Kevin and Paul served together as the Executive Officer and Operations Officer in a Marine Corps Artillery Battalion from 2001 to 2003, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Two decades after serving in a combat unit at a time our nation was at war, they are serving together again to support military, first responders, and medical personnel while our homeland is again under attack — this time by an invisible enemy.
In the next interview in the series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crises and how to adapt and overcome from a business owner that is building his organization with Veterans and Military Family Members. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases, it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
We get double our return today because I am joined Kevin Schmiegel and Paul Cucinotta from Operation Gratitude.
Kevin Schmiegel (LtCol, USMC., Ret.)is the CEO of Operation Gratitude, the largest nonprofit in the country for hands-on volunteerism in support of military, veterans, and first responders. After serving in the Marine Corps for 20 years and deploying to more than 50 countries in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, Schmiegel transitioned to his first role in the private sector as Chief of Staff to the President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Schmiegel returned to a life of service when he founded a nonprofit called Hiring Our Heroes in 2011, and subsequently led two other nonprofits focused on supporting those who serve and their families.
Paul Cucinotta (Col., USMC, Ret.)retired from the Marine Corps after 27 years of active duty service and joined Operating Gratitude as their Chief Operating Officer in January 2019. He brings with him unique experience leading diverse organizations at home and abroad where he planned, coordinated, and directed operations in complex, often chaotic environments. During his military career, Paul served in a variety of command and staff positions at bases and stations across the globe, including during multiple combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
Kevin Schmiegel: I am from a mid-sized town on the Jersey Shore called Toms River. My childhood was defined by boardwalks, beaches, little league baseball, and Bruce Springsteen. I grew up in a big family with five brothers and sisters and was the only one of six to follow in my father’s footsteps and serve in the U.S. Marine Corps. In addition to being influenced by my Dad’s passion and fond memories of service as a Marine, my mother’s active role in our church and as a volunteer in the community inspired me to a life of service.
Paul Cucinotta: Originally from New Jersey, I did most of my growing up in the Pacific Northwest. I come from a tight-knit family who believed strongly in serving others, whether in our local community and church parish, as a profession (my mother is a nurse) or in military service (my grandfather served in the Navy during WWII, my father was in the Marines in the 1950s, and I have an uncle who was a career Coast Guard officer. It was my Dad’s love of the Marines and John Wayne’s Sergeant Striker that influenced me most. As far back as I can remember, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up the answer was always the same — A Marine!
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
Paul Cucinotta: Operation Gratitude brings communities together through simple yet meaningful actions, the consequences of which are beyond amazing and fuel my passion to continue to serve. We hear from recipients time and again about how much receiving a care package means to them. It’s more than the simple recognition that America is behind them when they are deployed far from home, it’s a tangible demonstration that everyday citizens truly value the commitment and sacrifice of those who serve in uniform — overseas or in their own neighborhoods. This connection forges strong bonds that inspire those who serve to continue their service, and it inspires those who support those who serve, to do more to support them. It strengthens communities. We recently received an email from an Army veteran who had been struggling with PTSD for more than a decade, he felt alone and admitted he had lost all hope to carry on. When he received our care package shortly before Christmas and read the letters inside he felt he needed to reach out and tell us about his experience. I get chills when I think about the words he used,
“I’m telling you all of this because your gift is more powerful than you know. It gives me hope, it shows the best parts of humanity, that we truly care about each other.”
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
Paul Cucinotta: I was commissioned a Marine second lieutenant the day I graduated from college and after completing my initial training served in artillery units in Hawaii and Okinawa. I was afforded the opportunity to go to graduate school (where I met Kevin for the first time) and then found myself roaming the halls of the Pentagon as a relatively junior officer. After exploring some options on the “outside,” my wife and I agreed that we would do one more tour. That was early spring 2000. For the next decade, with the exception of a year in school, I served in the operating forces. At one point, Kevin and I served together in the same artillery battalion in Camp Lejeune, NC. I also spent three years with the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment in an exchange billet, deploying on multiple occasions to Iraq and Afghanistan. Following a command assignment in California I returned to Washington D.C. to attend one of our war colleges, and then back to the Pentagon where I was intimately involved in the Marine Corps’ programming and resourcing process. After another assignment in the Middle East and subsequent tours in Command and Staff positions here at home, we decided it was time to pursue new passions. I reconnected with Kevin, and found my most exciting opportunity yet, serving and supporting all those who serve.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
Kevin Schmiegel: In January of 2008, I received a phone call from General James L. Jones when he was newly appointed to be the Special Envoy for Middle East Regional Security by President George W. Bush. He asked me on the call if I would take a position to be his military assistant and deploy in two weeks to Tel Aviv for the better part of the year to work on the peace process. When I told him that I was not an expert on the topic, General Jones said, “that’s not why I’m asking you, and I’m sure in a few months you will be.” The key “take away” from that conversation was simple — surround yourself with strong leaders who you trust and who work tirelessly, share your values, and believe in your vision — and the rest will take care of itself. A decade later I asked Paul to be the COO of Operation Gratitude. Now everyone knows why.
Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
Paul Cucinotta: The Marine Corps prides itself on its traditions and legacy, so it’s no wonder that I would share a story about a Marine hero — Corporal Kyle Carpenter. Corporal Carpenter was awarded the Nation’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor for his actions while serving in Afghanistan in 2010. As a 21-year-old Lance Corporal, and in the chaos of combat he used his own body to shield a fellow Marine from a grenade blast and was severely wounded. His heroics, I suspect were brought about by two things: one, the love he had for his fellow Marine — which upon graduation from boot camp becomes instinctual for Marines — and secondly, the bold courageous action he took. I don’t believe in accidental heroes, heroes are conscious doers. They are also, in my estimation, modest individuals who under times of great stress, act with such selfless, bold and courageous intensity that without them in our midst humanity itself would cease to exist. I met Corporal Carpenter years later, and his humility and humanity shined through in our brief but meaningful conversation. I recognized then that humanity — at its core is what defines a hero. It’s one’s willingness to selflessly serve others.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
Paul Cucinotta: It’s easy to find heroes in larger than life characters, fearless and strong. While many heroes have those characteristics, if even only for a moment I believe that all true heroes are defined by their humanity, their genuine love for their friends and true expressions of compassion, kindness, and service towards others. For Corporal Carpenter, that service began when he enlisted in the Marines and was exemplified by his actions that fateful day in November 2010 on a rooftop in Marjah, Afghanistan. Since that day Corporal Carpenters’ commitment to serve and inspire others through his actions, is what defines him as a hero in my eyes.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
Kevin Schmiegel: When people thank me for my service, I tell them two things. 1) “thank you for your support;” and 2) serving in the Marine Corps was the best thing that ever happened to me.
The fact is, during my 20 years in the military, I was surrounded by men and women who were equipped to lead Fortune 500 companies but chose to serve their country instead. Each one of them prepared me for business and taught me what I needed to know to run three best-in-class nonprofits. They were smart, passionate, and adept decision-makers; but above all, they were selfless, and they led by example.
At the very top of the list is Paul Cucinotta. Paul is a gentleman, a scholar, and a warrior. He served with his brain in some of the most challenging jobs at the Pentagon and fought with his heart in some of the worst conditions imaginable during multiple combat deployments with elite forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The sacrifices he and his family made and their service to our nation were punctuated by dozens of missed holidays, birthdays and anniversaries; 13 moves; and his wife’s fight and victory over cancer.
Paul is the best leader I’ve ever known. That is not hyperbole. He is caring, passionate, and selfless — he always puts others before himself. The reality is Paul could be running his own business or he could be the COO of a major corporation. Instead, and by choice, he is running operations for the largest nonprofit in the country for hands-on volunteerism in support of military, veterans, and first responders. In 2019 alone, he helped lead a team of 28 employees that impacted more than 370,000 of our nation’s heroes and more than one million volunteers nationwide.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Kevin Schmiegel: This was a difficult question, because as a retired Marine there are so many role models who have influenced me as a leader. There is a caveat, because success to me is measured by serving others. Strangely enough, the person I would pick is not a general officer; he was a Jesuit priest and professor who gave me advice when I was a senior at the College of the Holy Cross in 1988.
At the time I was having doubts about my decision to serve in the military, just months before graduating and being commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. During a chance encounter on campus with Father LaBran, he assured me with nine simple words to stay the course when he said, “we are all called to serve in different ways.”
Over my 20-year career in the Marine Corps, those words have helped me through some very difficult times — during long deployments away from my three sons, in some austere locations, and in situations I never imagined I would find myself. Every time I questioned the path I had chosen; I would somehow be reminded that there was a reason I was called to serve in this way. Whether it was talking to a young Marine about his own doubts and uncertainties or seeing the smiles on the faces of young children living in poverty in villages in Africa and the Middle East, those nine words would come rushing back.
After retiring from the military, the same nine words guided my decision to serve again in a different way, leading organizations with missions that focused on supporting our men and women in uniform and their families. While running a nonprofit can be exhausting and there were times I wanted to quit, inevitably something would happen at that moment to affirm I was called to do this, as if I was being reminded or nudged to carry on.
If I could have the pleasure of seeing Father LaBran again, I would tell him about those times in particular. I would share the immense pride I felt, after a 23-year old Marine combat veteran approached me in Chicago at my first hiring fair as the Founder of Hiring Our Heroes and said, “Sir, you changed my life today. I got a job.” I would tell him what it was like to wake up some mornings feeling overwhelmed only to open up my inbox and read an email from a recipient of an Operation Gratitude Care Package saying how a simple expression of appreciation in a white box made a difference at a challenging time in his or her life.
It is in those very moments — in reading the words of a Service Member who desperately missed his family during his first extended deployment away from home, and in the words of a Wounded Hero’s Caregiver who reached out on Christmas Eve to say thank you for the only present with her name on it under the tree — when I realize that continuing to serve is something I must do. Success is not always measured by the size of your house or your bank account. For me it will always be about the impact we make on people who deserve our support.
We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?
Paul Cucinotta: We tend to think of crises as catastrophic or alarming events, many of which occur without notice or warning. I think it’s less dramatic than that, but significant, nonetheless. Simply put, I would define a crisis as an emergent problem or event, or an emergency situation that requires immediate attention or response in order to avoid a catastrophe. That is not to downplay a crisis, but to recognize their potential and probability, and that as leaders we must routinely plan for their existence/emergence.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
Paul Cucinotta: In the military, we go through a very detailed planning process, which among other things requires us to conduct Operational Risk Management — a process to recognize, assess and mitigate, or in some cases avoid the risks associated with military operations. One of my former commanders simplified it as, “what if analysis.” Business and military leaders alike should constantly be thinking about the environment in which they operate and the associated risks. As the environment changes, or even more so in anticipation of environmental changes leaders should be “what-if’ing” different scenarios, so when crisis strikes, they are ready to respond. The old adage hope for the best and plan for the worst doesn’t really hold true. Instead, leaders should plan for the best and plan for the worst, and the likely scenarios in between.
There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?
Kevin Schmiegel: The first thing people should do when they realize they are in a crisis situation is to view the imposing challenge as an opportunity. This approach may be a dramatic change to the way many people are thinking about the challenges associated with COVID-19. As a leader, this is something I not only tell our employees at Operation Gratitude, but also younger veterans who I mentor, and my own three sons who are experiencing a 9/11 defining moment as millennials. Once those opportunities are identified, the next step is to exploit them and take actionable steps to adapt and evolve as an individual or as an organization. Three weeks ago, Paul and I discussed the possibility of shutting down operations, now Operation Gratitude is poised to deliver more than 400 bulk deliveries of more than 5 million critically needed items to 300,000 heroes on the front-lines of this pandemic with the help of one million grateful Americans over the next two months. Every challenge is an opportunity.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
- Remain focused on the mission — while the operating environment may have changed, in most cases the mission has not. Keeping mission-focused allows leaders to prioritize resources to those functions and activities most critical to mission success.
- Remain positive — a crisis rarely means the end of the world. In fact, there are countless examples of organizations that not only survive but thrive during times of crisis. A positive example along with engaged leadership often turns the challenges of a crisis into opportunities for action, which often leads to rapid response/recovery and generates momentum for even greater success coming out of the crisis.
- Remain calm — this goes hand in hand with “remain positive”. If the boss isn’t freaking out, then it must not be that bad (or he doesn’t care). Leaders set the tone, and whether in combat or responding to the loss of an important client/customer, if the boss’ confidence isn’t shaken, then the rest of the team will generally stay calm, positive and focused too.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Paul Cucinotta: I could give you dozens of examples of military leaders who exhibit these traits, both during ordinary times and during times of crisis. It’s not surprising, especially for senior leaders who have years of training and real-world experiences under their belts that prepare them for crisis situations. The first person that comes to mind, however, is the battalion commander with whom Kevin and I served during our time together in Camp Lejeune. He was always one step ahead of us, which wasn’t easy for me as the operations officer — I was supposed to be on top of everything. When it came to training, preparing for deployments, conducting operations, or taking care of Marines — he was all business. Focused, calm, cool and collected. But he was also positive, and when he knew we needed it would offer a joke, a jeer, or a kind word. And, we suffered our setbacks, including the death of a Marine. In those times he not only helped us survive, but he made sure we grew stronger despite the challenges before us.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
Paul Cucinotta: My wife is a cancer survivor. She’s doing well now, thank God but it was a trying time for her and us. It was almost 20 years ago when she was diagnosed, and it just so happened to have happened during a PCS move. This was pre-911, but we still had deployments. During the course of her treatment, I was either deployed or off month-long training events on three separate occasions. We survived, but not without our bumps and bruises, physically and emotionally. Our faith in God and each other got us through. The support of family and friends, including our extended Marine Corps “family”, were a significant help. I share this story because it exemplifies what military families often endure while simultaneously dealing with the uncertainties of military life, including long separations, deployments, and responding to crisis on a foreign shore somewhere or on the home front.
Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Communicate as often as possible. One thing I have learned over the past four weeks is technology allows us to connect with people we know personally and professionally frequently and face to face. You don’t have to talk to someone for an hour to make a difference. Using your computer and mobile device and taking advantage of applications like Zoom, UberConference, and FaceTime can fundamentally change our ability to deal with this unprecedented crisis.
- Say a few simple words of encouragement. These are difficult times for everyone — telling someone you care about that you love them or someone you work with that you appreciate them is the easiest way to reassure and encourage those around us who are feeling anxious.
- Adopt a “glass is always half full” mentality. Despite being an inherently “glass half empty” person myself, I have seen over and over again that everyone around us needs positive reinforcement right now Looking on the bright side of things to emphasize the good that is happening around us is an important step we can all take to support each other.
- See every challenge as an opportunity. This step is a change to the way many people may be thinking about and approaching the challenges associated with COVID-19. As a leader, this is something I not only tell our employees but also younger veterans who I mentor and my own three sons who are experiencing a 9/11 defining moment for their generation.
- Focus on serving others with acts of kindness. In my opinion, this is the best advice you can give someone who is feeling anxious. Finding a simple way to help those most in need is a great way to cope with your own anxiety and uncertainty. Acts of kindness like saying thank you to a front-line responder with a handwritten letter and getting your children or other family members to do the same give us all a sense of purpose and a means to focus on others while putting our own anxieties at arm’s length.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Kevin Schmiegel: Bridging the civilian-service divide. Operation Gratitude was founded 17 years ago to show appreciation to deployed Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan who worked tirelessly in the face of life-threatening dangers to protect the freedoms and securities we enjoy as Americans. Our Founder, Carolyn Blashek wanted them to know that they had the unwavering support of grateful Americans everywhere.
As our nation’s longest war continues, a majority of military families feel increasingly isolated from their communities and disconnected from their civilian counterparts. This isolation along with the fact that Americans are also less personally connected to military service than ever before has caused what is commonly referred to as the civilian-military divide. We see a similar “civilian-service divide” between the general public and the 2.3 million police and firefighters who also serve in harm’s way.
As the Founder of Hiring Our Heroes in March of 2011, I was part of a national movement that helped solve the issue of veteran unemployment. Now as the CEO of Operation Gratitude, I believe our organization is uniquely positioned to help bridge the civilian-service divide through a grassroots movement focused on gratitude and acts of kindness.
We are building understanding through the creation of hands-on volunteer opportunities when civilians can meet our military and first responders in person and learn what they do and what they experience. Our movement to bridge the divide is focused on repeat engagements that lead to increased understanding, deeper connections, and stronger communities.
17 years after the invasion of Iraq started and Operation Gratitude was born, we as a nation are again under attack on the homeland — this time by an invisible enemy. In every corner of the United States, grateful Americans are writing letters of appreciation, knitting scarves, and making paracord bracelets in support of Operation Gratitude and the heroes they want to thank during this crisis. Since we can’t bring civilians together with military and first responders in person right now, these ordinary, simple actions are more important than ever. Saying “Thank You” in a hands-on way demonstrates to all front-line responders, including military, first responders, and medical personnel that the sacrifices they make are not only appreciated but understood.
These ordinary actions taking place in homes nationwide, add up to an extraordinary movement that is building bridges and forging strong bonds in communities nationwide.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Kevin Schmiegel: While this may be surprising to many, the person in the world I’d love to have a private breakfast or lunch with is Bono. Since serving as the Aide de Camp to the 14th Supreme Allied Commander of Europe and U.S. European Commander, General James L. Jones, I’ve followed the impact Bono has made as a passionate advocate on global issues. I admire Bono’s depth of knowledge and passion; creativity as a problem solver; and his ability to enlist the support of powerful allies from a diverse group of leaders in government, religious institutions, the business community, and philanthropic organizations. I have followed his work very closely to include his efforts to persuade U.S. military leadership to support anti-poverty efforts in 2010, and his testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee next to my old boss and mentor, General Jones, in 2016. Although I will never fully comprehend how one person, no matter how famous, can make such a profound impact, I would love to hear and gain a better understanding of what inspires him to serve, as well as the why and the how. Of course, if I did get to eat breakfast with Bono, it would have to be a reservation for three, as my wife, Laura Schmiegel, who co-founded Blue Star Families is also one of his biggest fans.
Paul Cucinotta: I served under General Stanley McChrystal during my time in Iraq and Afghanistan, and although I doubt, he would remember me I would be honored to join him for breakfast or lunch, or better yet a run around the Washington Mall. Those who have met or read about General McChrystal recognize him as one of the top generals of our time. I still remember the first time I sat through an Ops and Intel Brief and heard him give his commanders’ intent at the end. I was absolutely impressed, not because his comments were brilliant, although they were; and not because he was able to synthesize mountains of information and seamlessly translate it all into action, although he was. Two things impressed me most. First was the calm confidence in which he spoke, and the second, I understood everything he said and knew exactly what I needed to do regardless of the situation at hand. His focus, direction, and positivity made me confident in him, the team, and even myself despite the challenges we faced.
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