If you watched this year’s Freedom Award ceremony, you may have remembered when the Master of Ceremonies, Jonathan Elias, casually called the Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, up to the stage for a “selfie.”
An award-winning journalist and anchor at ABC7/WJLA-TV, Elias joins the Guard and Reserve Support Network to talk about his long career covering and reporting stories around the country, including the Boston Marathon bombings, Hurricane Katrina, and the Washington D.C. sniper case.
Elias also spoke to us about his involvement with the Welcome Home Project, a group that works to recognize and thank returning Purple Heart Veterans.
The first question is – and we have to ask this – at what point during the Freedom Award ceremony did you make the decision to leave the script and call up the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) for a photo?
Jonathan: You know what? A lot of the time scripts are just guidelines: They kind of tell you where you need to go. If you’re not really comfortable in your own skin, then you’ll rely on that script 100 percent. A lot of the time, I will just kind of read what’s happening with the crowd, with the room, and the people.
I just thought it would be kind of fun to get a picture with the SecDef, and time was slipping away. I was supposed to end the speech at that point with, “Everybody stand; it’s time to say goodbye,” and the SecDef seemed to be having a good time. He was all smiles, and he was so appreciative, that I didn’t think he’d have a problem in the world with it. And he didn’t. I could tell. If he was a different sort I would have read that, and I probably would not have done that! (Laughing).
You obviously have an affinity for the military and the military community. What led you to become active in supporting Service members and their families?
Jonathan: Well, let’s see. I think it was when I was a kid. I used to wear my dad’s soft caps to school when I was in second grade, and I just always had an appreciation for the military. I always looked up and always respected the military. At one point, I wanted to go in. I wanted to fly jets in the Air Force, but that didn’t work out so well. My math skills are horrible, plus I’m 6’1”, and there was a Colonel in the Air Force who told me, “You know, for some of the planes they fly—the 16s, 15s—you’d be a little cramped.” (Laughing). So, it didn’t work out for a variety of reasons.
But, I’ll never forget it: I was sitting at home, maybe twelve or thirteen years ago, and I was sitting there watching that HBO special about an ER (emergency room) in Iraq. All the doctors and nurses were trying to patch together our kids that were being shot and blown up with IEDs (improvised explosive devices). I think the one thing I was touched by watching that special was that their warrior spirit wasn’t damaged the slightest.
They may have been missing arms or legs, or their faces were disfigured – whatever – but their spirit was completely intact.
And I thought to myself: You know what? We need to do something about that. We need to celebrate that spirit, because that’s really what defines us and makes us different than others around the world.
I remember I got together with some friends of mine who were CEOs of companies, whether it was a steak house or an airline, such as Jonathan Ornstein with Mesa Air. I sat down with all these guys, and I said, “Hey, we should really put together a ceremony to help get these guys back into civilian life, because the military doesn’t have the best way of transitioning folks from the front lines to civilian life. It’s a very difficult transition. A lot of these guys are suffering with all kinds of things that we really can’t even imagine; PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is just touching it. There’s a lot more going on. Some of these guys are young, and they’ve seen horrific things.”
So, I came up with the idea of having a Welcome Home Project where, literally, all we would do is shake their hand, give them a hug, and get a bunch of strangers together – citizens – just to say, “Thank you for your service; welcome home.” We wanted them to know they were appreciated and know what they did was valuable.
It ended up becoming much bigger. Each gift basket we gave contained gift certificates. There were two airline tickets to anywhere Mesa Air flew, there were steak house gift certificates, a VISA card for a couple hundred bucks, car washes, and there were gift certificates for a grocery store. It was basically a basket filled with all kinds of gift certificates returning vets would find helpful.
We specialized in the welcoming home Purple Heart recipients, because I wanted to go after those folks who suffered and sacrificed in a different way than others – I wanted them to know especially. And we care about all veterans, but I really wanted Purple Heart recipients to know the sacrifice they made out in the field is not forgotten. We wanted them to know that people here not only love them and respect them, but that we’re just happy they’re one of us.
It went over big.
I’ll never forget this Navy Corpsman who was maybe 23-years-old. I can’t even imagine what he saw, because he got a Purple Heart when a grenade went off when he was patching up some people.
He just had tears in his eyes; he gave me a big hug and asked me why I was doing what I was doing. I said, “Everybody should be doing this. It’s an honor to do it.”
And then I thought, “This is the coolest thing ever.” If all it takes is us to say, “Thank you,” and give them a handshake, then it’s absolutely well worth it. So, that kind of got me down the road.
Long story short, I did one for 53 or 54 Purple Heart recipients on one day in front of my television station and hundreds of people showed up. We had a fly-over, we had Senator McCain, Senator Kyl, and Governor Napolitano – they all came up to speak.
At that ceremony, there was a young man who was disfigured badly – burned – and I got a letter in the mail from his Colonel weeks later thanking me and saying that that ceremony – telling them, “Welcome home,” accepting them back, and telling them they were valued – put the Service member on a different path. The Colonel had been concerned about him. He really cared about this guy, and he was invested. He said it changed his path.
He said, “You may see it as something as trivial as shaking hands, but I’m telling you, it’s changing the game.”
He invited me to the U.S. Army War College to go through the DDE (Department of Distance Education) program with his group – his seminar group – and I ended up doing that.
I accepted the offer. I went there. I had an amazing time, and I ended up being tapped by their Chief of Staff for curriculum for the DDE program at the time. He said, “You know, this is a one-way conversation, and next year you’re coming back to the college, and you’ll be in a teaching role.” (Laughing).
You don’t argue with Colonels when they’re telling you it’s a one-way conversation.
I’ve been doing it now going on my eighth year, and I’ve got to be honest: It’s one of the highlights of my year going up to Carlyle for a whole week of teaching.
You’ve gotten at this as you’ve shared with us, but if you had to boil it down to one thing, what would you say is the most satisfying part of what you do to support those Service members?
Jonathan: I think the most satisfying thing I can do is bring a smile to a Service member’s face with an understanding that what they do means a lot, not just to me but to a lot of people out there – I’d say a majority of people out there. If I can just do that for one moment, then it’s all worth it.
Being the Master of Ceremonies for ESGR’s Freedom Award ceremony, you’re officially a part of the ESGR family now. As you know, ESGR works with Service members and veterans who are either trying to get better jobs or find their first job as they transition off active duty. As somebody who has worked in a variety of locations and places in the civilian workforce, what quick tips could you give a Service member or veteran as they’re starting to look for a civilian career?
Jonathan: I think the best thing to do, especially for a veteran looking for a job, is just be yourself. I think there is a lot of cache that goes along with being someone who has served. The simple reason is this: My son was looking at West Point – he’s a great wrestler – he was looking at West Point and comparing it to some other schools.
He ended up going to ASU (Arizona State University) – which is a good school – but I told him, “Son, here’s the way it works in the real world: When you go in for a job interview, you put your resume down, and it says ASU or Penn State, that’s great. Good schools. But, if you put down West Point there is a level of sacrifice and there is a level of service that goes along with that. There’s a level of maturity and commitment that comes from that.” I think that means so much more to employers in this day and age.
So, the fact that you served in any capacity – if you’re flying an $89 million aircraft or if you’re servicing a $50 million tank, whatever it is – there is a level of service and sacrifice that goes along with being a veteran that translates and means so much in the private sector.
We see Millennials coming out of school with levels of expectation far exceeding what their skill level is going to allow, and we see this desire for some of these kids to want to do things that they’re not trained for. And here come these veterans who served four, six, or eight years, and they have been doing jobs that, to them, they could do in their sleep, which is worth gold in the private sector.
That sacrifice, that commitment, that discipline, those are all qualities that really makes these guys and gals top-flight candidates for any job in the private sector. When you say to somebody in the military – I don’t care what rank – “I need this done by Friday,” they’re going to get it done by Friday. Most times they’ll get it done by Thursday.
There’s a level of difference when it comes to commitment, understanding, and maturity…all of those things.
As we’ve gotten to know you and appreciate you, we want to know a little bit about what’s going on with you. What’s next for Jonathan Elias? What personal and professional goals are you working on that you want to see come to fruition?
Jonathan: Well, I’ve got to be honest with you: I have done a bit of travelling. I’ve spent some time all over the country here and there. And – knock on wood – I’m very thankful that I’ve never been fired from a job. I usually leave either because I get antsy, bored, or they hire a boss I don’t necessarily agree with – life is too short to be miserable.
You’ve got to be happy in this life because it’s not a dress rehearsal.
Right now, truth be told, I’m pacing myself. I couldn’t be happier. I’m having so much fun with my job; I work with and for amazing people, and I’m not saying that because we’re being recorded. I’m a tad bit honest when it comes to stuff like that.
I couldn’t ask for much more; my kids are both in college, and we’re empty nesting. My wife and I are having a great time. I wake up every morning, and I thank goodness I’m living this life.
My dad always gave me sound advice. He always said, “Keep your head where your butt is, and you’ll never have a problem.” You know those people who are always wondering what’s next and worrying about where they should be instead of where they are? They end up wasting away.
I love just enjoying every day now; I’m really happy.