In Iraq, all you see is two colors: blue and brown. No clouds in the sky, no plants on the ground. Just two colors split in the middle by the horizon.
Where I’m from, northern Wisconsin, you see green in the spring and summer, orange and red in the fall, and white and gray in the winter. But I was used to that – and I found myself in a brand new place, halfway around the world, because I wanted to see something different, something new.
And because I wanted to serve my country.
I was born and raised in Hayward, Wis., a small town in the northwest corner of the state. I grew up next door to the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation where my mother is from and where much of that side of my family still lives. As a teenager, I did seasonal work around my hometown – mostly carpentry and landscaping when the weather would allow. When the weather didn’t cooperate, there wasn’t much to do except drink beer and watch the Packers play.
But I always wanted to experience more in life. Growing up, I heard stories from my father, a Marine who served in World War II, and his friends. They talked about military service, the relationships they made, the places they got to see and the feeling of pride they felt knowing they had answered the call to serve a cause larger than themselves. The more I heard and read, the more I thought about joining the military.
Serving my country
I joined the Wisconsin Army National Guard because they had a program to complete basic training between my junior and senior years of high school. After basic, I came back home, graduated from high school and then left for Army Engineer School. When I came home from school, I wanted to go to on active duty. I was told by the Army that it would take six months, but that the Marine Corps would take me right away.
My cousin, a recruiter from the United States Marine Corps came up from Lacrosse, Wis., and did the paperwork to release me from the National Guard so I could sign up with the Marine Corps.
It was time to see the world.
By the time I turned 19, I had gone from only ever seeing my hometown and a few miles around it to living in California, Missouri, North Carolina, Italy. Over my two-decade career in the Marine Corps, and later in the Army, that list would eventually include all of Europe, New York, Washington, Colorado, Saudi Arabia, parts of Asia and Africa, Iraq and Kuwait.
During my time in the service, I experienced all of the highs I expected: I felt a sense of belonging – my team was just like another family to me – and I got to see places across the world I could only dream about from that small corner of Wisconsin.
But along with those highs also came the moments that reminded me of the sacrifices I was making. When I was stationed in Italy, Palestinian terrorists attacked the Italian cruise ship, Achille Lauro, killing an American tourist. I also was part of an operation in Sicily when a TWA flight was hijacked; Special Forces, Navy SEALS and Delta Force pulled the terrorists off the plane after the Navy intercepted the flight and grounded them at my base. I was off the coast of Libya for the 1986 bombing, worried that I wouldn’t make it home for my younger brother’s high school graduation. Years later, I was pulled off of Operation Desert Shield because my brother was also serving there – the military doesn’t want two brothers serving in the same combat theatre, so that a single family wouldn’t potentially lose them both. Thankfully we both made it back home.
Perhaps the most serious situation I faced came when I was deployed in Iraq as a combat engineer in the Army, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Over four months, I ran one or two convoys per day, and I can only recall six times we weren’t under direct fire … meaning 98 percent of the time, we faced gunfire and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
One day, just outside of Ramadi, my vehicle was hit with an IED. All six of us in the vehicle were seriously wounded. I was medevac’d back to Germany and then to the U.S., where I had surgery to replace my left eardrum and remove a significant amount of shrapnel from my body.
Though there are scars, injuries and disabilities I still carry with me to this day, I worked to become deployable again, and eventually entered the next stage of my military career: teaching cadets at West Point – teaching them the Army, and teaching it my way. I told them what they should expect to face every day, and I let them experience what it’s like holding the Non-Commissioned Officer positions of Team Leader, Squad Leader, Platoon Sergeant, First Sergeant, Operations, Supply, and even Sergeant Major. I also taught them what their duties and responsibilities would be as Platoon Leaders and Company Commanders. I put them in situations that I faced in both peacetime and in combat to give them an idea of what to expect after graduation from West Point.
By then, I had just about every experience someone could have in the military. But once while on the phone with my oldest daughter one night, she told me, “Dad, you’ve held just about every military position you could possibly hold, and I’m so proud of you. But there’s still one position I really need you to fill. I need my dad back.”
So on May 31, 2006, I retired from the Army and began the next chapter of my life. For the first time in 23 years, four months and 19 days, I was a civilian, and my two daughters got their dad back.
Becoming a civilian
My wife had accepted a job in Chicago, and I joined her there shortly after my retirement papers went through. Becoming a civilian after more than two decades of military service was not easy. I had a difficult time transitioning back into that life and finding a job.
I found work in loss prevention at a large home improvement store. I went from being personally responsible for the leadership and development of 4,000 cadets to being in charge of security for a hardware store. I went from a fixed salary to $14.65 per hour. But as I tell other veterans who I advise now, this wasn’t a setback, though it felt like it at the time. It was another chance to prove myself, and a challenge I knew I could meet.
So I learned everything I could about the world of retail and corporate environments. While working full-time, I completed the last few credits I needed for my bachelor’s degree, and earned my master’s. I saw firsthand how the skills I had picked up as a sergeant, as a section leader and as a military instructor had me better prepared for civilian life than I thought. Just like in the Army, success in business is reliant on a group of diverse people working together to reach a common goal. A mission is a mission and a job is a job, and it takes the same set of skills to figure out how to get things done.
After completing my degrees, I began to explore a career in human resources. I was given an opportunity with Easterseals, a Chicago-based nonprofit that provides disability services and support for veterans and military families. I was able to develop a career path of my own, while also being able to talk to fellow veterans all around the country as I helped get them the benefits, resources and advice they needed to make the transition back into civilian life. I could communicate with them in a way they were used to, and I could give it to them straight – just like their Drill Sergeant or First Sergeant would have.
Things were finally starting to click for me in my career – and I was about to receive some exciting new orders.
A different kind of service
Those “orders” came in the form of a call from Walgreens. They were looking for a diversity and inclusion consultant to lead company-wide initiatives for veterans and people with disabilities. I was excited to start right away. This is an organization, as I have learned, that does a lot to support veterans and people with disabilities.
As a disabled veteran myself, I am very passionate about working to create opportunities for disabled workers. I’m lucky enough to be in a position here at Walgreens to do meaningful work in this space every single day, as I currently lead the Retail Employees with Disabilities Initiative (REDI). REDI offers training for potential in-store positions for people with disabilities – everything from working the cash register to stocking shelves. As of this year, the program has expanded to nearly 300 stores nationwide, in 38 states. More than 1,400 people have completed training and are ready to work (or are currently working) in our stores. Having undertaken a job search with a disability myself, it’s hard to describe how personal, and how fulfilling, this work is to me.
In addition to REDI, Walgreens has a number of other programs and resources for veterans that I am proud to support. The Helping Veterans with Educational and Retail Opportunities (HERO) program was established in 2018 with a five-year goal to provide career opportunities for 5,000 U.S. veterans. Not only does the program offer veterans a career path to store management through training and mentorship, it also allows participants to work toward a bachelor’s degree with tuition assistance and discounts from Walgreens’ partnership with Southern New Hampshire University. As of last year, nearly 200 shift leads and assistant store manager trainees from around the U.S. were HERO participants.
Walgreens also offers differential pay for team members who are serving in the National Guard and Reserves. In other words, if one of these team members gets called to active duty, and their military pay is less than what they were making at Walgreens, the company will make up the difference. That’s huge peace of mind for those in the National Guard and Reserve to know they’ll be able to serve when needed, without sacrificing their paycheck.
I’m proud to be the vice chair of the WVETS business resource group, a community within Walgreens for veterans, families, spouses, military parents, allies and Walgreens team members to come together and share stories, offer advice and support one another. In fact, earlier this year I was able to offer advice and support to a mother who was concerned when she found out that there was a serious training accident in her son’s unit. I was able to guide her through when and how she could expect to hear updates about the situation, and fortunately her son was alright. It’s that kind of community among veterans and military families, at Walgreens, that make us all feel like one big family, just like how I felt when I first enlisted.
Walgreens’ support for veterans does not just include team members. I’m so proud that we offer flu shots for all veterans, at no cost to them if they’re enrolled in the VA healthcare system. We also offer discounts for veterans on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and today – Veterans Day. In fact, this year, we’ve extended it into a five-day in-store discount from Wednesday, Nov. 11 through Sunday, Nov. 15.
My Veterans Day tradition
Veterans Day means a lot to me. Every year, I make sure to call my best friend James (that's him on the left). He’s from Chicago, and although that’s just a few hours south of where I’m from, there’s no way our paths would have crossed if not for the service. We met on the first day of Army basic training and we’ve been connected ever since. We were even deployed together in Germany. He was the first face I saw when I came out of surgery, following my injuries in Iraq. I’ve made sure to be there for him when he’s had injuries to fight through as well.
What I think about every Veterans Day when we talk on the phone and catch up with each other’s lives is how unlikely it would be for a kid from rural Wisconsin to be best friends with a kid from the South Side of Chicago. How else would we have ever met each other, if we weren’t both in the same basic training and on the same overseas tour?
Being a veteran means other veterans are your family. It means you’ve seen the same blue sky above a brown desert combat field, regardless of what color sky you grew up looking at. It means you’re connected for life.
Except when the Packers and Bears play.