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Derek Abbey: “You can have everything in life you want if you will just help other people get what they want”

Stay focused on the mission at hand. We don’t have a solution to the pandemic, but we are addressing it as an organization. We can’t do fieldwork because it’s not safe. But we can prepare and we can strengthen our relationships with partners and supporters. We are already seeing new opportunities because of these efforts. I […]

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Stay focused on the mission at hand. We don’t have a solution to the pandemic, but we are addressing it as an organization. We can’t do fieldwork because it’s not safe. But we can prepare and we can strengthen our relationships with partners and supporters. We are already seeing new opportunities because of these efforts.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Derek Abbey, Ph.D. He is Project Recover’s President and CEO. He served for 23 years in the United States Marine Corps. His academic research and his post-military career have focused on connecting veterans with college opportunities, He began as a Project Recover team member in 2004 and spent five years on the Board of Directors before being appointed as President / CEO.


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”?

I grew up in Seattle and I was the only child of a hardworking single mom who was doing her best to raise me, someone who could only be described as a rambunctious boy. When I was 13 years old, my mom passed away unexpectedly, and it turned my world upside down. I spent the next four years living with my aunt and uncle until I could run away to the Marine Corps. The Marines gave me a structure and a system where I could succeed. It was exactly what I needed in my life.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

Today, I’m the president and CEO of Project Recover, where we make an impact on not just individual families but our national community. I could tell hundreds of stories about our work to repatriate fallen American soldiers. But one story that stands out in my mind is Walter Mintus, a Navy Aviation Radioman 3rd Class who was only 22 years old when his aircraft was shot down in Malakal Harbor in the Republic of Palau. His remains were recovered in 2018 after more than 20 years of investigations in the area. His story is interesting as he was a member of Squadron VT-51, President George H.W. Bush’s squadron. And the pilot of Walter’s aircraft was Bush’s wingman the day they were shot down.

Walter was from Portage, Pennsylvania. And we, Project Recover, were invited to attend the funeral, which was a great honor. In November 2018, we landed in Pittsburgh and had an entourage from Pittsburgh to Portage. The entire community came outlining the streets to welcome Walter home. Walter was buried with full military honors.

He made the ultimate sacrifice while fighting against tyranny, and it took seven decades to find his remains. What we saw with Walter and what we continue to see with our work is that it brings communities together in healing. Once we have the answers, our community can make progress, grieve and heal.

The United States makes a promise to our service members that if you fall in battle, America will do everything it can to bring you home. At Project Recover, we help to keep America’s promise to our service members.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I spent 23 years in the Marine Corps. As I mentioned before, the Marines were an escape after my difficult teenage years, and I enlisted right out of high school in 1991.

I spent my first enlistment as a communicator and was based at MCAS El Toro in Southern California. At the end of my first tour, I was selected for a commissioning program and sent to Oregon State University to earn my undergraduate degree. I completed two degrees in history in 1999 and was commissioned as a ground officer. While I was going through the Basic School in Quantico Virginia, I was selected for an aviation contract and sent to Pensacola, Florida, for flight school. In January 2002, I have winged a Naval Flight Officer and assigned to the F/A-18 Hornet and West Coast of the United States. I was sent to Miramar to finish flight training and join my first fighter squadron. I was assigned to VMFA(AW)-121 in December 2002 and deployed to Kuwait in support of Operation Southern Watch and preparation for Operation Iraqi Freedom in January 2003. This would be followed by three more deployments — two to Iraq and one to the Far East — with both VMFA(AW)-121 and VMFA(AW)-242. During these Iraq deployments, I supported the invasion of Iraq, the Fallujah campaign, the first elections and more. I have more combat time in the F/A-18 than I have time in peaceful skies.

Upon returning from my last deployment in the Hornet in 2007, I became a plank holder (original member) of 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion (now 1st Raider Bn) and Marine Special Operations Company Delta. I would again deploy, this time to Afghanistan to support special operations in Western Afghanistan.

In 2009, I was selected for the Advanced Degree Program and sent to the University of San Diego to earn a master’s degree in Higher Education Leadership. In 2011, I was assigned to the Marine Corps Train the Trainer School, where I finished my career as the director of the school. In 2014, I retired as a Major. I truly believe the military saved my life.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

I truly feel like my job as a Marine was to help other service members in dire situations, whether I was working in the air or on the ground. I often think back to a mission when a small group of Marines were alone and in the vicinity of the enemy at night. Somehow, they got one of the young Marines on the radio with me and I could tell right away that he was nervous and unsure of the situation. I just remember briefly talking to him and encouraging him to share all the information he had about the enemy. I remember telling him in a very calm voice, “You are going to tell me exactly where they are and then I am going to kill them.” That sounds very machismo now. But once I said that, his demeanor completely changed. He calmed down and was able to clearly communicate the situation. We then went on to execute the mission and get them out of there safely. Although that was a very stressful moment, the calm voice and communication allowed for everyone to work smoothly together and get some Marines out of a tight spot.

Often times when people discuss leadership in the military it involves someone in a significant leadership role or a heroic deed. But leadership happens every day under sometimes very stressful circumstances.

We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. 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.

When I think about the heroes that I worked alongside, I typically don’t think about heroism on the battlefield. Although, I can think of plenty of examples of that. The heroes I worked alongside were the people who invested in me and others with the intention of contributing to our growth. My first platoon sergeant, at the time Sgt. Maurice Ortiz, in my first unit was committed to my success. I was young and impressionable. He set the example for me and held me to a high standard. He used the power and authority that he earned in his service in the Marine Corps to benefit others. What I think is incredible about this action is that it does not stop with the initial effort. It is carried forward in waves that impact people beyond the initial interaction. Sgt. Ortiz’s commitment to me has influenced every person that I have interacted within the 28 years since he was my platoon sergeant.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

I believe this mentality is what translates to heroics on the battlefield. Investing in others without the expectation of reciprocity, in many ways, is the same motivation that drives people to put their lives on the line to protect others.

This also translates beyond the battlefield and the military. Zig Ziglar said, “You can have everything in life you want if you will just help other people get what they want.” The people I see committing to others, their community and a greater collective without expecting something in return are the people I look to as heroes in all contexts. I wish we could pin medals on their chest.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?

I owe my life to the military and believe it provided an opportunity to succeed while serving and after I took the uniform off. Many people say the military creates leaders. I don’t think that statement is completely true. I believe the military provides service members an opportunity to practice leadership at a high level at an early age. And, the authority the system provides protects those who do not practice leadership well. Those who recognize the opportunity provided and commit to their own development and that of others can blossom into incredible leaders inside and outside of the military.

I learned a lot about myself and leadership in the Marine Corps. I committed to my service and being the best Marine that I could be. And the Marine Corps invested in me because of it. I earned my education because of these efforts and continued to develop and establish a trajectory that resulted in a successful career in the military and translated to continued success outside of the military. I believe I still hold the trajectory and momentum that was established while I was in the military.

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?

When I think about the people who helped me along the way, they are all people who wanted me on their team in some way. It was an incredible honor to be asked to be a part of something and be recognized as someone who could contribute.

I remember my high school math teacher telling me I could be the next Jamie Escalante, a successful and well-known math teacher. Although I never became a math teacher, hearing that someone thought I could contribute to the betterment of others is something that has had an incredible impact on me throughout my life.

In the Marine Corps, I again received this type of invitation from individuals and the system. The Marine Corps selected me to get my undergraduate and graduate education. I was selected to be commissioned and lead Marines at a higher level. Individuals in leadership positions brought me onto their teams. The most important to me were leaders who asked me to join them in combat. This is among the highest honors someone can receive in the military. To me, it means you are trusted enough to fill an important role in an environment where others are in danger. Brian Von Herbulis brought me in to be a member of his special operations company, where we knew we would deploy to combat. When Maj. Gen. Christopher Mahoney became a squadron commander, he prepared his squadron for combat deployment and sought me out to deploy with his squadron. Having these people place trust in me at this level is something I will be forever grateful for.

Outside of the Marine Corps, I received similar invitations and trust. I was asked to take on leadership roles within higher education at the University of San Diego and San Diego State University. One of the most obvious examples outside of the military has resulted in the role I have today. Sixteen years ago, Dr. Patrick Scannon invited me to be a member of the BentProp Project (today Project Recover) to assist in searching for, finding and ultimately returning American MIAs. Years later, he would ask me to be on the board of directors for the non-profit. And last year, he and the board asked me to be the president and CEO of Project Recover. I am incredibly honored by the trust these individuals and groups have placed in me and I would not have accomplished what I have throughout my life without the support of many.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?

To me, a crisis comes about when you are faced with something that has an uncertain answer and it impacts you, your community, your organization, or your family and loved ones. This pandemic has proved to be a global crisis without a technical solution. Even though as Americans we’ve experienced several pandemics in the past, our generation hasn’t experienced this before.

My academic background has led me to practice adaptive leadership, allowing me to respond to emerging challenges. It’s easy if there’s a technical solution. But with a crisis, you need to acknowledge the issues, understand the root of the problem and work to identify solutions. Sometimes there aren’t easy solutions.

If the solution to MIA discovery were technical, we wouldn’t have 82,000 Americans still missing. We have to learn to work in the ocean, partner with host nations and collaborate with the Department of Defense. We face a number of adaptive challenges trying to repatriate missing Americans.

Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?

The nature of a crisis is such that you can’t totally plan for it. But there are a few things everyone can do to help prepare. The first thing leaders can do is save a bucket of money to fall back on. Particularly for nonprofits, this pandemic has been challenging as everyone tries to gather as many resources as they can in the face of uncertainty. Having funds in reserve allows you to adapt to the crisis, stay focused on your core mission and plan for the future.

The other thing leaders can do is build flexibility into their organizations. Doing so will allow organizations to pivot during a crisis and take actions where they can still have an impact. At Project Recover, fieldwork is off the table right now. But we can focus on strengthening our partnerships and conducting extensive research and building our database to prepare for future missions.

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?

It’s like being in the military. You can plan all you want, but once the mission starts, you improvise, adapt and overcome.

In a crisis, leaders need to pause and assess the situation. Once they’ve taken that moment, they can look for opportunities in the chaos.

What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?

Integrity is at the top of my list as a character trait and value, not just for surviving a crisis, but for everyday leadership. This crisis has changed a lot for us at Project Recover, but we haven’t compromised our values, our mission or what’s most important to us. On the other side of this crisis, we’ll do what we were doing before. But right now we are focusing on the impact we can make under unexpected circumstances.

When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

I became involved with Project Recover while I was still on active duty and I met our founder Dr. Pat Scannon at a World War II reunion. He invited me to become involved in the organization. And in 2007, on my first mission, I was part of locating a member of my squadron from World War II.

Pat comes to mind as a values-based leader, and over the years he’s shown true integrity in his leadership. When challenged with two options and the easy road compromises his values, he will always choose the harder path. His example has influenced me to always put our mission and values first in my decision-making.

Pat has led this organization through a dramatic change. We started working in just Palau and we now have a worldwide footprint in 18 countries. As the organization has grown, it’s evolved into something new. At regular intervals, we’ve had to take a step back, examine our values and our efforts to maintain those values. If there is any drift between our values and actions, we’ve course-corrected. People who’ve been involved with us for 25 years have seen our consistency even through expansion.

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?

As a young man, I found structure within the Marines and a path for success. I was quickly, perhaps too quickly, promoted and given additional responsibilities. As a young sergeant, I was responsible for a communications site. — a role I was subsequently fired from. I needed that hard lesson, and I learned that with growing responsibility it takes a conscious effort to be successful. I learned the value of consistency. It doesn’t matter what you did yesterday — you have to do it today, and tomorrow and every day. It’s a lesson that has stuck with me to this day.

Here is the main question of our discussion. 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.

I would align a crisis with conflict or war in the military. So, I recommend leaders draw on their military experience to survive a crisis.

The first thing I recommend leaders do is to stabilize the situation. This may mean different things in different situations, but in the moment you need to focus completely on the situation at hand. Once you’ve stabilized the situation, you can start to plan and move forward through the crisis.

In the midst of the crisis, I would recommend leaders keep in mind the following ideas. They aren’t necessarily steps, as they aren’t linear, but I believe they can help leaders weather the storm and emerge stronger on the other side.

  1. Take care of yourself. As a young Marine, I was deployed multiple times and I was in a marriage that didn’t last. The things that made me successful as a Marine didn’t make me successful as a husband. If you aren’t taking care of yourself, you could emerge from a crisis into a personal crisis if you’ve ignored your own wellbeing or relationships. Talk to a counselor. Go for a run. Spend some time in nature. Find what works for you. Right now, I make an effort to do three things every day — exercise, meditate, and some form of self-improvement. It helps me maintain balance even during a crisis.
  2. Stay calm. Calm is contagious. When you are in a combat situation and everything goes sideways and you start to lose it, you don’t instill confidence. If you can take a breath, it settles things down. When things are hectic, you can be a stabilizing force. When the pandemic first started, there was a lot of uncertainty and fear. We didn’t want to change our mission or message, but rather be viewed as an organization that remained consistent and stable while taking all the necessary precautions. As soon as we communicated that message to our members, there was a calming effect.
  3. Stay focused on the mission at hand. We don’t have a solution to the pandemic, but we are addressing it as an organization. We can’t do fieldwork because it’s not safe. But we can prepare and we can strengthen our relationships with partners and supporters. We are already seeing new opportunities because of these efforts.
  4. Focus on your team. As a leader, you should be preparing others to respond to and face challenges. If you aren’t doing this, you aren’t leading — you are just managing people. Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed many senior leaders work hard to attain their roles and all of the authority and responsibility that went with it. Too many times, I witnessed these people avoid sharing their power to the Marines around them. This stifled their ability and ultimately that of their entire unit. It was obvious that fear was at the core of this decision — fear of failure and mistakes as their subordinates learned. These individuals did not realize that the more they shared the power, the more they led, the more they would get in return. Their team would become more capable and more committed to the rest of the group and the mission.

Outside of the military, I see people in positions of leadership fearful of developing and growing their teams because of fear that they will leave when they become more qualified. The truth is that they will leave no matter what eventually. I would prefer that when they do, they tell their most capable friends and colleagues to join our team because of their experience.

Ok. We are nearly done. 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. 🙂

I would like to inspire a collective commitment to the return of as many of the 82,000 Americans missing in action as possible. The impact of this work is more than just the return of a long-lost loved one. When these repatriations occur, they have a wave of impact across the entire nation. The families of the loved ones come together to connect. They are provided answers to long-held questions and with these answers have the ability to heal in multiple ways. The community around these families come together for a common cause. With the current state of divisiveness in our community, this is needed more and more every day. These service members made the ultimate sacrifice and made an incredible impact during the war. Their return decades later results in the second wave of impact on the community today. Finally, when someone joins the military, we as a nation make a promise to them that we will bring them home if they fall in battle. When an MIA is repatriated, that promise is kept and our nation as a collective further heals from our participation in conflict.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. 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? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

Gary Sinise — I have been incredibly impressed by Mr. Sinise’s work on film, but most importantly his commitment to our service members, veterans, and their families. I think he represents everything I have outlined previously.

How can our readers follow you online?

They can visit www.projectrecover.org for more information on our organization, and we are on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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