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.
As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Schmiegel (LtCol, USMC, Ret.), CEO Operation Gratitude.
Kevin Schmiegel 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.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Iam 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.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
As someone who studied English Literature in college, this is a more difficult question to answer than most people think. The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling stands out as the one book that has made the most significant impact on me. It is a book I’ve read three times at different points in my life, and it’s meaning, and significance have changed over time. First, as a middle school student and teenager, I read the collection of stories in the book quite literally. This changed when I read it a second time as a sophomore in college and was asked by my professor to interpret it in a deeper way. When I read the book a final time as a newly promoted Major, it was required reading for all Marines on the Commandant’s reading list. It became a lesson not only in leading Marines as a Field Grade Officer, but also later in leading dynamic and passionate teams in two rapidly growing and changing nonprofits. A passage from The Jungle Book that has significantly impacted me and has become a leadership philosophy for me is:
“Now is the Law of the Jungle — -as old and true as the sky;
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk, the Law runneth forward and back — –
For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.’’
When I reflect on the effectiveness of units with which I served in the Marine Corps and nonprofits I’ve led like Hiring Our Heroes and Operation Gratitude, I would attribute much of their successes to inspiring very talented people to work together to achieve greater impact and accomplish lofty goals. Getting people to see that the strength of the team is the individual; and the strength of the individual is the team is the foundation for a high performing organization and the key to success
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
- 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.
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?
In my opinion, the best resources are organizations that provide ways for people to give back from the comfort and safety of their own homes. Operation Gratitude’s immediate response to COVID-19 was a call to action for #VirtualVolunteerism, and we are providing tangible ways for individuals and families to escape their anxiety and uncertainty. Across the nation, thousands of grateful citizens are joining forces virtually to make a difference by hand-writing letters of appreciation, crafting paracord bracelets, and knitting, crocheting, or sewing Handmade with Love items for the brave men and women in harm’s way.
For 17 years, millions of Americans have volunteered with Operation Gratitude in their communities and in their own homes helping us to fill and deliver 2.5 million care packages. The grassroots movement that our Founder started on her living room table will grow at a time of great challenge for our nation and lead to a groundswell of appreciation for those serving on the frontlines of this pandemic
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
As a young student at the College of the Holy Cross in 1988, 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 a mentor and inspirational leader, 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, that “life lesson quote” has 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 that mentor 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.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
Operation Gratitude was founded 17 years ago to show appreciation to those who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan — so that as they worked tirelessly in the face of life-threatening dangers to protect the freedoms and securities we enjoy as Americans, they would 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 is exacerbating what is commonly referred to as the civilian-military divide. Unfortunately, a similar “civilian-service divide” is developing 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 can build understanding through the creation of hands-on volunteer opportunities during which civilians can meet our military and first responders in person and learn what they do and what they experience. Our movement to build bridges will be focused on repeat engagements, which over time 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. However, 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. Since we can’t bring civilians together with military and first responders in person at our signature events at the moment, 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, undertaken in homes nationwide, add up to an extraordinary #VirtualVolunteerism movement — a movement that is building bridges and forging strong bonds in communities nationwide.
From sea to shining sea, even in these trying times, Operation Gratitude volunteers continue to take actions in tangible ways to lift the spirits of those who serve. There is no movement I would rather be a part of.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!