TopVet: Col. Tom Tyrrell, Chief of Intrepid Museum Operations

Col. Tom Tyrrell

In the quarter-century that he served in the Marine Corps, Tom Tyrrell garnered great respect for enlisted men. Although he was an officer - he retired as a Colonel - he liked to spend time around his men, talking to them, listening to them. Because perhaps more than anything, they taught him one of the fundamentals of the Corps: that there is an unbroken line of sacrifice and service that spans the generations of those who don the uniform.

Now, as Chief Operating Officer for the Intrepid Sea*Air*Space Museum in New York City, the insurance adjustor’s son from Oklahoma has the opportunity to help instill in young people some of the virtues of the service that inspired him - along with an understanding of the real price of freedom.

The mission of the museum aboard the aircraft carrier tethered to Pier 86 along the Hudson River is to honor heroes of military service, to educate the public about the role of the military, and to inspire young people about enduring human values. This is the focus of Tom Tyrrell’s role there, a role for which he was recruited by the executive committee of the museum’s board at the recommendation of retired Lieutenant General Marty Steele, president of the Intrepid. After a round of interviews, he was hired by the CEO of the Intrepid, M. Anthony Fisher.

Tom is particularly excited, he said during a telephone interview, about one of the projects currently in development at the Intrepid: creating character and leadership development programs that will be offered not only to students and families but to corporations as well.

The purpose behind these programs is to illuminate the people behind all the hardware - the planes and the helicopters and the big guns that are the museum’s attraction - by telling their stories. The programs will, in effect, echo the teachings of some of the major military historians and theorists, like Sun Tzu, who wrote that it is the human element, the well-motivated soldier, who wins wars, not simply the best-equipped military.

Changing Trust

Today, if you read the polls, Tom said, politicians, lawyers, doctors, and even religious leaders "are not doing real well" in the arena of public opinion, in winning the public trust. "But military officers are now among the most trusted social icons" in the country, a welcome change from the post-Vietnam War funk. "And we’re attempting to leverage that public trust to work with young people on becoming leaders, on understanding the role of leaders."

The Marine Corps taught the onetime football player about leadership, about how to get things done. Tom Tyrrell jointed the Marines because he "perceived them to be the toughest and the most elite military force," and he wanted to be part of that team. They represented a welcome change from his college experience down in Texas, where football was akin to a religion and to win at all costs was of paramount importance. And when he was "encouraged" to use some dietary supplements to gain weight, muscle, and muscle mass, his suspicions erupted. He switched to track and field. Upon graduating in 1976, he was given a favorable waiver for a knee injury and was commissioned a second lieutenant after having spent much of his undergraduate years attending Platoon Leaders Class.

The next 26 years, he said, "passed in a blink." During those years, he learned about the comforts of kinship and brotherhood, the ethos of the Corps.

He rose through the ranks, and spent 14 years in command posts. Among the highlights of his career, he was director of strategic planning for United Nations forces in Kosovo, and special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to redefine the mission of the entire U.S. military as it, along with the country, moved from Cold War to post-Cold War realities.

"It was determining how to integrate the weapons systems and training routines to transform the military into what we have today," he said. "Because it’s never an ‘if ’ situation [that we’re going to be needed to enforce the peace]; it’s just a matter of when" we’ll be called on. The issue, Tom believes, "is putting the answers into place and implementing them when needed."

The events of 9/11 became what he calls "an impetus for change, a clarion call to punctuate a new reality. What we’re doing is a lot more significant than just reshuffling the same desk, because the men and women in uniform are no longer sufficient to preserve our democracy alone. To at least a small extent," he said, "every one of us must become a steward of freedom."

Which is why his post at the Intrepid is as gratifying as it is influential.

Tom may be out of uniform now, but he is still proud - proud to have taken on a new assignment filled with possibility. Because the work he will be doing at the Intrepid is a lot more far-reaching than simply devising new enticements to bring bodies through a turnstile to sample exhibits and "ooh and aah" at a collection of military hardware. As COO, Tom will be right in the middle of a multi-million dollar renovation.

He will also do more than brainstorm a broad range of issues and initiatives and, he hopes, help to stimulate a dialogue on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Here he will be a key player in working to refine the mission of the museum, perhaps as much as he did when he was special assistant in the Pentagon.

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