A decade ago, Air National Guard pilot Dan Rooney thought he was living his dream. Having served two tours of duty in Iraq, he was a PGA golf professional between F-16 flights. Rooney was content with his life.
But one day, on a civilian flight, a chance encounter with a grieving military family changed everything for him. The Air Force major and father of five suddenly felt the calling to do more for others.
So in 2007, Rooney created Folds of Honor, a nonprofit dedicated to providing scholarships and other educational assistance to the spouses and children of veterans who are disabled or were killed in action.
The organization has since raised more than $70 million and awarded nearly 10,000 scholarships. And leading that charge has changed Rooney’s life.
“It’s an amazing irony that when you reach out to help someone in need, you’re often the one being helped,” he says.
Rooney’s work has earned him plenty of accolades, including the President’s Volunteer Service Award and the Air National Guard’s Distinguished Service Medal. People magazine named him one of its Heroes of the Year in 2008. But Rooney, who has now served three tours, says he gets his greatest satisfaction from offering comfort and support to people who are grieving great loss.
We asked him to tell us more about where he finds fulfillment, and what he’s learned along the way.
Experience Life | What inspired you to create Folds of Honor?
Dan Rooney | On my return home from a second tour of duty in Iraq, I noticed a corporal sitting in first class in dress Army greens. When we landed, the captain announced that there was an American hero on board, and my mind immediately jumped to the young man I’d seen. But the captain continued by saying that the remains of Corporal Brock Bucklin were on the flight. His identical twin brother, Corporal Brad Bucklin, had brought him home.
For all my time in the military, I’d never seen that side of the war. And that night I watched the Bucklin family in the darkest time of their lives. What moved me most was seeing this soldier’s 4-year-old son on the tarmac and realizing that he’d never play catch again with his dad, never go get ice cream, never be tucked in at night — those things that we hold so sacred as parents.
The captain asked all the passengers to stay in their seats, out of respect for the family, until the casket was deplaned. More than half disregarded the request. That moment was a defining one in my life and the inspiration for creating Folds of Honor.
EL | What challenges did you face as you were launching this charity?
DR | I had no idea where I was going to start or what to do. Even when you know something in your heart and your gut, getting other people to understand and believe in it can be tough. There were many challenges: staying motivated in the face of resistance; the administrative aspects of starting a nonprofit; building a process for collecting money and giving it away. You name it. Most days it seemed like the odds were against me.
When we started, even just connecting with families in need was a huge hurdle, even though there were so many in need. Today, sadly, there are 1.5 million dependents who’ve had someone either killed or disabled in Iraq or Afghanistan, and nearly nine of 10 of these family members don’t get any federal education assistance.
EL | What is it about this work that sets it apart from your other pursuits?
DR | I look at flying fighters and being a PGA golf professional as what I do, but Folds of Honor is who I am. It’s what drives me.
This work has taught me to focus on others. When your daily energy is directed at supporting people in doing or achieving something they didn’t think was possible, it’s so rewarding. I really believe this work is my life mission.
EL | Who — or what — has had the strongest influence on your journey?
DR I’m the son of a college professor. He used to talk to me about all kinds of things, but he’d always finish with this sturdy refrain: “Son, the only really successful people in life are those who identify their passion and then have the courage and the faith to pursue it with reckless abandon.”
So, I remember when I was 12 years old, I told my dad, “I want to be a golf pro and a fighter pilot.” It was an unlikely combination, and it certainly wasn’t easy, but thanks to my dad’s inspiration, I was able to make that happen.
One thing I’ve learned is that resistance itself can be a form of influence. It challenges us to identify, develop, and use our best talents, and by extension, to become the best people we can be. It’s when we embrace our challenges and learn from them that our dreams take flight.
EL | How has Folds of Honor changed your outlook on life?
DR | Before FOH, I lived a fairly myopic life. Leading FOH has made me accountable to walking the walk, and to ensuring that I am worthy, on a personal level, of leading the mission. It has made me a much better person. And once I learned of the power of synchronicity — chance with a purpose — from that flight with Brad Bucklin, I started looking for other signs. Now I am always watching for signs guiding my life, and also affirming that I am on the right path.
EL | How can more of us overcome the -barriers that prevent us from achieving our dreams?
DR | First, I think the ideology of “service before self” is part of it. We live in a world that tends to be very self-focused, but the reality is, there’s so much more fulfillment available in putting others before yourself.
Second, in this connected, nonstop world we live in, you have to give yourself permission to slow down — like the run-walk training mechanism in a marathon, where you slow down enough to recharge your batteries so you can really run hard.
The third thing is to take care of yourself. My first meeting of the day is a workout combined with prayer time. So I push myself physically and spiritually and then strive to show up at my mental and emotional best the rest of the day. It’s important to understand how much more effective you can be in all aspects of your life when you take care of yourself.
EL | Any other words of encouragement for someone who wants to get more involved with a cause he or she cares about?
DR | You first have to figure out what your passion is. When you start to align what you do with your deepest priorities, you will find a natural path. From there, I think it’s taking my dad’s advice and asking, do you have the courage and faith to pursue your passion with reckless abandon?
To learn more about Folds of Honor, visit www.foldsofhonor.org.