Mark Ochsenbein discusses the importance of leadership during the 2011 American Legion National Convention in Minneapolis. Photo by James V. Carroll

An all-around Legionnaire, leader

It was only 16 years ago that retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Mark Ochsenbein of Cookeville, Tenn., became a member of The American Legion. Since then, Ochsenbein has been a prominent face and voice at the post, department and national level.

Ochsenbein graduated from Eastern Kentucky University in 1977 with a degree in law enforcement and immediately joined the Army as a military police officer with the forethought of pursuing the FBI. However, Ochsenbein’s plans took a turn after an aviator in the Vietnam war encouraged him to apply for flight school.

"I said to Maj. Arnold, ‘I don’t even know how to spell helicopter! So no way am I going to be able to fly one!’," Ochsenbein said. "The major encouraged me to apply and the next thing I know I’m turning down FBI school, heading into flight school and making a career out of the Army."

Aside from Basic Airborne Course and Army Aviation Flight Training, Ochsenbein graduated from Special Forces Qualification Course, Air Assault Course and Airborne Jumpmaster Course. He conducted many tours worldwide, including flying with and commanding the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment during Desert Storm, and has made more than 700 parachute jumps.

Throughout his military career, Ochsenbein gained excellent leadership skills which were highlighted during his time as an American Legion fourth district commander of the department of Tennessee. His notable leadership qualities are even more present in his current roles as director of student activities at Tennessee Technological University, assistant director of the Tennessee American Legion Boys State program, and senior section counselor with Boys Nation. The Legion recently caught up with Ochsenbein to hear about his involvement with Boys State and the focus of his speech he gave during the 2011 national convention.

Q: How did you get involved with the Tennessee American Legion Boys State program?

A: The program has been held on Tennessee Tech’s campus for the past 47 years. And when I was a professor of military science with the university in 1995, I was trying to garner support from veterans and the community for an issue that was taking place on campus. During that time I met Sgt. Maj. Perry Roberts, which I’ll never forget.

Perry asked me right off the bat if I was a member of The American Legion, and I said no because I was still on active duty and didn’t think I was eligible. Of course he corrected me and pulled out an application. Next thing I know I’m writing a check and becoming a Legion member. Perry then asked, ‘Are you going to participate in the Boys Sate program?’ I had never heard of the program before, but before I know it I’m knee deep in Boys State, having all my captains, sergeants and cadets working for the program on campus the following summer in 1996.

In my position now as the director of student activities, part of my job is being the assistant director of the Boys State program. What’s unique about our Boys State program is that my senior section counselors come from Tennessee Tech staff, and my junior section counselors are previous Boys Staters that have come to Tech, as well as enrolled ROTC cadets. Boys State is a great training lab for the cadets because it puts them into a platoon-type operation, and it gives these guys a good training opportunity where they find out real quick that when you are in charge of a platoon, you are the mom, dad, chaplain, everything.

Q: Why is Boys State important to the Department of Tennessee and to today’s youth?

A: Boys State is important to the department (of Tennessee) because we see the end result. We see these young men achieve and become successful and so many of them attribute it to their week at Boys State; the program changes a young man for life. Here is a good example. Lamar Alexander is a U.S. senator from Tennessee who continually states that he started his political career at Boys State in 1957. Lamar became governor at Boys State and absolutely loved it, and he went on to become governor of Tennessee. Lamar comes back to our program often to speak, and he attributes his success to being involved in the program and how it opened his eyes to the political process.

There are so many lawyers, judges and successful businessmen that have come from Tennessee Boys State so it’s very gratifying for us; we are making an impact. And oftentimes I get to see the kids when they come to Tech as a lot of them do. I have to say, having Boys State on campus is a great recruitment tool for the university. And, I always see guys wearing the Tennessee Boys State T-shirt on campus. Plus, the support from the university and the department headquarters is just awesome.

The Tennessee Boys State program is successful because of one guy, Judge John Maddux, and because of our headquarters and their support. Judge Maddux is a past state and department commander and currently the vice chairman of the Boys State board of directors. What goes on in our program is a direct result of him; he’s put his life and sole in it. We have a text book that is with the program that he has written and it’s on state government. We are very fortunate to have Judge Maddux.

Additionally, we get absolutely incredible great campus support thanks to our department state adjutant Mike Hammer. But what really gives us the opportunity to do things on campus and keep the cost down is the President of Tennessee Tech, Bob Bell. He is supportive of The American Legion and the Boys State program here at Tech.

Q: What separates Tennessee Boys State from the other state programs?

A: We put the young men in leadership positions like most programs do. We let them run and take charge of their assigned city, and it’s amazing to watch their leadership skills jump out. The main thing that separates us from the others is that the Tennessee supreme court comes and conducts two actual cases. The supreme court comes with a portable bench, the lawyers come in and it is actual trial. We break the young men down into two parties. One party will hear the first case of the Supreme Court and when the lawyers are done presenting to the supreme court, the court goes into deliberation. That group of boys, about 300, will leave with those lawyers and we take them to a multipurpose room where the boys get to ask questions to both parties of the lawyers about what they just heard. They ask tough questions, and it’s hilarious to see these lawyers tap dancing on these questions because they are very raw. Then the next case is heard.

We have been putting this on for nine or 10 years now and these kids get a first-hand experience that nobody gets to see. It’s a big production and a lot of work to pull off, but Judge Maddux helps make this happen. Another thing we do is have the boys perform CPR and AED (automated external defibrillator) training. We have the local EMS and medic department come in every day to teach these classes.

Q: How do you feel your background with the Army has helped you be a leader to Boys State and Boys Nation young men?

A: I understand The American Legion, and I understand what it takes to be a leader. What I am trying to show to the young men in the two youth programs is that you lead by example, and I want to set a good example for them.

I think I bring to the table the ability to just to sit back and listen and guide the young men in a direction that I have seen work. And it comes from experience. I’ve been led by some of the best officers the Army provides, and I’m still learning. I’m always reading books on leadership because leadership has evolved and changed — one way is through technology. Technology has changed how you lead and the way you do things, and as a leader to youth you have to be up with technology.

Q: Did your two sons attend Tennessee Boys State?

A: My two sons, Kyle and Sean, are Sons of The American Legion members and they both attended Boys State. My youngest son, Sean, was actually the governor of Tennessee Boys State.

When I found out that Sean was going to run for governor, I thought ‘Oh no. I don’t want anybody to think that he made governor because of his dad.’ So I decided not to let the delegates know what my name was. I told the counselors and other program staff that I only had one name and it’s ‘Colonel.’ And I totally divorced myself from Sean — he thought I was mad at him. And so at the beginning of the program I said to the delegates, ‘Gentlemen, I have one name only and that is Colonel. My first name is Colonel and my last name is Colonel.’ They didn’t know my real name and even on my name tag said Colonel. Plus, I’m the bad guy in the program, I’m the disciplinarian, and I didn’t want that to hurt Sean and his political chances. I did everything I could to make sure they didn’t know he was my son.

Well, Sean was elected and then we let the cat out of the bag. The young men were not pleased that I was his dad. They were saying, ‘Oh my gosh, we feel sorry for you Sean! You have to live with him!’ They said that because I’m very regimented.

Q: Lastly, you spoke at the 2011 American Legion National Convention. What was your topic?

A: My topic was leadership and the relevance of leadership. Through the blue cap level we are absolutely strength in numbers, and we have to do what we can through leadership. The American Legion National Headquarters provides us with a lot of resources (e.g., literature, books, etc.) to do our job, but they actually can’t go out and get the numbers for membership—that’s our job as blue caps. And we need to do our job.

We are all leaders. We are leaders in our community, we’ve been in the military, we’ve served, and we have to continue to serve and increase our membership to ensure that we continue to have an impact in Washington, D.C., to support our veterans and our youth programs. Veterans are absolutely number one and our membership has got to be there to support them. The American Legion means a lot to me, and it’s done a lot for me personally. It’s an organization that you feel good being a part of and the things that we do for the veteran is amazing.

I also brought up how we have to support our youth programs. We as the blue caps need to support our leadership and the things that they are trying to do because in our youth programs the young men get to see the camaraderie that we have, the things that we’ve done.