Hello, everyone, and welcome to our ninth episode of Risk Playbook. I'm Mike Mitchell, Vice Chairman of Graham Company, and today, I'm joined by General Mike Linnington, CEO of Wounded Warrior Project.
General Linnington had a remarkable 35-year career in the United States military, which included three tours in combat operations. He's a decorated veteran, earning several awards and achievements for his military service, including a Bronze Star, Legion of Merit and Distinguished Service Medal. It was also recently announced that General Linnington will serve as Grand Marshal for this year's New York Veteran’s Day Parade, which is produced by the United War Veterans Council and is considered the nation's largest Veteran’s Day event.
In 2016, General Linnington was named CEO of Wounded Warrior Project. He is responsible for the day-to-day operations, and he works to implement the organization's strategic vision.
Under his leadership, Wounded Warrior Project has grown substantially while continuing to serve the needs of veterans who have fought for our great nation. His career is a true success story. His leadership and commitment to our country and to our veterans should be commended.
Mike, thank you so much for being my guest on Risk Playbook today.
Mike, thanks for having me on, and what a treat for me to be on the Risk Playbook podcast.
This opportunity for me to talk to a General in the United States Army is an extreme honor. And I will say also, on behalf of Graham Company and our audience, I'd like to thank you for your 35 years of service.
Thank you, Mike. I was very fortunate to be a member of the United States Army. I spent 35 years, it's something I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Well, it's a great story, and I'd like to start at the beginning. I know you're a graduate of Army West Point. I also know that you went to high school at Valley Forge Military Academy, which I'm somewhat familiar with, because it's right up the street from my alma mater, Villanova University, and it's in the suburbs of Philadelphia, which is 25 miles from where my company is headquartered. So, it sounds like you had an interest in the military from a very young age?
Yeah, Mike, that's very true. I came from South Jersey, actually, a family of six boys reading Jack Linnington Catholic family, all boys. One of my brothers was born with a significant birth defect. And my parents said, "I think we need to give our kids a little discipline." So they sent five of the six of us to Valley Forge Military Academy, and I graduated from Valley Forge in 1976 and then went to West Point.
And when you were there, was that when you realized that you wanted a career in the military?
My dad was a post-World War II Army soldier. We didn't know a lot about what my dad did in World War Two, post-World War II Germany, he didn't talk about it much like many of his generation. I fell in love with the military at Valley Forge, and Valley Forge gave one nomination a year to each of the service academies – Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard Academy. My senior year I applied for one of those honors school nominations, it was called. I didn't think I'd get the nomination. And then when I did, I said, "I really like this way of life," and I went to West Point planning on spending a very short time at West Point, and maybe in the army afterward.
With graduation from West Point comes a five-year commitment. I planned on a five-year commitment and joining my family's real estate insurance business in New Jersey, a very successful real estate and insurance business. And that never came to fruition. I graduated from West Point and 35 years later, I took the uniform off.
There you go. Another interesting point is it's a real family affair for you. Right? Tell us about that.
It is. While I was at West Point, I met my future wife, Brenda. She graduated a year behind me at the Academy in 1981. We got married the day after she graduated, May 28. And really the story goes from there. I mean, we've been married 42 years. Our son is a graduate of the class of 2005 at West Point. He's one of three members of his class that had both West Point parents, father and mother, my wife and I. So, he is one of three firsts. First generation of graduates to have both parents having graduated from West Point. Women were new to the military academy starting in 1980. And our son is today in Bulgaria.
Well, it's a really cool family legacy, and thanks to Brenda and your son for their service as well.
Let's talk about who is Wounded Warrior Project and what do you do? I know it was founded post-9/11 in 2003. I understand you have close to 1000 employees. Your goal in 2023 is to raise $400 million. You have 230,000 veterans enrolled in your program with an additional 71 each day. And I think myself and our audience have a clear visual of what you do as it relates to our warriors with physical injuries and disabilities. But Wounded Warrior Project is way more than physical injuries and disabilities, right? Tell our audience the scope of what you do.
Yeah, Mike, it's a great question. I'm glad you asked it because there's a lot of lack of awareness of what we do and the opportunities we provide to wounded veterans. Since our nation was attacked on 9/11, more than 3 million, almost 4 million now, young people have served in the military. Those coming back from war zones, Iraq and Afghanistan primarily, over the years came back with physical injuries. And that's how Wounded Warrior Project got our start. A group of volunteer citizens were delivering backpacks filled with comfort items bedside at Walter Reed for the young soldiers, Marines, Navy Corpsman, Navy SEALs coming back physically wounded. Think about it. When you get wounded on the battlefield, the first thing the medics do is cut your clothes off. So when you get back to the military hospitals, you literally have nothing except the loose-fitting hospital gown that you're wearing. So these backpacks had socks, t-shirts, comfort items, toiletries, playing cards, Walkman radios, things for injured veterans to help them feel normal again. And with that backpack came a promise that Wounded Warrior Project would be there with them throughout their rehabilitation and recovery. And that mission is maintained.
Today, we have teams that launched at Regional Medical Center and at Walter Reed. And over the past 20 years, as you said, Mike, we've grown to a very robust organization of almost 1000 people in 25 locations across the country. Our headquarters is right here in Jacksonville. And we provide a host of different no-cost programs and services to help wounded, injured and ill and their family in their transition. Those are physical health and wellness programs to help those physically injured heal.
We have a very large investment in mental health programs, we do financial wellness and job placement programs, we do benefits counseling, and we have a program that serves those with more serious injuries to continue to get care at home versus being institutionalized.
As you said, we have a very austere goal for 2023. It's hard to believe we're halfway through 2023 already, but we're heading into 2024, and as you mentioned, an organization of 230,000 registered wounded warriors, wounds being identified as either physical or invisible, and we're growing by 71 registrants a day.
Today, as we're on this call, 71 more young veterans will call and ask for help in the programs and services we provide. So, we have a lot on our plate, clearly, and a lot of work to do. And I hope our nation never forgets the 1% that raised their hand and say, take me, protect our freedoms and way of life, and then when they do come home wounded, ill, or injured, continue to support them in their recovery.
And Mike, people don't realize, I don't think, the extent of the emotional trauma. I mean, everybody hears about PTSD, but it's rampant in terms of emotional distress, mental health and even financial issues, right? I mean, you're there to provide programs and counseling. So, it's a lifeline for them.
It's true. In the last couple of years, certainly not just for wounded veterans, all veterans, all citizens, it's been a couple of tough years. COVID set us back, like it set everybody else back. We deliver programs in all 50 states in person. Those programs may be an adaptive sporting event. It could be a connection event, it might be a peer support group. It might be a Project Odyssey, which is an outward bound-like event where veterans go through challenging physical events during the day like ropes or skiing or hiking or adaptive snowboarding or whatever, and then at night, with a counselor around the firepit, talking about their experiences.
Recently, the bigger challenges we're facing are in the areas of mental health and financial wellness, inflation, the cost of living, the stress on jobs and the underemployment of many veterans, which is really challenging them. And if you haven't been to the grocery store or the gas station recently, the dollar doesn't go as far. So, we've answered, already, this year, more than 1800 calls for help – food, rent, utilities – to keep wounded veterans from losing their home or not being able to put food on the table. And that's about a 50% increase over last year's requests. So that's significant. It's something I've been talking to a lot of folks about how do we continue to improve the quality of life of those we serve, help them heal mind, body and spirit, and then in the same vein, help them find employment that can then help them provide for their family without asking for a financial system that's just to put food on the table?
Well, as a business, it's an amazing success story because 20 years ago, you started really just a grassroots effort, something relatively small and basic with some of the toiletries and everything that you gave the people when they came back with nothing. It's also heartbreaking. So God bless what you do. And it adds a new meaning for people to say to veterans or people still in the military, thank you for your service, because there might be invisible wounds that you really can't see. So great job.
Thank you, Mike. And that's one thing I really want your listeners to understand today. First of all, I'm blessed to be on the podcast. But if anybody listening to the podcast today has a relative, a friend, a neighbor, a loved one, a brother or sister or themselves, if they're in need of anything to help them in their transition from military life to civilian life, or if they need help in the areas I described, connect with us, Wounded Warrior Project, go to the website, sign on as an, alumni and get the help you've earned.
Well, Mike, it's obvious that you're retired from the military, officially, but you're still servicing. So, thank you.
This is Risk Playbook. And when I think of someone like you, I think of the military. You deal with managing the ultimate risk: life and death. When it comes to the business world. I don't know we were ever trained for managing risks. It was on-the-job training. But that doesn't work in the military, I'm sure. You were a brigade commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, high-risk situations.
How does the military, whether it's Army, West Point, or the military, how do they train the future officers to manage risk? I'm assuming there's countless hours of analysis, preparation, strategic planning, etc. Tell us a little bit about how you learned to manage risk.
That's a wonderful question. And I appreciate the opportunity to talk on Risk Playbook about risk. And certainly, as you said, time deployed in combat is the ultimate risk. Lives are on the line, and you have to make sure your organization is prepared to manage those risks. And we do have a formal process for managing risk in the military, which I'll get to in just a second. But as you might imagine, the ultimate risk mitigation comes in really incredible training before you go into combat, giving leaders the opportunity to experience tough leadership environments in training before they're in combat. And then lastly, having the best equipment in the world. The Pentagon's budget this year is over $800 billion dollars. Half of that budget goes to equipping our forces with the best equipment in the world, no matter what service you're in.
As a leader, you also have to understand the capabilities of the unit you're leading. Special Operations Command tier one units, Army Rangers, Delta, Navy SEALs, they're asked to do things differently than traditional units like I was a part of, even though I was in a pretty spirited organization in the 101st airborne division as you talked about.
And then there are different ways of managing risk and training from what you do in combat. The process is the same, but in combat, you have an added dimension called the enemy. The enemy always gets a vote and we plan for the enemy in a very unpredictable environment. And that's why we usually fight at night where we can take advantage of our incredible night fighting capabilities, night vision, infrared lazing, identification of friend and foe, all things that give us a direct advantage. And then we rehearse. Mike, we rehearse operations, religiously and judiciously. Hours of rehearsals for a short one-hour operation usually take place. And for every operation I've been involved in, whether it was in training or in combat, those that went extremely well or those that didn't go as well usually go back to how well you managed your risks and how well you've rehearsed. And then we conduct very extensive after-action reviews after every combat operation where you look at what happened, who did what, why did it go right? Why did it go wrong? And what can you do differently next time? The formal process is pretty straightforward, and I think it's pretty similar to what goes on in the civilian world.
We have a composite risk management process where leaders identify the hazards. They assess those hazards, identify the risk associated with those hazards, they develop controls, and then they make decisions and they supervise. If you're doing a night combat jump in training, you have hazards on the ground, you have hazards in the aircraft, you have hazards in the environment, the wind and things like that. You manage those risks by putting safety officers on the ground, in the aircraft, going through pre-combat checks, we do the same thing in combat. And really, at the end of the day, it comes down to leader involvement at every level, and then two levels above that leader making the risk management decision as to whether the unit has adequately mitigated the risks that are going to take place in that operation, and then approve the operation going forward.
Funny story, Mike, if you have an extra minute, one thing that we really have to separate, not separate, but understand that in training, you have the process, but the process, sometimes, if you're not careful, can impede what you do in combat. When we crossed the berm into Iraq in March of 2003, I was leading a 1500-vehicle convoy in combat right behind Third Infantry Division. And it was a pretty scary time, as you might imagine, and a lot of casualties around us. In the middle of the night, our convoy stopped, and I called the lead vehicle and I said, "Why are we stopped?" and he said, "Sir, the troops are tired, and I don't have enough licensed drivers." And we were in Iraq at the time. And I said, "I get that we don't have licensed drivers. But I guarantee we have enough soldiers on the back of these trucks that can drive them." And it's Iraq, by the way, nobody's checking driver's licenses. So, you have to be careful that leaders are in the right mindset, understand the environment, understand the situation and then leaders make the call. Again, it all comes down to tough, realistic training in advance and leaders making sound judgment calls in the operation to manage those risks in a really tough environment.
We're very fortunate for strong-willed people that have the stomach for that. It's got to make managing risks, you said, in the civilian world, it's similar. It feels like it's not even close to similar, right? Managing risks today in the environment you're in is not anywhere close to what you had to deal with before, right? But yet, I'm sure there are lessons learned that help you for whatever those risks are.
Absolutely, I think it really comes to not shirking responsibilities for, first of all, making sure that the risk management process is done correctly, no shortcuts. And then second, taking personal accountability and responsibility for the decisions you make. As you said, companies make risk decisions every day. They make these decisions with their eyes wide open. I think there's a bit of art and science to making risky decisions. The art, as I mentioned, is the best equipment, the best training, the best leaders, I mean, that's the science. But then the art really comes down to the experience of the individual that's got to make the call as to whether you do X, Y or Z or pursue the enemy or pull back or whatever the case might be. Leaders make those decisions in corporations around the world and certainly in the line of work you're in as well.
Let me switch gears for a second. I want to come back to risk. But you mentioned leaders and leadership. And I was thinking, as you were talking, getting through some of the things and some of the stories you told, it's not only about risk management, but it's about being a good leader.
This might be a good time for me to give a little bit of a shout-out to one of your Wounded Warrior board members, Bill Selman, who also is a colleague of mine at Graham. We actually have several graduates of Army West Point as Bill is. And I find the leadership skills of people that graduate from West Point is off the charts. I'm assuming that West Point does something to get that out of their cadets. And then, of course, being in the military, there has to be a lot of leadership training.
So, tell us some of the things that you learned or how you learned, what does the military do? What does West Point do to get the best out of people when it comes to leadership?
I am blessed, truly blessed to have Bill Selman as one of my board members, board of directors. And not surprisingly, two of his classmates are on my board and my boss is as well. And I think just that alone, if you think about it, goes to what West Point and other service academies and time in the military do for leaders. I am as close to my West Point classmates as Bill is to his classmates as I am with my own biological family. I think it comes from four years of shared experience at West Point. Some of those experiences are very positive, and some of them are pretty tough as you might imagine. But at the end of the day, what West Point teaches you is how to be an effective leader, how to share adversity, how to overcome adversity, how to be resilient, willing to lead as a member of a team.
No individual can win by themselves. They do so on the strength and the backs of those they lead and the team they build. And at the end of the day, I think my experience at West Point taught me, more than anything, how to overcome adversity and how to be an effective member of a team. I carry that with me in all my assignments from Second Lieutenant at Fort Ord, California, all the way through my time here at the Wounded Warrior Project.
I know Bill and his classmates, three of my 12 bosses, I'm very grateful for their leadership. It's an amazing thing what they do for Wounded Warrior Project as volunteers, giving back their time and talent to guide the future direction of an organization of our size and scale. And it's really, really important as we go forward to focus on what's most important.
I'm always fascinated by these discussions with people like you. The leadership capabilities and how people can be inspiring. To listen to you talk, it really is inspiring, and it's no wonder you were a General.
Let me go back to risks, Mike, for a second. I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Buddie who is the athletic director at Army West Point. We talked a little bit about risk. And of course, he talked about the risk associated with having a bunch of cadets at the Army-Navy game. But he also talked about reputational risk as one of their biggest risk factors and something that he paid really, really close attention to. Just curious, is reputational risk something that Wounded Warriors has to worry about? And if so, explain that to me.
We do focus on it as well, Mike. And by the way, I listened to that podcast with Mike Buddie. It was a fascinating podcast, a great discussion.
I think at the end of the day, when you lead an organization or you are part of an organization that lives in a fishbowl, you have to think about reputational risk. And certainly, we do that at Wounded Warrior Project. We have a very strong culture among the nearly 1000 employees we spoke about earlier. And our culture is based on three things. Every individual teammate, and we call them teammates, that's how they see themselves, has three things. First, they have to be mission-driven, second, guided by core values, and third, a pleasure to work with. Mission-driven, focus on the warriors and their families. Second, guided by core values. The Army has a set of core values, every organization has a set of core values and we do as well. And then third, be a pleasure to work with.
Core values, from my perspective, and certainly our leadership team's perspective, include a strong accountability for one's actions. Loyalty is one of our core values, not to each other, necessarily, but to the mission and to those we serve. And that is about managing reputational risk, it's about holding each other accountable for their actions, calling out things that you might not agree with, discussing things you have to do in the future, and then knowing that at the end of the day, sometimes bad things happen to good people and good units, and having the transparency to address those challenges openly, and then fix it. And that's true in the military as well. Unit accountability, transparency and having leaders committed to fixing problems. It all goes to the reputation of any unit. I know Mike Buddie focuses on that, like every leader of any organization that's higher profile, as we do collectively.
So, do you feel like you live in a fishbowl?
I do a little bit and I'm not worried about that. I say, I live in a fishbowl. I think our organization lives in a much bigger fishbowl. Our country is a bit divided today. I think that's probably an understatement, but I'll just say a bit divided. Mike, we want to make sure that, reputationally, we don't get caught up in any of the divide that's going on across our country today, especially the political divide.
We're solely focused on those we serve and those that support them. And at the end of the day, that's our mission and we're going to stick to it. We get asked all the time to opine on things that are not central to our mission. And if you choose to opine on those things, you bring your reputation, both personally and organizationally into that discussion. So, before you opine on those issues, if you feel strongly enough that you think your voice is important, you have to do it with your eyes wide open. So that's what we do. We have those discussions nearly every week. And we want to stay true to ourselves and those we serve.
That's probably wise advice for any organization, right? What my personal beliefs are, my political positions are, etc., they're mine. They're not my company's. It's not going to help my company to speak on those so I understand exactly what you're saying.
I have a great board of directors, Bill Selman being one of them, Mike. They put us through the wringer on these things all the time. And they are very clear in their guidance to our management team about things that we should opine on and things we don't. But clearly, it's really about staying focused on our mission and those we serve.
How about the risk of future fundraising? When I think of your organization, I think, well, you know what? We're not at war today. We're not in conflict. For many, it's probably out of sight, out of mind.
On the other hand, I also understand that the military is really struggling with recruitment. And as a result, your message to touch people's hearts might be forced to paint a picture that doesn't help recruitment. And so how do you, number one, the fact that we're not in conflict, does that hurt fundraising? Or does it matter? And secondly, how do you manage the middle ground of what you're doing versus, arguably, the military, which is somewhat connected to you, the message they're trying to deliver?
Mike, you either have my office bugged, or you've been following me on my calendar, because I've been very involved in these discussions over the last several months, as you might imagine, as our Defense Department's, frankly, struggling right now to inspire young people to serve. While at the same time, we're not at war. We're more than a year out of Afghanistan. Recently celebrated, not celebrated, but commemorated the one-year anniversary of our withdrawal from Afghanistan. You don't see on TV evening news every night wounded, ill and injured coming back. Those pictures, that outpouring of support for veterans coming home that you see on TV every night, helped us grow to the organization we are today. And we have seen a slight decline in our fundraising to meet the needs of those we serve, much like we did after the end of other conflicts, Vietnam, Korea, etc.
We are right now working closely with DOD and other nonprofit organizations to ensure that we tell the story of the benefits that come with military service, the opportunities that come with having the training, the mentorship, the leadership development, and frankly, the support that comes not just from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but organizations like ours that help the 1% that get wounded, injured or ill that come home that need help get the help they need, and then continue to lead and grow and be successful in civilian life.
So, we're working very closely with organizations to make sure that we don't do anything that dissuades young people from joining the military. And in fact, we spend a lot of time in communities with our veterans, very present to show them that if you do serve and you do get injured, there's life after injury, and it's usually a pretty optimistic one if you receive the right support and if you take advantage of that support that's offered.
Well, it sounds like you're doing good work, and I wish you the best of luck for continued success. Maybe, to wrap up our conversation here, Mike, can you share a story about one wounded warrior who reflects your mission and the impact you can have?
The best story is a warrior I just saw named Dan Nevins. Dan Nevins, what an inspiration he is. Critically wounded in Iraq, bilateral amputee, both legs missing. Dan went through a very difficult nearly two-year recovery period at Walter Reed. And then when Dan came out of the hospital, he pledged to those that were involved in the incident that took his legs, and it was a vicious improvised explosive device explosion that took his vehicle and the vehicles around it, he pledged that he'd continue to live and continue to give back.
Dan is an absolutely inspirational leader, role model and gifted speaker. He's a yoga master, a scratch golfer, a family man and a grandfather. Dan's path to recovery, healing and giving back as a peer mentor and a mentor for other critically injured service members is really inspiring.
Sadly, about two years ago, Dan came down with cancer after he had completely healed and lived life to its fullest, traveling, speaking and doing yoga to audiences of tens of thousands of people all over the world. Dan got very seriously ill with colon cancer, and the colon cancer surgery went south. Dan got sepsis and was in critical condition. We thought we were going to lose him right here at Mayo Clinic, here in Jacksonville. But Dan's spirit, his inspiration, his will to live, his desire to be there for his children and his wife just pushed him through and Dan came looking as fit as ever after a year's worth of recovery, and spoke to half of our workforce about how important it is what we do every day, and how we need to bring our best selves to work every day as he does and live life to its fullest.
As Dan tells his story, he always relates it back to those that didn't come home with him as a result of that incident. And now he's living life every day on their behalf, recognizing their sacrifice. And I think that's an important thing to remember, as our nation should always remember those that made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.
Wow, that's an unbelievable story. Obviously, Dan's a hero. It's a miracle that he's able to survive and just accomplish everything he's accomplished with those kinds of disabilities and challenges. So good for him. I can't stop there. I have to say after hearing that story, how can our listeners help Wounded Warriors?
The best way is to go to our website at WoundedWarriorProject.org. There are lots of ways to get involved locally in your community as a volunteer. Clearly, donations to help our warriors heal their mind, body and spirit are always appreciated.
We have some upcoming events that we're really excited about, some community fundraisers that are going on, golf tournaments, 5k events and things like that. We could always appreciate the support.
As you said, Mike, people think that because the war in Afghanistan is over, the need has gone away. The need is as great today as it's ever been with 71 a day signing up for what we're providing and the opportunities we provide to warriors to help heal mind, body and spirit, get access to the benefits they've earned and then get the financial counseling and connection with companies to find employment really, really helps them for years to come and their families.
So, I just ask folks, go to our website, get involved and support our mission, however you might choose to do so.
Mike, this was such an inspiring and compelling discussion. I can't thank you enough for taking the time to meet with me and sharing your story with our audience. It's tremendous.
And as always, I want to thank our listeners for tuning in. As Mike said, if you want to learn more and contribute to the cause, please visit WoundedWarriorProject.org.
Until next time, I'm Mike Mitchell, and this is Risk Playbook.