VETERAN AMBASSADORS

Veteran Ambassadors from coast to coast raise awareness for Boot Campaign’s mission, educate Americans on why it’s important to give back, and use their platform to tell their personal stories of service and sacrifice.

SFC Cassandra Cantin, U.S. Army Retired

Texas native Cassandra “Cassie” Cantin has a big heart and personality to match. The only girl of four children growing up, Cassie learned to hold her own from a young age. She served 24 years in the Army as a medic and then as an LPN, including a combat tour in Iraq. As an adult, Cassie is once again surrounded by boys – she and her husband Carl are parents to one son, C.J., and the trio now lives in Texas. These days, she spends time traveling around the world, cooking for her friends and family, participating in 5K charity events, and sponsors a college freshman in her community by providing meals and mentorship. Cassie admits, though, that her greatest inspiration and happiness are found right at home with her two favorite guys.

Spec. (Ret.) Ricky Raley

Boot Campaign Veteran Ambassador Ricky Raley, former infantryman in the Indiana Army National Guard, served in the Guard’s Alpha Company, Task Force 1-151 – better known as the Avengers – as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. During one combat tour, the Avengers conducted more than 200 combat missions and covered more than 250,000 miles in convoy escorts. On one mission, Ricky’s truck was leading the way when the mine roller tripped an IED (improvised explosive device). Ricky, along with two others in the truck at the time of the explosion, sustained mild traumatic brain injuries and were awarded Purple Hearts. In 2009, six months and 17 days after returning from Iraq, Ricky was involved in a near-fatal truck accident leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Approximately 10 years after the accident, Ricky applied for Boot Campaign’s health and wellness program and kick-started his journey to improved mental and physical capability.

In addition to his involvement with Boot Campaign, Ricky has become an avid handcyclist and advocate for adaptive sports, serving as a spokesperson for Top End® Wheelchair (a division of Invacare® Corp). He works with the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) to advocate on quality of care issues that affect the veterans in VA facilities across the nation. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Kentucky-Indiana Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America and is KIPVA’s Sports Director.

MSG Tim Travis, U.S. Army Retired

Both of Tim’s grandfathers served in the military as did his father. Growing up around the military, it was only natural for Tim to enlist during his senior year of high school. Tim went through basic training in 1983 and retired from the Texas National Guard in 2015 after 6 deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan. When not deployed, Tim serves as a Police Officer in Texas. Tim is a graduate of Boot Campaign’s program and believes strongly in the mission and knows firsthand of the success. Tim lives in Central Texas with his wife and spends his free time supporting Boot Campaign and working on the ranch they will retire to.

MSgt Jason Howland, U.S. Air Force Retired

Jason joined the United States Air Force as a Civil Engineer and deployed in support of Operations’ Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, New Dawn, and Freedom’s Sentinel. After twenty years of military service, he retired to Dallas, Texas with his wife and beloved Bulldog.

Jason graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a Masters Degree in Human Relations and plans to  reenroll in school to obtain his PhD in Organizational Leadership.

In addition to his primary role as a Boot Campaign Veteran Ambassador, he holds the concept of Boot Campaign’s Health and Wellness Program in the highest regard and works diligently to ensure other veterans have access to the resources they need for establishing and fulfilling purpose after service.

SGT Omar Avila, U.S. Army

SGT Omar Avila has led a life of service dedicated to his country and his fellow veterans.

Avila joined the U.S. Army in 2004 as an Infantryman, deploying to Iraq in 2007.  On May 14, 2007, his vehicle was struck with a 200 lb IED, resulting in burns to 75% of his body and amputation below the knee of his right leg.

Upon retiring from the U.S. Army in 2010, Avila never allowed his injuries to slow his success. Powering through his injuries, he became the current world record holder for the World Association of Bench and Deadlift in the Paralympics category.  He also started his own consulting firm, 5 Toes, and dedicated his life to serving his fellow veterans.

Avila now serves as a Veteran Ambassador for Boot Campaign, helping other wounded warriors through their recovery process as well.  He continues to motivate wounded veterans and seeks to educate the public about veteran issues through numerous public speaking events and is a sought after motivational speaker.

A lifelong avid hunter, Omar also spreads his passion for the outdoors by assisting wounded veterans.

Avila was raised in Brownsville, TX and currently lives in Wimberley, TX.

Larry Hinkle

After playing two years of junior college baseball, Larry knew that he wanted to serve his country in the United States Marine Corps. He enlisted and received orders to Camp Pendleton, CA where he was attached to 3rd AABN (3rd Amphibian Assault Battalion.) While in the Marine Corps, Larry deployed three times. On his first deployment, he was assigned to a security detail for the U.S.S. Cole hours after it was bombed in the Gulf of Aiden, near Yemen. On his second deployment he was part of the Amphibious Ready Group that provided an immediate presence for “Operation Anaconda”. His final deployment — the one that would impact the rest of his life — was to Iraq in 2003, for the initial invasion.

Since 2015, Larry has teamed up with various nonprofits and walked over 5,200 miles throughout this country, getting face to face with our veterans and first responders in VA hospitals/ outpatient clinics, Veteran State Nursing Homes, fire/ police/ sheriff departments and Salvation Army locations. This also afforded him the ability to feed over 2,600 heroes for #feedemfriday and pass out over 600 gift cards along his travels. In the summer of 2018 Hinkle teamed up with two vets from the US and three vets from the UK on the Walk Of America, which focused on veteran mental health. Larry continues to serve his brothers and sisters as an ambassador of the Boot Campaign.

Kelsey Smith

“Having experienced first hand serving our great Nation and transitioning from service and the difficulties that are involved during those times, I fully embraced Boot Campaign’s mission the first time I heard it. Being able to contribute to the mission with this great team and help my fellow brothers and sisters in arms is an incredibly rewarding career.”

Just eight months after enlisting in the Marine Corps, Kelsey was deployed to Iraq as an Infantry Rifleman. On his second deployment to Ramadi, Iraq in 2005, Kelsey was awarded the Purple Heart. Twice more Kelsey served overseas in Iraq, totaling 28 months in country. Following his overseas service, Kelsey was as a combat instructor for newly commissioned officers and warrant officers at The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia. Over the course of his career, Kelsey was awarded two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medals, a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement medal and the Combat Action ribbon. He retired from active duty in 2013. He received a degree in Human Resources and Organizational Behavior from the University of North Texas.

Captain Joni Marquez, U.S. Air Force Retired

U.S. Air Force Captain (Ret.) Joni Marquez is an award-winning U.S. Air Force Captain who recently medically retired after serving 14 years of combined military service as an enlisted member in the Air Mobility Command Grand Forks Air Force Base (AFB), ND, and as an officer in the Special Operations Command at Cannon AFB, NM, and Hurlburt Field, FL.

After enlisting in the Air Force in 1998 as a Security Forces member, Marquez joined its anti-terrorism team called the Phoenix Ravens, and provided security for USAF aircraft and personnel while deployed to austere locations all over the world.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on American soil, Marquez decided she wanted to have a greater reach on the global war on terror, and left the military to pursue a bachelor’s degree in social welfare at UC Berkeley.

In 2008, she was commissioned into the USAF and became a Fire Control Officer on the AC-130H gunship where she provided Close Air Support for ground forces in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

During her first of two deployments, she was on a mission that would forever change her life—the downing of Extortion 17 (EN 17), a mission where the U.S. military lost 31 American heroes. The downing of EN 17 was the single most catastrophic loss of American lives in one night during the war, and the trauma from that night led to the slow decline of the talented Captain’s military flying career.

Almost four years later, Marquez was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and decided that once she got out of the military she would use her experiences to help educate and create awareness surrounding the American warfighter.

Marquez left the military as a decorated veteran and as an expert in military intelligence, security, foreign affairs, unconventional warfare, anti-terrorism and counterterrorism. She continues her fight for freedom stateside, and advocates for the warriors that have both the seen and the unseen wounds from war, including contributions to Boot Campaign as a Veteran Ambassador.

In addition to a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley, the Bradley, Calif., native also earned a master’s in business from Trident University International, and is currently enrolled at the University of Southern California in pursuit of a master’s degree in military social work.

Danielle ‘Dani’ Vaughn

Danielle Vaughn is a SSGT in the US Air Force Reserves. Danielle joined in 2007 and served on active duty status. Upon completion of her time she joined the reserves. Her goal was to protect and heal her fellow military service members. Danielle serves on an Air Crew Life Support Unit, and her job is basically to maintain and train aircrew members on safety and survival equipment and skills. She plans to stay in the military until she is told she is too old to serve. As far as civilian life, she teaches fourth grade English, Language Arts and Social Studies. She has a passion for children and helping grow their knowledge of the world around them. She strives to incorporate patriotism into her classroom on a daily basis, whether through mentor texts, history lessons, class discussions, or simply modeling patriotic behavior like taking pride in standing for and singing the National Anthem. Danielle is the mom to her beautiful daughter Maddie. Danielle serves as a Veteran Ambassador for Boot Campaign and helps to encourage the Patriot League program in all she does. Danielle gives back not only to the children she teaches on a daily basis, but to her fellow veterans once a month at a minimum. Danielle proves nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it.

Aaron Hale

SSG. Aaron Hale (Ret.) is a 14-year veteran of both the Navy and Army and currently lives in Florida with his love McKayla. Aaron deployed once to Iraq, and it was on his second mission to Afghanistan in December 2011 where his career as an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Team Leader ended. An Improvised Explosive Device (IED), something that has claimed many lives during the war, exploded in front of Aaron, severely wounding him and taking his eyesight completely.

Aaron never accepted defeat and is always looking for new challenges. While he awaited military retirement, he began teaching at the EOD School, continued his education in finance, started running marathons, kayaking and climbing mountains.

In August 2015, Aaron came down with a sudden case of bacterial meningitis which took his hearing entirely and put vertigo in its place. That still hasn’t stopped him. Aaron received two cochlear implants, which allow some hearing. He continues to travel the country advocating for veterans and started a fudge business called Extra Ordinary Delights (EOD). Aaron is looking forward to many more years of pushing the boundaries on what people think is possible and McKayla is excited to be right there to cheer him on.

Michael Hardgrove

Sergeant First Class Michael D. Hardgrove Jr. is a US Army Pathfinder Instructor at the Army National Guard’s Warrior Training Center at Fort Benning, GA.

A native of Woodstock, Va., SFC Hardgrove enlisted in the Virginia Army National Guard in 1999 as an infantryman. He has held leadership positions from Team Leader through Platoon Sergeant and since 2012, he has been active duty for the Army National Guard in the Title 10 AGR (Active Guard/Reserve) Program.

Since 2012, SFC Hardgrove has held assignments as an Operations Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) in Headquarters, Army National Guard G1 and as a Protocol NCO for the Chief, National Guard Bureau.

During his career, SFC Hardgrove has served several tours of duty overseas, including his assignments with Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (Sept. 2004-July 2005) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (March 2007-Feb. 2008, and March-Aug. 2010).

To date, SFC Hardgrove has received 21 awards and decorations during his 19-year career and holds a Bachelor’s of Science from Liberty University in Strategic Intelligence.

He has been a Veteran Ambassador with Boot Campaign since 2014 and volunteers for Boot Campaign when he can around his active duty schedule.

Billy Ray Yates

With two grandfathers serving in World War II in the U.S Marines, and his father retiring from a career in the U.S. Army after three tours in Vietnam, it is not all that surprising that Billy Ray Yates of Flatwoods, Ky., would have an interest in a military career.

So Billy Ray continued his family’s military legacy, serving 23 years and retiring in 2005. As a black hat platoon sergeant and pathfinder instructor, he helped conduct the basic paratrooper (military parachutist) training for the United States armed forces, including troops of both genders from all branches of the U.S. Department of Defense, Reserve Officer Training Corps, and allied military personnel.

As a paratrooper himself, Billy Ray earned his Airborne Wings followed by a Senior Parachutist Badge with 30 jumps and his Master Parachutist Badge with 65 jumps. All told, he finished his career with more than 100 successful static line parachute jumps on his resume.

Nowadays, he finds himself working as a manager for the oldest sporting goods store in Anchorage, Alaska, while finding time to travel and enjoy his 34-foot ocean boat along with some serious hunting and fishing.

Jason Borne

Jason Borne grew up in a small Texas town and, after his military career ended, came right back to the Lone Star State. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2003, deploying in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2004-2005, and served in the reserves until 2009. Jason attended the police academy in 2007, continuing his career in public service and building a health and wellness business on the side. It was then that he met Boot Campaign, forming an instant connection and participating in local events, photo shoots, and Pushups for Charity. Jason lives in Central Texas with his wife and three kids.

Chris Auger

LCDR Chris Auger (Ret) is a former active duty Navy SEAL with more than 27 years of service and leadership to his country. A native of Virginia Beach, Virginia, Chris is a legacy SEAL whose father and younger brother were also career Navy SEALs. He enlisted in the Navy in 1987 and graduated BUD/S class 155 in December 1989. After several short trips to Iraq in 2005 and 2007, he deployed for eight and a half months in 2008 to the Southern Islands of the Philippines working by, through, and with the Philippine Special Operations to counter terrorism. In July 2011 he deployed in support of Special Operations Command Central Command Pakistan Forward to train Pakistan Maritime Special Operations in support of counter Narco-Terrorism operations along the Makran Coast. His time in Naval Special Warfare took its toll on his neck and back, which prompted retirement in 2015 after several major surgeries.

Upon retiring, Chris, his wife of 24 years, his 22-year-old daughter Alexis, and his swim buddy Winston (their Jack Russell/Pug) moved cross-country to Virginia Beach after 14 years in San Diego. He is currently an adjunct professor at Wave Leadership College and a second year Doctoral student at Regent University School of Business Leadership. His desire to serve has led him to become a major contributor of time and effort in support of the Boot Campaign mission.

Marcus Burleson

He’s the guy who knows what it’s like: what it’s like to serve his country, what it’s like to make sacrifices, what it’s like to come home with injuries, what it’s like to qualify and receive the Purple Heart and what it’s like to start over after retiring from military service earlier than planned. In all this the twinkle in his eye and sly grin is ready to go whenever a moment of humor is needed. A Texas man, Staff Sergeant Marcus Burleson joined the marines after completing two years of college. His career includes a deployment to Papua New Guinea, one of 150 countries in which the U.S. maintains a presence. In one assignment, Mark worked a support mission for the Secret Service, protecting the President while vacationing, and then in Afghanistan as team leader with 2nd Platoon where he met up with an IED. In the end, Mark won the battle with that IED, but the wrestling match ended with him on the injured list and an ambulance ride to end all ambulance rides from Afghanistan to Walter Reed Hospital where he spent the next two years recovering from his injuries. Mark found the Boot Campaign through Scott O’Neal (Boot Campaign Ambassador), who connected him almost from the moment he was injured. In fact, the Military Recovery Fund was named in his honor and his work to develop its infrastructure.

Jake McCormack

SSgt (USMC) Jake McCormack enlisted into the delayed entry program of the United States Marine Corps in 2002 and shipped to MCRD San Diego in 2003. In April, 2005, he was deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom with Regimental Combat Team 5, Team Gator. In 2006, he re-deployed back to Camp Fallujah in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Upon return to the states, Jake served as an instructor at the Assault Amphibian School and graduated Resident PME, where he was selected for Meritorious Staff Sergeant on the Non-SDA Meritorious board. He is currently serving as the Staff Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of Recruiting Sub Station, Sherman, Texas. Over the course of his career, Jake has received the Navy and Marine Corps achievement medal with two gold stars and Combat distinguishing device, a Combat Action ribbon and a Good Conduct medal with two bronze stars. In addition to volunteering with the Boot Campaign, Jake loves being outdoors and fishing with his wife and son.

Sergeant Zachary E. Bell, U.S. Marine Corps

Sergeant Zachary E. Bell, served four years in the United States Marine Corps as an infantry rifleman, the primary infantry position, with 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment based in Camp Lejeune, N.C. from 2007-2011, and joined Boot Campaign as a Hero Ambassador in 2015.

A native of west Tenn., Sgt. Bell deployed twice to Helmand Province, Afghanistan during his military career, including assignments in Garmsir, from March to July 2008, and Marja, from December 2009 to July 2010, as this part of Operation Enduring Freedom. He planned, coordinated and executed over 400 counter-insurgency operations within the area of operations over the course of his two seven-month deployments in Afghanistan. He also planned, organized and supervised preparation and execution of unit movement and operations with Afghan military, NATO multinational military forces, DOD and other commercial agencies.

Bell received a battlefield promotion to corporal for meritorious service and held the billet of infantry squad leader. After he departed active duty in Feb. 2011 he received the rank of sergeant.

After leaving the military, Zachary began pursuing a college degree and in the fall of 2014 earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. In May 2016 Zachary completed his master’s in business administration at Lipscomb University, and he now works in healthcare in Nashville, TN.

Seeking creative outlets for his military experiences, he has contributed articles to both The New York Times, for its “At War: Notes from the Front Lines” blog, and the Huffington Post.

Zachary currently lives in Nashville where he engages the local community to foster awareness about military / veteran issues and the services offered by the Boot Campaign. Zachary’s free time is spent with his wife, Christy, and their two children, Alyssa and Audrey. Connect with him on Twitter & Instagram @ZacharyEBell.

Ryan Lamke

Cpl. (Ret.) Ryan Lamke entered the Marine Corps in January 2005 and was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq just seven months later as an Infantry Assualtman with 2d Battalion, 2d Marine Regiment. During his deployment, he was involved in several IED and rocket-propelled grenade blasts, resulting in a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and several orthopedic injuries. Despite these injuries, Ryan continued with his unit through the entirety of the deployment. In 2007, Ryan deployed with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) to fulfill a variety of roles throughout the Near East and Africa before retiring from active duty in 2008.
Since he left the Marines, Ryan has continued to advocate for the disabled veteran population, raising awareness of student veteran issues, Post-Traumatic Stress and TBI issues as well as the unintended consequences of government regulations that impede the care and recovery of our nation’s wounded warriors. He graduated Georgetown University in May 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Liberal Studies. He is now running his own full-service marketing and PR firm, Ton-Up MKTG, but still finds time to give back to his brothers and sisters in arms as often as he can.

Brent Taylor

Brent Taylor is a United States Marine Corps veteran who has worked in the firearms industry since he left active duty in 2009, and is currently the Director of Customer Relations at BPI Outdoors. He loves spending time in the great outdoors, fishing, Georgia football and grilling up tasty things to eat. Like most modern-day husbands, Brent is often the DIY-guru turning his wife’s Pinterest dreams into reality. Within the Boot Campaign, Brent serves as a liaison to other professionals in the firearms industry, which he entered because of his self-professed love of shooting guns. More than just the simple guy he claims to be, Brent loves being a Boot Campaign ambassador and sharing his unwavering support for our mission with others.

Michael McFarland

HM2(FMF) Michael McFarland enlisted in the Navy in 2004 as a Hospital Corpsman. He attended Field Medical Service School in 2005 to serve on the line medical service to Marines. So far in his military service, Michael has completed two deployments with 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, Bravo Company in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom; one deployment with 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, Fox Company in support of Operation Enduring Freedom; and one deployment with 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Michael is now enrolled in Independent Duty Corpsman School, one of the most respected Naval Enlistment Classifications in the Medical Enlisted Community.

In 2012, Michael met the Boot Campaign for the first time at Boot Ride L.A. It was just the beginning of his unwavering support that has taken him from coast to coast for BC events. Having seen friends injured and killed serving our country, he felt a connection with the Boot Campaign mission, considering our work simply an extension of his role as “Doc.” As one of our most impassioned public representatives, Michael continuously goes above and beyond to serve fellow military heroes and help Boot Campaign give back.