Profiles In Courage: Celebrating The Veterans Among Us, Part I

by Richard D’Ambrosio
Profiles In Courage: Celebrating The Veterans Among Us, Part I
Jesse Mackey with his wife Lois.

They book travel. They train agents. They serve. The travel trade is filled with military veterans who have taken their love for serving their country in the armed forces, and converted it into a passion for serving travelers and the travel industry.

They bring with them a determination to succeed, a discipline to build something from nothing, and an appreciation for helping others.

There are people like Debra Groh, Dream Vacations owner and vacation specialist, Salisbury, MD, who served in the United States Air Force (USAF) from 1977 to 1980, and now helps families make memories through custom-made vacations.

Deborah Groh
Deborah Groh

Groh was a TIG welder at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, AZ, following in a long line of family members who served. Her grandfather was in World War I.  Her grandmother worked in the factories in Michigan during World War II.  Her dad was in the Navy, and her brother retired from the Air Force.

As an Air Force member, Groh traveled a good deal, and she feels that was what started her love for adventure and travel, even though she didn't know it at the time.

“I absolutely love planning travel for people and have a great appreciation for my clients,” she said. “Nothing makes me happier than hearing about a successful trip upon a client’s return.”

Then there is longtime travel industry executive and consultant Jim Smith, CTIE, West Palm Beach, FL, whose father was a Marine. Smith wasn’t immediately drawn to the military, but he admits joining the Navy may have had something to do with his having spent a good portion of his childhood in hospitals, seeing disabled veterans returning from Vietnam.

“They were coming back in various states of disrepair, but they were determined and strong. They would hold wheelchair races up and down the halls. They were making the best of their situations. It was rather inspiring but perhaps I didn’t understand what I was learning until later on,” Smith said.

As a young adult, “I wasn’t sure which way I wanted to go,” Smith said. “I was decidedly and vehemently anti-war. I had my first business failure in the travel industry prior to going into the military.  The next thing I know I am volunteering to be a medic in the Navy.”

His most rewarding and challenging assignment was the two years he worked at an oncology and psychiatric center in Philadelphia, caring for disabled veterans. “That experience gave me perspective on what is really important,” he said.

Jesse Mackey Jr., owner and a travel consultant at J and L Travel, Homosassa, FL, followed in the footsteps of his father, a 30-year Navy officer who commanded a landing ship in the South Pacific.

“When I was older than 10, I used to go to sea with him when his ship was out of homeport for a week. I loved the Navy. Onboard, I lived with the sailors, not with my dad. I was down there,” Mackey said.

He graduated from the California Maritime Academy and enlisted in the Navy in 1962. Mackey was commissioned as an officer in 1968 and spent his first six years (he served for more than 22) in the Reserves. Eventually he commanded two different ships, including a rocket ship that supported ground forces from Cameron Bay during the Vietnam War.

When his knee locked up, Mackey was evacuated to a naval hospital in Long Beach, CA, where he met his wife, a navy nurse. He retired as a commander in 1990.

Ashley Metesh-McCoy, in Kabul, Afghanistan

Meanwhile, Ashley Metesh-McCoy recently opened her new agency, Kinship Vacations, in Fort Eustis, VA. She served in the Washington National Guard from 2002 to 2011, and was on inactive ready reserves through October 2014.

Metesh-McCoy served in Afghanistan from February 2006 to January 2007, and met her husband, who is still in the Army, there. She also supported the Afghan/Pakistan center of excellence for U.S. Central Command as a strategic intelligence analyst focusing on the Afghan national security forces of eastern Afghanistan from April 2010 to April 2011.

“I joined the Army initially as a way to pay for college,” she said. “My stepfather was a career Army officer and it seemed like the only option for funding my education. Once I joined, I realized I was good at being a soldier and leader, and I liked some things about it. So I ended up staying longer than I initially planned and became an officer.”

Ex-Marine Mike Chaba, has been married to Lori Chaba, owner of Lori’s Travel in Rochester, NY, for more than 40 years, where he serves in a number of roles helping manage the business.

Like many of the other agents TMR interviewed, Chaba followed in the footsteps of his father, who served with the Army Air Corps as a radio repairman on B17s during World War II. Lori and Mike graduated from the same high school, but she went to Minneapolis to attend a one-year travel school, while he went to Marine Corps boot camp in Parris Island, SC. By the time they married in 1977, Lori was already working in travel. In 1983, she became an independent contractor, and opened the agency with her husband in 1999.

Tracy Schatz, chief experience officer at Shartlesville, PA-based Elite Travel Journeys, served in the U.S. Air Force, March 1987 to January 1996, including a deployment during the first Gulf War.

“I wanted a way to make a difference and to be able to serve my country,” Schatz said. She recalled leaving Saudi Arabia on a charter flight with her team. “After liftoff, they played ‘God Bless the USA.’ I can remember tears streaming down my face as I felt filled with gratitude from the crew. It was such a small gesture yet having served in such a challenging area, it felt huge.”

Stay tuned on Monday for part 2, where our veterans talk about the lessons they learned in the military and how they apply them to the business of selling travel.
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