The United States Military has a decorated history of attracting the most exceptional men and women throughout the nation, including many of this country’s most well-known and successful citizens. In honor of Veterans Day, here’s a look at 10 famous Americans who not only served their country, but also helped changed the world afterwards.
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10. Bill Cosby
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A true trailblazer in the charitable world, Bill Cosby began his humanitarian work as a member of the United States Navy during the Korean War. Much like his famous television character Cliff Huxtable, Cosby served as a medical professional - working at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, nursing injured veterans back to health and reportedly entertaining them with his early comedy routines.
Following his four years of honorable service, Cosby attended Temple University thanks to a military scholarship that he used to eventually emerge as one of the most respected comedians of his generation. Cosby largely credits the military for allowing him the opportunity to receive an education and has since become one of the single biggest donors to various college funds throughout the world. He has helped put thousands of kids through university - something that may not have been possible without the scholastic opportunities he received from his service. He is a living testament to the notion that one person can make a difference, if given the chance to do so.
9. Malcolm Forbes
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One of the most progressive thinking businessmen of the modern era honed his skills for critical thought and analysis while serving in the United States Military. Having been a recent graduate from Princeton University and part of a wealthy family, Forbes could have easily forgone his service during World War II, but elected to instead join a very dangerous infantry unit stationed in Germany in order to help his country. By all accounts, Forbes was an exceptional soldier and leader, earning both a Bronze Star and Purple Heart after being wounded in the Battle of Aachen while helping members of his platoon.
Following the War, Forbes began working for the magazine that bore his name and turned it into one of the premiere publications in the world. His cutting edge editorial and unique vision turned Forbes into one of the sharpest magazines in the country and allowed the WWII veteran the opportunity to continue helping others. Forbes used his success to help raise enormous amounts of money for charity, used his last will and testament to give every single one of his 750 employees a paid week off of work to spend with their families, and forgave any outstanding loans that he generously dispensed over his lifetime. After all, a military man never leaves a struggling soldier behind.
8. Julia Child
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Long before she waged a war on the culinary world, Julia Child entered the battle for peace when she enlisted as a spy in World War II. According to military reports, the future cuisine queen was a valued member of the unit that would later become the Secret Service for the United States Military in both India and China, posing as a desk clerk in order to secure classified information that would eventually lead to the fall of Nazi Germany.
Perhaps the most poignant anecdote from Child’s military service came when she and several other intelligence officers were asked to help solve a problem with aquatic explosives. Just miles off of enemy shores, sharks were continuously “bumping” into underwater bombs and setting them off – which, in turn, let the enemy know where they were planted. Ever the innovator, Childs cooked up a shark repellent to coat the explosives with that scared the great white enemies back beneath the glossy ocean surface. Shark repellent would officially become Child’s first international success in the kitchen, help solve a major combat problem for the Navy and lead to one of the most influential cooking careers of the modern world.
7. Dave Thomas
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Dave Thomas always had a passion for food and patriotism – two things that fit together perfectly when he put his collegiate plans on hold in order to volunteer as a Mess Sergeant during the Korean War. The 18-year-old chef coordinated meals for over 2,000 soldiers everyday, a task he took seriously by providing quality cuisine for the men and women defending our country with a budget that didn’t allow “normal” people the ability to be creative in the kitchen.
Later in his life, Thomas claimed that learning how to cook for such a large group of people with minimal materials gave him both the training and innovation to begin a chain of fast-food restaurants that would later become one of the most popular burger joints in the world.
6. Ed McMahon
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Ed McMahon was a young man who dreamed of one day becoming a United States fighter pilot. In 1941, the Michigan native enrolled in university strictly because the Navy had a two-year college minimum to fly fighter planes. However, following the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, the military revoked this requirement and McMahon immediately dropped out in order to sign up and serve his country. At a U.S. Marine Corps training base in Dallas, Texas, McMahon was such a talented pilot that he was asked to become a flight instructor – training the soldiers who would eventually help defeat the Nazi up rise in Europe. He trained some of the most ambitious young men and women in the country and witnessed hundreds of dreams come true every year he taught America’s bravest military personnel how to fly.
Years later – after McMahon was once again called upon to help his country during the Korean War where he worked as an artillery spotter for the Marine Batteries – the former soldier continued his passion of helping America’s youth recognize their dreams when he began hosting Star Search, where he helped launch the careers of some of the country’s most popular performers.
5. Gene Roddenberry
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The first stop on Gene Roddenberry’s successful journey to Star Trek fame came courtesy of the U.S. Army Air Corps, where the aeronautical engineer served as a fighter pilot during World War II. Roddenberry flew 89 combat missions throughout his tenure and was awarded the prestigious “Flying Cross” and “Air Medal” for his service before ultimately retiring to work on a “crazy” television script involving space captains and inter-galactic ships that he dreamt up while working on military aircrafts.
4. Mel Brooks
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One of the original kings of comedy began his adult life as a 17-year-old combat engineer for the United States Army, where his official duties involved defusing landmines and working with explosives. His unofficial tasks, however, included entertaining his platoon with irreverent imitations of the German propaganda playing over the radio. The resounding support he received from his fellow soldiers was part of the reason he pursued a career in the comedic arts, and the calm demeanor he developed while defusing explosives gave him the courage to face tough audiences early in his career.
3. Jimmy Stewart
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By far the most decorated actor on the list, Jimmy Stewart’s original attempts to join the Army were rejected because he did not meet the height and weight requirements to become a fighter pilot. Unfazed by the setback, Stewart found an alternative route by joining the U.S. Air Corps, where he would quickly rise through the ranks and become a Colonel in just four years. He won virtually every Medal of Honor available, helped fly crucial missions in Nazi Germany and would later fly B-52 Bombers through Vietnam.
Stewart’s willingness to take an unconventional Army path helped him pursue his post-military career in film when he became one of the first performers to work as an independent actor, free of studio loyalties – a freedom that helped him land the legendary lead in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. Learning to pursue his dreams through the road less traveled helped establish the career of one of the most celebrated actors of all-time.
2. Elvis Presley
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Arguably the most well known musician in the history of the planet, Elvis Aaron Presley joined the United States Military at the height of his popularity in 1958, serving with the Third Armored Division in Friedberg, Germany. Presley refused to receive any sort of special treatment (as so many other stars drafted into the military had), living in standard accommodations, going through basic training, and inspiring a nation to get behind the noble work of the Army.
One of the men impressed by Presley’s dedication was future U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who met the King of Rock n’ Roll in the field of battle on several occasions. “He was drafted like any other young man his age, he stepped forward, and was willing to give up a career without any objection,” Powell later said during a BBC interview. “It showed he was a patriot, willing to serve as a soldier.” Powell went on to explain that countless people were inspired by his service and recognized the importance of supporting the nation. If only today’s celebrities were willing to put forth a similar effort, our children wouldn’t grow up idolizing vapid celebutants like Paris Hilton – who would struggle to spell the word Army, let alone volunteer to serve in it.
1. Pat Tillman
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Following the September 11th attacks, Pat Tillman left a lucrative career in the NFL and voluntarily joined the United States Rangers (one of the nation’s most elite forces), and began fighting for a cause he believed in under a flag he was prepared to die for. Tillman didn’t answer the call of Uncle Sam or accept a draft notice, but rather responded to a sense of patriotism that inspired one of the most altruistic acts in American military history.
He sacrificed everything during one of the most confusing and difficult times this country had ever known without a single soul expecting him to do so. Tillman acted courageously in the face of adversity and put country ahead of self. There are very few Americans who have done so much for the United States Armed Services, and on this day we salute a man who personifies the true nature of what it means to be an American.
Pat, heroes get remembered – but legends never die. And you, sir, will be with us forever.
To take a look at some of the amazing work being done by our troops, please visit IAVA.org and show your support.