladd, Chief of Staff of the State University of New York to host today’s episode. Aaron served as platoon leader in the US Army, including a combat tour in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Aaron is joined by Colonel Jim McDonough, currently the CEO of the headstrong project, a national Veterans’ Services nonprofit organization, and former two-time director of the New York State’s Division of Veterans’ Services. Aaron and Jim discuss what it’s like joining the military life as a service member and the effects of military service on families. They also describe the challenges and obstacles many veterans face returning home and transitioning into civilian life and identify how communities and nonprofits are working to fill in the gaps in veterans’ services left by local, state, and federal governments. Coming up next.
Aaron Gladd 01:51
Hello, and welcome to the Nelson Rockefeller Institute of Government Policy Outsider Podcast. I’m Aaron Gladd, your guest host for the month of November, as we talk to and learn more about our military veterans here in the state of New York. Today, I have the honor to share with you all a remarkable individual that I’ve had the privilege to get to know over the years. Colonel Jim McDonough, currently the CEO of the Headstrong Project. Jim, thanks for joining me.
Jim McDonough 02:15
Hey, Aaron. Thanks. Good morning.
Aaron Gladd 02:16
Good morning, if you don’t mind, I wanted to start today to learn a little bit more about your story of service. Can you take us back to the beginning and just what motivated you to join? And we’ll talk through that that process.
Jim McDonough 02:28
You’re gonna make me go back in time here, which is a good thing. So it all started when I was a kid. Believe it or not, my dad was a Marine who fought in Korea. And in our barn, he had a duffel bag of gear. You know, the standard stuff that kids play with when they’re in the woods. I grew up playing army in the woods with all my friends. We did it all the time. But up in the barn, my dad had a duffel bag full of his Marine Corps gear. And I always respected it. I don’t know what it was about it. But I was drawn to kind of just every now and then dragging it out and taking a look at it. And then my dad had slides. From his time in Korea, there was a slideshow, I still remember this as a kid, he would like one certain night, every now and then he would pull in the slides. And we’d sit around and watch his time in Korea. So I thought it was kind of cool. And then by the time I got to hit high school, it was the Vietnam War. You know, I was just after Vietnam ended. I graduated in 1977, from my Catholic High School, in upstate New York on assumption Institute in Plattsburgh. And all my friends were from Plattsburgh Air Force Base. They were military families. Their dads primarily were pilots during Vietnam. Some of them had been prisoners of war, during the Vietnam War. And I thought, How remarkable these guys were still serving, coming home after flying, be 50 twos be 40 sevens. And I grew up in the shadows of that airbase, and I was always intrigued by the lifestyle of those who serve our country. So it seemed only natural for me that, you know, once I graduated from high school, put myself through college came out of that
Aaron Gladd 04:12
Back up a little bit, right, because you graduate high school. Yeah, why not join then why not? Why not join and be a Marine?
Jim McDonough 04:18
I wanted to, yeah, I wanted to, you know, it was I was of the generation where I was the oldest grandchild in our family. And so I think it was an opportunity to kind of lead early like, by taking the plunge to go to college. So it was local. It was SUNY Plattsburgh. So it’s not like I went far didn’t have a lot of money and put myself through it. But I thought it was important to put myself through school. I had a very strong mother, who showed me places like Norwich University, and places like that. So I was always drawn, but I was committed to going to college. I needed to get a college education early, and I thought a little bit even back then about Like I said, an example like I had, I’m from a big family and I wanted my brother to respect the process. I wanted my parents to respect the process. I wanted my family to respect the process. My mom had been in nursing school. My dad started in college, but became a state trooper. So he never finished. So for me, it was important to go to college.
Aaron Gladd 05:19
Yeah. And what is your dad, a Korean War vet, say to you at 17? When you’re talking about potentially joining or waiting and then joining, what does he say to you?
Jim McDonough 05:30
Yeah, I mean, he’s, you know, we didn’t talk much. Yeah, to be honest, like it was, my parents divorced when I was 13. So for me growing up, I was more or less the standard and dad for my brother and I, my mom worked full time as an head nurse in the emergency room at Plattsburgh. So. For me, it was I kind of was on my own to be perfect. You can, you can identify with this. I know, I was on my own having to make decisions with very little conversation with parents. And I’d have to say most of that conversation was with my mom. Yeah. And so when Vietnam was winding down, and my mom was a bleeding heart liberal, like, there’s no way you’re going to Vietnam. And I was I was why, like, what’s my uncle had been? My friends, families were all touched by the war. But I think it came down to like, she didn’t want to lose your son, point blank. So when, when the decision came to kind of go to college, out of college, a conversation with my mom ensued, the word ended was 77. And I still was drawn to serve, I wanted to keep serving that way. And so we had the conversation, she told me, whatever you decide, it’s your decision. This is a very serious decision, you could risk and lose your life in this environment. Are you prepared to do so that was actually she sat me down on a washing machine, and had that conversation with me? And I looked her in the eye and I said, it’s what I want to do.
Aaron Gladd 06:59
Yeah. And you there’s a couple of, of entry points into the military. Talk us through why you chose the one you did.
Jim McDonough 07:06
Yeah, I’d always I’d always heard about Officer Candidate School. And you know, it was, it was the day of An Officer and a Gentleman, the Navy version was high enough foremost in my mind, but I respected the difficulty that the Navy’s version of Officer Candidate School presented in that movie, you know, it was a grind, I was up for it, I wanted to be challenged. And I always understood that the people I would be with mostly were people who came up through the ranks. And there was something about that my dad was an enlisted Marine. My uncle was an enlisted in procurement in Vietnam. I wanted the college education and the option existed to go to basic training like everybody else, and then jet into Officer Candidate School. So for me, I should back up because I did toy with West Point. I did. And I went through the process of getting letters of recommendation, that congressional nomination and I didn’t get accepted. So, you know, it was always in the back of my mind. West Point was only right down the road. And I wasn’t good enough for West Point at the time. So I thought I had something to prove, and figure out my way in to demonstrate that. Okay, West Point. Maybe not for me, but there’s another pathway in and it was called Officer Candidate School. So yeah, I’m the option was pretty neat. You put yourself through college, enlist in the army, make it through boot camp, make it through Officer Candidate School, shake and bake, you know, the 90 days later. So you’re a commissioned officer in the United States Army. And that’s what I wanted to be.
Aaron Gladd 08:41
Yeah. Now, why why wouldn’t you take the enlisted route? I mean, talk us through those difference, right, because people I don’t think understand the differences between those.
Jim McDonough 08:50
Yeah, um, you know, part of was economics, like, I’ll be I needed to, I needed to put myself in a position where I felt like, I was going to earn the living that I wanted to live. So that was one side of it. But I was always drawn to like, the officer corps. Yeah, like it was something. I don’t know. I think I had a little bit of leadership in me, like through high school. Others saw a friend of the family suggested it. I listened intently. But I saw the examples that my friend’s father said, as commissioned officers in the United States Air Force, and yeah, I thought they were above reproach. I mean to figure just to think about this, like it was 1975 1976 the war in Vietnam was ending these people had fought and flown combat missions in Vietnam. And they were still flying after their experiences. So I thought there was something about the integrity of all that like, I didn’t have any ill feelings towards you know, the the enlisted side of the United States Army or the noncommissioned because I knew the bread and butter was there. I want I had the opportunity to be part of it. But at a young leader, a young young lieutenant, yeah.
Aaron Gladd 10:06
Now if you if you thought about going into the military, before you went to college, why not go to ROTC or one of those routes where you can do become commissioned at the end of your college tenure versus having to go through this basic training in this slugfest? Right? The suck fest, really? Yeah. Why do that?
Jim McDonough 10:24
Well, it’s kind of interesting. I’m a kid from Keeseville, New York. You know, dad’s a state trooper, mom’s a nurse. The world wasn’t as wide as it is today. So as you’re thinking about your options, I didn’t even consider it, you know, going, you know, I was a local, I was gonna go to SUNY Plattsburgh I was going to, you know, figure out how to pay for it. Back to the point of like, you didn’t have a lot of conversation. Yeah, about your future, like you were gonna figure it out. You know, was all the typical things played sports, altar boy, Catholic High School, you think in that environment, there’d be enough advice and counsel, but there really wasn’t. So you know, from an early age. I think I just sorted it on that. I didn’t know. I could go ROTC. Yeah, that’s the simple answer. Like, where would I Plattsburgh didn’t have ROTC. Like Norwich I visited over in Vermont, when it was the place where the army created armor officers. If you wanted to be a tanker, which I did. You went to Norwich University to become a lieutenant in the army corps. And I went there and love the campus, you know, but I just in that moment, I wanted to be closer to home. My mom, my brother was still in high school. And as like, maybe not, maybe not that that would have been the closest thing you get commissioned coming out of that. But I was I was small town, I guess.
Aaron Gladd 11:50
Yeah, I’m a little bit controversial. My opinion on this because I think I think OCS develops the best officers in the army. West Point has an issue with that statement. And a lot of what I see for the OCS graduate is that you get to live while you’re in college a little bit and you get to experience life. And you get to, you know, fall in love and have your heart broken and stay up late and miss classes and do well in class. Right? So you have this experience in life that makes you I think, a better officer when you’re 2122 years old, leading 1718 year old kids at war.
Jim McDonough 12:25
Yeah, I think for me, it was a place to grow up on my own terms, make friends fall in love. Enjoy myself before life was gonna get very serious because of what I was drawn to do. So I don’t know, it was a chance to live like I, you know, I was gonna live a little bit for those four years. Fortunately, it was only four years. You know, I did, I did the right thing and get out of there. And it’s an interesting story because as college was ending, I walked downtown, to the recruiter in Plattsburgh, New York, walked into his office and said, I’d like to become an officer in the United States Army. And I’m pretty sure I made his day, because I was a college about to be a college grad. And Officer Candidate School is one of those things hard to fill, I think. And I like, you know, in perfect hindsight, it was the best environment to become a commissioned officer. And I say that with bias, as you understand, because I’m a product of it, but I got to serve with some great noncommissioned officers who were taking the next step in their life to become commissioned officers. And those individuals were phenomenal individuals they had, they had fought in Vietnam. Yep. They had done hard things. And they wanted to keep becoming better. And they had this thing about them about dragging good young people along with them. That’s right. And I think that that’s what it did for me is I was I mean, the college job portion of Officer Candidate School was not as represented as the Noncommissioned Officer Corps. So I was a minority entering into that fresh out of college. And he’s, you know, not grisly, but whether serious individuals real veterans real veteran, right, right shoulder patch, guys, right. And you were, I was in love with it. I fell in love with it early like I I fell in love with it. Hmm.
Aaron Gladd 14:15
And I find that I found that those noncommissioned officers wanted to impart lessons learned and in not just swept out in blood, right, and they absolutely, they want to know that you’re going to be leading that next generation that platoon and want you to learn that lesson. So
Jim McDonough 14:31
my first assignment, my first platoon sergeant was a guy named Staff Sergeant Chris Taylor. And this goes back to college in Plattsburgh one night late. A restaurant called steak man, which stayed open till four o’clock, as you lined up to place your order in the back there was a picture of Sarge from Beetle Bailey. And I took it and I took it all the way to Germany with me for my first duty assignment and gave it to my first platoon sergeant and that’s how it because he was phenomenal. I mean, when you have that experience as a brand new commissioned officer to be guided and and mentored by an up and coming senior noncommissioned officer in the United States Army. I love the guy. He’s just the right guy for me. Yeah, super guy.
Aaron Gladd 15:14
Well then rewind a little bit quickly and just talk about why you chose the army. Right? Your dad was a Marine. You had pilots in and around your life. What made you decide that you wanted to be, you know, one of the little guys on the ground with a pretty terrible job?
Jim McDonough 15:31
Well, the oldest branch of the armed forces, probably the branch that I had the highest degree of respect for. My uncle had fun in Vietnam. As I said, I played army, like I didn’t play Air Force. I didn’t play Marine Corps. Even though my dad was a Marine, like, I don’t know, I was I just the idea of being part of that founding piece of our country. And make me becoming part of the history of it. I, I wasn’t drawn to any other branch. I never considered any other branch. And for me, it was Army or nothing.
Aaron Gladd 16:07
Yeah, that’s because Space Force had not existed.Well, tell us a little bit. I know you went to Germany, you went to Korea. I want you to fast forward a little bit towards 2001. And tell us where you were during that time.
Jim McDonough 16:23
So I was in the United States Army War College in Carlisle barracks. So the place that senior leaders are further developed. So on 9/11, I had just taken my oldest son to get his wisdom teeth removed. We were sitting, he was sitting in the chair, the television was on in the dentist office and the world stopped and went back. You know, it was it was crazy. drove back onto Carlisle barracks and the world was changing in an instant.
Aaron Gladd 16:55
And your your position was as a student,
Jim McDonough 16:58
I was a student, I want to say I was for a year at the United States Army War College. After successfully coming out of a really good battalion command, I went right from battalion command at Fort Bliss, Texas, to the United States Army War College as a student for a year. And so you were immersed in the developing general officer flag officer ranks as an up and coming Lieutenant Colonel. I was
Aaron Gladd 17:25
for people who don’t know right, a battalion you were in charge of a lot of people before this.
Jim McDonough 17:30
Yeah, it was about a 750 person unit with families attached to it. So a six battery Patriot battalion, six firing batteries, headquarters battery, and direct sport maintenance Committee. It was a quite large unit in the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, the most deployed Air Defense Artillery Brigade in the army. Back then, and still to this day, so I had the honor of commanding 343 Ada, and an out of that got selected to go to the war college. Yeah,
Aaron Gladd 18:02
yeah. Yeah. And for people who don’t know the patriot, and what you’re talking about an ADA that you’re talking about missiles? Yeah, yeah.
Jim McDonough 18:09
I said earlier, I wanted to be an armor officer. And then in Officer Candidate School, I met a couple of noncommissioned officers, who came through Air Defense Artillery, and had both like the technical chops and the opportunity to go to Germany, Europe, which was an ambition of mine, most of that stuff was forward deployed at the time. And this grizzly senior noncommissioned officer who was becoming a second lieutenant, his name was Kevin Smith, convinced me to change my mind and go Air Defense Artillery. And I finished high enough up in OCS to select the branch that I wanted. So but my life changed because of one one influence when I grizzly influence. That’s right.
Aaron Gladd 18:47
So you’re back. You’re at War College. Yeah, September 11. happens. Your student you just got done battalion command. You could walk away.
Jim McDonough 18:58
Yeah, I wasn’t ready to walk away. So this is an interesting part of my life. Like, I never thought I was going to stop. Like, it never occurred to me, like, coming off this wonderful trail that I had put myself and my family on. In the middle of the work well, actually, it occurred in battalion command. My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My brother was actively serving. He went in the Army just like me, Officer Candidate School back to that example, I think. And my parents were divorced. So my mom was alone. So we had my brother and I had a conversation about look, we’ll try our best to kind of navigate, you get close. I get close from an army assignment perspective, to periodically take care of mom. Her health declined. We were left battalion command. I noticed it when I was in Bhutan command, she came to my change of command ceremony and was somewhat lost. You could see it and so then, you know, fast forward, go to the workshop. College. I’m in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, reachable to upstate New York. And my mom’s health was deteriorating. So the conversation occurred in the work college about like, what are you going to do when you grow up? That was a question that was asked to me by my, my, my first wife. And I didn’t have an answer, like I was all in. And so then I started thinking about your mom, she did all these wonderful things for you. Starting to feel the vibe of the fraying of the relationship. From a family perspective, I think there was, there were things that were building up there that I didn’t pay attention to. So long as long story short, in the War College, I told branch that I was taking my name off the consideration list for brigade command, oh, six, the promotion list and promotion list, like, you know, just waxey was the command opportunity. So the idea was, Can I continue to serve, take care of my mom. And the idea was, I just want to get close. That’s why I told the army, I’ve made the decision, I’m gonna and it was a big decision, because you’re in the War College, which is like, it’s huge. It’s unheard of, you’re in the worst college guy, you’re, you can keep going. As long as you keep performing. And we respect your performance, we might promote you to a higher grade, that you’re on the track to be a star in I never really didn’t talk about that I never really wanted to be one. I always thought something shorter. That was where I wanted to land this plane. But I was listening to my heart. And I was listening to what was going on in my life. And it was the right thing to do. So I asked for something close. They got me to West Point. And I PCs out of the War College. This was Oh too. You know, we were in the pipeline to do big things that year, based on what happened 911. There were some rumblings when I got to the United States Military Academy of deploying from there being asked to go forward. And sure enough, that’s what happened. I spent six months at West Point. And I was deploying to Iraq for oaf Zoo. I was joining a unit that a friend of mine was commanding, you had a rule for me to fill. And I gladly accepted. So I had stabilized my family. I had looked in on my mom, and I had figured out a way to keep serving all at the same time. And somebody said to me like to tell the army that at that moment, nobody really does that. So what what why did you do that? And it was in my heart something, something was telling me like, this is the place you’ve been successful. And I didn’t I never even thought of being that other group of people. I always respected it, but I actually never thought about Yeah, so I never really had a plan to be perfectly frank. Yeah, I followed my heart because you’re an OCS guy. Yeah, I think so to an extent, like, I just never I run I’ve run into officers who have some playbook to get to Z, and they’re only f and g. And I was never one of those guys. I enjoyed it in the moment. I lived in the moment. Yeah,
Aaron Gladd 23:04
yeah. Well, the moment right was September 11. Yeah. And then the war on terror. Afghanistan and Iraq. You deployed from West Point to Iraq?
Jim McDonough 23:17
Yeah. Yeah. Camp Doha Kuwait. January, right after the holidays, and oh, three, before the initial invasion, I was on the ground. I’m pretty sure like the second or third of January. And then of course, everything unfolded shortly thereafter. So yeah. And I was the senior Operations Officer for all Patriot fires in the Middle East. So what does that mean for people? Well, you’re controlling states of readiness, of batteries, firing batteries, all across the Middle East, like, everywhere, like we Patriot had a large footprint because there was a large Scud missile threat. You know, aside from protecting formations of soldiers that were generating combat power to go forward, it was protecting key assets, airfields. So we had a lot of firepower in Oh, three on the ground to protect the force. And I was brought in as the senior operations officer that was managing on a shift my time in states of readiness for Patriot across the theater. So yeah, and it was a good gig. It was, it was at a very strategic level. We can talk about other strategic levels of levels of service that I’ve had, but it was new, and it was something a friend of mine in the army needed me to do. Yeah, it was. I was ready to do it. It’s
Aaron Gladd 24:37
Interesting. What I think people don’t realize is that at a certain level, you can reach out to your friends in the Army and get assignments and get people assigned to you. Yeah, for different missions. Yeah,
Jim McDonough 24:48
It’s what happened to me. This is the same friend who I saw coming out of the Pentagon officers Athletic Club on a tour at the Pentagon. He was getting ready to Got to create to take battalion command. And I stopped them on the bridge over the bridge to the ramp to the officers Athletic Club, Athletic Club. And I said who’s going to be your S3XO, and he said, Would you like to be it and I went back to my office. I was the speechwriter for the Secretary of the Army. I formed a plan to talk to the SEC army about volunteering to go to Korea. I asked him if it was okay. And he just simply said, is it gonna be good for you and good for the army? And I said, Yes. And he let me go to Korea to be as ESRI. So I then served as a battalion commander for him when he was brigade commander. And then it was a one star taking this formation. And like you said, like, the army, first and foremost, everybody misses. This is a bunch of good people. And when you get to find what it’s like to work for good people, you would always like to work for good people. So that trail seems to always be there. At least it was for me to figure that out. So yeah, and people look up for it.
Aaron Gladd 26:01
Yeah. You skipped over a part that I thought I think it’s pretty important. Right. You said you were speechwriter. Yeah. Secretary of the Army. Yeah, that’s not a job that anybody just shakes their head out, right? No,
Jim McDonough 26:09
Again, I didn’t talk about no life plan. So after battery command, the army sent me to advanced civil schooling, and Indiana State University. So I got to come out of the army for 18 months and get a master’s degree at Indiana State University, Larry Bird school. Coming out of that there was what’s known as a payback assignment. And the payback was you’re going to the Pentagon, into the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs to be a strategic planner, the degree was in communications. So you’re going to put that to good use at the Pentagon. I started there. I was at the National Training Center for the first Advanced Warfighter experience when the army was digitizing itself and I’m out in the desert at the NTC. And I get a call it says when you come back, you’re going to be interviewing to be the speechwriter for the Secretary of the Army and I’m like, I’m a captain promotable to major at that point. So I didn’t take you seriously as like, yeah. Because the current speech writer was a colonel. And so I got back, went in for the interview didn’t really think much of it like the individual who was the honorable togo West army officer himself. I liked him. I don’t know what happened there. But I ended up getting selected to be the speechwriter and I showed up the first day, the existing speech writer Colonel red Adair field artillery officer was going to brigade command. And he just handed me a book and said, Good luck, young man,
Aaron Gladd 27:42
The existing speechwriter was a field artillery guy. Yeah. That’s why you got picked.
Jim McDonough 27:50
I can’t explain that. But yeah, good fortune, and enter being speechwriter for 1618 months. And then I volunteered what’s the best speech you ever wrote for him? You know, it was Martin Luther King Day. And he’s an interesting man and human being smart, just incredibly smart and a gifted orator. Like he really didn’t need a speech writer. But he had one. And I remember this, the only time you ever said something to it was Martin Luther King Day. And if you know, Secretary West, you know, he’s a person of color. And so for him to say something to me, after that speech that I had written something of substance for him, it meant the world like I, I didn’t need anything else I didn’t need. I didn’t need that much positive affirmation. I knew the gig was like you’re supporting the Secretary of the Army, do your job, do it well, and go on to the next assignment. So but that was the one time in my life where he actually pulled me aside the only time and said thank you for putting that together. For me. I didn’t need the rest. That was enough.
Aaron Gladd 28:54
Did you keep in touch with them?
Jim McDonough 28:56
Uh, not really. No, I wish I would have because he went on to become it’s it’s point. It’s poignant. You know, the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and so both the ying and yang of that, you know, Captain in the United States Army, Secretary of the Army Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, I’d like to think that trajectory had like something to do with me like it was, you know, I just kept going in the same direction as he did. So, he promoted me to major so I have the pictures. He’s a wonderful human being. My grandmother was there from Keeseville New York. Like, I don’t think she’d ever been to Washington, DC. So, and he was just a genuinely nice man. Yeah. Yeah. That’s great to hear. Yeah. Yeah, very influential, because he opened up for me, I never would have seen the civilian side of the army, which every commission officer hears about and understands, but to be serving on that side. And watch the other side and the, the dynamics of the two sides coming together in the best interests of of the ends. A tuition educated me beyond the 14 months that I was there.
Aaron Gladd 30:04
Do you think that made you a better officer when it came to fighting in the war?
Jim McDonough 30:10
It gave me perspective like to understand decisions like, you may not. You may not like decisions, but it’s really not your job to like opine about the merits of this. It and I remember General Shinseki, you know, somewhat famously, you know, how many soldiers it was going to take to kind of a, how many, how many members of the armed forces it was going to take to solidify a post invasion of Iraq, and he was ridiculed. Yeah. And I think many people would say, it was the end of his tenure. And I was in the dining facility at Camp Doha, Kuwait, with other flag officers, who were advising him about what it was going to take to stabilize a post. A post invaded Iraq, and he was spot on. And so I think when you look at, like, if when you look at what you just asked me, through the lens of like, my experiences, I think so, yeah, I think he gave me understanding beyond what I would have been provided, because there’s a whole side of this, that we don’t get to see unless you’re touched by it. And, and I think, much like being an inspector general, which I got the opportunity to be, there is some value beyond value in a couple of those army assignments. But perspective was, was what I would say I was given most.
Aaron Gladd 31:34
Yeah. And for the listeners, right, I think when they think about you right now and your stories, and when you first got to Iraq, they think there’s Jim, he’s got missiles on his back, he’s running into houses, and he’s firing these things off. Right. He’s on the ground. It’s what I see in movies. You know, I don’t know that they understand the strategic aspect of it and what your actual role is. Can you talk a little bit about the difference between, you know, what they asked the guys on the ground at that time? The 18 year olds, the 19 year old? Yeah. And then, you know, at the time, Colonel Jim McDonough?
Jim McDonough 32:06
Yeah, look, I think they, they, they expect the system to work. They don’t expect failure. So I think the average 18 year old artillerymen infantrymen combat medic, just expects everyone to do the job they’ve been assigned to do. So I think for me, it was ensuring that I kept that perspective, like I was going, for me, it’s just as simple as that, like, people depend upon you to keep patriot forces ready. In the event that Scud missiles are going to target a concentration of 18 year olds have pilots generating combat power, like, so for me, it was like understanding the seriousness of that, and keeping the focus on like, this system isn’t going down. And if the system goes down, another system is going to come up, because there’s too much riding on it. And so I think, I think we lose sight of the fact that it’s a big organization. And the the synchronization that goes into making it all work, every one of us has a little bit to do with that. And if you don’t do it, the system fails. And people get hurt, people could be killed. There could be mission failure. And that’s not really what we’re wired, to even think about. So for me, going from the tactical, like, people need to know they’re going to be protected. That was what was important to me. Translating that into what I had to do was like, I needed to maintain with the Patriot force in theater, the highest state of readiness at all times. And watch intelligence, watch what we’re doing. And making sure that I did my job. Yes, that’s simple.
Aaron Gladd 33:44
Like, yeah, yeah, I think my my experience, the tactical side was, I think, a little easier for me, because everything that I was doing was right in front of me. Yeah. Right. Yeah. I knew where to go. I knew what my job was. It was narrow. Yeah. Right. And then everything else that supported me, I had no idea about, but did you assume it was working? Oh, I knew it would work. Exactly. And I had I had faith that it would work. Yeah.
Jim McDonough 34:09
I mean, you know, it’s, uh, I never got to see the results, right. Like, I would get the battle damage assessment reports after and stuff. And you would you would learn of, and you would, you would just move on, like, you just okay, that’s done. What’s next? What’s next? What’s next. And you’re always in this constant state of like, preparing for the next thing. So I don’t know. I don’t think your job was easy. I think we both had pretty much hard jobs. Like you’re on the ground with lives. Right there in your hands. I was a little bit removed than that. But knowing that I needed to just do my part. That’s right. Yeah. And I just assumed you were doing your job. That’s right. As much as you assumed I was doing my job because I think that’s what that’s what the place is all about. Like, we do our jobs.
Aaron Gladd 34:54
Yeah. It’s incredible synchronization.
Jim McDonough 34:57
This it’s like a I mean, there’s no analysis Gita because it’s beyond a symphony. It’s beyond an orchestra. Like, this is a lot. Over a lot of areas. Yeah. Yeah.
Aaron Gladd 35:08
Well talk to us about your decision to hang it up.
Jim McDonough 35:13
Yeah, um, like everything else. Aaron, you make the decision to stick with it, you know? Like I never really. So hanging it up for me was a little bit of a moment of reflection about paying back my family. Yeah. Like, if there’s one thing I didn’t do really well, because I missed it. It was like, What is going on with your family? And and here’s the thing I think your listeners need to understand, like, a lot of things look good from the outside. But if you’re like a hamster on a wheel, inside, keeping everything going, because and that’s the side. That’s the expectation, I think of our officer corps. And our Noncommissioned Officer Corps is that, you know, you may have problems, but your problems are out other people’s problems, like you have other people to take care of. That’s right. And so yeah, and their families, and so your heart and soul goes into that, less went into my own. And so I think the consequences of that was like, I caught it pretty late. But I had made a commitment to like, move my family, to my then wife’s hometown, like, because she wanted to be with family. She wanted to be trying to come off the trail. She had been on the trail with me for 26 years. And I think she had her fill. In fairness to her. I think she had her fill, wonderful woman, wonderful kids, the whole nine yards. But I missed some things along the way. And in hindsight, I wasn’t good at that. And that, and that’s, I guess, the thing that I missed, right? Not sure anybody ever told me I wasn’t good at it. Yeah. And so there’s appearances. And then there’s like, the reality of things. And I think if you really do know, people, you have a responsibility to say something to them, like, and you’re like, pushing pretty hard here. Like you need to take a break.
Aaron Gladd 37:08
That hard charging mentality is rewarded in that culture.
Jim McDonough 37:12
That’s what I understand after the fact is like, because this, this will come into fruition with a conversation I had with my son about entering the United States Army. Is it like, unfortunately, the system rewards you for that. And that was the unfortunate understanding I had. Too late is and, and it’s the institution, it expects that of you, if you’re thinking about, if any one of your listeners has family thinking about this, this is what this is about. It’s all in all, and no, no room for not being all in on this because too much is at stake. And if you buy into that, you’re all in, which means something along the way, doesn’t become all in and so I think that when I thought about the moment to get out, never crossed my mind to change my mind. Number one, it was like, go figure out the next chapter of your life. Yeah, like, you’re still fairly young. This has been a good part of your life. I will tell you, Erin, contrary to what people may think, my identity is not consumed by my time in uniform. My identity is me. Like that was a piece of it. And it was a valuable piece of it, but I am who I am. That had great influence over me. But it was not. I am not just a person who served in the armed forces. Yeah, piece of it. Yeah. Yeah. So I don’t know. I just, I, you know, like everything else in my life. I just kind of moved. Yeah, you know, make a decision and move.
Aaron Gladd 38:44
What was it like transitioning back? What does that actually – I have an experience, right?… t’s interesting, because I think, to your point about looking out for people, I spent more time thinking about my soldiers who are transitioning than I did about myself transitioning, right. And so I never really paid attention to me. I worked on making sure they got into college that they weren’t security guards at Walmart that they were set up for success that they were staying off of drugs, that adrenaline push, right. So I think I can’t remember as much as I want to remember about the transition. Other than I was paying attention to other people. Yeah, not myself.
Jim McDonough 39:25
I think the same thing like I still every now and get an email from a soldier I served with or I run into someone and I think about like, that’s what it was all about. Like I didn’t pay much attention to my transition. I went to the week long experiential opportunity to get six binders and fill your trunk and write your resume. Yeah, yeah. As painful as it was like it was all so I guess to say that I went through it on a perfunctory basis would be calling a spade a spade and then I do remember This because I retired from West Point, I remember driving on post, getting my 214 getting my flag, driving off post thinking, Well, that was quick. And then you’re on, you’re on to your next gig. Yeah, I didn’t do a retirement parade didn’t do a retirement ceremony. Regrettably, I guess I probably should have stuck around to do those things, because I think I would have that’s on me. But I was in a hurry to move on. So I didn’t really think about my transition. Like, for me, one day I was in the next day I was out. And I didn’t put a lot of thought into it. Unfortunately. Now, I was always gonna be a guy who was like, you’ll figure it out. You figured out everything else, you’ll figure this out. So yeah, some missteps along the way early. Took a 90 day job that I didn’t care for. But I think that the evidence is like, it takes a couple of laps, yes. Race to figure out where you want to be truly so. And you shouldn’t view it as anything but that, yeah, like, I think there’s this mentality like, you get out, you’re going to do one thing next. That’s far from the truth. Like will, it takes a while to really settle yourself?
Aaron Gladd 41:07
Yeah, it doesn’t get out of that. That mindset. Yeah, yeah. The first thing that I fell into was kind of this realization that one, I had been just remarkably trained mentally and physically. Right. And the physical aspects start to diminish once you leave, because you’re not running 12 miles. Exactly. You know, and then I think the the mental hardness that, you know, some of that what I didn’t realize is, military families go through a lot of the similar feelings and anxieties and trauma that a soldier goes through without having to experience directly the trauma, and I didn’t get that I would come home. And how awesome was that training that I got to do? How awesome was deploying? And how awesome, you know, you embrace the suck? Oh, yeah. There’s no embracing the suck as a as a mom or a brother or a sister of a soldier deployed overseas, there’s a constant level of stress and anxiety and worry that, you know, I don’t want to say that they’re not necessarily equipped to deal with but they didn’t have the training that I had, in that that aspect of, of service. I didn’t see until I got out. Yeah. And, you know, that’s something I think a lot about when, when we talk about mental health of soldiers. And when we talk about returning home and reconditioning almost
Jim McDonough 42:29
Yeah, I, you know, I couldn’t agree with you more, like when I when we, when we look back on our time in uniform, like, I’ll say, as I think it should be said, I think we took a lot for granted that their resilience that was expected of us, was also expected of them. And that, you know, they, I kind of, had mixed feelings about this, because I was hard on myself and hard on my family. But to be the leader that I thought you needed to be, that’s, that’s what I was, I should have been better at understanding the stress that they were putting themselves through to keep up with me, that’s fine. Like, and I think that that’s really like something that they don’t have a lot of training. You know, my time in the army was the advent of Family Readiness groups. You know, I started in the army before there was such a thing. So the evolution of family and the organization, you know, while it got stronger, still just assumed away a lot of things like you go away for six months for deployment. You have a rear detachment commander as battalion commander, but the family side of this like a lot changes over those, you know, over that time gone, and they and you don’t have communication with them. Like you just your two week long morale call like yeah, basically like to check in and so I it kind of sucked. Yeah, looking back on it was definitely not the right thing to do. Yeah, like, I wish I could. I wish I had to do over. Yeah, with everything I know. Now, to try to do a better job of that. And honestly, that’s kind of the way I live my life now is like you got to do over. That’s right. You better yeah, like Yeah,
Aaron Gladd 44:20
Well tell us a little bit about your current role with with The Headstrong Project. Yeah. What drove you to that and what are the things you’re working on?
Jim McDonough 44:26
Sure. So the headstrong project is this national facing mental health treatment practice for people like you and I, and our families. It’s been around since 2012. It was founded by a young Marine who fought in Fallujah, too. Came back and witnessed more of his Marines dying by their own hands that they had lost in a really tough place of combat in Volusia rock. And he had friends and in Weill Cornell medicine in New York City that he asked to through family friends He wondered whether they could open up a portion of their behavioral healthcare practice for returning post 911 veterans and they said yes. And so the nucleus of the headstrong project was this really little idea of opening up storied behavioral health care capacity for people like us to treat PTSD, depression, anxiety, trauma in general. It took off because it had some really cool principles associated with it. It was going to do this on a barrier free basis on a stigma free basis. And a cost free basis like, no hands down, just get treatment, like and the other side of the coin. The clinicians were world class, they were trauma informed experts at treating trauma. And so out of that origin story, the last 11 years has seen headstrong expand to now we have clinical capacity in 44 Different states, all evidence based with almost 300 World Class clinicians who still practice barrier free stigma free cost free treatment of trauma for actively serving members of the armed forces 25% of our population in treatment, our active duty service members Oh, really? Nobody knows that. Yeah. Wow. We can talk about that. There’s a reason you and I know why. Yep. Guard Reserve veterans of all eras and the family members. So it’s very, very inclusive. And it’s designed. What drew me to it to answer your question was over the years, I sent a few people there way, early on, I had gone and checked it out on my own, because probably like you, we’re not going to send someone somewhere, unless we know firsthand what it looks like. So I wanted to get inside it became friends with Zacchaeus called the founder, the Marine I spoke of and just watched it over the years and was intrigued. This is funny story about all this. Their last executive director was a guy named Joe Quinn. Joe Quinn was a cadet of mine at United States Military Academy for the six, eight months I was there. Joe Quinn had lost a brother in the World Trade Center, who’s an employee of Cantor Fitzgerald, my college roommate, his brother was Cantor Fitzgerald last in the World Trade Center. So in a full circle moment, like I when Joe announced he was stepping down, I said I wouldn’t mind replacing and he goes are you crazy like you this old timer like your your former colonel, Captain fuel artillery officer who had a good run at headstrong? Why do you want this and the reason was simple. Like, I wanted to immerse myself in an organization that could prove it was taking care of people and making them better. Like I wanted. I wanted the evidence behind what we did to change people’s lives for the better. And so long story short, I approached the organizers in the board and said I’d like to serve. And that was almost three years ago. And I was drawn to it because it offered me one more opportunity to become a better person in the business of taking care of people.
Aaron Gladd 48:08
I don’t want to gloss over the fact that a field artillery officer gave another field artillery officer, his old job, but that ‘s what happened.
Jim McDonough 48:16
Maybe that was twice.
Aaron Gladd 48:18
It seems to work out for you. Why doesn’t something like this already exists federally, when we as a country start a war? Why isn’t that built into the model?
Jim McDonough 48:28
I think it begins with this mistaken understanding that caring for our nation’s military members, veterans their families, is the government’s responsibility. I think we missed the boat on understanding the moral and social contract that should exist between people who volunteer to serve in our armed forces come out and move on with their lives. We I think the nation thinks that’s the government’s business wrongfully. And we’ve missed the boat on the understanding that it’s everyone’s business. And so yes, why it doesn’t exist because we keep investing in government programs. And we don’t respect what our communities do, to the extent we should be, like 30% of our veteran population, receives health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs 70%, myself included, are out here kicking around with primary care physicians, using our employer based insurance, whatever it is to stay healthy. It’s in that world where all of us, the majority of us are. And so we only seem to know how to do things that government does when it comes to taking care of this population. It talks me off because if you could only find your way to understanding that a balance between what our communities offer and what our government offers, presents the whole of nation require a pro doing this? Well, as a result, we don’t really do it. Well, we don’t, it’s piecemeal. It’s fragmented. If you find something that works for you, you’re lucky. And it kind of pisses me off. Like, because I’ve been doing this a while now. And I’ve seen all sides of the of the realm, like what works, what doesn’t work. And it is in that balance that we need to find our way to like it, there should be more of an investment in community based access to mental health care. There’s reasons for There’s stigma, there’s been
Aaron Gladd 50:31
Talk about the stigma, because I get this a lot. And I think about it starting in veterans returning home from Vietnam and the experience, they’re the experience that I had. And so tell me about that.
Jim McDonough 50:43
So it’s painfully vivid. When you walk into a VA facility and you, you just walk to the elevator, right? And you see all around you predominantly male, but knowing full well that a good portion of our emerging veteran population are women who are serving. So there’s imagine that as a as a barrier to care your, your 22 year old former, you know, specialist in the United States Army, who served as name it, she, she did whatever. The uncomfortability of walking into that environment is something that’s talked about frequently amongst military women, that it’s a it’s the land of men, and the organizing principles behind that are largely male, and they’re not really accommodating us. So one aspect of this stigma has to do with gender, and identity. And a lot of people don’t identify as veterans, one of the most fundamental things it’s hard to get people to understand is, if you served in our active armed forces, honorably for X amount of time, you are a veteran of the United States Armed Forces, try and convince everybody that they’re veterans, they don’t even know it half of us. Right, we question that, like, we think we need to be the combat veteran, we think we need to be something else. But so I think when you ask about stigma, the number one issue is that we don’t ask for help. back to an earlier conversation that you and I have had here today is like, if you don’t ask for help, then you’re going to be averse to seeking help, like until you so the stigma associated with asking for help is the largest barrier to getting help. And once you so in our world, how do you overcome that? Well, you need people who understand stigma, and can figure out how to have a smart first conversation with someone like you or me, without being judgmental, with just listening and understanding, to share and a portion of the lived experience. That’s what our clinicians do. That’s what our intake team does. Just figure out where they’re coming from, like and respect it. It’s, it’s, it’s the, the old adage that the no judgement zone, right, like, so to get people to feel comfortable and be vulnerable. You got to address stigma early, you got to get people to say, I could use some help. And the fear of presenting oneself as weak or vulnerable. When you really peel this back, getting beyond that is the toughest thing. Once you do, good things can happen. Yeah, but stigma is alive. And well. Like whether it’s walking into a, a VA health care facility, whether it’s getting on a website and asking for help, it really doesn’t matter. But all around you is stigma that you’re dealing with.
Aaron Gladd 53:39
Yeah, I had this really cognizant soldier, you know, 21-22 years old, who talked about his mental health, like his Achilles just got to repair my tendon, I’m just working on – it ripped – and I’m putting it back together. And it’s going to be stronger than ever. And that I thought was a way to think about it, that I hadn’t thought about it. Because I, too, I look at those stigmas. And, well, if I if I talk to a doctor, then he’s gonna put me on a list and then they’re gonna take my guns and there’s gonna take, you know, I’m gonna be on meds put me on meds, and I’m gonna have this flag on my record, and what does that mean, you know, for a professional going forward? Yeah. And so I think that
Jim McDonough 54:24
If you don’t think all that’s a barrier to accessing care, you just nailed it. Like, those things prevent people from repairing that Achilles, Achilles of the mind. Like that’s, that’s what gets in the way of it. And, you know, we just got to keep working at it. But it’s, it’s not just our population. It we are a microcosm. I think of society. That’s right when it comes to mental health needs like but I like to think I’d like to extend that analogy a bit further. Like I think what this is about more and more is maintenance. Like you’re, you can check in, get some help for a while. get back on track, inevitably, something else is going to happen in your life, it’s going to, if you do it the first time, it’s going to be easier for you the second time. But what I recognize more than anything, Aaron is that this might be a lifelong battle for a lot of people. And that’s where the role that communities and sustainable organizations play in making sure they’re there. For for this, like,
Aaron Gladd 55:22
And do you think those battles are caused by the service in the war? Do you think that they’re in they and…
Jim McDonough 55:29
Comes from many, many directions, like, people will talk about adverse childhood experiences, ACES, you know, and then you go in the army or you go in, you go in the Air Force, you go in the Navy, you go in the Marine Corps, and something else may happen to you, and you get a compounding effect, that, you know, dig something else back up, then something else happens. So, no, it’s not all trauma comes in many forms. And it’s not all combat. When you look at all of this through the lens of what it really looks like, it’s just straight up trauma from many angles, and it can be formed early in childhood, you could have had a really bad experience as a child that you never dealt with. You go in service, and it resurfaces, for whatever reason, it triggers. And lo and behold, it’s worse. God, we saw things like the withdrawal from Afghanistan, that’s right, trigger that, you know, my numbers went way up. They did it, we witnessed what that did to our population. And that’s why I say, presenting yourself as an organization that can maintain your mental health, I think is really important to know that you can come and go. But the headstrong project, for example, is going to be there to kind of address your needs.
Aaron Gladd 56:43
Yeah, it feels like we’re starting to talk about it as a as a country as a community, as veterans a little bit more than we used to. Right. You started by telling us about your Korean War father, who didn’t talk about things, right? Now, and I think that was probably the prevalence of that generation. But I wanted I want to wrap this up by by ending where we started with your father. Yeah. And that relationship, and then your relationship with your son. Yeah. And he, he decided, like you to join the United States Army. Yeah. Talk to me about the conversations you had with him as a 1718 year old, as a 22 year old and now as a, as a commissioned officer.
Jim McDonough 57:29
Yeah. I know, I had a guiding hand in what he’s elected to do. He grew up in this household, he’s my youngest son. So when I when I think about, like, guiding you, it’s a bit of a push in a poll. Like I understood, this was the breeding ground to create great leaders. I also knew it was a very difficult breeding ground to so I wanted to let me begin by saying, I simply wanted the best for him. And I wanted him to become a young man of substance grounded and how to lead and take care of people. I think he saw that. I think he’s, first of all, I saw it. Then when we got to junior year of high school, we started really thinking about all of it. He was a very pragmatic kid, you know, he worried about paying for things like he was, you know, he saw the news, the student debt level, he all that. But then he also saw, like, the value of service, like and so I, so the conversations I had with him, were largely about just the value of service like to your fellow mankind. But I did say this, Aaron, it’s not for everybody, nor does it have to be your life like it was mine. And so I think I put some boundaries on his expectations of what this could be about. Because I think he saw the mistakes in me that this career, kind of levied upon myself and others. And I knew he didn’t want that. So I said, like, I he got into the summer program at the United States Naval Academy. He received nominations to go to a service academy. We went both ways. service academies, great. I didn’t get the opportunity. You’re a better kid than I was. You know, you’re well rounded. You have what they’re looking for, throw your name in the hat and try it. But to your point, he wanted the college experience. So we went around looking at colleges he picked University of Vermont happens to be the oldest consecutively serving Army ROTC unit in the United States. The Green Mountain battalion at UVM had a great first sergeant from the 10th Mountain Division. Really, story. Former First Sergeant Yeah, As a senior noncommissioned officer, so the opportunity was there for Nick to learn. So my only conversation was like it’s real. And unlike me, you don’t need to do a career, get from it everything you can, and then give it back somewhere else. So I think he settled on ROTC. He wanted the college experience. He loved the University of Vermont. He loved that Army ROTC unit, he loved the leadership of it. And he went on his journey, I have since reminded him of the degree of difficulty of of service, and he’s, he’s now serving, you know, he’s in the 101st. You know, so I think, as a young lieutenant, I’m very proud of him. But I’m also mindful, like, it’s his life that I can only do so much, one way or the other. But I was, I was kind of right there in the middle, like not trying to push too hard. set a positive example, but warn them of the consequences of going too deep into this.
Aaron Gladd 1:01:05
Yeah. Yeah. And that’s, I’m always amazed by young Americans who decide to do that, knowing that we’re at war, right. No offense, but when you joined, you probably didn’t think you were going it was right after Vietnam, right, right after Vietnam. And so I think that decision is a weighty one. And I know he’s in a better place than you were because you’re there.
Jim McDonough 1:01:30
It weighs on my mind, still, of course, harm’s way aspect of this. Because I think as a father, it’s natural for you to where I love that kid. He’s like, the idol. I see so much in him that I can only hope for the best of him and pray for is like safety and well being like I there’s, you know, it’s hard to hard to put into words how you feel about like a young man like that, because he has chosen. That’s right. He has volunteered, he’s volunteering difficult.
Aaron Gladd 1:02:01
Well, we are proud of him. I am as well. And just to wrap it up for the listeners who want to get involved. How can they get involved in headstrong project? What do you have advice for them?
Jim McDonough 1:02:12
Yeah, well, I mean, I’m sorry. Like, my advice for any listeners to understand that out there in your community are people like you and I, largely unseen, just going about the business are trying to take care of people. And so the headstrong project is going to be there. We need supporters, we need followers, we need friends. It’s really simple. Like it’s the headstrong project.org If you know someone who needs help, it’s really simple to connect to care. That’s actually what it says on our website. First thing I’d ask is, if you know someone who could benefit from an organization like headstrong, get them connected to us. Secondly, if you’re interested in being a friend, a supporter, same website, go to the headstrong project.org and do your part.
Aaron Gladd 1:02:58
So you don’t need to be a veteran to reach out and get information.
Jim McDonough 1:03:01
No, not at all. In fact, most of our the roundabout way and is through a family member or friend. Oh, it works like a champ. Yep. Like somebody who sees in you like we were talking. I wish somebody would have seen in me, that kind of thing. Usually friends and family see it first. They can give us a just connect with us and we’ll take it from there.
Aaron Gladd 1:03:19
Great. Well, Jim McDonough CEO of The Headstrong Project. Thank you for joining us, and we’ll talk soon. Thanks, Erin. Thanks.
Alexander Morse 1:03:34
Thanks to Aaron Gladd and Colonel Jim McDonough for joining us to discuss the impact their military careers had on their lives and how local, state, and federal governments can work with nonprofit organizations and communities to reduce barriers and address the needs of veterans and their families. Special thanks to all veterans and their families as we recognize and celebrate National Veterans and Military Families month. If you liked this episode, please rate subscribe and share. It will help others find the podcast and help us deliver the latest in public policy research. All of our episodes are available for free wherever you stream your podcasts. transcripts are available on our website. The introduction theme song was “I Left My Home” by the Kiffness and Drill Sergeant DePalo. Special thanks to Rockefeller Institute staff Joel Tirado, Heather Trela and Laura Schultz for their contributions to this episode. Thanks for listening. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.
Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York State and the nation. Learn more at Rock institute.org or by following at Rockefeller inst. That’s Rockefeller i n s t on social media. Have a question, comment or idea. Email us at [email protected].
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