“A Common Purpose: Frank Van Buren”
Tell me a little about your background. Where did you grow up?
“I am a product of the military community, as my father served 20 years in the U.S. Army and worked an additional 16 years for the U.S. Government on military installations. I was born at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in DC and spent nine out of the first thirteen years of my life on a U.S. Army installation in Zweibruecken, Germany.”
“From my earliest memories as a child, the military community was filled with camaraderie, fellowship, common objectives and a sense of purpose. It was a supportive environment with excellent core values and wonderful people. I realize what a tremendous blessing I received to be born into this community.”
“In 1979, at the age of 13, we moved back to the Washington DC area, and my father worked in the Pentagon while we lived in Silver Spring, Maryland. After graduation, I attended college at Shippensburg University of PA, where I played inter-collegiate football and participated in the Army ROTC program.”
Why did you decide to join the military? Did any one person or particular experience lead you to that decision?
“My parents raised us with a sense of service, but never pushed us to enlist in the military. However, I naturally gravitated towards the military due to my feelings of patriotism, desire for adventure, the meritocracy, and my longing to be part of something larger than myself. So, it felt natural for me to join ROTC in college, with the expectation of service after graduation.”
“A curve-ball was thrown at me when I suffered a major knee surgery playing football in my junior year, which pushed back my Army training, commissioning and orders for service. A strange twist of events resulted in me electing to go into the reserves after graduation, then to resign my officer’s commission to re-enlist as an E-3 in pursuit of the silver aviator wings via Warrant Officers flight training. Many thought the risk was crazy/stupid, but I was 100% committed to becoming a pilot, and that was the opportunity that presented itself. I took it, and it paid off.”
What was your job in the Army? What did you like best about it?
“On active duty, I was a Chief Warrant Officer, and my job in the army was 153D or UH-60 Blackhawk pilot. It was a fascinating six-year journey, filled with challenge, global adventure and a sense of purpose. Many of my experiences and details of the story above are profiled in my recently published book “Life Lessons from The Cockpit”. It is currently being distributed online through Barnes and Noble and Amazon.”
“My favorite moments were in places like Honduras, where I was able to combine my unique technical aviator skills with the tremendous resources of the U.S. Army to improve the lives of poverty-stricken people living in remote regions of the world. We landed aircraft in challenging locations, at very high altitudes, and delivered medical teams to administer healthcare to villagers who had walked miles. It was very rewarding and filled me with a sense of pride and purpose.”
Who are some of the soldiers you worked with that had an impact on your service? What made them special?
“Well, the list is long, but I would start with Mr. Dennis Thorp (RIP), my first instructor pilot in flight school. He somehow taught me to fly and did it with the style, wit, and humor that made the painful process memorable and successful. I would include senior aviators like CWOs James H. Garst, Mike Halby, Pete Kalogris, Michael Baker (RIP), Mike Richardson and Kevin Callaway – all were extremely professional, constructive and expected excellence out of the other aviators.”
“The list of close friends and fellow aviators over 6 years is too long to include, but I will list a few that stick out – John Ramiccio, Kent Walker, Matt Weller, Moses McIntosh, John Bentley, Pat McDonald, Aaron Nelson, Theo Bell, Kelvin Martinez and Scott Keeney – many fun, good memories, adventure, and opportunities to work together in the cockpit.”
“The overarching theme to all of these impactful relationships, and many more is that my six-year active duty military experience confirmed my childhood experience: with a common purpose and harmonious objectives, people from all demographic backgrounds can come together, become friends, and get the mission done.”
Many of the veterans I interview have only known the Global War on Terror era – can you paint a picture for them of what the Army was like before 9/11? What types of missions did you focus on and where were you deployed? What was the Army culture like?
“The Army before 9/11 was characterized by the same culture, principles and core values as today’s force. I know that because I interact often with newly transitioning veterans in my work within Wells Fargo’s Veterans Empowerment Transition Program, and with the organizations like Veterans on Wall Street. These are universal values, and they bind veterans at any point in the history of this nation.”
“However, service before 9/11 had far less active deployments, and due to that fact, a greater percentage of time on training. I am in awe and admire the level of commitment and sacrifice that post 9/11 service personnel and their families have made. We are lucky to have the best fighting force in the world, but that has taken a heavy toll on our force.”
“I am happy that many corporations, communities, and general society recognize this contribution, and are focused on providing support and transition opportunities to these great Americans. Here at Wells Fargo, we have made an effort to profile successful veteran transition stories as a way to inspire new transitions in our Wells Fargo Stories pieces. I was fortunate to be profiled in the ‘Coming Together To Accomplish The Mission’ segment.”
When you hear the term “leader” who is the first person that comes to mind? Why?
“I served with many talented leaders, but (Retired Army Col) Tom Matthews is the first person that comes to mind. In 1991, he was my Battalion Commander in the 4/228th Aviation Regiment based on Soto Cano Airbase in Honduras, Central America. LTC Tom Matthews took command of the unit after LTC David H. Pickett was tragically killed in El Salvador after his helicopter was shot down by FMLN rebels.”
“LTC Matthews’ calm and confident demeanor, combined with technical expertise and engaging leadership style, was just what the unit needed to drive on. He had very high standards, and the entire unit knew it. I’ll never forget that he always led from the front on his afternoon Battalion runs in the peak Central American temperatures, and he was older than most of us! After leaving Honduras, he went on to command in the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and was involved in the infamous 1993 “Blackhawk Down” event.”
Describe to me your most memorable experience in the cockpit.
“There were plenty of memorable experiences in the cockpit, but perhaps the most memorable was my ‘solo’ flight in training at Fort Rucker, Alabama in 1990. The story is profiled as a chapter in “Life Lessons From The Cockpit“, but the short version is that one day at a training stage field at Fort Rucker, my instructor pilot Mr. Thorp surprised me by informing me that I was ready to ‘solo’….now.
“He told me to fly three laps around the field, gave me a few pieces of advice, unhooked, smiled and abruptly got out. Somehow, I made it around three times without killing myself, but it was harrowing, lonely and ugly!”
What taste, touch, or smell symbolizes the Army to you?
“JP-8 Jet Petroleum, the fuel for the birds, and the sound of aircraft engines! Even now, more than 23 years after my last flight as an aviator, when I walk on a flight tarmac out to a commuter plane, the smell of the fuel and sounds of the tarmac bring me immediate happiness!”
How has military service changed you? How have you continued to serve after the Army?
“Whenever I feel stressed in life, I think about a current service member and the sacrifices they are making…the guy walking point in Afghanistan, or the sailor at sea away from her family, and it brings me perspective.”
“Most veterans struggle during the transition with finding the sense of purpose that is larger than their personal interests – greater than oneself. I did, and most of the veterans I know also struggled. It is natural, considering that our military service is so early in life, and we were able to be part of one of the most purpose driven organizations in the world. The key is to find activities that fill this void after transitioning.”
“Personally, my work with Wells Fargo to transition veterans, and my public speaking business provide the sense of purpose and fulfillment that I need.”
Who are some of your heroes?
“I have a list of ‘heroes’, or more accurately, exceptional people in history that I have studied and hope to emulate in a small way: Frederick Douglass, Winston Churchill, General Colin Powell, General Chappie James, Anthony Robbins, Dale Carnegie, President Nelson Mandela, President Teddy Roosevelt, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, General Benjamin O. Davis Jr., Napolean Hill, The Dalai Lama & Peter Lynch.”
“However, some of the direct role models and senior advisors included my parents George and Rena Van Buren, Col (Ret) Stanford Hicks, Dr. Robert Hugh and Lystra Gray, Col (Ret) Bill Hammond, Dr. W. Benton Boone, my older siblings Bianca, Donna and George and a network of close friends.”
If you could give the next generation of leaders in this country one piece of advice, what would it be and why?
“Simply to remember that service and contribution to the nation is most valuable when guided by a purpose greater than individual interests.”