What Makes Oliver Cunningham Tick

In ‘What Makes You Tick’ I get the chance to pick the brains of some inspirational people from all walks of life, in the hope that by sharing ideas we can continue to progress, push our limits, and inspire each other.

Oliver Cunningham was born in 1961 in Waterford, Ireland and was educated in Mount Sion Christian Brothers School, Waterford. ‘The Déise’ native left Ireland in 1987, where he lived in Heidelberg, Germany for just over a year- before moving to Phoenix, Arizona. While there, he attended Arizona State University (ASU), before entering into the US military in September of 1989.

Ollie spent 5 years at Fort Bragg, North Carolina as an Airborne Paratrooper, ‘as we say in the military- jumping out of perfectly good airplanes’. From there he moved back to Heidelberg, Germany- and was stationed there for two years- before returning to the US to attend Warrant Officer Candidate School.

After completing the course he was once again stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina- this time with 7th Special Forces Group- 3 more years of ‘jumping out of planes and doing a lot of fun stuff’.

Ollie was then stationed with the 25th Infantry Division, Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; known as ‘Tropic Lightening’. After 5 years there- with 2 combat tours to Bosnia and Afghanistan- he was stationed with NATO in Izmir, Turkey. It was a great one year tour for him, and he was nominated to become the Deputy Executive Officer to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), in the NATO Military Headquarters in Belgium. For those who may not know, the first SACEUR was General Dwight Eisenhower. Ollie described it as ‘a huge privilege to have served in the position’.

3 years later Ollie found himself moving back to Hawaii, and joining the United States Army Pacific Command (USARPAC). He was supposed to be there for 3 years, but was nominated and selected to become the Deputy Executive Officer to the Commander United Nations Command/Combined Forces Command and United States Forces Korea. He served in that position for 3 years. 

‘I came to realise it may never get better than this- and it would be nice to go out on top- so I decided to retire with 24 years of service in the United States Military. I was sad to close that chapter in my life, but also proud to have served and achieved everything I had during this extraordinary period of my life.’

Since retiring, Ollie has remained in Korea and currently works as the Chief, Policy & Programs for United States Forces Korea (USFK).

The following is an overview of Ollie’s military education; Basic Training (Fort Knox, Kentucky), Advanced Individual Training (Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana), Airborne Paratrooper Training (Fort Benning, Georgia), Primary Leadership Development Course (Fort Bragg, North Carolina), Basic Non-Commissioned Officer Course (Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana), Warrant Officer Candidate School (Fort Rucker, Alabama), Warrant Officer Basic Course (Fort Jackson, South Carolina), Warrant Officer Advance Course (Fort Jackson, South Carolina), and finally the Warrant Officer Staff Course (Fort Rucker, Alabama).

Awards received; Army Achievement Medal (8 times), Army Accommodation Medal (2 times), NATO Medal, Army Meritorious Service Medal (3 times), Joint Forces Meritorious Service Medal (3 times), Legion of Merit Medal, Bronze Star Medal, Theodore Roosevelt Award for Physical Excellence (2 times), Afghan Service Medal for Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). 

In addition to attending Arizona State University, he also attended Fayetteville State University, North Carolina and the University of Maryland.

Ollie was kind enough to take the time out of his busy schedule to chat, and to share his experiences and ideas! Let’s get into it. 

Ollie being sworn in as a US citizen at Fort Bragg

Would you say you are more introverted, or extroverted?

I would say I am middle of the road; an ambivert who is drawn more towards being extroverted than introverted. I think the classification is extroverted ambivert. I love the big crowds and hanging out with all the pals, but also enjoy being alone sometimes. I enjoy the flexibility that my personality affords me, which allows me to relate to people at both ends of the spectrum. I have been thought of as being easy going.

What is your passion?

Faith, people and life are the bubbling passions that make me tick.

Faith: I was raised in 1960’s Catholic Ireland, and like most fellows was not too concerned about my faith. It was just something we did as growing children- we knelt and prayed because our Mammy’s told us too. However, as I grew into my late teens I started to become more aware of my faith, and more interested in understanding what I believe or do not believe. I am not interested in blind faith or ignorance; I have to know what it is all about to invest myself in it. Over the last 30 years or so, I have become very active in my Catholic faith and in the church. I have taught teenage kids in the Sunday School Program everywhere I have lived in the world, and specialised in preparing kids for confirmation.

People: Whether it is family or friends they have all been central in my life, and added immensely to my quality of life. I can roam the wild world over, but I have never lost the sense of being a part of my family. I have found great solace at times by realising that I am not alone in this world, but a part of and a continuation of my family. Having my own family now- two kids and a grandchild- has been a joy for me. I would say I grew up as cracked as the next fellow, but the kids steady the ship. It is that moment that you come to realise it is not all about you, but there is someone else in the world that you need to be there for- consistently.

Life: I breathe it in and blow it out every day, and never take it for granted. I have been around the world and seen many not so nice places as a soldier. I have seen people struggle just to make it through the day; people that have lost so much, and that have endured horrific conditions on a daily basis. All this has taught me to appreciate what I have, and to not take life for granted. A rainy, cold, miserable day in Seoul is like a ray of sunshine to a man who does not have a shirt on his back in Kabul or Bagdad.

What are you driven by?

At this stage in my life I am more motivated by the exploits of others, rather than my own. Being involved with people- either professionally or in my personal life- as a leader or mentor, and seeing them realise a dream or achieve success or find happiness, gives me great satisfaction and motivates me to stay involved.

How do you measure success?

I used to think that winning individual battles was the measure of success, but I have come to realise that winning the war is a more enduring success. I am not advocating losing, but there is something to be learned from it. I have enjoyed some of my greatest achievements and successes on the back of a loss.

Fleeting moments of success are all well and good- but when the wolf comes to the door- those that have been forged and hardened over time to have risen above their failures- will endure. I do not mean to sound so philosophical, but I guess I have learned to be patient.

Ollie in the office while on tour

Who had the most influence on you at a young age, and why?

Mr. Sonny Murphy- founder of Roanmore Hurling and Football Club, Waterford. Sonny was a driven man, with exceptional determination. Everything he put his hand to, seemed to turn out a winner. He had played many sports as a youth, and his record time for cycling the seven miles from Waterford to Tramore may still stand today. He had some of the best racing pigeons in Ireland and Great Britain, and when he turned his hand to raising and showing English Bull Terriers, he produced Irish champions.

But where he truly came into his own was as the founder and coach of Roanmore HFC, which I was a playing member of from birth. I was just a child living 4 doors away from him in Roanmore Park, but saw the man as a god. He was ruthless and gave no quarter, but you were determined to please him. I came up through the ranks in the club from under five to Senior, and all under the eye of Sonny. We may have started out slow as a fledgling club in Waterford- but by the time I was 21- I had multiple county medals at every age group, and we had turned into a Senior Hurling Club. He gave all, and expected nothing less from his charges. If you fell short- well let’s put it this way- one medal he never won was for tack or subtlety. He developed a serious fire and determination that was to affect me long after his passing, and to this day, I can still distinctly hear his voice.

Mr. Cyril O’ Regan- fitness coach for Roanmore HFC and Waterford Crystal Rugby Club. Cyril had been a first class athlete, and represented Ireland in the long jump. He must have been in his forties when he was coaching us, but no one could come close to touching him. I thought I was fit, and I thought I was fast, but Cyril took it to a new level. His knowledge and leadership were paramount to our success as players.

He inspired me to find new gears in my pace, endurance and stamina in order to last beyond challenges in any game. When I first joined the US Army, it was primarily a daily fitness test- compounded by the fatigue due to lack of sleep and the constant pressure. The years I had spent under Cyril’s tutelage and training prepared me for this new challenge.

The maximum score in the Army Physical Fitness Test is 300; I can say that in every one of my 24 years in the Army- I scored a perfect 300. I received the Theodore Roosevelt Award for Physical Excellence on two occasions, and I put it all down Cyril.

What’s the best book you’ve read, and why?

The Bible. The Bible is the book of life. It is a book written about people- for people- and inspired by God. I have found great inspiration, motivation, purpose and direction from reading the Bible. I have read it cover to cover, and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. Each time I find greater enlightenment and understanding, and my life has improved immensely as a result. No matter what challenge I am faced with, or circumstance I may find myself in, I feel very capable of rising above them thanks to the insight I have gained through reading the Bible, and having a greater understanding of my faith.

Describe your typical morning routine. 

I am a creature of habit, and morning time is just another ritual for me. I like to get up with plenty of time to shave, shower, and eat breakfast so I can walk out the door feeling totally ready for the day. First thing I do after stepping out of the bed is prepare a cup of hot lemon water. I allow this to cool as I get cleaned up and make my bed. By the time I am finished, my lemon water is lukewarm- as best prescribed- to detox before you take anything else on board. Next, I have a bowl of cereal and a glass of juice. I mix my own cereal- with the central ingredient being 100% bran. The rest is made up of grains, berries and nuts. I usually top it off with either a banana or grapes. I alternate my juice between orange and grapefruit. I like to eat while watching the news, as I like to leave the house informed of what is going on in the world. Once I have finished breakfast and cleaned up, I get dressed for the office. I always lay my clothes out and clean my shoes the night before. When I walk out the door- the bed is made, the dishes are cleaned and I am ready to face the day.

Describe your perfect Sunday.

Sunday is a day of rest and relaxation- a nice lie in and leisurely breakfast, before heading off to church. After church I go for a nice lunch at a good restaurant with friends, and afterwards a walk along the Han River. I like to relax on Sunday evenings to be in good shape for the week ahead. I made a decision a long time ago to never drink the day before work. I want to be 100% while on the job, and always bring my ‘A-Game’.

I never have a bad Monday.

Do you have a guilty pleasure?

I don’t feel guilty because I always feel I have earned it- but I love to get out and drink a few pints of Guinness- an Irish few that is.

What are your hobbies/interests?

Traveling would be the thing I most like to do. I believe you learn so much in the experience of engaging with different cultures. I have spent the last 30 years traveling and living in many different places- to name but a few- Arizona, North Carolina, Hawaii, Germany, Turkey, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Belgium, and South Korea for the last 4 years. It seems like so many moons ago that I lived in Ireland, but I still call it home.

I am happiest when…

I spend time with good friends and we can get away to remote locations to really hang with each other, without the normal distractions. I guess the same could be said for the long lasting relationships I have with folks with whom I served in the military. We spent a lot of time together in some extreme, remote locations, but the bonds we made will endure forever.

What- or who- encouraged you to take the first step towards pursuing a career with the US Army?

John Wayne. I saw each one of his great movies, and a couple of them in particular I really enjoyed.

I thought it all looked so appealing and exciting; the camaraderie and courage- the belief in something bigger than yourself, and the willingness to stand up for those beliefs. I was not disappointed- and 24 years later- I have no regrets.

When you part from this world, you would like to think that every sinew and fiber of your being has been stretched and tested, and that you have lived a full and engaging life. I never considered myself as the kind of person to sit on the fence. For good, bad or indifferent, I always choose to live life to the fullest.

There is no bucket list- just disregarded dreams and wasted opportunities. Get out there and suck in some air- or to quote a hero of mine;

‘Fill your hands, you son of a bitch.’– Rooster Cogburn, True Grit.

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Ollie in formation

What was the most significant learning experience you can recall having?

I think cumulatively, it was joining the military, but there were events along the way where the learning curve definitely got steeper.

I attended a Warrant Officer training course in Fort Rucker, Alabama called the Warrant Officer Candidate Course. It was designed to test you to find out whether you were the right material to become a Warrant Officer. It was eight weeks of intense physical fitness, duress and stress.

We got about 4 hours of interrupted sleep every night, and we were conducting physical fitness training (PT) by 0600. You were front loaded with so many tasks to be completed during any given day- that you were destined to fail. All the while, you were monitored and evaluated as to how you were handling it. You had to learn to multi-task; prioritise tasks and pick what you can achieve, rather than try to do it all and achieving nothing.

The role of the instructor was to demoralise you and break you down both physically and mentally. They would do things like tell you to change rooms- but you had to exit via the fire escape (we were on the second floor) and come back in via the fire escape at the other end of the building- to get to your new room.

Here is the catch- you had to take all your belongings with you at one time; we had about 5 duffle bags full of gear- uniforms, boots, toiletries, books, the list goes on.  The instructors were lined up along the route- screaming in your face. This was all happening at a fast pace- you had minutes to get this completed. If you dropped something, you had to do pushups- then get your stuff back up and keep moving. This was in Alabama in July- about 120 degrees with humidity.

This was just typical of everyday, all day.

They would tell 60 of us to get in the building after PT, get showered, shaved, dressed in the right uniform (boots shining, uniform sharp) and back outside in formation in 30 minutes. In addition, your room had to be laid out for inspection when you left. They checked the inside of your toothpaste tube to see if you had left any toothpaste in the cap. That will give you an idea of how intense the inspection was.  Each day you were accruing 1000’s of demerits.

Nevertheless, I will tell you in no uncertain terms that I learned how to pay attention to detail, and multi-task without even a second thought. It has stayed with me long after the beatings.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Currently as the Chief, Policy and Programs for United States Forces Korea, I get to make a difference in people’s quality of life.

Some of the programs that are under my supervision include: Education and Schools, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Reporting Program, Prevention of Trafficking in Persons and Prostitution, Living Allowances (Cost of Living/ Overseas Housing/ Moving in Expenses), and The Combined Federal Campaign Charitable Program. It is very rewarding to see your efforts make a positive difference in people’s lives. It encourages you to want do more and make every effort to succeed on people’s behalf.

What is your approach to your daily life?

I like to think that when I put my head down at night, I have lived each day to the fullest. Having been around the block a few times now, I have come to realise that there are going to be good days and bad days- but most importantly- the good out number the bad. Some folks fail to realise this, and tend focus on the bad. I try to enjoy each day, and when things are tough or not going so well, I focus on overcoming whatever challenge or hurdle I am confronted with. I have always had a positive approach to life; it was paramount in my living through some of the deployments and challenges in my military career.

Some of this you are possibly born with, but some of it is acquired. Although I would not say I had a hard life growing up in Waterford, Ireland in the 60’s- it certainly was not easy, and nothing was handed to you. You took nothing for granted, and when the sun came out, you appreciated it.

So I think to answer the question- my approach is to take nothing for granted and appreciate what you have- and if you can give someone else a leg up, why not do so.

What would you say to young people- or indeed people in general- who perhaps find themselves at a crossroads, or are unsure as to what path to take when considering their futures?

Crossroads, I love that term. I think it is such an exciting prospect.

Most folks find themselves at a crossroads and there are many means by which they arrive there.

It can be through sheer determination to affect a change in your life, your surroundings or your relationships. It can be as a result of facing into a challenge to break free of your comfort zone, and step out onto the thin ice. It can be due to having a deep dissatisfaction with your lot but trying to find the courage to break free- which is not always easy when your head is down.

The more you have- the more you have to lose and the harder it is to affect change by rolling the dice. Others feel challenged to come to the crossroads- primarily out of ignorance or uncertainty. They sense there is something better or different out there, but they just don’t know what it is- fear of the unknown perhaps- and are somehow compelled or drawn to it, like moths to a flame.

I think the central theme in all of this is courage. In each instance, I believe it takes courage to bring about change in your life.

I can give you 50 good reasons why I should not have left Ireland 30 years ago, but I was spurred on by one reason and one reason alone- I believed there was something out there for me, something good, something positive. There was something out there that would define me, more than all I had achieved up to that point.

From this inner belief, I found the courage to leave. Irish people tend to fall out the window and land on the roof, and my decision proved to be a good one.

What would I say to folks considering change now? Find the courage to do so from within; you have the rest of your life to regret it.

I will leave you with a quote from GEN George S. Patton.

‘Accept the challenges, so that you may feel the exhilaration of victory.’