Ken Falke, 54, has spent his life dedicated to service. He served for 21 years in the Navy as an explosive ordnance disposal expert, retiring as a master chief petty officer in 2002. He later established the EOD Warrior Foundation, and now serves as chairman and founder of Boulder Crest, a vacation retreat in the Virginia foothills west of Washington, D.C., for injured combat veterans and their families.
The facility, which opened in 2012 and recently hosted its 1,800th guest, offers multiple activities for wounded troops, including a combat stress recovery program for those still feeling the emotional trauma of war.
A former Boy Scout who grew up working three paper routes and admiring the lives of his military neighbors in Alexandria, Virginia, Falke sidesteps questions about his own successes, which include creating and selling several companies and establishing two major nonprofits. He prefers, instead, to focus on the troops, veterans groups, friends and family members who have supported him along the way. From them, he draws his energy, and to them, he has dedicated his life's work.
Military Times caught up with Falke to discuss his ideas on collective responsibility and what it means to continue serving out of uniform.
Q. You were a Boy Scout and a volunteer as a child. But when did you catch the spirit of philanthropy as an adult?
A. I was lucky because I was always in good Navy units with great leadership that did community volunteer projects. What really left a mark on me was these Thanksgiving dinners we did when I was stationed at Indian Head, Maryland. We put together 25 Thanksgiving meals — full dinners — for people in the community in southern Maryland who couldn't afford Thanksgiving dinner.
Q. What made you move to the next level, founding the EOD Warrior Foundation?
A. It largely started when I got an email from a Navy captain who wanted to put two TVs in the hospital amputee wards, one at Walter Reed and one at Bethesda, for the Super Bowl. So we got a couple of TVs and took them to the hospitals. At the naval hospital, we met a young Seabee who hung the TV two days later. At Walter Reed, the union wouldn't hang the TV. Months went by. The TV wasn't hung until a week after March Madness. Once I saw what was happening at the hospitals with these warriors, I had to do something.
Q. Yet that wasn't enough? You decided to establish Boulder Crest?
A. I'd visit the families at Bethesda during the surge in Afghanistan and that was the worst year for amputees in the EOD community. We had a new family arriving at the hospital every four or five days. Next thing I knew, we started inviting these families to our house for barbecues, to go hunting, to stay and relax. We thought there was more we — my wife, Julia, and I — could do to give people some freedom to enjoy family time away from the hospital. That's what inspired us.
Q. Not everyone has the money to do this kind of charitable work. What suggestions do you have for those who want to contribute?
A. Philanthropy is not about money. It's about fixing real problems that exist. Unfortunately, there is not enough money in government programs or in the philanthropic world to fix all the problems. So I tell everyone to invest either time, money or both. If you can't afford money, at least provide the time; the volunteer opportunities exist in spades. But I also think at the end of the day everyone could give a little something when it comes to money, too.
Q. What is the overarching philosophy of your work?
A. We need to honor these warriors the way they should be honored. We have these nonprofits that run advertisements about how pitiful these people are who go to war, like they're puppies or children with no water. It worries me. If there is one population we need to hold up and honor — not in reverence and not in pity, but some level of honor — it's combat veterans. It's not that they are broken. They are some of the strongest people walking the planet. They just are in need of a recharge, a lift or a new mission.