Today Mark talks with Sid Ellington, former Navy SEAL Officer and now the newly appointed Executive Director of the Courage Foundation. They discuss Sid’s transition from the military into civilian life and how he continued his service to our nation. They also address PTS and how it’s not only from combat—but it could be worse off without it. Listen in to hear about leadership from a former SEAL and how he strived beyond into the present day of VUCA.
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Hey folks. This is Mark Divine with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Thanks for joining me today. Super-stoked to have you on board.
And we are going to have a terrific conversation with Mr.… DoctorSid Ellington who’s a good friend of mine, actually. A teammate from way back when it was still team three.
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All right. So Sid, I’m super-stoked to have you here. I’ve got navy SEAL, retired commander, Sid Ellington – spent 21 years in the navy… started out – interestingly enough – as a surface warfare officer, a boat driver, and then transitioned over to the seals.
Many folks don’t realize that a lot of officers in the naval special warfare community actually come from surface warfare, or even the air community – I remember a bunch of pilots who transitioned over – it’s pretty cool.
After retiring, Sid went on and got his PhD and then served as executive director of the warrior school project – which is a non-profit providing educational services for military vets transitioning, so they could get their college degrees.
He also serves as a teacher in New Orleans, in the Teach for America program and as director of veterans’ outreach in support of that at Teach for America.
He planned and spearheaded the Louisiana department of education’s city-wide truancy reduction program for New Orleans.
I think Sid, you’re a powerful example of how veterans can continue to serve our country through a multitude of ways – but particularly through education and non-profit initiatives. Most people think of… especially transitioning seals… like picking up weapons and going and working for blackwater. Or coming and working for SEALFIT.
But you’ve charted a different path. And so I appreciate that.
And then also I will say – full disclosure – that I’m excited to have Sid join our courage foundation, recently, as executive director. So a huge boost for our leadership there.
Sid, thanks for joining me today. I really appreciate your time and your service. So Hooyah.
Sid: Hey, thanks for having me. Just to send a shout-out – real quick – and prayers and thoughts for all the families that have been impacted by hurricane Ida. That’s Louisiana and the Mississippi gulf coast – those folks down there are dealing with a lot.
Mark: I was thinking about that in terms of people who lived through Katrina now experiencing that. That must have brought up some serious post-traumatic stress issues. Or a lot of fear and hopefully… I’m certain they’re much more prepared – both in terms of resiliency, but also in terms of the actual infrastructure.
But what’s your take on the resilience and infrastructure? And how people can handle this versus Katrina?
Sid: Well, I think the city as a whole is better able to handle it. They’ve reinforced the levees – corps of engineers has done that – and so you didn’t have flooding at all in New Orleans.
But it’s the outlying areas – the water’s got to go somewhere, when you have that kind of storm surge.
So folks in Houma and Laplace, there’s a lot of devastation up there as well. So what I experienced in my time with “Teach for America” – teaching in New Orleans…
Big rainstorm, you see kids really freaking out. There’s definitely some scars from Katrina.
Mark: Yeah, and for someone like me who hasn’t lived through a devastating event like that, where literally, your house gets completely swamped or ruined by mud… or burned by a fire or blown away in a tornado…
Just the recovery has got to be torturous… when everything’s stripped away from you, and you’ve got to start over like that.
Sid: Yeah, everybody remembers hurricane Katrina on the lower ninth ward – driving through five years after Katrina, and the lower ninth ward was still nowhere near a level of recovery that you would expect over a five-year period. It was just devastated.
Mark: That’s amazing. Well yeah, we’ll send our healing energy to that area and anyone else suffering right now. We have fires in California, and we’ve got this crazy situation in Afghanistan – which I want to come back to, and talk about it through the lens of veterans…
But let’s kind of back up in time a little bit. You’re from Oklahoma, and what is an Oklahoma boy doing in the navy? There’s not a lot of water around there. How did you get to go to the navy surface warfare?
Sid: Yeah, you and I are about the same age, and I grew up thinking that my trajectory was I was going to go into the army and go to Vietnam. And Saigon fell when I was in junior high school and suddenly, I didn’t have a plan anymore.
So I just as you get older, and you read – I read “They Were Expendable” by William White – and I thought PT boats were awesome and decided I wanted to join the navy.
Mark: Was your family a military family?
Sid: Yeah, my dad was in the army cavalry in World War II.
Mark: No kidding.
Sid: No kidding, yeah. So he fought in the pacific.
Mark: Did he have a horse?
Sid: They used horses. And part of his role as a young, enlisted guy, was he took care of the horses. But they didn’t have mechanized – completely mechanized equipment pullers – so they did use horses. And that was that was part of his job, was to take care of the horses.
Mark: That’s incredible. That was literally only what 80 years ago?
Sid: Something like that. Yeah.
Mark: Amazing. Okay, so you found yourself – so you went to Oklahoma state, right?
Sid: University of Oklahoma.
Mark: So you got your college degree there. Did they have an ROTC program? Or how did you…?
Sid: They did. And back in those days – being an Oklahoma boy from farm country – sitting in the armory there – my first ROTC class – just kind of an introductory “what do you want to do? Why are you in the navy?”
And “I want to go on a Spruance class destroyer. I want to fly F-14s.” And these kids had all this technical knowledge.
And when it came to my turn, instructor lieutenant Shaughnessy said, “midshipman Ellington, what do you want to do?”
And I said, “well, I’d like to command a squad of PT boats.” And the room erupted in laughter. I didn’t know why, and he says, “well, I gotta break it to you – there haven’t been any PT boats in the inventory in in a while. Since like Korean war.”
So I had to come up with another plan and that plan was to go through BUD/S training, but back then, in the 80s. Going straight from ROTC to BUD/S there were like four or five billets for the entire country. So the path was you go get your surface warfare – your warfare pin – and then apply.
And so that’s the route I followed. So I got orders to BUD/S as a JG.
Mark: That’s interesting. You didn’t you didn’t have any guarantee? You had to go through surface warfare school, you had to get qualified as a SWO officer to earn your SWO pin, and then you had to apply to BUD/S, right? It’s not like you had some kind of guarantee.
Sid: That’s correct, and then I had to apply…
Mark: Well, it’s interesting. So you probably went into the navy around ‘86 or ’87?
Mark: So I graduated college ‘85 – I was a few years behind you – I went to SEAL training in late ‘89 – no, I went to OCS late ‘89 – November of ‘89. And then into BUD/S in ‘90.
But I had a similar situation, but it was even worse – there were only literally two that they took from OCS the year I applied.
Sid: Oh wow.
Mark: So I went officer candidate – I didn’t have an ROTC program at Colgate or NYU. Nor was I even thinking about it.
But that’s curious when we were talking about that, I was thinking to myself like seals or bust… like, they didn’t offer me “oh, maybe you should go surface warfare. And then if you really want to be a SEAL, you can apply later on.”
I was like, “I want to get a billet with a guarantee to go to SEAL training after officer candidate school. And they had two of them in that regard that they gave out that year. And I got one.
But if I didn’t get that, I’m really curious what I would have done… whether I would have backtracked and said, “okay, I’ll go SWO and then apply.”
Sid: Yeah, I mean for me it was surface… ROTC was set up for surface aviation and submarines, so those were your three pipelines.
We would have a few that went into the supply core, but not many. It was mostly those three warfare specialties is what ROTC was structured around. At least back in those days.
Mark: It’s always fun when I talk to SEAL teammates to get a glimpse of their SEAL training, of BUD/S, and what were the highs and lows, and crazy things or leadership lessons – one or two – we don’t want to spend all day…
But then let’s talk about your operating career and then your administrative career let’s kind of peel back the onion on what it was like to be a navy SEAL for commander Sid Ellington.
Sid: Yeah, my first thoughts – being out on the grinder for the first time – I was a little bit older – everybody else in the class was an ensign – most of them had come from the naval academy…
Mark: The other officers, you mean…
Sid: The other officers.
Mark: Most of the class were enlisted…
Sid: Most of the class were enlisted – thanks for the correction – yeah, we started with 105 and wound up graduating 17 originals.
Mark: That’s a pretty small class, actually, to start… we had 185 and we graduated 19.
Sid: Wow. Yeah, they’re gonna get the numbers down below 20 somehow…
Sid: Yeah, but I can remember looking left and looking right and some of these guys were just massive. And here I am 5’6” and I think at the time I might have weighed 135 pounds. I’m like, “I’m with the wrong group of people.”
But the other thing I noticed is as training got started, some of those great big guys with all the muscles were the first ones to quit.
Sid: Maybe it’s because they’ve never done anything hard before.
Mark: Well, I think that’s a really interesting point. And that is surprising for a lot of people to hear, but that was my experience as well. And it’s our experience also with SEALFIT, and I know you’ve experienced coaching a SEALFIT event…
The more muscle mass you have – unless it’s trained properly, right? If you’ve trained muscle mass like hypertrophy – which is like bodybuilding – it does not serve you well in a general situation like BUD/S. And those people end up getting rhabdomyolysis and really just burning out. They don’t have the muscular stamina.
So you got to have the right type of muscles, if you’re going to have muscles. And you don’t have to be a big, burly dude. Like you said you were part of one of the smaller guys and some of the shorter guys were some of the best performers in my class, right?
And of course we anecdotally called them the “Smurf crew” which I’m not sure would pass today’s muster – but they all took it in stride.
Sid: I was definitely in the Smurf crew. And got full benefit for being in the Smurf group…
Mark: Right. So tell us about your ups and downs in BUD/S. What were some of the biggest “ahas” and interesting leadership lessons.
Sid: Well, the great thing about BUD/S is they’ll find your weakness. And then those instructors will dig and dig and dig. And probe and probe and probe.
I was not real fast in the water, so I always struggled with the timed swims… I passed them all, but always just barely. I guess if the minimum passing time wasn’t good enough, it wouldn’t be the minimum.
My strength was the o course – did really well there – but BUD/S was a trial. Just being pushed every single day. But following and seeing some of the best dog gone leaders that I’d ever seen up until that point – certainly didn’t see them in the surface navy.
I remember when we were doing the underwater swim and some guys were struggling with it, and Ryan Zinke said, “let me show you how this is done.” And Ryan Zinke of course is a former congressman and secretary of the interior. I think he’s running for the senate right now.
Mark: I just saw him – sat next to him on the plane out to Wyoming – he was heading back to Montana – no he’s running for the new congressional seat that opened up for Montana after the new census. And he’s recruited five or six other seals to run for different congressional seats, because he’s not happy with what he sees going on in the politics. So he’s jumping back into the ring with a bunch of other guys.
Sid: Well, what I remember – and the thing that made such an impression on me is – he was on the edge of the pool, and he did a front a complete front flip and landed in the water. And then swam 50 meters. And then climbed out and said, “that’s how it’s done.”
And that was when I saw for the first time, stuff that you only read about in books and movies. And that is leadership by example. Didn’t see that so much in the surface navy, as often.
But that made a real impression on me that you got to do it. You can’t just give the orders.
And all of our instructors in BUD/S were just phenomenal people. And they didn’t say, “go run four miles,” they would lead you in a four-mile run. And we also had a person from BUD/S class 65 who had retired, and he did every open ocean swim with our class.
Sid: The leadership was more by example. It was kind of the “follow me” mode, which really resonated with me as a young leader.
Mark: Right. No, I love that. That’s kind of a hallmark of great leadership anywhere, but especially in the seals. So we kind of took it for granted, once we got kind of baked into that. That you had to lead by example, lead from the front.
But doesn’t mean you always have to take charge. You just have to demonstrate that you’re willing to do the work. And you’re willing to be competent at all the skills.
Like the enlisted guys didn’t expect us officers or “cake eaters” to be the best at everything. But they expected us to not slow the team down, right? So we had to be out there doing the work.
Sid: And be willing to pitch in and help. And let somebody else be in charge for any particular evolution where they hold the expertise. Being confident enough to do that.
Mark: That’s right. Interesting. So, what was the biggest challenge for you in in SEAL training?
Sid: I think probably once I got to SEAL team three and that was before SQT and some of the stuff that we have in place now. So you were still in training, it was just advanced training. As you went through your pre-deployment training with your platoon, you weren’t certified…
Mark: We didn’t earn the trident until six months after showing up at our SEAL team…
Sid: At least, yeah…
Mark: You had to go through the whole PQS – or personal qualification standards thing – all the interviews, learn all the event skills…
So that was all replaced by what’s now SQT. So currently BUD/S is nine months, and you get your trident when you’re done. Back when you and I went through, BUD/S was six months – and then we went to the team, we had six more months of training.
And if you were ready, you got your trident, but not all of us got our tridents…
Sid: Not everybody, yeah. Usually the goal was to get everybody qualified – all the new guys in a platoon -before deployment date rolled around. And the guys that needed some more time and hadn’t qualified yet and hadn’t earned their trident… they rolled into another platoon.
But what I found that was most difficult for me was the underwater ship attacks. Because I had been a shipboard engineer and had understood how easy it would be to send a new guy down below decks to secure all the sea suctions and have something missed.
Mark: So you mean water getting sucked into the boat?
Sid: Getting sucked in…
Mark: And a navy SEAL underneath the boat wanders up against one of these things and gets sucked in…
Sid: Gets sucked right into the intake. And there’s a screen there of course, but for the pumps – you’re not going to be able to get off of it, because those pumps are really huge.
Mark: Did that ever happen so a SEAL team guy?
Sid: Not to a SEAL team guy that I know of… the big story that they were telling was a platoon doing “ditch and dawn.” Which is where you take your dragger off and then you do a free ascent up the side of the ship.
And what you’re trained to do is find a welding seam and follow that welding seam up to the surface.
Mark: Right. Otherwise you don’t really know what direction you’re swimming, because it’s pitch black…
Sid: You have no idea. Yeah, it’s pitch black, and you don’t realize how huge the bottom of a ship is, even a smaller ship…
Sid: And there was one individual – it happened probably maybe less than a year before I got to SEAL team three – he followed the wrong seam and so he was going along the hull – not toward the surface – but from bow to stern.
And got a black out and drowned as a result of it. And so there was a lot more precautions put in place.
But being underneath the ship just unnerved me. That was my Achilles heel, that was my fear…
Mark: God, you just brought up a memory of mine that one of my our biggest disasters when I was a platoon commander, was a ship attack – same exact training evolution.
I don’t know what you did, but we took limpet mine magnets. We would string a line between them paracord between them, and then we used that to hook our rigs onto the bottom of the ship. So we could return and grab them.
Mark: And the person on the left and the right flank who were bringing these magnets along had a pretty important job. And one guy – I’ll just call him q – the guy on the right flank with us who had this job was a pretty senior enlisted – been in the teams for a while.
And I’m the officer, I ditch my rig and I hook it up… and of course you’re underwater you’re not giving instructions to anybody, right? You’re just all praying that everyone’s squared away and is going to make it to the surface, at this point.
So what happened to him is he goes, and he lost his bearings. He kind of got a little bit of underwater confusion – which is easy to do – and he didn’t hook his limpet mine up very well, because it didn’t hook up.
Like, it literally just ended up sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Which took all the dive rigs with it.
And it also took Rob Lasky, our chief, because he was all tangled up in it.
Sid: Good night.
Mark: I know, exactly. So we get to the surface and immediately do a head count – I’m like, “we’re missing somebody.” And this guy q had no idea what he had done. He was clueless.
And so we’re like, “holy shit.” So we call a stop to this evolution, and we start like free diving down at the bottom of the bay. And it’s like 50, 60 feet deep.
And we’re like, “crap, we couldn’t find him.” And the clock is just ticking. Like, four minutes go by and I’m thinking, “man, I just killed rob.” Or at least “I was in charge when chief Lasky died. How’s that story gonna go?”
And suddenly I’m just kind of like sitting there wondering what the hell to do next, and I see this hand break the surface. And then Rob’s head. And he’s just like calmly blowing and going.
And he gets to the surface he goes, “hey Cy. I’m fine, don’t worry about me.”
Sid: (laughing) I feel fine…
Mark: (laughing) I feel fine, exactly. So he was down at the bottom of the bay, and he just calmly said, “okay, assess the situation – I’m down here, I got trapped in this tangle this thing…”
So searched his body, decided what he needed to do. Found his dive knife. Started cutting himself out.
And this guy had lungs of steel, obviously. Super-calm. That’s the power of the training.
Sid: Yeah, I think that brings to light the importance of pool comp – where you get tumbled about and they tie your regulator hose into knots and disorient you as much as possible. And you’ve got to unsort yourself through all of this. And then do a free ascent to the surface.
Mark: It took me about six minutes, and you have to find a little bit of air coming out of the regulator. And they tie that master knot into it. I had to use my foot to try to pull it apart.
Sid: All you need is just a little bit of air…
Mark: Yeah, a little bit of air and that gives you another 30 seconds. And then you get a little bit more air and you kind of get it into your mouth and swallow it into your lungs.
That training you’re right – and it’s a great metaphor – any type of training that can desensitize you to the fear that accrues from an unknown situation, right? And so if you’re gonna dive, then it’s really important for you to be in a controlled environment and to get confused underwater. To understand “wait a minute… if I just calm down and assess the situation. And make sure that I have a source for air. Then I can clear my mask, then I can…”
Step one, step two, step three – but if you just think you’re gonna go dive and be a hero. And you do a ship dive or something at night and you haven’t desensitized and figured out what to do when shit goes wrong, that’s where people get killed.
Mark: The seals – they apply that principle in every single thing. Parachute diving, demolition, shooting. Interesting.
Mark: Okay, so you went to SEAL team three? Is that right? Your first tour?
Sid: I did.
Mark: That’s where I met you. You were there a few years before me. I think you were just finishing up a platoon commander tour.
Sid: Yeah, we just gotten back from desert shield/desert storm.
Mark: Did you work on the oil rigs? Or what was your… tell us about desert storm.
Sid: Well, desert storm we did an ARG platoon – which is the amphibious readiness group – so we were attached to an amphibious squadron and embarked with marines.
And our job was the boat patrols and beach preparation. That’s what we trained for before we went over.
And the other big issue was under very shallow water underwater mines. And so we spent a lot of time in Puerto Rico learning some state-of-the-art equipment for that era for finding and detecting bottom mines.
So that’s what we deployed to do. As it was, General Schwarzkopf decided to do an overland attack and the amphibious group was used as a decoy. I’m sure you remember Tommy Dietz…
Mark: Yeah, I was just gonna ask you… were you part of that…?
Sid: I wasn’t, no. Tommy was on a sister ship. He was part of that ARG I believe, but…
Mark: That’s a great story. So as I recall – and you can tell me if this is true or not – but they were commissioned with creating a diversionary tactic to make the Hussein’s forces think that we were doing an amphibious landing at this particular site.
And so the seals brought in a bunch of haversacks of c4. And the navy ships bombarded the beach, and the seals blew shit up.
But the interesting thing that I love about that – and I actually wrote a little bit about this – is the water was so hot and there were a lot of sharks around, that they were like “we can’t possibly swim in this c4.”
And so they sent a request back. One of the junior guys – who was from SoCal – was like, “hey, let’s use boogie boards.”
And so they sent a request back to HQ and said, “hey, we need a bunch of blacked out boogie boards sent over.”
And some old, enlisted Vietnam guy like blew his stack. He’s like, “what the bleep are those guys doing over there? We’re supposed to be fighting an f’in war, and they want boogie boards?”
Sid: Yeah, we actually deployed with boogie boards… had them in the Conex boxes to haul gear with…
Mark: To haul gear. That’s brilliant.
So let’s fast forward – the old UDT missions some people think it’s kind of ho-hum – I did one of those ARGs and it’s really interesting and really important work… and it might be important now with kind of us repositioning toward state on state type warfare. If we do amphibious landings again.
Like, when I was at three, I did two of my tours in the far east, I’m sure you might have done that as well… and we used to do the reconnaissance of the beaches for a landing in Korea, which was kind of important work…
But beyond that, what was your experience with the war on terror? As a SEAL?
Sid: After 9/11?
Sid: I was in a twilight tour and had already put in a request to retire. So I did not deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Mark: You didn’t. Okay.
Sid: My twilight tour was a reserve management tour. My wife – while we were in Hawaii – she went to law school. And so after some heartfelt conversations, it was time for me to transition out at 20 years. Take retirement.
And then it was her turn to have a career. She’s done really well. She did two federal clerkships and is working for a major company here in Oklahoma City now as in-house council.
Mark: That’s great. That’s really balanced. I love to hear you say that. It’s important to give the wives who serve the men – especially for a 20-year career – support them.
So did you become, like… do you have any kids?
Sid: We’ve got two.
Mark: …Mr. mom for a while?
Sid: I wasn’t really Mr. Mom… they were older – she was the stay-at-home mom, while I was playing navy SEAL and then the older son had graduated from high school while Toni was in law school. And then we had the little one who was doing really, really well in sports. And it was important to not be moving so much,
So during the time I was in the navy, we moved 12 times.
Sid: And Toni never lets me forget that, but did the reserve management tour, and we stayed put. And he was able to start and finish at the same high school. And he went on to play college baseball, so that was the right move for him. For sure.
Mark: Right. Before we get into kind of what happened after your military career – leading as an officer in the seals and especially as you get more senior – is very different than leading a boat crew at BUD/S.
So what were some of the biggest challenges and insights from a leadership perspective, or from a teaming perspective that you’ve kind of gleaned from your overarching SEAL career as an officer?
Sid: That’s a really good question. And I think the biggest takeaway is in the surface navy – the shipboard navy – there is a very, very rigid chain of command. Very rigid.
And while you listen to input from your senior enlisted it’s not a shared responsibility and what I saw and what I learned in naval special warfare – and this was a bit of a transition for me – is it’s okay if the enlisted guys call you “LT.” Not okay aboard a ship, but it’s okay to have much more of a camaraderie, much more of a friendship, much more of a bonding.
That’s really kind of looked down upon in the surface navy. At least my experience. You’ve got the officer’s wardroom and you’ve got the enlisted mess decks where officers and enlisted take their meals.
But in the SEAL teams everybody’s breaking an MRE, and you share meals together. You spend time together. You go on liberty together. And it’s a much tighter knit group and I just relished in it. And I really, really enjoyed it.
But trusting your enlisted folks… knowing that they’ve got your back and having the confidence to turn the leadership over or turn the decision over if the situation warrants it. The buck stops with the officer, no doubt. You share praise downward, and responsibility for when things go wrong upward.
And I think that’s a leadership style that certainly Simon Sinek writes about in his book “Leaders Eat Last.” That just drips and exudes kind of the military leadership ethic as I saw it in naval special warfare.
Mark: Yeah, but what I love about what you just said and kind of what’s coming to me now is that there are certain characteristics, or attributes, or principles that make for great leadership across all domains.
And then there’s certain things that are really unique to different domains. And so for instance, what you’re describing is small unit naval special warfare – where there’s a lot of autonomy, there’s a lot of trust placed down all the way to the lowest – the person closest to the sound of gunfire.
All the officers/leaders are expected to – as we mentioned earlier at BUD/S – lead from the front and have competency across all the basic skills – so they can understand, so they can support the mission as a shooter as well – an operator, as well as an administrator or a coordinator.
But if you cross over and you’re talking about leading an army ranger regiment, those principles start to kind of not apply as much. And they have their own style that works for them, right?
But there’s certain things – like I said – that will cross the board. You got to have a vision, you got to have a strong set of values – you got to be able to communicate effectively and whatnot.
But then in the army rangers like they’re a little bit more top-down and the enlisted are going to be much more expecting to receive orders, as opposed to in the seals figuring it out on the fly. Because they may not have time, or those orders might never come.
I’m reminded of examples of different SEAL leaders I’ve had on my podcast, and it always comes out that anytime they’re in a joint operation – especially guys who are DEVGRU working with rangers, for example.
The DEVGRU guy is just sitting there watching his platoon kind of like and saying nothing, right? But being prepared if he sees something that’s out of whack, to insert his guidance or to provide some support.
Whereas his ranger counterpart – the major or the lieutenant colonel – is like directing every movement of his guys in the field. And how the ranger would look at the SEAL and be like, “how come you’re not leading?”
And the SEAL would look at the ranger and say, “how come you’re micromanaging the shit out of this thing?”
Sid: Yeah, I think – at least in the conventional forces – whether they be army, navy, air force or marines – there’s a standard operating procedure for everything. And what I learned in naval special warfare is there is no normal situation. So you can’t have an SOP for every single thing.
And that’s where the collaborative problem solving comes into effect…
Mark: I think that’s why the SEAL special ops type leadership is so valuable right now for everybody in the world – at least for everybody who’s dealing with VUCA – corporations who are undergoing great change – everyone… governments undergoing great change…
So it’s a mindset that we’ve developed that happens to be particularly valuable now. And probably in the foreseeable future.
Sid: I think you’re right.
Mark: Yeah, I think I need to do a solocast on that. That’s coming up next.
You got your PhD, and you got it in like spec ops low intensity conflict, right? What does university of Oklahoma know about that? Like why did you get it there?
Sid: Well, it was home, so when we came back home – Toni did a clerkship. And it was my original plan – I retired and I spent a year as a contractor working for the joint special operations university. And I thought that was going to kind of be my trajectory. And I saw that folks that had a PhD – something beyond the master’s degree – were making a whole lot more money.
So I had the GI bill, and my thinking was “you know what? I’m just going to take a break. I’m going to go back to school. I’m going to knock out the PhD” – which is an arrogant statement. Oklahoma was the major university that was close and so I started on that trajectory. With the idea that I would go back to work for the government in some capacity. Back to JSOU. That was the original plan.
Mark: JSOU is a great place. So what kind of took you off course. Well, I think education changes people – and I became aware – in naval special warfare you’re surrounded by elite individuals – physically elite, mentally elite – they’re always willing to roll up their sleeves.
And I think I became aware… being in the military – that military bubble where you’ve got base housing, you’ve got health care, you’ve got base schools for your kids.
And I became aware of the first for the first time that the rest of America is not necessarily like that. And so there was a lot of individuals – young people, joining Teach for America. Well, “What the Hell’s Teach for America?”
And so I learned a little bit about its mission, and I thought, “oh my gosh, here are these young people willing to jump into the buzz saw that is the problem and with inner city and public education. And the achievement gap.
And here I am drawing a full retirement. I’m secure, I’ve got a wife who’s an attorney… this is something that I should do. I should be willing to roll up my sleeves and help solve this national problem.
And so after a lot of talking with Toni my wife, we decided that we could do that. And so I applied for Teach for America. And got accepted. And went off to institute – which is their version of boot camp – it’s about two months long…
And I was starting to turn gray at the temples already – I was in my 40s – surrounded by all these very young, very idealistic individuals and Teach for America said, “okay where would you like to go?”
And being the navy guy I said, “well, wherever the greatest need is. And so, “okay great, we’re gonna send you to New Orleans, Louisiana. It was 2009. Right after hurricane Katrina, so the city was still rebuilding.
“And what would you like to teach?”
“Whatever the greatest need is.” And so I wound up special education at an alternative school – which is where the student population has been disengaged from employment and education – due to incarceration, due to teen pregnancy… for any number of reasons.
Some had been disengaged for two or three years after hurricane Katrina – they just didn’t go back to school.
And so I did that for three years and then spent a year with the state of Louisiana’s department of education, working the truancy issue. And then moved to dc with Teach for America’s national staff. So I spent a total of five years with Teach for America if you include the classroom time… three years in the classroom, one year with the state department of education. And then one year as director of the veteran’s outreach initiative – with the idea of trying to recruit veterans right to help solve this problem in public education.
Mark: That’s terrific. So that’s what led you to then kind of shift toward veterans’ education through the warrior project, I imagine.
Sid: Right, so warrior scholar project was looking for a new executive director. I received a phone call – somebody said, “you should check this out.”
And the phone call was actually from Chris Marvin – who at the time was the head of Got Your Six which is a veteran’s advocacy. And so I applied and got hired. And spent four years back in the beltway doing that inside the beltway.
And warrior scholar project is as an academic boot camp for enlisted veterans who want to use the GI bill and go back to school. Basically it helps these individuals raise the bar in their own mind of what they can accomplish, so that they don’t have to settle for a school like the university of phoenix.
And they can apply to Yale and Harvard…
Mark: So you prep them both academically, also with support to know what colleges to go for, how to apply to college… that type of stuff?
Sid: Yeah, so it started out at Yale and expanded to Harvard and then by the time I left we were at 17 campuses.
Mark: Nice. Well, that’s interesting
Before we started the podcast you said – and this was a surprise to me – that 200 000 veterans are transitioning out every did you say every year?
Sid: Every month. Yeah, according to the pentagon…
Mark: That doesn’t even seem possible…
Sid: Yeah, that’s the numbers based on the latest report which is from 2018. But two hundred thousand a month and you’ve got these individuals that are coming back into society with a tremendous amount of attributes – that have been honed during military service. Team builders, they’ve got leadership skills, they’ve got technical skills. They’re adaptable, they’re diverse. They’re able to make decisions under stressful conditions.
And so you’ve got an ideal civic asset right there, and a lot of folks struggle with the transition out of military service to come back into society. And we’ve got – fortunately – a lot of really strong veteran service organizations that help with that transition.
Mark: That’s relatively new though, right? Because when you and I transitioned, it was very little. I think they had one program…
Sid: Right. So the military program is “taps” or transition assistance program – which is still – I would argue – not all it could be. There’s been a lot of work to try to improve that, but you’ve got a lot of veterans’ non-profits out there…
Mark: They’ve popped up over the last 10 years – the honor foundation is what comes to me and that’s a neat group that started with seals, to help them – sort of like the warrior scholar project – but to gear them toward a job – a business job, yeah.
Sid: Yeah, Joe Musselman – visionary, great guy…
Mark: Yeah, I should do a podcast with joe. He’s a neat guy – he’s now moved on and I think the honor foundation has expanded to include all vets or maybe all spec ops – starting there.
Anyway, so but a lot of the vets transitioning have seen a lot of combat. We were talking about how 20 years of Afghanistan and Iraq literally meant that there’s really three generations of people who’ve experienced combat. There’s the young army, marine, air force or navy enlisted officer who might have done a tour or two and then gotten out. And they’re like 26 or 27.
Then there’s the mid-career person, who maybe does three or four tours over there – who’s 40 years old
And then there’s the person who’s in their late 50s or early 60s transitioning out as a senior officer or senior enlisted. You literally have everywhere from 20 to 60 year-old military vets having experienced sustained combat in very confusing and dangerous world.
And so part of the issue with these 200 000 folks transitioning every month is post-traumatic stress. Not just positioning for careers and for college, but also healing…
Which is why the courage foundation and we started that – I think about those numbers – like how we’ve got to really expand that mission to be able to help a lot more folks.
Sid: And interestingly, you don’t have to have been in combat to suffer from post-traumatic stress. I mean, there’s a well-known study – Charles Fritz, 1961 – actually determined that people in the rear that hadn’t seen combat – and current surveys reflect this – they’re actually more likely to suffer from pts than front line units.
And why is that? It’s because crisis and adversity increases the bonding and increases resilience – that’s what the numbers are telling us. And so even though not every unit is engaged in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of those who are in the service are going to come home and transition out with pts.
Mark: That’s amazing. And now we’re also learning more about the micro-trauma that could lead to long-term issues for brain health, and anxiety, and depressive issues just from shooting at the range. Or being involved in demolitions. Or if you’re on a ship and the big guns are going off, right? And the helicopters and the jets landing…
And so they’re doing a lot more studies in it… and I’ve talked to some doctors who work with spec ops, and they say that they don’t think there’s a single special operator who doesn’t suffer from some form of TBI…
And so I took that on board and ended up getting some of the services at the brain treatment center here in San Diego just to make sure. Because they said for high performers like you and I – it doesn’t really show up until maybe when you’re in your 80s, and then suddenly the cumulative effect of that TBI starts to wreak havoc.
And you certainly saw that obviously with professional football players, right? They’re getting massive TBI and if it’s untreated then you’ve got these guys in their 60s with dementia. Which is just really sad.
Sid: That’s really good to know because I know I spent way too much time at the range, without my hearing protection.
Mark: Right. If you’re a vet listening to this…
So let’s talk a little bit about and we’ll end here soon but talk a little bit about your vision and mission now at the courage foundation and what you hope to see. What your vision for the future is both for vets and for this country. That’s a broad statement, but…
Sid: First of all, very honored to have joined the courage foundation team and the Unbeatable Mind team. That whole mantra of master yourself and serve others that you and I have talked about that is kind of the bumper sticker of what Unbeatable Mind is all about.
And I’m just thrilled to be part of the “serve others” piece of that.
But right now we’re focused on veterans, because we’re not very big. And we’re going to have a lot of veterans that need support.
But the vision going forward is I would like to see courage foundation grow to include first responders… I mean, if you think about our Vietnam generation of veterans that came home and weren’t really appreciated – slurs, called baby killers, hated, looked down upon – because they had been drafted and had gone to Vietnam and served.
And a lot of that rhetoric I would argue, hovers around our police officers today – and there’s nothing like having a difficult job and not feeling like you’re appreciated, by those that you’re working to serve. That’s tough.
Some of our teachers – it’s the same sort of thing in these really, really tough schools… they just don’t feel appreciated, and I think that manifests itself in the fact that most teachers in public education leave the profession before they hit the five-year Mark.
Sid: So there’s a lot of room and there’s a lot of good I think that the courage foundation can do. Going forward, and growing, and getting bigger. And serving more people.
Mark: I agree. Yeah, my original vision was more expansive, but then it was difficult to kind of raise money for some of the issues. I was going to support some of the prison population – help them heal and find purpose again. And also battered women.
But yeah, so we ended up collapsing it to really veteran issues to kind of get a foothold. And to make a difference at least in one place. Focus precedes success, right?
Sid: Yeah, I mean you’re driven by resources. So I think that was absolutely the right call – focus on veterans, nowadays. Not the case during the Vietnam years, but nowadays everybody appreciates military veterans.
I think I’d like to end with a question I often ask people… when you listen to the news and you talk to people – it seems to be kind of a gloomy, very pessimistic outlook on the world and where our country is going and how things look… like people think that we’re basically gonna be consumed with global warming, or jihad is going to sweep across, or we’re all going to end up as communists…
What is your view of the future? What’s your vision?
Sid: Well it’s a positive vision, but I think it’s a couple of things. I think as humans, we’re naturally prone to cognitive dissonance – in other words – we like to hear things that we agree with. And to piggyback on Robert Putnam’s work and his book “Bowling Alone,” we don’t interact as well anymore. His book “Bowling Alone” basically is the bowling leagues have fallen apart. And that’s where people interacted socially and shared stories. And it was easier to disagree but remain friends.
And nowadays with social media and people being much, much more isolated – it’s easy to only listen or only seek out the point of view that you agree with. And I think that only adds to the disparity in viewpoints and the polarization that we have in this country.
But I’m an optimist. I don’t think that we’re Rome, I don’t think we’re falling apart. And I don’t think that America is doomed, or that the world is doomed. I think people are strong, people are resilient, and we’ll get past some of this…
And I think too Watergate taught our press that the sensational story is the one that sells, and so you’ve got to uncover the big scandal. And so a lot of journalists are running around looking for a scandal. And then blowing it up real big.
And then that just gets people that much more agitated.
Mark: Yeah. And it’s led to kind of a jaded approach toward media. And even I fell into that – like, I don’t trust anything coming out of mainstream media anymore. I call it “opposite day.” I try to look at what the story is and then I think well what’s the exact opposite. And I said that’s probably closer to the truth.
Sid: Yeah. Or just go outside and look around…
Mark: Right. Well, I just spent seven days in Wyoming just staring at the most incredible landscape. Just stunning. And that was like reading the positive newspaper. Hanging out with the horses and the ranch hands…
I’m with you, I’m optimistic about the future. I’m super-stoked to have had this conversation, Sid. I really appreciate it.
Where can people learn more about your work with the courage foundation or anything else you want to share?
Sid: Well, we’ve got a major campaign we’re working on. We’ll be rolling it out it’s burpees for vets…
Mark: Nice. And that sends shivers up my spine by the way, because 120 000 burpees in 2019…
Sid: (laughing) we’re bringing that back to life. And we’re going to collaborate with other veteran’s service organizations, and it’ll be a month long campaign. And we’ve got some great connections that we’re making with the NFL… with large organizations, as well as veteran’s service organizations. So we’re hoping it’ll be very, very successful.
The idea is you do the burpees and challenge three friends and make a small donation. And challenge three friends. And we’re hoping that it gains the same momentum that the ice bucket challenge did.
Mark: That’s great.
Sid: And gets more people involved.
Mark: That’s coming up in October?
Sid: It’ll be November.
Mark: Straddling Veterans Day. Terrific and so is it still the burpeesforvets.com website that you want people to go to learn about this? Or where would they learn more?
Sid: Well we’re going to tweak and launch the website, but yeah, it’ll be burpeesforvets.com and the hashtag is #burpeesforvets. The idea is to bring together nonprofit organizations that serve veterans in the physical fitness realm, in the mental health realm…
And then just in general, transition so your education facing veteran’s non-profits and the like.
Mark: And if a listener is part of an organization like that or wants to donate or learn more, how would they connect with you?
Sid: It would be Sid at feedcourage.org or you can send me a text message – my cell phone is area code one zero four 504-281-0479, but I’d love to hear from you, and connect with you. And set up a zoom call.
Mark: Awesome, Sid. Well, thanks again for your service – both in the military and now serving our vets at the courage foundation. And I appreciate you and your insights on leadership are invaluable.
Sid: Thank you, Mark. Thanks for having me and I’ve really enjoyed this this past hour.
Mark: Yeah, I appreciate it. Me too.
All right folks that was retired commander Sid Ellington – Doctor Sid
So check out the courage foundation at feedcourage.org. Send Sid an email if you want to connect with him at Sid at feedcourage.org or he was bold enough to put your cell phone out there so go ahead and send him a text message.
And thanks again for your support. You can check out our work at unbeatablemind.com. We have a phenomenal new 30-day course, which is a great way to get introduced to our principles. That’s unbeatablemind.com/challenge. Check that out.
And until next time stay focused and be unbeatable.
This is Mark Divine. Out here.