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What is a leader made of?

By Peter and Helen Evans
web posted September 25, 2006

Tom O'DonoghueCourage, vision,  loyalty, humlity, patriotism, family values, historical insight, experienced team leadership, continuing education and proven accomplishments make for a great leader.  We recently met a fellow, Tom O'Donoghue, who embodies all these qualities and were honored that he spent some time with us for this interview.  He has already fought for our country twice in the last six years in both Afghanistan and Iraq, now he's up against another tough fight.  This time, it is against an entrenched incumbent in the 8th District of the Great State of Virginia.  Whether you live in Utah or Alabama or Virginia, we know you'll be proud for our nation that such a man of integrity will soon be fighting the good fight in Congress.

Peter:  Tell us why you want to run for Congress?

Tom:  I've always had an interest in politics - how the country is run and how decisions are made.  However, going to Afghanistan was what gave me the courage to jump in.  Then that was bolstered by my experience in Iraq.  Look at the election process there.  We were literally asking people to put their lives on the line.  We said to them, "Step forward - this is your country and you can make it better for yourself and your children."  They know full well that, when they do step forward, they are risking their lives - not just their own, but the lives of their entire families are all at risk.  We've seen the consequences.  People who have dared to take part in the democratic process have been assassinated and sometimes their families have been killed.  So I realized that, if I want to make it better for my children in my own country, I have to step forward - I have to step into the fray. 

Our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are risking their lives for people they don't know, for a country they may never return to.  It's quite a change when a soldier comes back home.  I came back hearing people in the 8th Congressional district complaining about their representation.  Many of them just shrugged and felt, "This is the way it is - we can't change much." The attitude is that Jim Moran is entrenched - we'll have to wait until he dies or retires. 

I thought to myself, wait a second, it doesn't have to be this way. I have faith in the people and this is a democracy.  I have faith that we will look beyond the labels of Democrat and Republican and realize that we do want a lot of the same things and we can work together to make it happen. We don't have to stay stuck in the same-old same-old.  So that inspired me and reminded me of the old adage, "If not me, who? and if not now, when?"  So I jumped in.

Helen:  You've proved already that you don't avoid a tough fight.  You've already fought for the American people.

Tom:  Yes, but in this fight I'm not risking my life, nor my family's life.  It's an uphill battle, but it's not Iraq!  Compared to what I saw people go through there just to cast a vote, just to try to change things, I realize what a great country we have.  Some of the people I saw assassinated in Iraq had minor jobs like assistant to the director of a sewage treatment plant. They were labeled 'collaborators' and their lives were taken.  Any public servant could be killed off.   

It started happening early on.  The insurgents and the terrorists didn't just randomly kill people.  The terrorists targeted certain people and sent a very clear message that if the public did anything to change the country into a better place, we're going to kill you.  They did this because they have their own dark, medieval view of how the world ought to be.  They are definitely willing to kill to bring it about. 

Helen:  If you're elected you will be walking in the footsteps of our Founding Fathers.  They were great statesmen who had great visions for our country.  What qualifications do you bring to the job?

Tom:  When you put it like that, obviously it's very humbling. I would never in my wildest dreams put myself in the same category as those people.  The American Revolution was not a forgone conclusion.  Our Founding Fathers risked everything - "their lives, their fortune and their sacred honor" - to be successful.  Look at what happened to the signers of the Declaration of Independence.   They were arrested, lost their fortunes - it was not just rhetoric.  If I could just be a shadow of the Founders it would be a great honor. 

However, I do bring a different view to the job.  I learned early on how little I knew.  It's the adage, "the more you learn, the more you know there is so much more to learn."  After I graduated from West Point I was stationed in Germany.  This was a time in history where everybody assumed that Germany would remain divided and the Cold War would go on for generations to come.

Peter:  That's just another reason not to give up "the good fight."

Tom:   We had a President who had a vision, Ronald Reagan.  When he said, "Tear down this wall!" many dismissed it as rhetoric.  But it wasn't!  it was his vision and he had the resources to put it forward and stand by it.  To me, that's a great example of strong leadership, vision and the country unified behind it.  We, as America, were leading when a lot of our allies were going weak-kneed.  We heard the suggestion of compromise way back then, but President Reagan stood firm.  He got a lot of heat about calling the Soviets the "Evil Empire," but he stood firm and told the American people that, while he knew we were not perfect, he also knew that we were right and the Soviets were wrong.

That brought some real moral clarification to the issue.

While in Germany, I realized the Cold War was coming to a close, I started traveling and found an overseas campus of Boston University in Heidelberg.  The teachers at this campus were very interesting folks, such as advisors to NATO who were not only teaching but were working right in the middle of these historic events.  In my free time I started taking classes.  I did this basically because I was curious and wanted to learn more about the events unfolding around me.  This led to a Master's Degree in International Relations.  The countries of the world are not isolated and we need leaders who understand not only national, but international relations. 

When my tour in Germany was completed I went on to a business degree.  I spent two great years as a full time student at Yale and ended up with an MBA in economics. And then I moved into a full-time job applying my recent education and from there I moved into the law.  It's all tied together. 

The opportunity presented itself for this endeavor when we moved to Virginia and I decided on Georgetown University to study law part time.  After four years I got my law degree from Georgetown.  My friends ask how I got all these degrees and I tell them,  "You pay your tuition, you go to class, you study, you take the tests and pass them and...  repeat."

Helen:  You certainly have a lot of academic credentials, as well as the actual business experience and the boots-on-the-ground experience.  You've stepped up in all areas. 

Tom:  I do love school and I've seen people who like to remain in the academic world. To me, however, the real value of an education is to take what you've learned and apply it in the world to really achieve results.  Certainly there was a real opportunity to do that.  I worked as a telecommunications analyst during the rewrite of the 1996 telecom act.   Or, take all of the high technology that's coming forward now.  How do we position it so that we have a world class telecom infrastructure?  A lot of these technologies are taken for granted: wireless, broadband and so forth.  It's fascinating when we take the law and economics and apply them to the telecommunications field. 

After working with the ideas of all this high technology, I found myself in Afghanistan, where they have basically nothing.  It was a shock.  Yet the same principles still apply.  Law is still law, economics is still economics.  How do we take those basic principles and apply them to this country? That's the challenge.

It was just amazing to see how much changed in Kabul even in the nine months I was there.  We were priming the pump.  We did some projects; irrigation, roads, wells, schools - whatever was necessary.   However, what really got things going was the security umbrella around Kabul.   We saw people begin to open their own shops, improving their country.  If you've ever seen a picture of Afghanistan, it's just a desert, a mountainous wasteland.  I thought nothing could possibly grow here.  Yet, after a few months under the security umbrella I'd go to the market and see these incredible melons and vegetables.  It was amazing to see what the human spirit could do.  Then they started setting up satellite dishes to bring in television, refrigerators to keep food fresh, washing machines and other appliances to make life a little easier. 

One image that sticks with me and made me smile as we were leaving was the gas pumps.  When we arrived they sold gasoline in 5 gallon jerry cans on the side of the road.  When I left they had opened up a gas station on the outskirts of the city where they actually had pumps!  Someone said there is a better way to do this, and they were free to try it.  Plus the fact that someone believed they could do it.  That's the way things will improve over there.  Once you free that human spirit, once you allow people to reap their own rewards, you'll see people taking charge of their lives. 

Peter:  When you're not constantly distracted by being afraid, you have time and energy to be constructive. 

Tom:  You also need that optimism for the future and security brings that out.  After all, they are taking chances, using limited resources that won't reap rewards immediately even if they just plant a garden.  Before the optimism, people didn't do anything.  They wouldn't even improve their own home - let alone the roads.  After all, the future was so dismal, why even bother, why try?

Helen:  Let's go back to your days at West Point.  What rank do you get when you graduate? 

Tom:  Second Lieutenant.

Helen:  What rank are you now?

Tom:   Major.  I'm up before the promotion board this month, so that might change.

Helen:  So you didn't just sit on your duffel-bag during your Army career.

Tom:  Well, that's not what it's about.  The Army is very good in that they give you a great many challenging opportunities at a very young age.  At 22 years of age I was a battalion tank commander.  They said, "Here's ten million dollars worth of tank equipment.  Here are a group of soldiers.  You're in charge."

It's a unique way to learn leadership.  You are in charge, you are accountable, but you are not necessarily the most experienced person there, at least not in the day-to-day routines.  So you build a team by tapping into the experiences of others.  A smart Lieutenant comes in and says I've learned certain things, but you have the experience. So how do we work together?  We have to use everyone's experience, everyone's unique talents to make the unit as successful as possible.  Everyone contributes.  That's successful leadership.

The Army is definitely not a dictatorship.  The necessity to lead and build teams is required in the Army more so than in any other endeavor that I've ever been involved in, and I believe this experience will be valuable in Congress.

Peter:  Let's move on to another subject.  You've no doubt heard about "compassionate conservatism."  Many liberals still think that Republicans don't care about the little guy, or the poor, the needy, or the oppressed.  However, much of the spending of our federal government in the past few years has been to benefit the elderly, the children who had been getting third rate educations, the oppressed internationally, the Iraqi liberation, the AIDS initiative in Africa.  Are you part of this compassionate conservative movement?  If so, what should government do?  If not, what is your alternative?

Tom:  What I really like about conservatives is that we recognize human nature, and I agree that some liberals think that Republicans don't care about the issues.  Well, I believe we care about exactly the same issues.  We care about people getting an education, having opportunities, basically just making the world a better place for everybody.  We have those same human desires as liberals.  The difference is that we approach it with a realistic viewpoint on human nature.  Rather than try to change human nature, as the Communists did, we say we can't change human nature,  we need to harness it.  That's what the free market really does.  People do look after their own self-interest and that is the most powerful force for developing wealth. 

So what we want to do to improve the lot of every single person on this earth is use the free market to harness the power of the human spirit.  Don't suppress it.  Make sure that whatever program is in the works - education, transportation, food production, whatever - makes sure it aligns with the concept of a free market.  Allow people to harvest what they plant.  If you separate them from the rewards of their efforts, that'll kill their motivation.

We Republicans need to better communicate our values, that we care about energy issues, we care about the environment.  Let's take global warming as an example.  There is obviously a debate about the impact of what we're doing, but let's just assume that our production of carbon dioxide is harming the environment.  All we hear is, "Stop producing carbon dioxide!"  I believe we actually have choices, one is the aggressive development of other energy sources that don't harm the environment.  We're already making a start here.

But another option is something we have heard little about.  We can mitigate the CO2.  There is a way of capturing it or counterbalancing it.  We know that 70% of plant life is in the ocean and that's where carbon dioxide is consumed by the plants.  A scientist has a proposal wherein a little bit of iron is spread into the ocean.  By giving the plant life just a slight boost with the iron, it has a good chance of consuming the excess carbon dioxide.  New invention is where it's at.

Helen:  You're talking about the free economy enriching the human spirit, but what about the people who are really hurting - the mentally ill, people who might need help all their lives - and on the other end of the spectrum there might be a widow who lost her husband in Iraq and now she has to face life with young children and no husband to help her.  What about those people?

Tom:  Of course we have an obligation to take care of the neediest people.  Governments should not let these people be ignored.  Economists always preach that before government intervenes in a market, it must know why it's going into it.  There are two main reasons why.  One is that the market may be a failure and the other reason is that there might be some sort of gross inequity; some sense of injustice that we just cannot tolerate.  That's where we would want to intervene.  Widows, orphans, the needy in general - we as a society cannot tolerate gross injustice and government is obligated to come up with a program to take care of the most vulnerable in our society.  This is not counter to a free market, we are stepping outside the free market scenario I gave you, because we are aware of what we're doing and we're doing it because there is a higher moral reason.  It's the right thing to do.

Helen:  Speaking of the free market, there is a false notion that there is only a certain amount of wealth in the world.  In fact, the amount of wealth in the world now is vastly greater than it was only 100 years ago.  So, the notion that if I gain $100 dollars someone must lose $100 is false. 

Tom:  The false notion is that the pie is only so big, but the free market actually increases the size of the pie and there can be enough for everyone.

Peter:  So, if the solution is the free market.  What role does the government play?

Tom:   First, to make sure the market is functioning properly.  To act like a referee.  To ensure a level playing field.  Make sure people have an opportunity for education to compete in the market, make sure people have free access to the market. That makes the whole country stronger and better off.  The government does play a unique role, especially when we consider national defense or our space program. Even then, we still turn to the free market by having companies bidding on government projects. So the government has a role, but before it steps in we should ask why is it getting involved and what role will it play. 

Helen:  I'd like to get into your personal life now.  Before Afghanistan you were working for a law firm?

Tom:  I worked for a legal research company.

Helen:  What was the change like when you went to Afghanistan... for you and for your family?

Tom:  It was far more dramatic than I thought it would be, quite honestly.  I had worked at home, as a telecommunications analyst I could tele-commute.  With the LexisNexis company I could also maintain an office at home and go out to meet clients.   I didn't realize how wonderful that was.  From the time my oldest was born I was "home" all the time.  I had an office down the hall, and she was used to seeing me often.  And then, I was just gone. 

Helen:  How old is your oldest?

Tom:  She's ten now.  She was in kindergarten then when I first left.  Her school, where she started in the fall of 2001,  was really close by.   A few days into her kindergarten career, September 11th hit us.  Right away, I'm on notice that I'll be shipping out soon.  So during lunch time I would go up to her cafeteria.  It was really nice just to have lunch with her and her friends.  It was interesting to hear what the kids said about 9/11.  There I am eating my sandwich with a group of five-year-olds and all of a sudden one would say, "You know what happened?  Some men stole an airplane full of people and they crashed it into a building and everybody died."  Then another piped up with the real shocker, "... and they did it on purpose!" 

Helen:  Did your daughter know you were going to confront these people?

Tom:  She didn't know I was going away until it came time to go.  She was very concerned, she was very upset because we really didn't know when I was coming back.  We were put on two-year orders and everything was pretty much open-ended. 

But I did come back in nine months, the fall of 2003.  So now I'm home, big welcome back and everything is great.  Yet, already my small unit of just 15 men was gearing up again.  It was obvious we were preparing to go into Iraq.  It was wonderful being home, but each weekend the drills were extended, we started getting our vaccinations, and we had to prepare our wills.  It was very hard to explain to her what was happening and why I had to go away again.  She was hurt and afraid. I told her it was the right thing to do, but it was very hard on everybody.  She had friends whose Dad's were in the military too, but they worked at the Pentagon and came home at night, but I had to go away. 

Helen:  What does she think about you running for Congress now?

Tom:  She's very happy that what I'm doing is here.  Realistically, the run for Congress is a cakewalk compared to deploying overseas.  I may come home late, leave early, but I'm coming home, and I'll be there to tuck everyone in at night.   We learned from my time away that it takes work.  There is a lot of stress a family goes through; some of it even unconscious.  We all dealt with it differently.

It was totally surreal using the modern communications to connect with home.  There you are in the middle of Iraq and if you can get a satellite hookup you can call home.  Writing a letter is different, there is some time to think and reflect.  When you pick up a phone and call home in the middle of what's happening in the war, it has a surreal feel to it.  After a while it feels like you're talking to a dream that doesn't really exist.  It's as though you had a life that existed at one point, but it's not reality.  Reality in a war zone is the next mission and the preparation for it.   Since the mission can be an all or nothing proposition, it's easy to focus only on it.

Helen:  Do you feel with time your family will realize the sacrifice?

Tom:  It's not the sacrifice I made that hit us so hard.  It's the sacrifice they had to endure because of my absence.  They sacrificed more than I did.  It hurt me that this fell so hard on my wife and children. 

Helen:  We see that you and your family have sacrificed for our country.  You fought to make this country safer for them.  But let's look to the future.  What sort of world would you like to leave to your children?  Let's say you have all the power to do anything, no holds barred.  What kind of world would that be?

Tom:  Let's look to the vision of our Founders, or to the Shining City on the Hill.  America is a concept, an ideal we all have.  Obviously we haven't reached the ideal, our society and our culture is not perfect, but we are moving toward that ideal.  Sometimes around the world we're considered hypocritical because we haven't lived up to our ideals.  I say we know we haven't lived up to them, but they are our goal; we're always trying to move in that direction.  If our freedoms and ideals ever come to fruition, that would be the world I'd like to leave to them.  

Just consider the value of each and every individual - each and every one is valuable to our society.  It's so amazing when it's contrasted with other parts of the world.  We have our unalienable rights and government is instituted to protect those rights. Most other places it's the other way around.  In those places, government decides the rights of people.  In dictatorships the individual is only as valuable as his contribution to the wishes of the government, no individual value. 

I love to teach my children history, my major at West Point.  When we study some of the Founding Fathers and their experiences I must remind my children that this is not Star Wars, this really happened.  It's too easy for some things to blend into the movies.  

Helen:  As we talk about the world you'd like to leave to them; would it be a world without conflict?

Tom:  I have a very optimistic view of human nature.  I believe in good, but if you believe in good you must also, by default, believe in evil.  Sure, it would be good if we had a world without evil, but I think it will always be with us.  All we can do is keep it in check.  The only way to keep it in check is for good people to stand up.  If they don't stand up, then evil will triumph.  

That's why I try to show my children through the study of history that there were regular folks - just like us - who didn't have magical powers, but they saw something that was not right and they stood up, and they took a chance.  A lot of them gave up everything for it, but as long as we have people who will stand up for what's right, stand up for what's good, then we'll always have good. 

Peter and Helen Evans, "http://peterandhelenevans.com. This husband and wife team - freelance writers and speakers - teach a philosophical approach to conservatism, and are scheduled speakers at Blogging Man "http://www.bloggingman.org/" . They are also real estate agents in the Washington, DC area.

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