In an instant, Aaron Anderson’s entire world changed.
The Humvee transporting him and his Special Forces team through the Afghan desert was hit by an improvised explosive device, ejecting Anderson and his comrades from the vehicle.
“I knew what had happened almost immediately,” he says. “As I was suspended in the air, I didn’t know if I was going to survive.”
But he did. Despite the force from the blast and the subsequent gunfire, Anderson made it through that day in February 2006. He was seriously injured, but the realization that he was alive was a profound and life-altering moment.
The international studies alumnus and current MBA student at the University of California, Irvine has been sure to, in his words, “live as richly as possible” since then. Anderson founded the Green Beret Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Special Forces soldiers and their families. He was called out in President Barack Obama’s 2014 UCI commencement address and later discussed foreign policy and veterans’ issues with the commander in chief.
He married, started a family and now works on the trading floor at PIMCO, a global investment management firm. And though the path he’s taken is very different from anything he expected prior to that day in Afghanistan, the experience has motivated him to make the world a better place.
Anderson had been a rebellious Southern California teen – a far cry from the “quiet professionals” in the Army Special Forces. Family issues, including a less-than-present father and a mother who was battling cancer, led to misbehavior, and he was kicked out of the house.
“It was tough love, but I think it was the best thing she – as a single mother – could have done for me,” Anderson says. “If she hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be the man I am today. I wouldn’t have had to chart a different course.”
Eventually, he got his act together. He finished high school, was attending community college and was working toward a career in the music industry. Then 9/11 happened.
Joining the military immediately after a harrowing terrorist attack is something few people have the courage to do. But his personal convictions and a desire to test his mettle made it an easy decision. By the end of October 2001, Anderson had enlisted.
He jokes that when the Army recruiter first mentioned the Green Berets (another name for Army Special Forces soldiers, based on their unique headgear), his first thought was of the fictional character Rambo. But a bit of research revealed the level of intelligence, as well as the physical and mental toughness, required for the job, and Anderson felt up to the challenge. He had aspirations to eventually join other elite special operations units of the Army. But four and a half years into his service, the IED in Afghanistan cut those dreams short.
“I remember the conversation we were having right before we were hit,” Anderson says. “We were joking about how everyone in the vehicle was from California at some point or another, including our interpreter, who was born in Afghanistan. And in a split second: boom.”
The Green Beret who had been driving, a 19-year veteran planning to retire after that deployment, was killed. He had traded seats with Anderson before they set out on their mission that morning. “If we hadn’t switched places, I wouldn’t be here,” the UCI alum says.
Anderson nearly lost his left leg and his right foot and spent seven months in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center undergoing dozens of surgeries. As soon as he was able, he returned to his unit. But the realization that his injury was going to prevent him from continuing on the same career path forced him to make the difficult decision to leave the military.
“I really wanted to push myself,” he says. “I wanted to go further in Special Forces, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do that. So I figured I could go out into the civilian world and do other things. I didn’t really have any big plans; I just decided to try to make the most of it.”
And make the most of it he did. As Anderson settled back into civilian life, he began to contemplate his experiences at Walter Reed. He thought about the other injured soldiers, their families and the struggles they faced. While at the medical center, he had noticed a particular lack of funding and resources for veterans during transitional phases: dealing with injury, illness or retirement. In response, he started the Green Beret Foundation in 2009.
Some of the nonprofit’s first projects are the ones that stand out the most for Anderson. For instance, a friend of his was unable to conceive a child naturally because of injuries sustained on the battlefield. The government would not cover the full cost of in vitro fertilization, so the foundation funded the procedure. The result has been endearingly referred to as “the GBF baby.” Another friend had been wounded four times in combat and had seven children to raise. The foundation provided college scholarships for several of his kids.
Aid can be granted in multiple ways. When Green Berets are wounded, the GBF sends money to address immediate needs and a rucksack of essential supplies for their stay in the hospital. Soldiers with more severe injuries can apply for specialized treatments that the foundation will directly finance, such as stem cell procedures in other countries. Family members of Green Berets killed in action may receive help with funeral costs, take part in “reconnect weekends” away from the stresses of daily life, or access a peer support network.
In the seven years since he founded the organization, Anderson has slowly transitioned from a central role to a secondary one. He didn’t want to become the face of the nonprofit or get involved to the point that it took over other aspects of his life. Instead, he’s strategic about the GBF engagements he attends and is available to answer questions from the board as they arise.
“This is the Special Forces community’s foundation; this isn’t the Aaron Anderson foundation,” he says. “It’s all about something bigger than myself, and I think that’s why it has become so successful.”
In 2015, the GBF allocated more than $1.8 million to “answer the call of the Green Berets and their families so that they can succeed in their next mission,” he says, and at least 87 percent of every dollar raised goes to programs and services.
Now his focus is his family, his career at PIMCO and school; he started his MBA at UCI in September. But the veteran community is never far from his mind. Anderson serves on the PIMCO Veterans steering committee doing community outreach and assisting veterans within the firm with professional development, and last year he began partnering with UCI Student Affairs and UCI Veteran Services to bring more veteran resources to the university.
Just this summer, he helped organize an on-campus veteran talent recruitment boot camp for HR professionals. Spring 2017 will see two more programs fostering veterans’ success in their post-military careers, a resume writing workshop and a job fair.
“I like to get involved with things that are results-oriented – that have a tangible end state,” Anderson says. “What we’re trying to do with these programs is tangible: We want to get veterans into the workplace, and I want UCI to be a great place for veterans to go and grow. This increases diversity, which is something I already love and respect about UCI.”
He encourages students to interact – appropriately – with the veterans on campus. When he arrived here in 2011 to work on his undergraduate degree, Anderson was close to 30 and found the attitudes of some teenagers to be frustrating. (“You don’t ask veterans how many people they’ve killed.”) But he wishes that more of his classmates engaged with him in a genuine and thoughtful way.
“Students don’t need to treat veterans differently,” he emphasizes. “They can be curious, ask them questions – because they probably have a lot more life experience than most students, and that’s a great resource. You’re not supposed to go to college just to learn from your professors; you’re supposed to learn from your peers too.”
Anderson maintains that mindset even now. He is constantly learning, growing and trying to improve himself. He says it’s the way of Green Berets to always strive for the best. Still, it’s remarkable that someone who has endured so much adversity can maintain such positivity and motivation. But, he notes, it’s because of those difficulties that he is the person he is today.
“You have a choice. You can let the things that happen to you tear you down or build you up – there’s no in-between,” Anderson explains. “I want to live a life where I’m constantly choosing the hard right over the easy wrong. It’s exactly why I went into the military: not just to make the world a better place, but also to make myself a better person.”