Cover Story: Heroes Meet Heroes 2023 - U.S. Military Veterans & Olympians on One Stage
To honor Veterans Day last week, Veterans Advantage hosted its 11th annual “Heroes Meet Heroes” event via Zoom. The two-part panel discussion brought together notable veterans with Olympic athletes to share insights into their experiences, careers, communities, and challenges.
Veteran Panelists this year included Gerry Byrne, U.S. Marine Corps Veteran, Vice Chairman, Penske Media; David Caruth, U.S. Army Veteran, Marketing Manager, Strategy & Planning, Verizon; Syed Faraz, U.S. Air Force combat navigator, Harvard/Stanford graduate student, and Tillman Scholar; Rich Jones, U.S. Army Veteran, Chief Veteran Officer & Executive VP, Paramount Global; and Lt. General Martin R. Steele (RET.), U.S. Marine Corps Veteran, Fmr. CEO of the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum.
US Olympic athlete panelists included Michelle Carter, Shot Put; Scott Fusco, Ice Hockey; Ben Kanute, Triathlon; and Joe Maloy, Triathlon. Dr. Phil Shinnick, was the only panelist to be both a veteran and Olympian, as he served in the Air Force and is the World Record Holder in the Long Jump. The special guest honoree was two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist in swimming and Emmy Award-winning broadcaster, Donna de Varona.
The two panels were moderated by Vietnam Army Veteran Scott Higgins, Co-Founder & Co-CEO, Veterans Advantage, who thanked longtime Veterans Advantage benefit partners that sponsored the event: Avis Budget Group, Dell, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, IMAX, and 1-800-Flowers.com.
The first panel spoke at length about the theme of leadership in both the military and high level sports.
“I salute the sacrifices and choices you all have made to make the country what it is, and when I think about the parallel between sports and the military, it’s leadership. Leadership of a community but also leadership inside,” said Olympian Joe Maloy.
Gerry Byrne agreed, reiterating that after military service, leadership is often ingrained in veterans’ DNA in a way that’s comparable to any major University’s leadership training program.
The Zoom audience asked several questions about transitioning out of the military and Byrne cited his experience interviewing for jobs at the New York Daily News. He recalled that the people interviewing him were veterans and they saw something in him and took care of him as part of their community. He encouraged veterans to communicate with other vets and stay connected.
Joe added that in any transition, whether it’s retiring from professional sports or a military career, confidence in the transition is key. “It leaves a void but seasons are natural. Rebirth is normal. It’s a gift.” He advised creating a personal brand with 3 words that represent you and weave a story, and value your being.
Donna de Varona added advice on taking risks, writing down goals, and constantly working on your skills.
Another important theme that came up in both panels was taking care of yourself as a warrior. “What I gave in service is nothing compared to what I got from service. Especially the camaraderie. Make it your mission to take care of yourself with the same vigor as your service. You owe it to yourself and your family. Attitude is altitude,” said Syed Faraz.
The second panel went more in depth on this topic, with both General Steele and Dr. Shinnick speaking about developments in plant medicine research for PTSD.
“What’s the commonality between athletes and the military? Injuries. I competed for 12 years and had 15 major injuries. If you’re a warrior you get injured mentally,” too, said Dr. Shinnick. Michelle Carter also spoke about herniated discs in her back. “It’s easy to get sucked down into what you can’t do,” she remembered.
“You need to move. Art, music, anything with stimulation is good for depression,” said. Dr. Shinnick. “Uniting with people with common experiences is a stabilizing force. You have to take care of your body and your mind.”