Montel Williams - an Emmy-winning TV personality, decorated former naval officer, inspirational speaker, author, entrepreneur and advocate for patients worldwide - will serve as master of ceremonies when The American Legion's 96th National Convention formally kicks off in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday morning.
Americans know him as the longtime talk-show host they welcomed into their homes for more than 17 years with The Montel Williams Show. The daytime television staple cemented his public status and gave him a platform to advocate for all his causes.
Originally from Baltimore, Williams began his professional career in the U.S. Marine Corps and was the first black Marine selected to the Naval Academy Prep School. He went on to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy. "I joined the military right before I graduated from high school ... so I was in sort of a delayed program," he says. He earned a degree in general engineering, minoring in international security affairs. While serving he recieved two Meritorious Service Medals, two Navy Commendation Medals, two Navy Achievement Medals and various other military-related awards and citations.
"I stayed on active duty for the next 11 years, and then got out really when my talk show began," he continues. "So I did 22 years total - 17 active, the last five in the reserves." Because of his own service and regard for those who serve, Williams has a special place in his heart for servicemembers.
"During the entire run of my shows," he remembers, "I would do two or three shows dedicated to the military every single years. I went back and forth to the Persian Gulf multiple times while my show was on the air, taking messages to family members." He currently serves on the board of Fisher House and has worked as a veterans advocate on issues like VA and medical care - he has even been personally involved in medical device research for the military.
But Williams' passions are many and varied. He also holds degrees in Russian and cryptology, and works on projects with biofuel, food technology and more. "I gravitate toward things that interest me," he says.
Shortly after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1999, Williams established the Montel Williams MS Foundation to further the scientific study of MS, provide financial assistance to select organizations and institutions conducting research, raise national awareness and educate the public. MWMSF has granted over $1.5 million to research and has supported a study at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden that discovered an MS gene. He doesn't feel that his condition has held him back.
"I just have to ramp it up a little bit more," he says, "to seek out things that can help me navigate myself, and try to share them with others."
Over the years, Williams has been involved with many initiatives focused on improving the lives of people living with brain impairments and injuries. He has personally participated in studies and trials surrounding non-invasive brain stimulation therapy, with phenomenal results. He continues to work with researchers and the U.S. Army to further develop their findings with the hopes of helping soldiers who have experienced blast-related traumatic brain injuries.
"My responsibilty is to my fellow man," he says. "We are not here for self alone ... what I can do for mankind is much greater than what I can do for myself, and that's why I try my best. That sounds lofty and all that, but that's my purpose."
In 2013, Williams' passion for helping others led him to a partnership with Union Springs Media and the creation of the Living Well with Montel online community. As always, his hope is to use this community to educate and inspire people around the world to live happy, healthy lives. The site will offer scientifically proven wellness products, education on today's health-care breakthroughs, healthy lifestyle tips, advice from health-care experts, and VIP access to Williams himself through videos and online events. Five percent of all proceeds purchased on the Living Well site will be donated to the Fisher House or a chosen charity.In his spare time, he is a prolific author of practical and uplifting books, five of which have become best-sellers. He sums up his activity as "so many projects," and is very active on Twitter.
Williams is looking forward to addressing those attending the Opening Ceremonies, and hopefully connecting with them in a meaningful way. "It's more than 'thanks for your service,'" he says. To those coming back, he wants to reach out and not leave anyone behind. "It's our job to never forget," he says.
The Opening Ceremonies, and all of the floor action, will be streamed live on www.legiontv.org . All times are Eastern Standard Time, and are tentative and/or subject to change. Visit www.legion.org/convention