Last week I flew to Washington, D. C. and drove to the Westin Hotel in Annapolis, Maryland, to attend the 5th annual Service Academies Global Summit. I was going to represent RallyPoint and also to speak. The conference began with a reception. Attending the Summit were graduates and current students of all of the nation’s military academies: West Point, Annapolis, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine. The SAGS organization is a non-profit endeavor consisting of volunteers, who organize the Summit. The Chair is Ray Jefferson, West Point Class of 1988. Major sponsors included Boeing and USAA.
The purpose of SAGS is to bring together the graduates of our nation’s five service academies for professional and leadership development; networking and engagement; sharing experiences and learning from peers and renowned global leaders; and advocating service to society throughout one’s lifetime. This last point, continued service to society, seems key to me.
Our pre-dinner speaker was Admiral Charles Ray, Coast Guard 1981, 31st Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard. During my time as the Secretary of the VA, I felt the Coast Guard was our most underappreciated service. Last year Admiral Ray said the Coast Guard saved over 12,000 lives—and many of those saved took risks to get themselves into vulnerable circumstances causing Coasties to have to save them. They also captured over 200 metric tons of cocaine. Forty percent of Coast Guard human resources are women.
After dinner the speaker was Carl Liebert, Navy 1987, who recently became CEO of AutoNation. Carl was previously COO of USAA. Carl played basketball on Navy’s Elite Eight team of 1987, which starred David Robinson. That year Army had the nation’s leading scorer, and Navy almost made the Final Four. Carl has had a great career, including the Navy, Home Depot, USAA, and AutoNation. He talked about the importance of culture and customer service.
Wednesday the day’s events took place on the grounds of the U. S. Naval Academy so we boarded buses to get there. The busses took us to Dahlgren Hall, named after an early inventor of naval gunnery. It is a cavernous building, with a Wright Flyer hanging from the ceiling on one end (the first airplane in naval aviation) and a large model ship, which was used to train Midshipmen to “know the ropes,” on the other end. The building is now used for concerts, dances, and assemblies.
The first event was hosted by the Travis Manion Foundation to explain their mission and ask for volunteer help. Vice President Amy Looney Heffernan spoke. She is the widow of Brendan Looney, the Naval Academy roommate of Travis Manion, who was also killed in the Middle East. You may recall Travis and Brendan are buried side-by-side in Arlington National Cemetery. Diane and I have known Amy and the Travis Manion Foundation from our time at VA.
The first panel of the day, the one I always love, was chaired by Brigadier General (Retired) Mike Meese, West Point 1981, about So Much Has Changed in the World! What Do We Need to Know? Mike led the Sociology Department at West Point. He is the son of Ed Meese. He also led the Republican Party Transition Team at VA, and did a super job. On the panel were General (Retired) Vince Brooks, West Point 1980, former Commander of U. S. Forces in Korea and now Director of the Gary Sinise Foundation; Rear Admiral (Retired) Pete Gumataotao, Navy 1981, Director of the Inouye Center for Security Studies; Lieutenant General Lori Reynolds, Navy 1986, Commander of Marine Corps Forces Strategic Command; and the Honorable Mark Buzby, Merchant Marine 1979, Administrator of the Maritime Administration and a retired Navy Admiral.
Some of the key insights I took down were:
We also discussed strategic competition with China, and how our adversaries operate in “gray zones” to test our willingness and ability to respond (e.g. Putin annexing Crimea, China encroaching on Spratly Islands). Mark talked about how we need more U. S. flagged ships since during an emergency they would move the military. Right now 98% of ships are not flagged in the U. S.
After a break we then had a choice of three breakout sessions: All About Money: Wealth Creation and Life Goals, Entrepreneurship and Start-Ups, and All About Corporate Boards. I attended the All About Money: Wealth Creation session. USAA’s JJ Montanaro, West Point 1988, laid out five questions to ask:
John Tien, West Point 1987, of Citigroup talked about creating social value through non-profit work, venture philanthropy, and impact investing.
We then took a short tour of the Naval Academy. We went to Memorial Hall, where the famous flag “Don’t Give Up the Ship” is in the center of the room. The Naval Academy is a beautiful place with its French architecture. It is interesting how our three major academies all are beautiful but with their own unique architecture. We also walked by the chapel, which is under renovation. It is here that John Paul Jones body is entombed. We went to Mahan Hall, which holds the original foundation stone that President Polk used to establish the academy.
It was in Mahan Hall that General (Retired) Stan McChrystal, West Point 1976, was interviewed by Rodney Bullard, Air Force 1996, of Chick-fil-A. I had the opportunity to talk to Stan beforehand. Stan came to the 1st of the 504th Airborne in the 82nd Airborne Division and took over my platoon in Charlie Company when I moved to the 4.2 Inch Mortar Platoon in Combat Support Company in early 1977. Stan did an excellent job talking about leadership, weaving in his two books Team of Teams and Leaders. He talked about his own leadership journey. He also talked about the work of the McChrystal Group to help organizations improve.
Our next panel were the Superintendents of the five academies with the exception of West Point. Lieutenant General Darryl Williams, West Point 1983, stayed at West Point given the recent training death. Attending were: Lieutenant General Jay Silveria, Air Force 1985; Rear Admiral Jack Buono, Merchant Marine 1978; Rear Admiral Bill Kelly, Coast Guard 1987; and Captain Tom Buchanan, Navy 1992. Tom is the Commandant of Midshipmen. He sat in for Vice Admiral Ted Carter, Navy 1981, who spoke later in the program. The message was clear—we are getting top quality candidates who desire to enter our military academies, and the academies are producing future leaders of character.
We then held a unique remembrance event for the five Capital Gazette journalists who were gunned down in their offices. The publisher of the paper, who was killed, daughter spoke about her mother. She is an officer in the Navy and an Annapolis graduate. It was a solemn ceremony.
Afterward we all went to our respective locations for our alumni receptions. West Point’s Association of Graduates reception was at Fado’s Irish Pub, next to the Westin Hotel. It was a good opportunity to mingle with graduates from all year groups. Marc Gunnels, Major Gifts Officer and our friend, represented AOG. There were separate receptions for Air Force, and a Maritime (Navy, Merchant Marine, Coast Guard) reception. After the reception Matt Collier, West Point 1979, and a colleague at the Department of Veterans Affairs went to dinner at Carroll’s Creek. We had an outdoor table on the water. It was a beautiful evening, and there was a sailboat race underway when we sat down.
Thursday morning I met Anshul Arora, one of our Senior Fellows at the McDonald Conference for Leaders of Character at West Point several years ago, in the lobby of the Westin. Anshul is working with McKinsey CEO and friend Dominic Barton to put together an education collective where leadership development is one core focus area. He wanted to discuss the endeavor. We had a super discussion.
After that it was my time to contribute to the Summit. I was on the first panel of the day, called Serving in Public Office as an Elected or Appointed Leader. It was moderated by Rob Gordon, West Point 1979. Other panelists were Matt Collier, who was a young Mayor of Flint, Michigan years ago and worked with me at VA; and Emily Cherniack, Founder and Director of New Politics, an organization that prepares candidates to run for office. We discussed the rewards and challenges of public service. While there were costs, we all agreed that the ability to help so many people outweighed all of the potential downsides. We challenged the group to get involved and serve again.
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