Today's Military Learners: Amplifying Voices and Connections


Spearheaded by the American Council on Education (ACE), Today’s Military Learners is a pioneering national strategy designed to elevate postsecondary education opportunities and outcomes for a diverse range of military learners. This initiative is poised to be a transformative force in advancing the educational opportunities and outcomes for military learners, contributing to their overall success, and fostering a national commitment to their well-being, economic mobility, and continued capacity building.

The Champions

Our Champions are representatives from military and veteran service organizations (MSO/VSOs) and individual contributors across various sectors, including higher education, industry, employment, and transition. These influential figures play a pivotal role in amplifying and ensuring a robust connection to grassroots initiatives, trends, opportunities, and successes within the community.

Reggie Ash

Reggie AshReggie is a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel, who served over 24 years as a cyber officer. He commanded Communications Squadrons at Travis AFB, California and Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. He also focused on European political military affairs with assignments at U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany and the U.S. State Department as the Senior Military Advisor for European and Eurasian Affairs. Nearly one-third of Reggie’s military career was in Colorado Springs, including his final assignment as the Commander of the 21st Mission Support Group at Peterson AFB.

Currently Reggie is the Vice President of Business Development for Terra Ferma, a Colorado manufacturer of Light Fidelity (LiFi) and Power Over Ethernet (POE) equipment. Terra Ferma specializes in manufacturing rugged and secure equipment designed for military and government customers.

Since retiring from the U.S. Air Force, Reggie has been a leader in the non-profit world. He created Colorado’s first military themed charter school, Colorado Military Academy. He also led the Colorado Springs defense business community at the Chamber & EDC, as the Chief Defense Development Officer. In that role, Reggie successfully led many of the community’s efforts to win U.S. Space Command. He serves as the Small Business Vice President for AFCEA’s Rocky Mountain Chapter. He also serves on the Board of Directors of Home Front Military Network and the Executive Committee of the Military Affairs Council.

Reggie earned an MS in National Resource Strategy from the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security & Resource Strategy, an MS in Strategic Leadership from the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology, and an MS in International Relations from Troy State University. He earned a BS in Computer Science from Iowa State University.

Jason Davis

Jason DavisJason Davis is a US Army Lieutenant Colonel originally from Los Angeles, California. A dedicated infantry officer, he has always had a passion for education and leadership. He graduated from West Point with a degree in International Relations and earned a Master’s in International Relations from the University of São Paulo in Brazil.

Jason's career has taken him to challenging environments like Iraq, Afghanistan, and South America, where he led diverse groups of military personnel. His experiences have reinforced the importance of education in making effective decisions and planning strategies.

His first major assignment was in Germany during Operation Iraqi Freedom, where education played a vital role in navigating complex military operations during the Surge. He then led the Mortar Platoon with the 1st Ranger Battalion before commanding three companies, including one in combat in Afghanistan. While in command of the US Army’s premier advanced airborne operations training schools, the Jumpmaster and Pathfinder schools, he innovated and collaborated to incorporate mental skills training solutions to increase student knowledge retention and improve graduation rates.

Selected as one of five US Army scholars out of the Department of Defense, Jason moved to Brazil as an Olmsted Scholar, traveling to over 50 countries and earning a Master’s at the premier International Relations program in Brazil. He later served as the Team Leader for the Tactical Assistance Field Team in Guatemala, training the Guatemalan Army, Navy, and Police on using U.S.-donated equipment. His travels further took him back to Germany, where he served as the Chief of Operations for an 800-Soldier Battalion and later as the Chief of Staff for a 100-Soldier staff supporting over 1000 NATO Soldiers in the NATO Battle Group - Poland.

Jason's dedication to education and military service has earned him several awards, including the Bronze Star and the Meritorious Service Medal.

Outside of his professional life, Jason loves to travel and learn about different cultures, which enriches his understanding of global perspectives. In his free time, he enjoys working out, continuous learning and advocating for educational opportunities that empower future leaders and ensure the military's continued success.

Mike Eastman

Mike EastmanBrigadier General (ret) Mike Eastman is the Executive Director of the Onward Ops military transition support program, an evidence-based approach to helping members of the Armed Forces transition successfully to civilian life.

Over a 30-year military career that included six combat deployments, he led several major initiatives, to include the creation of Army Futures Command, development of the Strategic Studies Group (the Army’s in-house think tank) and as a Director of the National Military Command Center. Mike’s last assignment was as the Commanding General of Train, Advise, Assist Command-South in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he advised the political and military leaders of six provinces, ran an international airport, and transferred the country’s largest coalition base back to the Afghans.

BG (ret) Eastman holds a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the United States Military Academy at West Point, a master’s degrees in Military Science from the Command and General Staff College, and a master’s degree and PhD (ABD) in Political Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He served as a Senior Fellow at the Institute of World Politics. His articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Interagency Journal, Parameters and numerous professional journals.

He is married to Hai, a Naval Academy graduate, and is the proud father of four children.

Patrick Fitzhugh

Patrick FitzhughPatrick Fitzhugh has been the Regional Site Director for USAA's North Phoenix office since 2019. Patrick has a broad range of responsibilities in supporting USAA’s 4,000 Phoenix employees and 1 mil sq ft Platinum LEED Certified facility. His primary responsibilities include Employee Engagement and Experience, Community Development, Public Relations, and Crisis Response. Patrick began his career with USAA in 2011 as an Insurance Servicing agent. Patrick’s favorite part of his job is the opportunity to work heavily in supporting Veteran Service Organizations throughout Arizona.

Patrick is third generation military and served in the United States Air Force as a Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) Specialist from 2003-2007. Patrick then worked as a civilian contractor for the Department of Defense, Department of the Army, and Joint Personnel Recovery Agency as a Subject Matter Expert in the rescue of military personnel until 2009, when he returned to Arizona.

Patrick holds a B.S. of Management from University of Phoenix, a MBA-Finance, and a M.S. in Leadership from Grand Canyon University. His credentials include Certified Project Manager, Agile 4.0 suite, six sigma yellow belt.

Patrick’s family settled in Arizona in the late 1800’s, and he is passionate about supporting the needs and development of the local community. He grew up in West-Phoenix and graduated from Alhambra High School in 2002. Patrick currently serves Bob Hope’s USO Arizona as Board Chair since 2020, and Vice Chair of the Phoenix Business Workforce Development Board, Advisory Council Member for Honoring American Veterans. Patrick is and advocate for all things that support the military community and their families. When not volunteering, Patrick enjoys spending as much time as possible with his wife and high school sweetheart Dawn (married in 2006) and 2 children.

Jeni Hunniecutt

Jeni HunniecuttJeni Hunniecutt is a distinguished veteran, scholar, entrepreneur, poet, homesteader, world traveler, and author. She honorably served in the Virginia Army National Guard from 2008 to 2014, during which she earned both her B.A. and M.A. in Communication. Shortly after her military service, she moved to Denver, Colorado, where she completed a Ph.D. in Communication Studies, specializing in the emerging field of Veteran Studies. While in Denver, she became active in the local Veteran Service Organization community and served as the Outreach Specialist for the Sturm Specialty in Military Psychology at the University of Denver.

In 2018, Jeni relocated to Champaign, Illinois, to join the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s (UIUC) Chez Veterans Center as a Visiting Research Specialist. Over four years, she served as the Assistant Director of Research Engagement & Educational Programming and as a Research Assistant Professor. At UIUC, Jeni developed an infrastructure for transdisciplinary, Veteran-centric research across campus, designed and taught courses on Veteran community health, and organized community-engaged events that initiated new research initiatives nationwide. She continues to hold an affiliate faculty position with UIUC.

In late 2021, Jeni transitioned from her full-time academic role to focus on writing and publishing her book, "Rethinking Reintegration and Veteran Identity: A New Consciousness" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022). She then joined the Ronin Institute as an independent Research Scholar and subsequently the Integrated Behavioral Health Research Institute to further her independent research. Recently, Jeni received funding from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute for projects on Veteran suicide loss and Military Sexual Trauma. Her research emphasizes community-engaged methods that prioritize the Veteran voice, exploring themes of identity, community health, and integrative healing.

In 2022, Jeni founded VetREC (Veteran Research and Education Curation LLC), a consulting business that provides research services to organizations serving Veterans. Guided by her motto, “research with, not on, Veterans,” VetREC aims to merge research and practice to support Veteran healing. VetREC collaborates with both service organizations and research institutions.

Currently residing in southwest Virginia, in the heart of central Appalachia, Jeni is a novice homesteader who enjoys gardening and spending time with her animals. Having traveled to ten countries (and counting!), she considers herself a global citizen. As a creative writer, Jeni publishes poetry on spirituality, self-healing, and nature.

Michael Kelly

Michael KellyMike leads USAA’s Military Advocacy Group and serves as deputy of Military Affairs. His team builds collaborative relationships focusing on a national dialogue surrounding important veteran and spouse issues such as financial readiness, navigating successful transitions into the civilian workforce, entrepreneurship, and building supportive and impactful military spouse communities. He also manages programs and projects that sustain relationships between USAA, strategic external partners and military leaders/influencers to promote and enhance USAA’s brand and reputation.

He’s been with USAA since 2003 when he established USAA’s military communications program, later building a comprehensive military influencer program and establishing USAA's national leadership role as a military-friendly employer.

Mike spent 25 years in the Air Force, both as an NCO and officer before retiring in 2002. He served as a photojournalist, newspaper editor, chief of public affairs and staff officer at the base and major military command level. He also served as a communications associate professor for four years at DOD's Defense Information School where he taught future military public affairs communicators. He has multiple deployments to the Former Yugoslav Republic for Operations Able Sentry and Joint Endeavor and supported international communication efforts for Operations Deny Flight, Deliberate Force and Provide Promise.

Mike was selected as a 2018 We Are the Mighty - "Mighty 25" influencer for his work in the military-veteran community where he dedicates his time connecting, equipping, and inspiring opportunities that benefit the military community at large. He is a 2019 George W. Bush Veteran Leadership Program scholar and also a recipient of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's annual Hiring Our Heroes Colonel Michael Endres Leadership Award for Individual Excellence in Veteran Employment. Mike currently serves on the national Hiring Our Heroes Veteran and Military Spouse Employment Councils, which focus employer actions addressing the unique employment challenges veterans and military spouses face. He served for three years on the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce executive board where he was chairman of the Chamber's Military Affairs Council. He now serves as a member of the SHRM Foundation’s Military Advisory Committee focusing on helping employees build knowledge, awareness and change in the policies, practices and culture that can hinder the success of the military community in the civilian workplace.

He has a BAAS degree with an emphasis in journalism and public relations from Southwest Texas State University and a master’s degree in Human Relations from the University of Oklahoma.

Abby Kinch

Abby KinchDr. Abby Kinch (she/her/hers), a first-generation college student herself, is the Chief of Staff at Student Veterans of America, where she is responsible for a variety of facets of the organization including the internal and external research at the intersection of veterans and higher education. Dr. Kinch has participated in SVA as a chapter member and chapter president at Florida State University, an SVA student council member, and an adviser. She has represented SVA in an advisory role to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Department of Education. In Florida, she participated in the advocacy for legislation to provide in-state tuition to veterans and gap fund payments to veterans with financial need during semester breaks.

Following an enlistment in the U.S. Air Force as an Airborne Chinese Cryptologic Linguist, Dr. Kinch worked for six years in the private sector using the language skills the Air Force provided before going to school to finish her bachelor’s degree and ultimately earn her PhD in Public Administration and Policy from Florida State University, specializing in strategy and decision-making. Her dissertation examined the policies of higher education institutions targeting student veterans and the implementation of those policies. She has written extensively on this topic from the institutional, state, and national perspective. She additionally serves as an adjunct professor of Information Strategy, Analysis, and Decision-Making within the School of Information at the University of South Florida.

John Regni

John RegniLt. General John F. Regni resides in Litchfield Park, Arizona, and is a strategic planning consultant. He is a member of the Board of Directors for Oak Ridge Associated Universities; a National Security Advisory Council member of US Global Leadership Coalition; Adjunct Professor for the United States Air Force; is active with Mission: Readiness ; and is Chairman, Board of Directors, Southwest Defense Alliance. He previously served on the Board of Directors for Vantage Mobility International; on the Board of Directors for the DigitalGlobe Foundation; on the Board of Directors for the Military Officers Association of America; as Senior Consultant and Advisory Council member for Marstel-Day; on the Colorado State University-Global Advisory Council; as the Defense and National Security Advisor to the Arizona Commerce Authority; as the Director, Aerospace and Defense Initiative, Science Foundation Arizona; and as a Trustee of the Falcon Foundation of the US Air Force Academy.

General Regni entered the U. S. Air Force Academy in 1969 days after graduation from Nashua High School, Nashua, N. H. He graduated from the Academy in June 1973 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology, and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. He has a Master of Science in Systems Management from Saint Mary’s University. He served continuously on active duty for 40 years, retiring in July 2009. General Regni’s military assignments spanned Personnel, Training, Education and Command positions. His staff assignments included Director, Manpower, Personnel and Support, United States Pacific Command; Director, Personnel, Air Mobility Command; Director, Military Personnel Policy, and Director Personnel Resources, Headquarters, United States Air Force (Pentagon). His four command assignments were as the Base Commander, Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea; Commander, Second Air Force; Commander and President, Air University; and he culminated his distinguished career as Commander and Superintendent of his alma mater, the US Air Force Academy.

Brandon Smart

Brandon SmartBrandon Eric Smart, born in Anaheim, California, began his career in the United States Marine Corps in 2004. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Organizational Management from Ashford University and a Master of Business Administration in Material Logistics from the Naval Postgraduate School.

After enlisting, Smart graduated from Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego with a meritorious promotion. In 2005, he trained as a 3521 Motor Transport Maintenance Mechanic and was assigned to the 3rd Material Readiness Battalion in Okinawa, Japan, where he also trained as an 0411 Maintenance Manager.

In 2007, Corporal Smart moved to the 7th Engineer Support Battalion at Camp Pendleton, serving as shop chief and maintenance manager. By 2009, Sergeant Smart joined the 5th Battalion, 14th Marines as the battery motor transport and maintenance chief. From 2012 to 2013, he was with the Counter-intelligence/Human Intelligence (CI/HUMINT) Company at Camp Pendleton. In 2014, Staff Sergeant Smart was deployed to Afghanistan, overseeing the retrograde of Camp Leatherneck.

From 2016 to 2018, Smart served as an instructor at Camp Johnson, North Carolina, and was selected for a fellowship with the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN). He worked for Motivf, a technology and agile consulting firm, and joined the Naval Agility Group (NavalX) under the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition.

Smart pursued graduate studies at the Naval Postgraduate School from 2020 to 2022. Afterward, he served as the Enlisted Development Analyst at the Talent Management Strategy Group (TMX), playing a key role in the "Smart Act" legislation, which was included in the FY23 NDAA. This allowed enlisted servicemembers to attend the Naval Postgraduate School. He also authored a MARADMIN policy enabling Staff Noncommissioned Officers to attend the school.

In March 2023, First Sergeant Smart became the Senior Enlisted Leader for Charlie Company 3-23 at The Basic School, graduating a class of 309 Marine officers and three international officers. As of October 2023, he serves as the Command Senior Enlisted Leader at the Marine Corps Air Facility in Quantico.

John Troxell

John TroxellJohn Wayne Troxell is a retired United States Army senior noncommissioned officer who served as the third Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In this role, he advised the Chairman and Secretary of Defense on the welfare, readiness, and development of the U.S. Armed Forces. This position made him the most senior enlisted member of the U.S. military. Enlisting in September 1982, Troxell began his career as an armored reconnaissance specialist.

Troxell's 38-year military career saw him serve in various units, including the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Armored Division, 3rd Infantry Division, 82nd Airborne Division, and the Special Operations Division of Joint Task Force Six. His leadership roles included Command Sergeant Major positions in the 3rd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, and 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team. He also served at Fort Knox, the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Afghanistan, and U.S. Forces Korea.

Troxell participated in five combat tours, including Operation Just Cause in Panama, Operation Desert Shield/Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. As SEAC, he frequently visited troops worldwide to assess their needs and readiness.

His military education includes numerous leadership and strategic courses, and he holds a master’s degree in business administration from Trident University. Troxell's awards and decorations are extensive, including the Combat Action Badge, Ranger tab, Master Parachutist Badge, Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, and Bronze Star. In 2021, Troxell was inducted into the prestigious Noncommissioned Officer Center of Excellence/US Army Sergeants Major Academy Hall of Honor. He was also inducted into the prestigious 82nd Airborne Division Hall of Fame, Class of 2024.

Post-retirement, Troxell founded PME Hard Consulting, LLC, and authored a memoir titled "Surrender or Die! Reflections of a Combat Leader." He is also a certified trainer of The Power of Positive Leadership and serves as a military analyst for the History Channel. Troxell is the National Ambassador for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and a strategic advisor for various organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Hiring Our Heroes Foundation. He and his wife, Sandra, are involved in multiple ventures, including a non-profit apparel line and serving on several advisory boards focused on veteran support and suicide prevention.

SEAC (Retired) Troxell and Sandra reside in Lakewood, Washington, and continue to support service members, veterans, and their families.

Wanda Wright

Wanda WrightWanda Wright, a third-generation U.S. military service member, has a distinguished career in both military service and veteran advocacy. As a 1985 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, she began her military career as Deputy Budget Officer with the Tactical Air Command in South Carolina. Over her 21 years with the Arizona National Guard, she served in various capacities, culminating in her role as Director of Staff for the Adjutant General in Phoenix. Upon her retirement in 2011, she made history as the first African American woman to attain the rank of Colonel in the Arizona National Guard. Her military decorations include the Legion of Merit and the Meritorious Service Medal with oak leaf cluster.

In 2015, Governor Doug Ducey appointed Wright to lead the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services. During her eight-year tenure, she significantly improved services for veterans across Arizona. Her notable achievements include the construction of veteran homes in Flagstaff and Yuma, the establishment of veteran cemeteries in Camp Navajo and Marana, and the expansion of the cemetery in Sierra Vista. Wright co-founded the Be Connected program to reduce suicide among veterans, coordinated statewide Women Veteran Expo events, and developed veteran tool kits to assist job seekers. Her leadership extended nationally when she served as President of the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs from 2022 to 2023. In recognition of her contributions, she was inducted into the Arizona Veterans Hall of Fame in 2023.

In June 2023, Wright began her role as Director of the Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement at Arizona State University (ASU). This office promotes dialogue, teaching, and research to enhance understanding and relationships among military, civilian, and academic communities. Additionally, Wright serves as an Assistant Teaching Professor in the School of Applied Sciences and Arts, where she teaches undergraduate courses in military and veterans studies, exploring multidisciplinary aspects of military service and its implications for veterans and society.

Appointed to the VA’s Advisory Committee on Women Veterans in 2018, Wright continues to serve as the Chairwoman. She holds a B.S. in Management from the U.S. Air Force Academy, an M.B.A from Webster University in South Carolina, an M.P.A. from the University of Arizona, and an M.A. in Educational Leadership from Arizona State University.

Mick Zais

Mick ZaisMitchell "Mick" Zais most recently served as deputy secretary, and briefly as secretary, of the U.S. Department of Education. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on in 2018, after being nominated by President Donald J. Trump.

Mick has extensive experience in education and the military. Prior to joining the Department of Education, Mick was elected South Carolina's 17th state superintendent of education, where he oversaw the operation of and advocating policy for 82 school districts, 1,250 schools, 51,000 teachers, 720,000 students. He developed and instituted an accountability system whereby every school and district in the state received a letter grade of A through F, based on measures of student growth and student learning outcomes. Prior to his election, Mick served as president of Newberry College for 10 years. During his tenure, enrollment nearly doubled and the endowment more than doubled. Mick has served as chairman of the presidents' councils of both the South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities and the South Atlantic Athletic Conference. He was also a member of the board of directors for the Foundation for Independent Higher Education, the South Carolina Tuition Grants Commission, the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education, the Southern Regional Education Board and the boards of trustees for three universities.

Growing up in a military family, Mick attended 10 public schools in 12 years. He graduated from West Point and served 31 years on active duty in the United States Army, retiring as a Brigadier General. During his military career, Mick served as deputy commanding general at Fort Riley, Kansas, and as an assistant professor at West Point. He also served as a White House aide and as the Pentagon's chief of war plans. His military awards and decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, the Ranger badge, among others.

Mick earned a Bachelor of Science in engineering from West Point, a Master of Science and a doctorate in social psychology and organizational behavior from the University of Washington, and a Master of Arts in military history from the School for Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He did post-doctoral studies as a fellow in national security affairs at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

Mick and his wife, Susan, are the parents of two married adult children and the grandparents of three boys and three girls.