When I Met General Martin Dempsey

In my spare time, I am a volunteer with a little marketing group in town called COSthink. We meet twice a month take on marketing projects for local organizations that need help with their marketing but don’t know where to start, or don’t have the time or budget to hire a marketing company to help them. Several months ago, we took on a new organization as a “project,” and that organization was a Colorado Springs nonprofit called The Home Front Cares. Our challenge: help them figure out how to use the power of the internet to spread their message, both via the web, and through social media.

While we were working on their project, coincidentally, they were about to host their annual fundraising dinner, which they hold at The Broadmoor Hotel. When I learned about that, I asked George Hayward, their Manager of Development, if there were any tickets still available. I found out that they did have a few left, so I texted my wife and asked her if she’d be interested in going with me. She immediately replied “YES!!!!!!!!!!”—in all caps—with about ten exclamation points. So I told George to sign me up.

Since I knew it would be a formal gathering, I told my wife she could buy a nice new dress for the occasion. Of course, she was very excited for the opportunity. I was just excited to be able to go to such a great event—one at The Broadmoor, especially. I’d never been there before and wondered if it was as nice as everyone says.

The night of the dinner, while we were getting ready to go, I had no idea what to expect. I’m not in the military, I’ve never been in the military, and I don’t come from a military family. While my grandfather was an Air Force Pilot and one of my uncles was a Marine, I didn’t grow up in a military home, and I’ve never had to live with deployments, moving every two years, and other aspects of military life. So I wondered to myself: “Am I going feel completely out of place tonight? Since it was a formal affair, I decided to put on a tie. And since you may not know what a big deal this is for me, let’s just say that I had to borrow my little brother’s tie for the event because I don’t own any ties, and I haven’t worn a tie in probably ten years or more. I even had to have him—my little kid brother—tie my tie for me. I wasn’t exactly embarrassed… I thought of it a small sacrifice I could make out of respect for our Armed Forces.

We arrived a little bit late to the hotel, so when we walked into the ballroom, almost all the tables were full. As I surveyed the audience, what I’d suspected was exactly right: nearly everyone there was military except us. At least we weren’t the only civilians at our table. Dinner was wonderful: salad, salmon and steak, red wine, white wine, and cheesecake and coffee to top it off. The keynote speaker for the evening was General Martin Dempsey, who is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Which means he’s the highest ranking military officer in the United States of America. There’s only one person who ranks higher than him, and that’s the President. So, I was very excited to see him and hear him speak. This would be an incredibly rare opportunity for a civilian like myself with no military connections at all.

About halfway through dinner, the presentation started and the opening speaker talked about who The Home Front Cares is and what they do. But then she asked a question that completely surprised me: “Are there any World War II veterans in the house? If so please stand and be recognized.” A handful of people stood, and I sat in amazement as the room filled with thunderous applause. At that moment, my wine-saturated grin faded, and I forgot all about the lighthearted conversation I’d been having at my table. The heaviness of the moment weighed on me, and I thought to myself: “I am in the presence of greatness. I am sitting next to America’s Greatest Generation: heroes who fought in the Great War.

After that sobering introduction, the presenter told us to pick up the small booklet that had been sitting on our seats when we walked in. It was a World War II songbook. As I flipped through the pages, I saw lyrics for songs such as ‘This Is The Army Mr. Jones, “On A Wing And A Prayer,”Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition,” and others, and I wondered, “Wow, are we going to stand up and sing these songs?

That’s exactly what we did. There was a piano player up by the front of the stage, and he began to play these historic fighting songs. Which was a little awkward for me, and I wondered what to do: I didn’t know any of the songs since I hadn’t heard most of them before. I figured it would be like sitting in church—just try to listen to someone standing near you who sounds like they know the tune. I stood there, holding the song book in my hand, soaking it all in and completely overwhelmed.

Here I was, with World War II veterans, singing battle songs with men who probably sang these very songs in actual battle at one point. Perhaps somewhere in France, fighting the Nazis… or half the world away in Africa… not knowing whether they would come home alive… not knowing what we now know as an obvious fact—that we would actually win the war.

I had a lump in my throat, and my hands were shaking. By the third song, I was so choked up I couldn’t sing. I set down my song book, and folded my hands. Everyone else continued to sing: they sang “Anchors Aweigh,” “Off We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder,” “The Marines Hymn,” “The Caissons Go Rolling Along.” After we’d made it through all the songs, the piano player started playing a familiar ditty; the intro to the old Frank Sinatra tune “New York, New York.” I was confused, because I noticed that this song wasn’t in the book. The pianist then leaned into his microphone and said: “Let’s see if we can get General Dempsey up here to sing this with us.” We in the audience laughed, because it was a funny joke… or so I thought.

As the piano tinkled that famous “da-da-dee-dee-doo” intro, all of a sudden, General Dempsey jumped up from his chair, ran onto the stage, grabbed a microphone and belted out the first line: “start spreading the news…” and we erupted in laughter and applause, as we watched the Nation’s highest ranking military officer sing karaoke. (See below).

(Here he sings New York, New York. Not a bad Sinatra impression!)

He finished the song, and walked up to the lectern and gave a great speech about how the military has always been here for us, and how we need to return the favor and be there for our military members.

When the evening was over, I thought to myself: “I wonder if I can walk over to where the General is sitting and introduce myself and shake his hand.” So I told my wife “let’s go see if we can meet him,” and I awkwardly walked his direction with droves of other people, mostly soldiers. He was surrounded by what appeared to be secret service agents, and as I stood waiting in line to meet him, a voice inside my head starting asking me “Wait a minute… this is silly. What am I doing here? What on earth am I going to say to him? I’ve never met a four-star General before.” I kept inching closer, trying to talk myself out of it. I kept wondering… where do I start? Should I crack a joke? Is this the time to be funny? Should I say something very serious and profound? All I really hoped for was that my mind wouldn’t go blank or that I wouldn’t say something stupid.

Finally, it was my turn, and I timidly walked forward, and held out my hand. I thanked him for coming to Colorado Springs, I thanked him for supporting The Home Front Cares, and I thanked him for his service. He told me that he loves coming to Colorado Springs, and said it’s one of his very favorite places to visit. Then I introduced him to my wife, and we all got a photo together. Here it is (below).

I thanked the general, and we left the hotel. Afterwards, I followed him on Twitter, and liked his page on Facebook so I can see what he’s up to. And I thought: what an incredible place we live in, isn’t it? I can meet the man who runs the military, just walk up to him and shake his hand, and then connect with him on social media afterwards. What a country! Thanks to The Home Front Cares for making it all happen!

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Ron Stauffer

Ron Stauffer is a husband, father, believer, web guy, marketing guy, musician, and man of many secret talents. He lives in the Boulder, CO area with his wife and five children, and is frequently told he's too young to have as many kids as he does.