Neil Mullaney, Col (Ret) USAF cannot stay retired. He has tried – twice. When Heroes on the Water (HOW) came calling, Neil found himself intrigued enough to come out of his second retirement to start a new leadership role.

“I think really the tripwire for me was learning that HOW’s community went beyond just the military aspect. There are several military and veterans’ organizations that help with transitioning back to civilian life and fill the gap where the government might not be able to help,” says Neil, “It’s not the same for first responders. I have a soft spot for first responders. They’re out every day and night, experiencing trauma. Our police, fire and EMS don’t have the opportunity to decompress.”

“That’s what really intrigued me. HOW is inclusive of our nation’s other heroes. Once I realized that, I knew that I’d come out of retirement if HOW wanted me.”

As HOW’s new Executive Director, Neil brings decades of solid leadership experience to the table. He spent 24 years serving in various roles with United States Air Force. He received his commission from the University of Louisville’s Reserve Officer Training Corps where he earned numerous awards to include Distinguished Graduate.  Neil’s distinguished military career includes leading the 123rd Airlift Wings Intelligence operations, commanding the 205th Combat Communications Squadron, and commanding one of 17 domestic response units charged with responding to terrorist attacks involving weapons of mass destruction. 

As a Lieutenant, Neil deployed to Operation Desert Shield/Storm with the 1st Special Operations Wing. By 2010, Colonel Mullaney was leading a Joint Task Force in Afghanistan operating across four provinces.  

Neil retired from the Air Force in 2013, where his next journey led him to becoming the Vice President / Chief Operating Officer of the Government Business at Humana, one of the largest insurance providers in the country. With so much experience in such vastly different fields, Neil says that the root of his passion for leadership lies in his desire to serve others and to use his position to create opportunities for others to be able to do the same. 

Foundation of Service

Neil grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. While his father served in the Air Force, his brothers chose a different path and worked primarily in retail. He attended Catholic school from kindergarten through twelfth grade and says that the structure private school provided was something that truly influenced him. Neil recalls the pivotal moment when he decided to join the military 

“After my freshman year in college, I realized I needed more structure in my life. I was working a third shift at Winn Dixie, stocking shelves at 3 in the morning and I realized that that’s not what I wanted to do with my life. I had no passion for it. After that, I joined the ROTC and my grades turned around and I received my commission into the Air Force.”  

He began his military career after graduating from the University of Louisville in 1988 and found purpose and passion in building strong bonds with his comrades.  

“I was fortunate that I got into Special Ops right after my training. It’s a really tight knit group. You’re constantly training or deploying, so it creates a familial bond.” Neil says, “Having multiple deployments I was able to observe various leadership styles at different levels. I didn’t know I had certain skills or so much to offer until I got there and that’s when I found my calling.”   

Neil learned how to be part of a team and more importantly, how to organize and lead others during his time in the military. He achieved success in his military career, ultimately retiring as a Colonel. He would carry this skill set with him even after his military retirement and into civilian life. 

Transitioning to Civilian Life

Many active-duty, veterans and first responders can attest to the fact that their jobs often pull them away from their families, causing them to miss pivotal moments. It’s a sacrifice that while extremely common in the line of duty, often goes unrecognized amongst many civilians. Much like that moment in the grocery store that led Neil to join the ROTC, he said he concluded that his time in the military had come to an end.  

“My last deployment, I was in Afghanistan from 2011-2012. I started missing these really huge, personal things – my daughter’s 16th birthday, my step-daughter’s engagement. I watched my son graduate from high school on Skype with horrible Wi-Fi service. I could barely see him. That was a major turning point for me,” says Neil. 

With every stage of life, come new lessons and trials to overcome and for Neil, it was no different. Leaving the military and returning to civilian life was a culture-shock for him and his family.  

“It’s hard. You don’t realize it when you’re going through it, but looking back I recognize just how different it was. It’s important to equip the younger generations serving with how to deal with that,” says Neil. “My wife was former military, so she understood, but if you have a spouse that doesn’t understand, it’s difficult. I like to think I came back okay, but my wife may argue that point sometimes.” 

While Neil and his family worked to rebuild their foundation upon his return to civilian life, he was also working to begin a career outside of the military. It was really important to Neil that he find a job that would allow him to continue serving others. He wanted to stay in Louisville, so began looking at organizations in the area. That is how he found an opening at Humana that would take him in his next leadership journey. 

We will continue Neil’s story in our next post. Stay tuned to learn more about his leadership journey and experience. 

Heroes on the Water is a 501(c)3 that is dedicated to serving our U.S. military veterans, active-duty, law enforcement, first responders and their families. Our mission is to provide wellness and community to our heroes and their families through kayak fishing and the outdoors. We provide our kayak fishing experiences at no-charge to our participants, and are only able to do this through your generous donations. Please consider a gift to our heroes to support their bravery and sacrifice.  

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