Veterans Day was created to honor the end of World War I. Since then, November 11th has been dedicated to honoring American veterans and their service to the nation. As of 2021, 19 million living U.S. veterans served during at least one war. With stories of perseverance, leadership, and courage, military veteran speakers can help you and your audience to honor and celebrate the brave selflessness these individuals display.
These popular Veterans Day speakers are gifted storytellers and motivational speakers, able to inspire your audience with firsthand accounts and powerful messages of the meaning of service. Check out these top 8 Veterans Day speakers to inspire your event this year.
1. Olga Custodio, Retired Lt. Colonel of the U.S. Air Force & America’s First Latina Fighter Pilot
Olga Custodio has over 30 years of aviation experience, both in the military and in civilian airfare with American Airlines. As one of the first women and the first Latina to graduate from the USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training, her impact on diversity and inclusion in the Air Force is undeniable. Although working in a traditionally male-dominated profession, Custodio has proven herself by overcoming self-doubt, staying open to possibilities, and seeing herself as a successful equal, regardless of the circumstances.
She shares sheer determination as one of her strongest propellers to success, attributing her strong character to the mantra “querer es ponder” or “where there is a will, there is power.” She tirelessly works to advocate for aviation in underserved communities, and she is a role model for diversity and inclusion in the space.
2. Travis Mills, Retired U.S. Army Staff Sergeant of the 82nd Airborne
On his third tour of duty in Afghanistan as a United States Army staff sergeant, Travis Mills was critically injured by an IED (improvised explosive device), causing the loss of both arms and both legs. As one of only five quadruple amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his story is rare, and his resilience undeniable.
Despite the expected hardship of such an injury, Mills persevered through a grueling rehabilitation program, committing not only to recovery but also to giving back to the veteran community. In 2013, Mills and his wife founded the Travis Mills Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to benefiting and assisting injured veterans and their families. In his talks on resilience and courage, he makes it clear that his story is not a sob story, but one of never giving up.
3. Carey Lohrenz, First Female F-14 Fighter Pilot in the U.S. Navy
Carey Lohrenz is clearly not afraid of pressure, serving as the first female F-14 Tomcat fighter pilot, and having flown missions worldwide as a combat-mission-ready U.S. Navy pilot. Her fearless attitude and commitment to execution in fast-paced environments, such as the cockpit, have informed her approach to business and what it takes to motivate and maintain a strong team.
Lohrenz brings her military background to the world of leadership and strategy, speaking on the characteristics and assets of high-performing teams to produce business optimization. With wide-ranging experiences, both as a successful fighter pilot and a woman in a male-dominated field, Lohrenz is ready to bring her strategic perspective to your audience, speaking on the importance of team-building and leadership.
4. Shane Ortega, The U.S. Army’s First Openly Trans Soldier
Shane Ortega’s experience is a unique one, getting at the nexus of human rights equity and diversity as the U.S. Army’s first openly trans soldier. As a self-described transmasculine, non-binary, queer, and mixed-ethnicity individual, his experiences reflect the adversity and courage it takes to challenge binary norms within the military.
His background helps to inform how he trains organizations and companies to empower their people through knowledge, compassion, and equity. Ortega is passionate about broadening opportunities for marginalized communities and voices with the goal of more dynamic and cohesive workplaces. His intersectional experience spans generational trauma, womanhood/ness, disability, military service, multiple minority status, and public health education, to support and expand how clients and their audiences view the world. Don’t miss your chance of getting to hear this changemaker.
5. Karen Baetzel, Retired Navy Pilot & Leadership Expert
Captain Karen Baetzel is a retired U.S. Navy Pilot, who brings her mindset of grit and determination to the corporate world. Thirty years as one of the Navy’s most senior female Naval Aviators prepared her for the challenges, strategies, and adversities that come in the world of business and consulting. Her business, BattleAxe Consulting Services, has worked with corporate, government, and nonprofit clients to share her knowledge in leadership development.
Her seniority in the military gave her a grateful heart and a salty dose of Navy humor, which she brings to her talks detailing how mistakes are valuable and communication is crucial. A powerhouse in both the military and her own consulting business, Baetzel is able to model what true leadership looks like.
6. Brent Gleeson, Navy SEAL Combat Veteran & CEO of TalkingPoint Leadership
Brent Gleeson’s combat tours as a Navy SEAL took him through Iraq and Africa, where he gained discipline and battlefield lessons that he draws upon in his current career as an award-winning entrepreneur, bestselling author, and consultant. He speaks on leadership, how to curate high-performing teams, and organizational transformation.
His bestselling books, “TalkingPoint: A Navy SEAL’s 10 Fail-Safe Principles for Leading Through Change” and “Embrace the Suck: The Navy SEAL Way to an Extraordinary Life” touch on his practical experiences and lessons learned as a Navy SEAL, as well as further applications that relate to boosting self-esteem and personal power. His high-energy talks on leadership, culture, and accountability will empower your audience to push their limits.
7. Melissa Stockwell, Retired First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army & Three-Time Paratriathlon World Champion
Melissa Stockwell was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Army in 2002 and was deployed to Iraq in 2004. Three weeks after deployment, after a roadside bomb incident, she became the first female to ever lose a limb in active combat. Despite this incredible loss, she persevered, and in 2008, she became the first Iraq War veteran to qualify for the Paralympics, competing in swimming and the paratriathlon. Stockwell is now a three-time world champion.
Adversity and challenges have never stopped Stockwell, and her incredible journey from lieutenant to world champion is a story that speaks for itself. In her talks, she draws upon inner strength over personal tragedy to achieve greatness. Her emotional and inspiring story reminds us of the amazing power of choice and maintaining perspective in the face of hardship.
8. Mike Abrashoff, Former Commander of USS Benfold
Mike Abrashoff was the most-junior officer in the Pacific Fleet when he took command of the near-worst performing ship. Within a year, the same ship, the USS Benfold, with the same crew, was the best-performing ship in the entire Navy. This sort of transformation shows the power of leadership and team culture that Abrashoff so clearly exemplifies. He comments on the importance of creating a safe, empowered, and supportive environment, explaining “when you do that, anything is possible.”
Abrashoff’s display of transformation and powerful leadership in the Navy is just a taste of the expertise he brings to clients looking to achieve breakthrough results in company culture and cohesion. He is motivated by educating on the action steps toward organizational performance, which he details in his popular published works. His experience and stories prompt leaders at all levels to re-imagine their leadership thinking and create new ways to elevate individual and team performance.
Veterans Day is a time to reflect and honor the challenges and triumphs of all of those who have served. As you can see in the varied stories of these veteran speakers overcoming adversity, optimizing leadership, and developing determination and discipline, they have much to share about the capabilities of the human experience, and how to bring courage to your everyday life. Let their words motivate and encourage your audiences to take on anything.