Laird Canby with the military support group Operation One Voice asked U.S. Army four-star Gen. Joe Votel last November if he would be interested in attending a Minnesota Duluth football game in September.

Never mind that Votel was commander of U.S. Central Command, in charge of overseeing the most volatile region on the planet.

Canby, however, had inside information.

“I knew he was going to retire, so I said, would you like to be our guest?” Canby said. “It took him about a minute and a half and he said, ‘I’d like to do it,’ and he confirmed it within a week.”

Votel, 61, did indeed retire from the military in March, and on Friday, the general made good on his promise by addressing the UMD football team. Saturday, he will be at Malosky Stadium as the Bulldogs take on St. Cloud State at 6:05 p.m. as part of their sixth annual Military Appreciation Night. Like any good leader, Votel did a little prep work before his pep talk.

“They’re 2-0, with some pretty dominating performances so far, so I don’t think they need any advice on how to win a football game,” Votel said with a smile. “I’m going to try to talk to them about my experiences, as a kid growing up in Minnesota and going into the military and what I learned from it. Hopefully, I can give them a little advice from somebody who has seen a lot of young men grow and develop and become great citizens.”

Born to lead

Votel and his wife, Michele, have two grown sons and reside in Lake Elmo, Minn. He was born in St. Paul and graduated in 1976 from Cretin High School, where he competed in football, basketball and wrestling.

“Sports are a fantastic laboratory for life,” he said. “You learn to deal with adversity, you learn teamwork, you learn leadership skills, you learn what it takes to support people and be supportive, and it teaches you to be humble. Sometimes you’ve got to play hurt.”

General Joseph Votel speaks with UMD Air Force ROTC cadets Friday at Montague Hall before his talk with the football team. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
General Joseph Votel speaks with UMD Air Force ROTC cadets Friday at Montague Hall before his talk with the football team. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Votel graduated in 1980 from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Since then, he has commanded special operations and conventional military forces at every level.

Votel has done more than his share of “leading from the front.”

“That’s what they’re paying you to do,” Votel said with a laugh. “That’s what it takes. That’s what it’s all about.”

That leadership includes being in charge of 200 U.S. Army Rangers in Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban shortly after 9/11. It’s something he called the “epitome” of being a soldier and the “highest pinnacle” in professionalism.

“That’s an organization (the Rangers) that has a great history, a great legacy, and that continues to this day,” Votel said. “They’ve been deployed continuously since 9/11.”

It’s through the Rangers that Votel got to know Joe “Kap” Kapacziewski, the first Ranger to go into combat with a prosthetic limb.

Kapacziewski became involved with Operation One Voice, a group that raises money to help support the families of wounded and fallen U.S. Special Operations Forces. UMD has partnered with Operation One Voice for years, with former Bulldog football player John Economos being very active with the group.

Votel and Kapacziewski have great respect for one another, and Votel got to know Operation One Voice a few years ago through their Special Operations Forces Run into Busch Gardens in Tampa.

“General Votel came running out and said, ‘I just found out about this. Why didn’t somebody tell me?’” Canby said. “And Joe goes, ‘Well, now that we’re out here.’ And the general says, ‘If Joe’s out there, I’m going out there.’ And he put on his running stuff and joined us.”

UMD players will wear decals on their helmets  honoring veterans during Military Appreciation Night. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
UMD players will wear decals on their helmets honoring veterans during Military Appreciation Night. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

UMD football coach Curt Wiese didn’t want to take away from any of the Bulldogs’ previous guests for Military Appreciation Day, saying they haven’t just been good, they’ve been great, American heroes, like Kapacziewski, but Wiese also acknowledged, “We’ve never had anyone here before of this stature.”

After his tenure with the Rangers, Votel eventually worked his way up to commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, from March 2016 to March 2019. It’s a position previously held by the likes of Norman Schwarzkopf and David Petraeus. Votel led the successful liberation of Iraq and Syria from the Islamic State.

Votel called it the culmination of his military career.

“I loved it,” Votel said. “I loved every day of it. It was the greatest honor. That area is an extraordinarily complex, it’s extraordinarily volatile, so you’re engaged every day.”

Now, Votel says he wants to give back in another way, and he will be doing that as president/CEO of the nonprofit Business Executives for National Security. He said the group is run by patriotic business people who want to help the U.S. government with security by sharing best practices and best lessons they’ve learned from running their businesses.

Votel seemed to relish his opportunity to meet with the Bulldogs. While some might call the newer generation spoiled, aloof, phone-obsessed, what have you, Votel doesn’t see it that way. He’s worked with America’s best for decades.

“We talk about the ‘Greatest Generation’ in regards to World War II,” Votel said. “I’m a firm believer that we are seeing the next Greatest Generation. These young people come from different backgrounds, different experiences, and they enlist. They’re volunteers and they do it, because, almost overwhelmingly, they’re patriotic and they want to serve their country. I always try to remind people what a lucky country we are to have these great young men and women.”