Lou Ferrigno remarked that James is “…a true American hero. We need more people like him.” But James doesn’t see himself that way at all. In fact, far from it. He’s just a normal guy who’s had extraordinary opportunities to be apart of other people’s lives. This interview shares a little about the man behind the mission.
When my mother found out she was pregnant with me, she was a sophomore in high school. To make matters worse, she wasn’t married and my father wasn’t in the picture.
A lot of people encouraged her to have an abortion or to give me up for adoption, but she decided early on to keep me. As you can imagine, that decision was one that led to a series of difficulties in her life. The stresses of being a young mother, with little support, can take its toll. My mother suffered. She suffered from doubt. From uncertainty. From rejection at the hands of her family, her friends, her school, from society, and even from church. She suffered from a loss of faith. From fear, pain, and hurt. She suffered mostly in isolation. But she refused give up. Instead to try harder, to persevere, to make an effort.
Poverty is something I thought I understood. My mother and I bounced around from place to place and home to home while I was growing up. And we didn’t have a lot of anything. I distinctly remember waiting in line to get Government cheese and powdered milk. We lived on food stamps and other benefits. Funny how the simplest experiences can be so inedibly imprinted on a young mind.
When I was about five years old, we lived in the country in a small town in northern California called Finley. It’s an unincorporated community about three miles south of Lakeport in Lake County. We were staying in a small farm house located smack dab in the middle of a pear orchard and right down the road from a little butcher shop called Ray and Dave’s Custom Cuttings, ran by a Christian man named Dave Mills and most of his immediate family.
One day, I was out causing trouble with some other neighborhood kids. I was the youngest and the smallest of the group. We all went into the shop and commenced to stealing candy bars off the rack. I stuffed a Hersey’s Bar down the front of my pants and as we all headed out the door, be trailing behind, I felt a hand come down on my shoulder from behind. Put yourself in my place. I expected to get walloped. Instead, when I turned around a man with jet black hair and piercing blue eyes had knelt down to meet me as close to eye to eye as he could. He didn’t hurt me. He didn’t yell at me. Instead, in a gentle and loving tone he said, “If you ever want anything, all you have to do is ask and I will give it to you.” He could have handled that very differently. Instead, in that instant, he changed my life.
As we go through our lives and life gets in the way, we often forget that the things we do and say, however seemingly small or inconsequential, can impact others in ways we can’t even imagine. And with that, I raced out the door.
A few days later my curiosity got the better of me.
I had been poking my head in around the windows at the shop trying to catch a glimpse of Dave. Finally, when I built up enough courage (though he tells the story a bit differently, suggesting that I didn’t seem to lack any confidence whatsoever) I went in to the shop, approached the deli counter, and asked his daughter Rena if I could have a sandwich.
I remember her looking over at Dave and he nodded. She asked me what kind. “Salami.” I said. “Do you want cheese?” She asked. I nodded. “Hot or cold?” came the next question. I told her hot and she popped it into a box and turned it on. That was the first time I saw a microwave.
As a teen I joined the military, and though I tend to characterize my time in uniform as being “exceedingly average”, I did have the privilege of serving in a variety of roles and in some pretty amazing locations with some pretty amazing people both on active duty and in the reserves.
I’ve also been incredibly privileged to graduate from a police academy, study philosophy and law, earn an MBA, and to became the only American to graduate with a Masters of Science in Global Security from the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, at the Royal Military College of Science in Shrivenham, England. Professor Richard Holmes was my supervisor for my MSc and part of my PhD studies.
I’ve been incredibly lucky to be honest; I’ve traveled all over the world, worked in virtually every field I’ve dreamed of being a part of (however small or inconsequential my role), appeared on television, and even wrote some books. But none of that really matters. It all seems shallow and hollow and utterly worthless when compared to eternal things.
The catalyst for forming BOOTS ON THE GROUND (BOTG or BOTG-NGO) was the time in my adult life that I volunteered to deploy to a disaster, on my own, without being ordered to go there by the government. To be honest, it was an incredibly liberating experience.
I spent several weeks helping the victims of Hurricane Katrina down in Mississippi and New Orleans — and it changed my life. It was an amazing experience and one that truly opened my eyes to what one person could do if they were determined to make a difference. It also showed me how ineffective things could be when you allow them to become top heavy. But it didn’t convert me right away.
You could say I wasn’t totally sold or convinced of the idea that I could do things on my own, so to speak. At the time, I was still a member of the armed forces, so it wasn’t until I got out of the military that the need, the desire, the calling to go and serve on my own became so strong that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. The fact is, I didn’t fully understand that calling until after the earthquake hit Haiti in 2010.
In January, 2010 that 7.0+ earthquake killed and injured hundreds of thousands of people in less than a few minutes. More than 300,000 died in an instant when the buildings above them came crumbling down and took their lives. More people than died when two nuclear bombs landed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — combined.
What I saw on the news shook me to my core and within days my boots were on the ground of the Island Hispaniola racing towards my destiny. What I witnessed and participated in, coupled with previous experiences in my life, crystallized my desire to make a difference where governments and large NGOs, too often bogged down in bureaucracy and red tape, are less effective. It has taken some work, but eventually I just decided to leave everything else behind to focus entirely on others.
In every respect BOTG is my personality, desires, dreams for the world, hope for the future, and view of responsible global citizenry personified. This organization represents my love for others acted out, rather than simply talked about — the same way love was shown to me so many years before.
What I learned from all of these experiences is that life is just way too short to waste it on complaining about rather my high priced gourmet coffee is the right temperature or not.
James is a superb individual whom I know will continue to powerfully contribute to the communities he serves. I have huge respect for his commitment to serving others in time of need. ~Senator Bill Frist, MD (R-Tenn)
The work I’ve done has won me a Hero Award on national television, and my efforts in both New Orleans and Haiti have been featured on CNN, the BBC, Fox News, the CBS Evening News, and on the television shows Heroes Among Us and The Doctors.
These are bizarre things to have happen to anyone. I’m nobody special and I fully attribute everything I have and everything I do to the grace of God. But one thing I’ve learned about being on TV is that it helps get my mission out to others and that is critically important. Ultimately, if people have no idea what you’re doing, how can they possibly help you make a difference in the world? As a result, I’ve been incredibly blessed to meet some incredible people who inspire and motivate me to move forward. My goal in life is to demonstrate love, compassion, and joy to others.
Like most people in life, I’ve often focused entirely too much on myself. Worrying about paying the bills, about getting an education, and throwing certificates up on the wall. About obtaining, collecting, buying, and consuming. Even a website like this borders narcissism in my view, but seems to be a necessary evil. As I get older, all of those things mean less and less to me. They represent much of what I don’t respect or appreciate about the kind of man I was becoming, and help remind me of who I really want to be. I am acutely aware that I can’t change everyone’s life I come in contact with, but if I never come in contact with those in need, I’ll never impact anyone.
What I learned, and if there is any one thing I’d share with you, it would be that one person can make a difference. One person can change another person’s life. Strong men of character spoke into my life. They changed me. They helped me grow. They loved me and showed me who I could be, rather than who I was becoming.
I realized the only difference between them and me, was they chose to be the men they were; they made the effort. And any of us can. You only have to try. So, that’s what I do. And that means making contact. That means getting off the couch, putting your boots on, and then putting your boots on the ground. Without getting beyond yourself and getting in contact with others, there can never be change.
Boots on the Ground isn’t about me. It’s about others. It’s about doing my part and encouraging others, like you, to do your part too. If you’d like to get involved with us, I’d love to have your support. We can truly move mountains together.
With love and respect,