Cover Story: Heroes Meet Heroes 2022 - U.S. Military Veterans & Olympians on One Stage

Paul Bucha

In Honor of Veterans Day 2022, Veterans Advantage hosted its annual Heroes Meet Heroes event via Zoom on November 10. The 10th annual event once again brought together a diverse panel of Olympic athletes and veterans in inspirational conversation.

The Olympian panelists in this year’s two virtual sessions included two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist and Emmy Award-winning broadcaster Donna de Varona and Veterans Advantage Advisory Board Member as a Guest of Honor; gold medalist race walker Miranda Melville; Olympic high jumper Priscilla Loomis, Olympic bronze medalist swimmer Kim Vandenberg; Olympic triathlete Joe Maloy; and Jordan Burroughs, a U.S. gold medalist wrestler. 

Veterans included Medal of Honor Recipient and Guest of Honor Paul “Bud” Bucha, Veterans Advantage Advisory Board member; Syed Faraz, U.S. Air Force combat navigator, Harvard/Stanford graduate student, and Tillman Scholar; David Caruth, Army Veteran and head of Those Who Serve & Students Marketing Segment Strategy & Planning - Verizon Consumer Group; Three-time national champion wrestler and U.S. Army Veteran Sally Roberts; and David Seymour, U.S. Army veteran, West Point graduate, and Chief Operating Officer of American Airlines. 

Both panels were moderated by Veterans Advantage Co-Founder and Co-CEO Scott Higgins (Army). Prizes and gifts were given away at both sessions, including free VetRewards subscriptions, IMAX movie tickets, Dell Laptops and free travel rewards from Wyndham and American Airlines. 

After initial introductions, both sets of heroes responded to questions from hundreds of Veterans Advantage members in the Zoom audience on everything from  employment, volunteerism, and home ownership to mental health and injuries. A running theme was motivation – how both athletes and soldiers remain motivated to move forward with physical and mental challenges, transition into new careers, and build their support networks.

Verizon’s David Caruth recommended veterans utilize their resources, to include those like the Wounded Warrior Project or local sources, when veterans are feeling stuck in their search for employment due to large gaps in their employment history.

Leadership qualities, commitment, service
David Seymour at American Airlines offered insights that help those already employed.

“You got to be yourself. Don’t underestimate what you bring to the table,” said Seymour, who advises veteran employees to stand out with skills learned in the military. “That’s a challenge that I continue to work on in my organization. The leadership qualities, commitment, service, all those things that anybody from the military brings to the table, and that are undervalued by those who haven’t served.”

Seymour and AA also have a large military support group. Most recently, American Airlines hosted Gold Star families at Walt Disney World - in teamwork with the Gary SInise foundation - and they also host veterans at sporting events with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys and NBA’s Dallas Mavericks.

Finally, most notably through the “Honor Flight” program, American Airlines has flown nearly 250,000 veterans to Washington, DC, so they can experience all the monuments that have been built to honor them. 

Overcoming Challenges
Both athletes and veterans agreed that having a strong support system is key to overcoming setbacks in both life and training. Miranda Melville, Olympian in race walking, shared her advice to turn to friends and family during the highs and lows of life for help and support. 

Donna de Varona, two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist and Emmy Award-winning broadcaster, encouraged veterans to “show their vulnerability” when responding to the question of advice for military or olympic veterans transitioning to life after the military or olympic training competitions. Donna went on to encourage attendees by saying “Never give up. There’s obstacles, and you’ve got to be patient, and you’ve got to set out a plan.” 

Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient and our second session guest speaker, Paul W. “Bud” Bucha, described veterans in these words: “They’re the ones that pick up a nation, not a company, not a unit, but an entire nation and put it on their shoulders… and then they can move on to saving the nation” when describing what some of the most important things to remember as Veterans Day approached. 

In closing the second session Q&A portion, Kim Vandenberg, U.S. Olympic bronze medalist swimmer, detailed her experience in learning the value of failure and the best way to utilize its lessons by saying: “I tried out for the Olympic team 5 different times and I made it 1 time. I think that each time I failed to make the team I gained a different perspective of my career and journey to make the team… failure is fabulous.” 

Kim detailed the importance of not letting failure hinder your journey, but instead using it to push yourself to be better and strengthen your craft. 

When asked how to overcome injuries and surgeries as an olympic athlete, Sally Roberts, three-time national champion wrestler and U.S. Army Veteran, stressed the importance of overcoming the inevitable with maintaining healthy and routine habits, all while successfully navigating the VA health care system to your advantage. 

“Understanding that this is our community and what we give in is what we get out.” she concluded. 

Heroes Meet Heroes was generously sponsored by Avis Budget Group presenting this year’s event, and patriotic sponsors, Dell, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, 1-800-Flowers.com, Give Legacy, American Airlines, and FourBlock. 

We hosted two separate sessions on November 10 that you can watch in full here:

Heroes Meet Heroes: Session One
Heroes Meet Heroes: Session Two
Heroes Meet Heroes: Paul W. Bucha
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