General (Ret.) Joseph L. Votel has just come off one of the most powerful assignments in the U.S. Military, as the head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), capping a nearly 40-year career of military service. Looking forward, he is giving back, helping his fellow vets return home to a top college or university education.
"This is not only about taking care of those who served, it is about taking care of our country." Votel told Veterans Advantage in an exclusive interview, describing his new board position with Service to School, a 501c3 providing one-on-one counseling and support for vets seeking entry into America's top schools.
"And now, in returning to their communities, to get a leg up, and get the best opportunity from the benefits that the government offers them, that is a very good thing for our country."
The importance of education has played a key role in Votel's life, ever since he was a 10-year old visiting the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. His family includes a brother who served in the National Guard and one in the U.S. Army, and uncles who served during the WWII and Korean War eras. High school included teachers and sports coaches who served in the military, too. With a Junior ROTC education, he was accepted to West Point in 1977.
His parents were key to Votel’s educational choices.
"Overall, they were extraordinarily supportive of what I wanted to do, and were very proud that I went to West Point," Votel said. "I often remark to people that by the time I graduated, my mom and dad's living room looked like an annex of the West Point Museum. They were very proud of that."
Votel was born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, one of nine children, and the youngest of six boys. His father, while he did not serve in the military, transported military equipment in the States during WWII and inspired his son with the principles he follows today.
"My dad was very influential in my life. He was a very quiet, very dignified stoic kind of individual, but he always made it clear where he stood on things. He was very direct about not compromising standards and conducting yourself in a manner that brought credit to your family and your name, and your community."
Graduating West Point in 1980, Votel was commissioned as an Infantry Officer. His initial assignments brought him to the 3d Infantry Division in Germany where he served as a Rifle Platoon Leader, Executive Officer, Battalion Adjutant and Rifle Company Commander.
Votel was on the front line of what he described as a "time of renaissance" for the military in the aftermath of the Vietnam/Watergate era. "Throughout the 1980s and, of course, in 1990, we saw proof of that with Operation Desert Storm. It was such a staggering victory by our military forces."
Votel went on to command special operations and conventional military forces at every level. His career included service in Italy, peacekeeping in Sarajevo, and combat in Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq, which includes the events following 9/11/2001.
"I had an opportunity to be a commander, deployed with the (75th) U.S. Army Ranger Regiment, which has been deployed virtually every day since," Votel said. "To be in a position to make contributions to the current effort, certainly the activities since 9/11, I have always been proud of that."
And just before heading CENTCOM from 2016-2019, Votel served as the Commanding General of U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, from 2014-2016.
In uniform, Votel often found inspiration from his fellow officers, most notably Navy Admiral William H. McRaven and Army General Stanley A. McChrystal. [They were] "Incredibly influential officers who took a personal interest in me, and in the true form of mentorship, provided the advice at the right time, and in some cases provided opportunities I wanted."
"I think I was very well served by a variety of officers, from the time I was a lieutenant, right up until the time I was a general."
Above it all, in retirement, General Votel will remain committed to giving back for his fellow Veterans. Votel will continue to be active with Service to School, and with his home state's Military Appreciation Fund, which is Minnesota's way to say thank you with stipends for those who serve, and providing funds for the wounded.
"I think the most important thing the American public should remember is that the people that serve -- including police officers, firefighters, and emergency workers -- come from their communities, so they are us, and we are them," he said.
Votel looks to spend more retirement time with his high school sweetheart and wife of 39 years, Michelle, while also fishing and taking up golf.