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Ken Falke: “We must learn to regulate our thoughts”

To struggle well, we must learn to regulate our thoughts, feelings, and actions so that we can make conscious choices about who and how we want to be in each moment. Doing so requires having a close network of 3 to 5 friends and mentors (your “3–5”) who are principled and supportive and hold us […]

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To struggle well, we must learn to regulate our thoughts, feelings, and actions so that we can make conscious choices about who and how we want to be in each moment. Doing so requires having a close network of 3 to 5 friends and mentors (your “3–5”) who are principled and supportive and hold us accountable. Second, we must observe solid self-regulation practices. We know that those who can’t self-regulate often self-medicate, and this usually leads to disastrous outcomes.

There are several strategies that can help us all struggle well during difficult times. These strategies focus on elements of what we call the Wellness Triangle: Mind, Body, and Finances define the points of the triangle with Spirituality in the center. As you pursue these, measure yourself on a scale of 1–5 (1 being the lowest) and then start living a life where every day you do better than the day before.


In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. 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.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ken Falke. Mr. Falke is a 21-year combat veteran of the U.S. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) community and retired Master Chief Petty Officer. During Ken’s career, he made over 1000 parachute jumps and the same number of underwater military dives. Ken led thousands of high-risk special operations to include rendering safe unexploded ordnance, landmines, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Ken is a serial entrepreneur. He has started and sold two award-winning companies and founded two amazing nonprofits. Ken is highly respected around the world as an innovative and forward-thinking thought leader on the subjects of wounded warrior care, military to veteran transition, counterterrorism, military training, and innovative special operations technology development.


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”?

Iwas born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and raised in Alexandria, Virginia. My dad served in the Army and when he got out in 1962, he became a Washington DC policeman. My mom and I moved down to Alexandria from Pittsburgh to join my dad after he graduated from the police academy.

In 1970, my mom died of a nasty cancer — she was only 29 years of age. I was just seven years old at the time. My dad remarried a few years later and my younger brother and I got an awesome step-mom and two new siblings, a brother and a sister.

I spent most of my summers with my mom’s parents (my grandparents) in Pittsburgh. I played most sports and excelled in ice hockey; in the classroom things were a very different story. I was a terrible student in high school and barely graduated. That cost me my dream of playing college hockey. I left home at 18 and moved to Texas in the hopes of playing semi-pro hockey for the Fort Worth Texans. When that also didn’t work out, I spent a year running the youth and adult hockey leagues at an Arlington, Texas ice rink.

A year into my foray in Texas, I saw nothing positive coming out of my life. Having grown up just outside of Washington, DC in a very military neighborhood, I had many childhood mentors that were military officers and was always impressed by them; I thought a career in the military might provide the direction and structure I needed. So, at the age of 19, I enlisted in the Navy as an E-1, the lowest possible paygrade. I went from making $800 a month at the ice rink to less than $600 a month in the Navy; however, the Navy gave me a place to sleep and three hot meals a day…for free.

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

Today, I am the Founder and Chairman of the Board of the Boulder Crest Foundation. Boulder Crest is a Veteran-led nonprofit that uses the proven science of Posttraumatic Growth to heal, train, and advocate for combat veterans, first responders, and their families who have experienced trauma. We develop, deliver, and scale transformative programs to ensure these remarkable men and women transform struggle into strength and lifelong growth, so they can live the great lives they deserve. More broadly, we are working to drive change across the mental health system, in pursuit of a system that is accessible, effective, and healthy.

Our Purpose is to ensure that combat veterans, first responders, and their families can live great lives in the aftermath of trauma. Our Mission is to facilitate Posttraumatic Growth through transformative programs, world-class training and education initiatives, and research and advocacy efforts. And, Our Vision is to envision a world where all combat veterans, first responders, and their families have the training, skills, and support they need to transform their struggle into lifelong Posttraumatic Growth.

I spend much of my time raising money for the organization, mentoring and guiding our team members in Arizona and Virginia, and training people in how to struggle well.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I had a great career in the Navy. I tell folks often that the US Navy and my dad made me the man I am today. I enlisted in 1981 to become a Navy SEAL. When I got to basic training, I failed the eye test — so another dream was dashed. I was then recruited to join the Ceremonial Guard in Washington DC. I participated in over 1400 funerals at Arlington and other National Cemeteries in just 18 months. I was on duty and on the scene of the horrific Air Florida Flight 90 crash in the Potomac River in January of 1982. Late that evening I watched Navy divers recovering bodies and parts of the airplane and my love for diving came back to me and reenergized me to become a Navy Diver.

I transferred to Holy Loch Scotland in 1983. Holy Loch was a forward-deployed cold-war US Naval Submarine Base. I routinely heard announcements on the ship that “divers were in the water”. I watched with awe from the ship and ultimately walked down to the barge where the diver’s locker was and met a Chief Petty Officer diver. After brief introductions, he suggested I go next door and meet the EOD Divers. EOD is Explosive Ordnance Disposal, or Bomb Disposal. The next 19 years of my career were spent in this very small, humble, and elite community.

My wife and I have been married since 1983. My family and I spent about half of our career overseas and that other half on various bases in the US to include Virginia Beach and San Diego. Our oldest daughter was born in Virginia Beach and our youngest daughter in Bermuda.

I rose to the rank of Master Chief Petty Officer, the highest enlisted rank in the Navy. And, after 21+ years of service, retired honorably in July of 2002.

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

During my career, I made over 1000 parachute jumps and the same number of underwater dives. I led thousands of high- risk special operations to include rendering safe unexploded ordnance, landmines, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). It’s hard to get to the “most interesting”. I trained thousands of folks, many rising to the ranks of Master Chief Petty Officer and even Admiral. Many of the missions we did are classified.

However, there is one event I’d like to share that has really stuck with me as a valuable lesson learned.

I had just got home from work on a Friday night when we were stationed in Bermuda. I hadn’t been in the house more than five minutes when the phone rang from one of my teammates saying get back to work, we have to helicopter out to a Navy Warship in distress that was 80 miles off the coast.

We had a five-man EOD Team in Bermuda and our primary mission was to be ready and able to parachute in to a very large geographic area of the Atlantic Ocean to help Naval ships in distress, specifically ones with nuclear weapons onboard. The mission of Navy EOD operators is to be able to render safe military and improvised ordnance including chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.

Anyway, I was one of two Chief Petty Officers on our team. The other one was a jerk and a super hard ass. We had a great officer-in-charge who was an EOD operator, a former Navy SEAL, and a great guy. I was the peacekeeper on the team. I had high hopes that our boss would one day fire this other Chief. I always told the two other junior enlisted guys on the team that although this other Chief was a jerk, he was a good operator and that when “shit hit the fan,” at least we would be able to count on him.

Back to the mission. We loaded up the helicopter with our gear. The info we had from the call was that two Navy ships were in a towing exercise and the towing line broke and tangled around one of the ship’s shafts and the ship was “dead in the water” — a Captain’s worst nightmare. The mission sounded easy: take a knife, cut some line off the ship’s shaft, and get her underway.

Oh no! Nothing is ever that easy. You see, this 6” nylon towing line was 600’ long. We found 300’ of it on the towed ship and the other 300’ had literally melted around the shaft of the towing ship and it was like a solid piece of fiberglass.

We came up with a creative way to cut this. The melted line was about 2 feet thick. We could cut about a ½” section at a time before our knives dulled and then had to resharpen. I won’t get in to all the details, but we got pretty creative.

By the second day, we were about halfway through the two feet blob of melted line. Remember, when working hard with a single SCUBA tank, you can stay underwater for about 30 minutes. We only had 10 SCUBA tanks, so we had to recharge those with a very small compressor in between dives as well. This is not a fast process.

By the third day, we were tired, the winds had picked up, the sharks had come to see what we were up to, and this ship was getting pushed through the water so fast that we had to tie ourselves to the ship to keep cutting the melted mess. The current created by the wind was faster than a human can swim.

All during these days, the other Chief (the Jerk) hadn’t made one dive. The other four of us were fairly tired. So, I finished a very frustrating dive on this third day. Frustrating because the current was so strong it kept my mask vibrating on my face and flooding it for the entire 30-minute dive. And, on my last cut on that dive, I could finally see the metal shaft of the ship, but still couldn’t free the mess.

When I got back on the ship, I told my team we were almost there. I suggested to “the Jerk”, that he make the final dive and clear the jam. He jumped at the idea (wanted to be the Hero). We got him ready for the dive and walked him through all the intricacies to be successful. He entered the water and within five minutes, he was on the surface screaming in sheer panic. The strong current had taken his mask off and he started bitching that we, EOD divers, shouldn’t be doing this kind of work. The most embarrassing part of his screaming fit is that my boss and I were standing on the ship’s railing looking down, and next to us was the ship’s Captain and his senior enlisted man.

We got “the Jerk” into the dive boat, calmed him down (I really wanted to stab him and feed him to the sharks), and put our youngest diver in to finish the job. In less than 10 minutes, this young teammate, became the hero of the day, freeing the ship’s shaft from entanglement.

I learned a lot in those three days: 1) How to dive in very tough conditions, 2) How to rapidly sharpen knives, 3) How to overcome a fear of sharks, 4) Why you should never jump on a job for the glory and, 5) That you should NEVER make excuses for a “Jerk”, no matter how good of an operator you “think” they are! Why? Because you really don’t know how people will behave until the real pressure is on!

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.

“Hero” must be the most hated word in the US military. No one joins the service to become a hero. What normally happens is that something terrible happens and someone steps in to help. Like guys on a train that jump in to take down a gunman, or the Navy SEAL that throws his body on top of a grenade to save the other men in his unit, or the young Sailor driving home from work who witnesses a car crash and stops and rescues the woman and her baby inside. There are literally thousands of stories like this that happened during my career, before my career, and after my career.

If you really want to read about heroic stories, read Medal of Honor recipients award citations!

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

I don’t have a specific story to share, but I do have a definition for you to consider — “A hero is an ordinary person that endured an extraordinary experience who then returns to share the lessons they learned, so that they can enrich the lives of others.” Many folks that perform heroic tasks don’t follow through on the last part of the definition and I think that’s why most military personnel hate the word Hero. Those that don’t follow through by helping to enrich others tend to be egomaniacs that are only looking out for themselves and their 15 minutes of fame! I always tell folks that heroism and humility rhyme! If someone is bragging about their military service, I can almost guarantee you that it’s BS. It’s the quiet ones to be awe of.

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

The short answer is Yes! The longer version of yes is that the Military is an organization that does a great job of producing independent thinkers and trains all ranks in leadership and leadership progression.

On leadership, I define it as a verb. To me, a leader is someone who helps people get to a place that they couldn’t get to on their own. Great leaders have three qualities: 1) A high IQ, 2) Great technical abilities and, 3) A high level of emotional intelligence (EQ). Great leaders are always learning and improving and lifelong learning and continuous improvement is the military way.

On entrepreneurism, the military produces great independent thinkers and diverse people that are not afraid to share their opinions. The military teaches us how to build and rely on a team and not go it alone. This translates well to the networking skills required to build and run a business. Businesses are full of ups and downs and the military teaches us how to adapt to ever-changing and even life-threatening situations. Finally, service to your country is true dedication and dedication and staying the course are critical to running a successful business.

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?

After 21+ years in the Navy and the last 18+ years in business, there is no way I can pick just one — or even just five — of the incredible people that helped me achieve my success. The list is long and plentiful and includes everyone from my childhood scoutmaster to my latest network of mentors.

I remember seeing a statue once of a guy chiseling himself out of stone and thinking — what an ass. There is no such thing as a “self-made” man. We had nearly 500 employees in my first company and every one of them was critical to our success. We have helped over 5000 veterans and their family members in our nonprofit work. They are all critical to our success as are our staff, volunteers, and donors.

I do tell folks all the time how important it is to have a very small network, 3–5 people, who can serve as mentors that help you along the way. I have had this type of support throughout the phases of my life, with different people based upon where I was/am in life, but the common denominator is that they have always been people I admire and would like to be like (in my own way)!

The one person that sticks out the most to me is my first Navy EOD Chief Petty Officer, Skip Jorgensen. Skip recently passed away from a horrible battle with cancer. I don’t think I was really ever able to thank him with my words (I tried once), but I have spent a lifetime, since 1985, trying to show him. Skip was the epitome of a “do as I do” guy, not a typical leader that operates in the “do as I say’ mode. Skip was the epitome of a man and a warrior. Tough, smart, kind, and always teaching the next generation ways to be better. The guy could literally do anything, fix anything, and as the oldest guy in the unit, could outrun and out-exercise just about everybody.

The most important lesson Skip taught me was to live congruently. To ensure that my thoughts, feelings, and actions were aligned and that I was happy with the man in the mirror. I am!

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?

An intensely difficult time created by externalities usually outside of your control.

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

Planning is what makes our military great. We have war plans, contingency plans, and more contingency plans. Most companies have business plans, but they usually sit on the shelf and collect dust after the initial drafting.

To be a strong business in challenging times, businesses should analyze threats to their organizations and have plans made that can be executed during these times. The leadership team should fully understand the threats and have plans to overcome them.

Who would have ever thought, or planned, for the 2008 financial crisis or our current COVID-19 pandemic? What’s next?

I often get asked what the hardest thing I had to do in business was. I say, real estate leases. I was always worried about committing to too much space or too long of a contract, not being able to know myself where long term revenue would be. I think many have now learned a valuable lesson on long term leasing during COVID-19.

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?

I like to emphasize the importance of CHOICE. Like your question suggests, “how you frame it” is the key to stepping off on the right foot.

In the military, there is a saying “that no plan survives the first contact,” meaning once the bullets start flying, plans go out the window. Mike Tyson said, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

I don’t fully agree with either of these statements, although if we are talking “initial reactions” only, you bet that these statements are true. I have dealt with both the bullets and the punch in the mouth.

As humans, we become the product of our training and our muscle memory, and that is why training and preparation are so important for handling a crisis.

Once “the first bullet flies,” take a defensive posture, breathe, regain your composure, and fire back. And if your training is good, you’ll likely survive by returning superior fire. If your training has not prepared you, you’ll likely end up dead.

The great news is that most business crises won’t kill you, so: 1) Stay healthy and ensure you create a culture of wellness in your team. This means wellness in terms of mind, body, finances, and spirituality. 2) PLAN and PREPARE 3) Exercise your plans with your leadership team. 4) Have a backup for your plan. Knowing that there are 3–4 or more possibilities that any threat can take you. 5) Work hard, communicate often, and stay focused through the battle and know that you will have to adapt to the timeline of the crisis. Also know that your employees need reassuring along the way. They may not be as tough as you. 6) Debrief the failures and successes of your response to the crisis. And, 6) Update your plan to reflect your lessons learned.

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

As a leader, the most important characteristic needed is wellness. I measure wellness in four areas — 1) Mind, 2) Body, 3) Financial, and 4) Spiritual. A well person is strong in these four areas, has grit and mental toughness, and can endure.

In a crisis, a leader must maintain their high work ethic, motivation, self-control, and most of all, a positive attitude. A leader must regularly and clearly communicate to their team.

Finally, a leader needs a great team. A well-trained group of followers that believe in their mission are adaptable to imminent change, and willing to innovate and learn new things.

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

One of my mentors, Hunter M. comes immediately to mind. Hunter is a very successful businessman and the epitome of a gentleman. Hunter runs two very successful businesses. Both of his businesses are subject to the volatility of the real estate market. I have known Hunter since 2002 and watched him navigate severe ups and downs. I have never seen him lay off an employee. His offices are in a very humble and nice warehouse, nothing over the top.

In the time that I have known Hunter, in addition to the volatile real estate market, he was hit and almost killed by a bus in New York City, broke his femur while jumping off his boat, and two years ago, a guy ran a red light and t-boned his car, killing his wife in the passenger seat while he was driving.

Most people would have collapsed from one of these traumas. Because of Hunter’s overall wellness, mind, body, financial, spiritual, he has mental toughness, a healthy perspective, and is a fine example of posttraumatic growth.

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?

In March of 1989, I was involved in a parachute exercise. On the second jump of the day, the winds gusted to over 30 knots. Upon landing, I broke my back, dislocated my shoulder, and was knocked unconscious, and drug down the runway approximately 50 feet before my parachute collapsed.

After I was transported to the hospital, the doctors first said that the accident was probably a career-ending event. After my initial healing, I hit the gym and my workouts hard and by December of the same year, I completed my fastest physical fitness test in my career and was put back on full active duty.

Although I suffer with chronic pain and headaches, I remain in good shape. In the work we do in our nonprofit organization, we refer to this as Posttraumatic Growth. Although not as strong or fast, I am overall better today than ever.

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 am not sure that I can distill this into five simple steps, but here is my opinion on the keys to wellness. If you are prepared, you can weather any storm.

As I’m sure it has with many others, COVID-19 has forced me to look trauma straight in the face. Few things compel us to do this more immediately than threats to our physical health and to our way of life, including our financial security. A pandemic on the scale of COVID-19 challenges us on both counts.

Since 2004, I have been helping severely wounded warriors with their recovery. I am amazed by their ability to handle adversity from both the physical and “invisible” injuries of war. After researching our mental health system and looking for better ways of providing care to veterans, service members, and first responders, I landed on the research of Drs. Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun. Their work in Posttraumatic Growth validated what I have known to be true for years: “What doesn’t kill us can actually make us stronger.”

In an Axios survey released on March 24, 43% of U.S. adults said that their emotional well-being had deteriorated in the past week, and 14% said the same of their physical well-being. These rather extreme numbers show us how the trauma we are experiencing as a result of the pandemic is affecting our overall health. Collectively, we must learn how to grow from our experiences. We must learn to struggle well.

The strategy for struggling well is based upon the framework of posttraumatic growth, inclusive of five elements: 1) Education: teaching you what trauma is, how our bodies react to it, and what opportunities for growth look like; 2) Regulation: learning self-regulation practices like breathing, exercise, and mediation; 3) Disclosure: talking to others about what happened; 4) Story: creating a new story and how you will live the rest of your life; and 5) Service: how you can use your story and experiences to serve others.

To struggle well, we must learn to regulate our thoughts, feelings, and actions so that we can make conscious choices about who and how we want to be in each moment. Doing so requires having a close network of 3 to 5 friends and mentors (your “3–5”) who are principled and supportive and hold us accountable. Second, we must observe solid self-regulation practices. We know that those who can’t self-regulate often self-medicate, and this usually leads to disastrous outcomes.

There are several strategies that can help us all struggle well during difficult times. These strategies focus on elements of what we call the Wellness Triangle: Mind, Body, and Finances define the points of the triangle with Spirituality in the center. As you pursue these, measure yourself on a scale of 1–5 (1 being the lowest) and then start living a life where every day you do better than the day before.

MIND: A strong mind provides you with the ability to concentrate, be creative, learn new concepts and skills, and increase your wisdom.

  • Take breaks from the news, social media, and articles and dive into educating yourself on something new.
  • Less TV, and more reading!
  • Stay focused on what the experts say (CDC) and stay clear of listening to or proliferating misinformation and negativity.
  • Meditate for 10 to 20 minutes twice a day to keep yourself energized, calm, and refreshed. You can check out Headspace or Insight Timer to learn meditation techniques.
  • Stay positive and stay connected with your “3–5” via video chat, phone calls, and/or text messaging.
  • Clean up your social media “friends” lists.
  • Breathe! We use the 4–7–8 technique. Inhale through your nose for a count of 4, hold for a count of 7, and then exhale through your mouth for a count of 8.
  • Sleep 8 hours a night.

BODY: A strong and healthy body means you are fit enough to do what you want and need to do. Exercise, nutrition, and hydration are the keys to body wellness. A healthy body helps keep your immune system strong!

  • Exercise, walk, and stretch daily. Taking a walk outside is a great way to clear your mind.
  • Don’t overeat. Stick to planned meals and healthy snacks.
  • Drink 8 to 10 glasses of water a day.
  • Minimize junk food, energy drinks, and alcoholic beverages.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and help young children do the same. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid crowds over 10 people in size and close contact with people who are sick.

FINANCES: Financial wellness is about your external environment — where you live, how you live, and how much you have to live on over the short-, medium-, and long-terms.

  • Dive into your budget, and ensure you adhere to it.
  • Don’t allow the daily stock market functions and effects on your portfolio get you down. Contact your financial advisor for advice. Remember that selling in a down market can cause loss.
  • Plan for the next several months how you can live with less and cut your spending.
  • Consider a new savings account dedicated solely for emergencies.
  • Remember that material solutions don’t bring long-term happiness. Overspending can cause serious issues.

SPIRITUALITY: Spirituality is defined by your character, the strength of your relationships, and the extent in which you serve others.

  • Use technology to stay in touch with your “3–5” and loved ones.
  • Give back to your community any way you can. This current crisis is highlighting the needs of our children and the elderly. Be there for others.
  • Use this time to connect with your family and spend time together talking, playing games, and watching TV or movies.
  • Do an internal inventory of your character. Are you the woman/man that you really want to be? Check out the VIA Strengths Assessment for an objective measure, and have others in your “3–5” do the same. Discuss the results.
  • Live a congruent life! A life where your thoughts, feelings, and actions are all positively aligned.

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 work every day with a Team teaching people how to live great lives in the aftermath of trauma. How to Struggle Well! My movement is to improve the well-being of our nation, by first, healing those struggling from the aftermath of our nation’s longest war(s).

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 🙂

I was recently interviewed and asked if I could have lunch with three people, who would they be? I said my mom (she died when I was seven years old), Jesus, and Ellen DeGeneres. Why Ellen? She just seems like the kindest of people and always doing things to make the world a better place. If Ellen is busy, Bill Gates is my next choice.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me at bouldercrest.orgstrugglewell.com and on social on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter @kenStruggleWell.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

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