Kevin Schmiegel: “Courage is not the absence of fear”

This crisis has only strengthened my resolve and my commitment to serve others. I have the best job in America. I wake up every morning with a sense of purpose and hope to make a difference in society and make the world a better place. I will give my last full measure as long as […]

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This crisis has only strengthened my resolve and my commitment to serve others. I have the best job in America. I wake up every morning with a sense of purpose and hope to make a difference in society and make the world a better place. I will give my last full measure as long as I’m on this earth to make a positive impact with my actions and hope to inspire others to do the same.

As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin M. Schmiegel, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who now serves as the chief executive officer of Operation Gratitude, a national 501c3 nonprofit.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

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.

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 its 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 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

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

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.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

When California announced its “stay at home” order, Operation Gratitude reluctantly contemplated shutting down operations, as COVID-19 prevented us from bringing large groups of volunteers together in communities nationwide. Our small but mighty team of 32 figured out a way to pivot and make a greater impact than we ever imagined in response to the coronavirus with the support of our volunteers. Our call to action to millions of Americans was to embrace Virtual Volunteerism in order to provide a much-needed morale boost to more than a half-million Frontline Responders through bulk shipments or “jumbo care packages.”

Since March 22, Operation Gratitude has already delivered 6 million individual items along with 400,000 handwritten letters of appreciation to 375,000 Frontline Responders battling the pandemic in 35 states and Washington DC, as well as military serving around the world. The care packages have made a tangible impact not only on the recipients but also on our volunteers who have found a sense of purpose, giving back during these challenging and stressful times. The stories and images we have received from coast to coast demonstrate how much the frontline responders appreciate the support of a grateful nation and show, as one nurse aptly said, “masks cannot hide smiles.”

The men and women on the frontlines are working tirelessly to fight an invisible enemy in unthinkable conditions while now confronting a second wave of this pandemic. They are exhausted and their spirits are at an all-time low, yet they continue to serve our communities and all of us with courage and resolve, so we will continue to support them. No matter what the demand is — they can’t stop, so we won’t stop.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

The COVID-19 pandemic taught me that heroes come in all different “shapes and sizes” and from all walks of life. You don’t have to wear a cape or a uniform to be a hero. So many Americans have stepped up to fight this pandemic and serve others in their time of need even when they faced their own personal challenges and didn’t have the strength to carry on but did. As Operation Gratitude supports hundreds of thousands of service members facing extended deployments, as well as doctors and nurses in hospitals, first responders, and National Guardsmen continuing to fight the pandemic and responding to natural disasters; I think of the words of our 26th President, Teddy Roosevelt who said , “courage is not having the strength to go on; it is going on when you don’t have the strength.” To me, finding the strength, courage and resolve to carry on in spite of insurmountable obstacles is heroic.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

Selfless Compassion

For more than three decades now I have served with (and for) heroes in the military and local first responders. I have witnessed, read citations, and heard stories about Medal of Honor recipients, as well as police officers, firefighters, and EMTs in communities selflessly rushing to danger because they genuinely care about the citizens they serve and protect. This year on 9/11, I had the honor of meeting Captain Justin Tirelli from Arlington County Fire Department who responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon 19 years ago. As a “rookie,” it was the first time he drove the ladder truck. Their station was one of the first to respond and they were repelled several times by the intensity of the flames but never gave up.Justin selflessly rushed to the face of danger and into the flames, because he had compassion for and cared about other people more than he did his own safety.


It takes a very special person to look at every situation and respond with empathy to others every time. Real heroes understand and consider what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. In assessing what must be done in challenging circumstances, a hero always considers what it would be like if they were in the same situation and takes action accordingly. I have seen this empathy from service members and first responders, especially in situations where they are dealing with families and children in impoverished villages, or when responding to scenes of domestic violence or devastating fires.


While many people attribute the characteristics of confidence and boldness to heroes, I would argue that heroes are full of humility and modesty. When I founded Hiring Our Heroes and in my current role as the CEO of Operation Gratitude, I have met veterans and first responders who were decorated for valor and conspicuous gallantry. When I asked them what it was like to be in a situation where they had to overcome all odds to save lives, they always said that the men and women serving to their left and right would do the same for them. Without exception, these heroes never want the limelight and were among the most humble and modest people I know.

Driven by Purpose and Value

Heroes are driven by a deep sense of purpose and core values that they abide by and are incapable of ignoring. They live by these values, and they are willing to endure hardship and in some cases risk their own lives to protect those values. Their values and purpose give them the courage and resolve to carry on with their mission in the face of danger in order to adhere to their fundamental beliefs.


For me, courage is the exclamation point on the characteristics that define a hero, because it highlights all of the other qualities I attribute to the brave men and women who serve others selflessly, compassionately, with humility and driven by purpose and values. It is also the one trait that a hero would argue he or she does not possess.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

When hearing this question, the first thing that comes to mind is one of my favorite quotes from Franklin D. Roosevelt when he served as the 32nd President of the United States during one of the most challenging times in our nation’s history. FDR said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” Americans serving in our military around the globe during World War II and civilians across the country demonstrated courage in the face of adversity. We see the same courage today in our first responders, doctors and nurses, and other frontline workers — ordinary people — who are helping our nation and our citizens fight an invisible enemy in unthinkable conditions.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

It did not take long for Operation Gratitude to take heroic actions in response to COVID-19, as one of our core values is to let actions speak louder than words. Too many organizations that support our military, veterans, first responders and their families talk about what “should be done,” and they spend a lot of time taking surveys to assess or attending conferences to speak from podiums or on panels. We know fundamentally what our deployed service members and those on the frontlines of the pandemic needed, and we took action immediately to support them on a shoestring budget. Within eight days of COVID-19 shutting down businesses in California and across the country, we reached out to hundreds of hospitals, police and fire departments, and military units and delivered repeated and sustained waves of gratitude in communities across the country. We did this “heroically,” because we knew we had the support of 1 million volunteers in all 50 states and DC, as well as the backing of dozens of service-friendly companies that didn’t care about press releases or who got the credit.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

Heroes for me are defined by service and sacrifice. The interesting thing about Operation Gratitude is both of these words not only describe the actions of our care package recipients but also apply to grateful Americans everywhere who volunteer and give back in a hands-on way. The common thread in our organization is service to others and the sacrifices one makes along the way to ensure every person feels appreciated, seen, and understood. This “solidarity of service” manifests itself in a full circle of gratitude that is initiated when a grateful American says “thank you for your service,” and is completed when a deployed Troop, veteran, first responder, or healthcare hero expresses appreciation in return. I have seen volunteers work tirelessly, take heroic actions, and achieve herculean feats to ensure more than 500,000 men and women in uniform feel the admiration and respect of a grateful nation. I have also received emails and photos from smiling service members who were facing extended deployments away from their families but wanted our volunteers to know that their actions gave them the courage, strength and resolve to carry on. To me, they are all heroes.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

The thing that frightens me the most about the pandemic is its persistence and the devastating impact it is having on communities, which is being exacerbated by issues of racial injustice, protests, and natural disasters. Our nation and our communities are divided. As someone who served in the military for 20 years, there is nothing that frightens me more than an America that is not united. We must do better. When I look back 19 years ago and what happened on 9/11, and the day after on 9/12, I cannot help but think that we lost an opportunity to bring communities together and heal a little. COVID stripped us of that opportunity last month, and I fear it will be a while before we are afforded another change to unite our country.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

In the 16 months leading up to COVID, I saw the true potential for Operation Gratitude to strengthen communities by building bridges between civilians and our military and first responders. In dozens of cities, we went beyond saying “thank you for your service,” and made meaningful connections between those who serve and the citizens they protect at massive service projects. I saw people from every walk of life talking, laughing, singing, and dancing — every race, color, creed coming together around a common bond of service. We created understanding and empathy and ultimately built bridges through gratitude and engagement. That gives me hope for the future.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

I am inspired every day by people across this country performing simple acts of kindness for those in need and each other. I am fortunate to see this every day in my role as the CEO of Operation Gratitude, but it goes well beyond that — I’ve seen it everywhere we go as a family. As a veteran and as a citizen, it makes me proud and it makes me realize that it is the greatest strength of America. On the flip side, I am disappointed by the divisiveness caused by political viewpoints and the inability and unwillingness of so many people to “walk in someone else’s shoes.” If people took just a minute to consider and even embrace these differences, we would get through these challenges a lot stronger not only as a country but as individuals.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

This crisis has only strengthened my resolve and my commitment to serve others. I have the best job in America. I wake up every morning with a sense of purpose and hope to make a difference in society and make the world a better place. I will give my last full measure as long as I’m on this earth to make a positive impact with my actions and hope to inspire others to do the same.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

From my perspective, one of the positive outcomes from COVID-19 was the opportunity it provided for families to reconnect. As a 20-year Marine Veteran and leader of three national nonprofits I have spent a lot of time away from my own family — deployed and traveling extensively to develop relationships and build enduring partnerships. It may seem very simple, but I would like to see households continuing to spend more time together at the dinner table, playing games, and engaging in outdoor activities like hiking, sports, and picnics. This is a permanent societal change that I believe is necessary as future generations become more dependent on technology and mobile devices and less involved with their loved ones.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

The past 6 months have been an excellent learning experience for Operation Gratitude, and as an organization, we have embraced seeing every challenge as an opportunity to have greater impact. 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. Every challenge is an opportunity and acts of kindness make a difference not only to the recipients but also to those who find a sense of purpose and hope in serving others.

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. 🙂

Bridging the civilian-service divide. 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 frontline responders, including military, first responders, and medical personnel that the sacrifices they make are not only appreciated but understood.

These ordinary actions, undertaken in individual households, add up to an extraordinary movement — one 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.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

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.

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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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