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Paul Rieckhoff: Iraq And Afghanistan Veterans Of America Founder (The Inspirationals)

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IAVA Founder and Executive Director Paul Rieckhoff attends IAVA's Fifth Annual Heroes Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street on November 9, 2011 in New York City. | Getty

NEW YORK -- On Thanksgiving Weekend, there is no group of Americans more deserving of thanks than the country's youngest war veterans.

One of their leaders -- and an expert on the leadership gifts of his own generation -- is 36-year-old Paul Rieckhoff.

With his bald pate, piercing gaze, firm handshake and polite, "yes sir, no sir" demeanor, Rieckhoff still looks and acts like the U.S. Army rifle platoon leader he once was in Baghdad. But that was more than seven years ago, when he was a young Amherst College graduate who had spent time at J.P. Morgan, in the Army Reserves, on 9/11 emergency duty and in advanced platoon leader training in Germany.

Rieckhoff is the executive director of the organization he founded when he came back from Iraq in 2004, when there was not a single group devoted to the newest generation of veterans. They currently number more than 2 million men and women, and yet represent a small and in some ways isolated slice of America.

Today, Rieckhoff's Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) has more than 125,000 members, who draw strength and guidance from each other, who join together to demand their due from government, and who aim to show that their generation of veterans has unique strengths and insights that can help rebuild the country they have already served with selfless distinction in dangerous places.

The Huffington Post is publishing a continuing series on innovative and inspiring leaders in all walks of life. They come from beyond Washington and Wall Street, where leaders are supposed to abound but seem to be scarce.

Rieckhoff is one of these Inspirationals. Recently in New York, he presided over the annual anniversary dinner of IAWA, an event that featured stirring stories of sacrifice, recovery and leadership. At the same time, Rieckhoff was busy lobbying Congress -- successfully -- to pass a portion of a jobs bill that would provide tax breaks to employers who hire recently returned veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The day after the gala, Rieckhoff sat down in his Manhattan office with Howard Fineman, AOL Huffington Post Media Group's Editorial Director, to discuss the new generation of veterans and the vivid lessons of leadership Rieckhoff learned with and from them.

You grew up in the Bronx, were a football captain at a small high school in the Hudson River Valley, studied at Amherst College and then got a lucrative job at J.P. Morgan. Why the Army?

I wanted to go somewhere where I could really test myself, something that was going to be really hard, something that would give me real leadership experience. You go to J.P. Morgan, it's a great experience; but that's not leadership, it's management.

What is leadership?

Leadership requires vision. You have to really know where you're going and drive in a direction, and then galvanize people and inspire people and draw strength from other people and draw assets from people. Management is kind of like moving stuff around on a plate. I think sometimes we confuse the two. Keeping the trains running on time is one thing, and that's important, and that's management, but keeping the trains moving forward is leadership. And building a new track and seeing where we're going, that's leadership: having to break the mold and innovate.

Some people think the military is the most bureaucratic and slow-moving place of all.

And it is, in a lot of ways. The thing I fought more than the enemy in Iraq was bureaucracy and stupidity. That's what everybody has to do.

You were a rifle platoon leader in Iraq. What did you learn about leadership?

One thing I learned that I think is most important: you take care of your guys and they take care of you. There's the old saying, "Men before me." If you lose sight of that, it's not just bad for you, it's bad for them, it's bad for the mission, it's bad for everything. And you really learn to depend on other people. There's an old adage in the military, "Adapt, improvise, and overcome." I think we're the innovation generation. You learn to be an innovator. You learn how to be entrepreneurial in a way that is totally dynamic and like nothing else. You have limited resources. You have tremendous stress. You have huge responsibility. The gravity of every decision is enormous. The teamwork is essential. You've got to make things happen. I think that's the fundamental -- that's what happened in World War II, that's what happened in Vietnam. Those guys were trying to make a Jeep work.

And it's not ideological.

It's practical. It's so practical. That's what I think is so fascinating about the role of these guys in government. There's going to be a whole wave of these guys who get into politics. They are practical, and they are country first. They are not ideological, and they don't have a party affiliation. I don't have a party in America right now. And I think a lot of people feel that same way, especially veterans. Our ideological home is somewhere in between, I guess.

And another interesting factor too -- the international dynamic, technology. Technology is the total game changer here. That's what makes everything happen faster in its scale. And what is really exciting is how consistently they're innovating. What we learned in the military, especially in this war, is how to break down the bureaucracy. Whether it was our own military or the Iraqi water system, you had to make stuff happen and break things down in order to get things done. That is important in business, it's important in government more than ever before.

What's your view as to why that's not the case in politics today?

Values. They lost that "men before me" piece. It's also the structure of the political system, where you've got to raise money all the time. I have friends in Congress; you have friends in Congress. You know that they don't have time to read or think. I think it's a combination of the dysfunction of the system and a loss of values and a loss of perspective. They're not taking the long view. They're not working together. They're really not working together in the best interest of all. They're worried about credit instead of accomplishment, and that's the way the system is working but nobody wants to be the first one to break it. A couple of them try, and they get punched in the face. But there's gotta be compromise. There's gotta be coalition-building. I have friends on the left and the right. We sit down and have a beer. The guys in this office are from all parties, all over the place. But we're focused together on one mission, just like we were in Iraq. And I've heard people say to me, "The WWII generation built this country, the Baby Boom Generation f*cked it up, and we've gotta save it. You've got to fix this. Cause otherwise we're screwed."

Was there a moment in Baghdad when you felt your leadership most severely tested?

The hard part about being over there is so much shit happens in one day, that it almost doesn't feel real. We always had to figure out how to make do. For example: Our vehicles sucked. We didn't have vehicles when we first got there, because Turkey blocked the shipments. So our guys found these SUVs that Saddam had hoarded. They were beautiful SUVs. And our guys hotwired them, and they ripped the doors off, and cut holes in the roof. It was like a scene out of "The A-Team," welding torch and the whole deal. There were people in our unit who said, "You can't do that. You can't do that." One of the hardest parts of being in Iraq was that everything was squad-level, platoon-level; some company-level. And that time in the war, most of the battalion and above had never served in combat. So you had a disproportion in combat experience. My squad leaders had, in the first three months, so much combat experience, and the guys running the show had none. So it created this really twisted leadership dynamic where they knew so much more about how to operate than their bosses.

So the commanding officers didn't know the nature of the war?

The weight distribution was so off. A guy named Tommy Sowers just wrote a Ph.D on what he calls nanoleadership. It is the idea that the president can watch the Navy SEALs and that he can manage a very small tiny unit, and how technology drives that. There's tremendous responsibility placed on the individual. I was with two guys out on a checkpoint, two guys who didn't speak Arabic who had heavy weapons, and there'd be hundreds of Iraqis who were pissed off because they didn't get paid. Or there'd be a car bomb. Or a CIA guy would come flying through with no markings. Just the variables that would happen on a constant basis, so the decision-making gets so decentralized. That is where the leadership is really tested.

In the Army, leadership is an acronym: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity and Personal Courage. You wear it on a dog tag around your neck in basic training. You have conversations in basic training about "what is integrity?" One time someone explained integrity as doing the right thing, even when nobody's looking. So you have to explain to each other, and you have to explain to an 18-year-old who's got $50,000 in cash sitting in front of them because somebody from State dropped it in, and his wife can't pay the mortgage. You've gotta tell that guy, "Hey man, I know what you're thinking, but you've got to leave the money alone." The integrity checks that these guys and gals have to go through are unbelievable.

When you came back to the U.S. in the spring of 2004, was there an organization of any kind for this new generation?

I remember trying to Google "Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans' Groups," and there was nothing. There was one group that basically was a website, but no real group. I was pissed off about Iraq, but I was more pissed off about the way our guys were getting treated. I was pissed off about the disconnect.

So were you basically opposed or deeply skeptical of Iraq?

I thought it was stupid. But the question was: How am I going to make an impact? Am I going to go protest in Tompkins Square Park? Or am I going to take a platoon and try to do the best I can and make a difference? But beyond that, it wasn't just that the war happened. You come home and everybody's watching "American Idol." And I've got guys who are at Walter Reed Hospital right now. And the really interesting part of when I came home was that in Iraq I had seen guys who had lost one, two, part of three limbs and yet there was a question of whether or not there was an insurgency! I went on "Sean Hannity" and argued about whether or not we had body armor. He didn't believe me that we didn't have body armor. He thought I was making it up or was some sort of political operative. I was like, "Dude, we don't have body armor. That's a fact. I'll show you pictures of guys who got shot." So there was an outrage about the fact that we were so disconnected from this country that cared so much about us and threw us into the cauldron with ridiculous levels of support. Not only did we not have the public's support behind us, we didn't have body armor. We didn't have vehicles. We couldn't get ammo. This is the most powerful military in the world and we can't get ammo? They blew past cities, and then we had to go back into them later. We pulled out of Fallujah and then went back into Fallujah.

I know you did some work with Sen. John Kerry in 2004, and made television and radio appearances, but decided not to go into politics.

No, politically, I didn't have a home. So me and this other guy who had been kind of in the Kerry campaign orbit, we said "F*ck it, we're going to start our own thing." We had a basic website that was PaulRieckhoff.com, and it became Operation Truth.

Our first tagline was "We were there." That was it. It was on our T-shirts. It was to give voice to the troops. Everything from the real story of the insurgency to what is the National Guard was a question back then. It was just a platform for vets to speak the truth. It was a very flat page, kind of a message board. What really started to happen was the galvanizing of the community around a gathering place.

The core ideal was never political. It was that veterans want to connect, and we provide the tools to let them connect. Why? Because the biggest thing that they face is that isolation, because you're such a small percentage of the population. You feel so isolated. You feel like nobody knows where you're coming from. So once you get them together, you just put them together in a room and let them go. Some people thought that there would be thousands of vets coming home protesting. They saw another Vietnam. I never thought that. It's because the dynamic was different. It wasn't just about protesting the war. We wanted solutions. And it wasn't as easy as saying, "The Iraq War is bad."

What's the difference between leadership among veterans in that generation and this one?

A lot of the basics are the same. The core difference with us is that we are not part of the society, period. That changes everything. We've got to be creative, like we were in Iraq, in being louder than our numbers. Our policy director, Vanessa Williamson, who's now getting a Ph.D, she said IAVA was born on the media and the Internet, grew up on Capitol Hill, and will live on in the membership. We only had a couple thousand people, and these people in Washington were deciding our fate. So we leveraged the media, we leveraged social media, we leveraged the Internet, we raised money online, and tried to get ourselves inserted into the conversations that were deciding our lives. My father said once that vets are kind of like cops or firemen without a union.

What's the universe that you're trying to reach? How many people?

The universe we want to reach is the entire world. And that's not trying to be coy. We want to spread the message of leadership and empowerment to the entire world. More directly, we want to connect the American people with this community and with themselves.

We think the model -- we call it a 21st-century model for constituent empowerment -- the model we built that's heavily reliant on technology, that utilizes new media, that focuses not just on Washington, is part of our legacy. Others can use the model. It can be used with AIDS. It can be used by battered women. It can be used by people in the Sudan. If you look at the basics of our model, we think it's a really effective model for a relatively small group of people to make a huge impact.

How does technology change leadership?

Technology's a tool. Technology can empower leadership. It can empower al Qaeda. It's fuel injection and an accelerant for everything. And if used properly, it can be a kind of superpower. I think our community is a great example of leveraging Facebook and Twitter.

We even have our own exclusive community, that's our mental health program, that stops people from committing suicide and can talk about all kinds of stuff. We've got 50,000 folks inside, password protected. The key here is you just come here to be part of the community. Community of Veterans is the name, and that was built with the Ad Council and was designed to be a mental health support program.

When you come into that community, it's an on-ramp. You might come because you want to talk about tattoos. You might come because you can talk to other people with service dogs. You could talk to guys from the 82nd Airborne. Whatever the vertical is, you come for that. Or maybe you come for a free suit from JC Penney, and that gets you in the door. Once you're in there, you have constant access to a suicide prevention hotline, to GI Bill information, to jobs. It's the next-generation Veterans' Hall. That piece of technology is core to everything we do, but it's not just about one piece. It's about all of them working in cooperation together.

So it's not presented strictly or primarily as a mental heath site?

No, because nobody wants to go to PTSD.org. Nobody wants to be the guy at their job who's on the mental health website. But if you go to Community of Veterans, you've got that access to resources. The technology is like having high-powered weaponry on the battlefield. It's your sniper rifle and it's your tank, if you use it properly ... Everybody around here knows Facebook and Twitter inside and out, because they understand their power. It allows us to make a $50 million impact with a $5 million operating budget.

As voters, what do the returning vets care about most?

They're voting on the same thing everybody else is voting on. They're voting on the economy. They vote on national security. So the jobs bill, every year we go to our membership and say, "What do you care about most?" We do a poll, did over 4,000 of them last year. So it's pretty deep. They come back and say, these our top priorities: It's employment, it's the GI bill, it's health care support -- but jobs are number one. Four years ago it was education. Then we got the GI bill passed. It's important that the organization evolve with our membership, otherwise we're going to be in mothballs.

But this generation doesn't seem to trust politics as all.

They don't trust structures. They don't trust bureaucracies. They're independent-minded people ... When 9/11 happened, it was a wake-up call for everyone in this country. But some people took it a step further. Everybody loves their country, but these people are thinking every day, "How much do you love your country?" And they've put something out there for this country. And when you sacrifice, I think sacrifice is a basic tenet of leadership.

Do you think your generation is questioning the wars they've fought more than the previous generation?

I don't know if more, but we got a lot of wars to question. So I think we are healthy skeptics. And I think that the reason why we seem to be more skeptical is that we have become the experts by default.

So in the old days, everybody could talk about World War II. When we come in the room and say, "Let's talk about Iraq," and Johnny raises his hand and says, "I've been to Iraq," everybody stops. We always say, "You're not going to get a lot of time, but you'll get a couple minutes." Every vet needs to take those couple minutes.

It's almost like star power. Before, it was harder because as soon as you started to talk, they'd put you in a box. Now, they really want to hear, because they know they don't know. So we are the subject-matter experts on everything from the military to Islam. If you're in rural Missouri, you're the only guy who's ever been to a mosque. You're the only guy who's ever seen a mosque. So you become the subject-matter expert on so many things and with that comes great responsibility. And with that comes power. I think our veterans are just starting to see that. We don't want hero worship -- which I think is where it sometimes goes, and that's not healthy, either. But I think there's an acknowledgement that these people have put a lot on the line, and they have deep perspective. These guys and gals have seen a lot of sh*t for a young age. And when you contrast that with the average 22-year-old, that's when it really becomes stark.

What does that mean for the future of American politics as it relates to how we deal with rest of the world?

I think it is totally transformative. I think there will be a number of presidents who come out of this generation of leaders. They see the complexity. They know how to prioritize. They understand the speed. They can see the playing field opening up. The Arab Spring doesn't surprise them.

They don't accept the old "clash of civilizations" framework?

No, it's so much more dynamic than that. I think it was Bob Kerry who said to me -- he was talking about a politician -- "He thinks everything is black and white, he doesn't know that it's all grey." And that's what we know. It's not good guy/bad guy. It's not that simple. It might be: Johnny doesn't have a job and al Qaeda paid him 20 bucks. That's why he's going to blow you up.

So are you optimistic about the future of the country and its ability to be the practical, problem-solving country it's been in the past?

We've got to recenter ourselves around our true values. The question is whether or not America will recognize it and whether or not they will utilize the talent that's before them and empower the talent, and whether or not we can make an impact. We're going to break our backs trying to put this country in the right direction.

Some of us are going to get tired and check out and go home. Some of us are going to be coaches in local communities. But I think 25 years from now, you're going to look and see a percentage in leadership. We're always talking about what percentage of them have PTSD. Let's talk in a couple years about what percentage have successful businesses or are community leaders or have made an impact in some other area that's positive for the society. The social entrepreneur sector: you see people like Jake Wood, who started Team Rubicon.

Social entrepreneurship is where the action is in your generation.

Did you meet these two guys, Dale and John? They're riding in a Humvee together, he's driving, they hit a landmine and he loses both his legs. They come home, both enlisted guys, and start a nonprofit program rebuilding houses for Vietnam vets. They're in the trenches, making stuff happen. Liz McNally is at McKinsey. She could be CEO of McKinsey one day. A lot of them are in business now and are on the fast track, from an executive standpoint. I think in 15 to 20 years, they're going to start being billionaires and CEOs and that stuff, too. That's going to happen. But I think they're really on the forefront of innovation, whether it's USAID, the State Department, green space, technology -- there's a lot of them in Silicon Valley.

Your generation is the one that has to use the technology to play it back into society to connect people up again.

It's all interconnected and there's a commonality among young people that I think is something we've never seen before. I think that is incredibly powerful. And they want to serve, and they are inspired. They need on-ramps, and they haven't seen on-ramps -- and now they're creating them. They're busting in, and that's what's really exciting. So I think there's going to be a whole generation of these folks who create the next AmeriCorps, the next Salvation Army, the next Facebook. It's all going to happen. And I think 25 years from now, a high percentage of them are going to be these men and women.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article gave Rieckhoff's age as 36; he is 37. Also, the authors of two doctorates mentioned in this article are Tommy Sowers, not "Saunders," and Vanessa Williamson, not "Williams."

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