Doug Wilson: Celebrating 10 Years Without Don’t Ask Don’t Tell
Ken celebrates the 10th anniversary of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell with Doug Wilson, former Pentagon official who played a key role in the repeal.
Doug Wilson is a former Pentagon official, campaign veteran, and foreign policy expert. As Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, he played a key role in the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which was signed into law by President Obama on December 22, 2010.
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Doug Wilson: They couldn't be open. It was difficult for them because they were living two lives. They couldn't be whole people...And I remember thinking how difficult that has to be for any human being, especially for those who are serving their country.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
One of my favorite things about hosting Burn the Boats is that every once in a while I have the opportunity to speak to someone who I've known a long time and long admired and I get to dive into their story in a way that I wouldn't normally get to. That is especially the case today with my guest Doug Wilson, who's a former Pentagon official, campaign veteran, foreign policy expert. And as the Assistant Defense Secretary for Public Affairs, he was instrumental in shaping policies and messages for the Pentagon. He's here today to talk about one of those policies in particular. Doug played a key role in the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the 10th anniversary of which is this month. Doug, thank you so much for joining me on Burn the Boats, it is great to talk to you.
DW: Ken, it's a pleasure to be with you. And if I can thank you and say a personal thanks to you for all that you've done for this country, from Mission Continues to Team Rubicon, you've been somebody I've long admired and have done great service for this country. So, thank you.
KH: Well, the feeling is clearly mutual, I'm sure that'll come across in the next 30 to 45 minutes. I want to contextualize our conversation though. Because we are speaking to highlight the anniversary of the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which is a celebration. It marks the end of a policy that hurt a lot of people, and I would argue hurt our national security. But the context is this: progress even in a democracy isn't inevitable. The wheel doesn't always turn forward. So, as much of a celebration as this conversation is intended to be, I also want it to strike a note of caution. When you look at what is happening the with Supreme Court, when you look at what is happening with the transgender ban and in other countries, sometimes the wheel turns backwards. Let's not have an unvarnished view of what a celebratory conversation like this means, given the fraught political times we live in. That's my context for the conversation. But Doug, could you lay the groundwork for us, how did Don't Ask, Don't Tell come about? What existed before it? And why was it seen as such a necessary compromise at the time?
DW: Well, it's interesting because I was around when the law was first established by the Clinton Administration and I had really one of the great honors of my life to be part of its repeal. It was established initially under the Clinton Administration because newly elected President Bill Clinton wanted to enable gays and lesbians who'd been serving in the military anyway for so long, to be able to serve openly. At that time in the early '90s, the social atmosphere was not yet ready for that in a lot of places, both in the military and in politics. So, there ended up being a compromise brokered by the White House that was called Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Essentially that meant that LGBT troops who were serving already could not speak publicly or make any comment about their private lives. But by the same token, no one could ask them about their private lives, because if they were exposed, they were vulnerable to being separated from the military. That law existed really for 17 years. I remember being at the Pentagon under Clinton, I've been at the Pentagon three times, twice under Clinton. And I remember going to a birthday dinner for a close friend of mine, a gay Navy Army captain. And there were about 20 people at the birthday dinner, all of them LGBT, all of them relatively senior, and all of them having served in the military for quite a while. And I remember at that time Ken, all of them wanted to see the repeal of this law, but in the late '90s, didn't want it to be while they were still there. Because they were so afraid, most of them being very close to retirement, that it would cause such a scene and would be so dramatic that their retirements would be under threat. It was at that time that it really made an impression on me, how important it was to be able to change this, but to be able to change this so that it would be to the benefit and not to the fear of those who were serving.
KH: One of the allies that you credit in the run up to the repeal is Mike Mullen, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And he has a quote that I think perfectly captures the sentiment that you bring up again and again and that story you just related captures as well. The quote from Mike Mullen is that, "Service members cannot live a lie." Can you give us, in a visceral way, what it was like talking to your friends serving in a Don't Ask, Don't Tell military as a member of the LGBT community?
DW: Sure. I have to begin by telling you just a little bit of my own story. I came out late in life, in my early 40s. And it was simultaneous with my serving at the Pentagon. I was lucky at the time because then Secretary of Defense, Bill Cohen, was extremely open and included me as part of the defense family. He invited me and my partner to dinner for foreign defense ministers and we considered ourselves very lucky. Because we had friends in the military, a network that was expanded during my two times there before Obama, of men and women who couldn't do that. They couldn't be open. It was difficult for them because they were living two lives. They couldn't be whole people. I remember as we were going through this, as a matter of fact, there was a network during the repeal called Outserve. It consisted of men and women throughout the military, all five services, who had their own kind of secret network where they could get support and be in touch with each other because they couldn't be out and open. And I remember thinking how difficult that has to be for any human being, especially for those who are serving their country.
And when I was asked to be the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs in 2009, and I was the first openly gay individual to be confirmed by the Senate to a senior Pentagon position - I was told at the time that I was being offered the position because of my national security background, but also that this would be the time that President Obama was going to fulfill his commitment to repeal the law and that I was going to be asked to play a major role. While I've never considered myself to be a poster boy for anything, I couldn't have been more honored or pleased that that was going to be part of the job.
KH: Were you nervous about social backlash? You said that, "the social atmosphere was not ready for that," which is what led to the initial compromise. But working up to the repeal, was there a nervousness about what that might elicit?
DW: The answer is yes, there was a nervousness. But I wasn't particularly nervous, for this reason. In the late '90s, the social situation had not yet developed I think nationally, to where people understood that your sexual orientation was not a matter of choice and that people who were LGBT didn't come from Mars. They were your friends, your neighbors, your sons, your daughters. They were people like me and people like the people I dealt with in the military. I personally think, this may sound a little odd, but I personally think that much of the social change that took place in the early 2000s took place because of the television show Will and Grace. I think a lot of cultural change happens when people can see in a mass way, characters in art, in television, in film, that are like them, with whom they can identify. It helps to puncture the fear. So, I do believe that by the time we reached 2010, the atmosphere in the country and also within the military was such that we could pull it off successfully. I think the atmosphere among politicians lagged, particularly in the Republican Party and I think that the atmosphere in the military was one of concern and fear. Nevertheless, you had people like Mike Mullen who truly was a hero here, who basically said, "It's time to stop making people live a lie."
KH: How much credit do you give to the military in its implementation? Because I remember this period and the concern was palpable that there would be something like a rebellion amongst the ranks. One of the arguments against it was breakdown of good order and discipline. And you kept hearing that again, and again, and again. Except within the military, it was pretty well-accepted that we were going to do our jobs. We were going to follow the directives of our civilian masters and all of this hand ringing seemed to totally misunderstand the nature of the military. Is that a fair reading? And how much credit do you give to the institution itself for the implementation?
DW: I think it's a fair reading and I think how you've just outlined it is 50% of the reason that I think the military did a good job. Remember, the military also pioneered integration in the armed forces, women in the armed forces. Social change that ended up later on spreading throughout the country, but first started in the military. What I think was, there were a lot of people in the military who were ready for such a change and who basically accepted it. I think that was less so among senior leaders who thought it would be disruptive to good order and discipline and certainly within an element of the Republican Party and Congress that thought the same. But I want to tell you a story which I think illustrates why and how the military was ready. As you know, then-Secretary Gates decided that he was going to do a report called the Comprehensive Report based on “would the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell negatively affect good order and discipline among the ranks?” As you well know from your time in politics, when people do polling, they usually poll universes of 400, 500 people. He polled a universe of 400,000. Troops all over the world, everywhere. There was an executive committee, which was headed by then-General Counsel Jeh Johnson and then-Africom Commander, General Carter Ham. And it involved interviewing troops all over the country, both in person and through surveys that were taken. And I remember because I was also a member of the executive commission, going to one such in Fort Hood, Texas. There were about 200 troops in the room and Jeh and Carter, as they were leading the discussion, started out by saying, "How many of you are here voluntarily?" Of course, no hands went up. "How many of you are here because your commanding officer has forced you to be here?" Every hand went up. "How many of you here think you are serving with someone who may be gay or lesbian in uniform?" Virtually all hands stayed up. "How many then of you would be concerned and not want to serve with any of your fellow troops if the law was repealed and you found out that someone was gay or lesbian?" Some hands went down, not all of them. But it showed that this wasn't ... It was my first signal that this was not something that the general troops were going to have a rebellion about.
At the end of the discussion, Jeh and Carter and I were taken out to the field. It's out in the desert and there was a tank there and a tank crew. We were asked if we wanted to climb all over the tank and see the turret and see ... The whole point being that this was very close space. And that if there was a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, troops in uniform being in that tank, this could be a bad thing for troops who were straight because it was so close quarters. I'd seen tanks many times, I'd been in them, so I didn't go. But at the end of this, they lined the tank crew up in front of us, five young men who'd been serving together for a while. And they asked, the commanding general asked if there were any questions. And I did have one, and you could see the look of concern on his face. I looked at the young men and I said, "If the Don't Ask, Don't Tell law is repealed and one of you turned out to be gay and told the other four, 'Well, I'm gay,' how would you react?" And the first young man said, "Well, my brother's gay, so it wouldn't bother me." The second one said, "My cousin's gay, it wouldn't bother me." The third one said, "I had a lot of gay friends in high school, so it wouldn't matter to me." And the fourth one was the same. The fifth young man said, "Sir, if this tank was burning, I don't care who it is that's pulling me out of the tank, I just want to know somebody's going to pull me out of that tank." And it was then I was absolutely certain that this law was going to be repealed, 400,000 polling or not.
KH: You referenced the military taking the lead on matters of social change, integration of the armed forces in '48 as kind of a preview to the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. And I want to get your thoughts on whether that is the right way in a democracy to affect social change. Is the military the right agent for that when it comes to moving society writ large forward?
DW: I don't think the military is intended to be a vehicle for social change. I just think it ends up that it reveals social change. As you well know having served in the military, when the Commander in Chief issues an order, that order is to be followed. As you discussed at the beginning of this conversation, that order is to be followed and all service chiefs and everyone in the military is to salute smartly. That happened when Truman integrated the armed forces in 1948, it happened when women were allowed to serve in the military. But I think it is a vehicle of change, it should not be the single thing that starts change, it shouldn't be the match that lights the fire. But I think it reflects the kind of social change that goes on in this country. I think that that was definitely the case with the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. I think the failure of the Clinton Administration to be able to introduce this 17 years earlier reflects the fact that the military is not an experimental institution. It is an institution I think that reflects the changes going on in society.
KH: I love your description and I'm going to steal this phrase, "the military reveals social change." I think that's probably most of it. I think the other aspect is leadership. The military is an institution that celebrates strong leadership. And when a policy is handed down, it is executed to the best of the ability of those carrying out that implementation. How quickly did the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell permeate the organization?
DW: I'm going to answer in two ways. I think military leaders in this case were exemplary in terms of carrying out the orders once repeal was achieved on December 22nd, 2010. But the actual repeal, the actual implementation didn't take place until nine months later. Because there was a six month period in which then-Secretary both Gates and Panetta had to work with the service chiefs in order to develop all the training that was going to be necessary and rule review to make sure that this was going to be a smooth transition. In addition, the late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia had written into the law, in order to get his vote, that after that was completed there'd be another 60 days necessary, which I always called, "just to make sure." It was very frustrating at the time, but that was written into the law. So, you had service chiefs, many of whom were opposed to this rule change, who basically were going to make sure that now it would happen, it was going to be as smooth as possible. I remember in particular the Marine Commandant, and I was friends with all of the service chiefs and I like to think that the fact that we got along well and that I always had their back with regards to communications and dealing with tough issues, showed that they could deal with any LGBT person and that sexual orientation was just a part of who we are, it doesn't define everything in terms of who we are. But the Marine Commandant had been particularly opposed to the repeal. And towards the end, right before the final Senate vote, the last of three, had said some things in the press that were pretty damning. And I had responded, I thought with some equanimity, but made clear that some of these comments were out of line. That having been said, he was the first to salute smartly and made sure that the Marine implementation of the repeal was one of the smoothest that would take place.
I want to say one final thing, Ken, that goes beyond Don't Ask, Don't Tell. And that is our military leaders are some of the best people in the business. I know that there's a feeling that military leadership is politicized one way or the other. I don't believe that. I believe those who are serving in uniform are doing so with the best interest of the country at heart. I think, for example, that they all understand that their oath of office is to the Constitution of the United States and not to any single individual who is an office holder. And I think that that's why with regards to all of the election difficulties that were taking place this year, that I always had confidence that the military would absolutely not interfere in any kind of election or post election issues that would arise.
KH: I want to give you an opportunity, and I feel remiss in not leading with this, to talk about how inclusion strengthens our national security. How the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, as much as it was lamented as potentially leading to a dissolution of good order and discipline, that the ability of young people of any sexual orientation to serve is not just a good thing at the individual level, it is a critical element to strengthening national security. This isn't just about rights, it's about the security of the country.
DW: I'm going to start by telling you the immediate aftermath reaction to implementing the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. I was so fortunate to be able to be on the Pentagon press podium on September 22nd at 2:00 in the afternoon and introduce Leon Panetta and Mike Mullen, who then formally declared the repeal over. And the 24 hours after that, the best word to describe it would be nothing burger. This was a nothing burger in terms of the impact. There was no riots, revolutions. Men and women who had been hidden for so long and who were very scared about what this meant now that they would be out, found out that they could go about their jobs almost 100% as they had done the day before. There was a young man who led Outserve who had gone by the pseudonym JD Smith, and I had ended up talking to him throughout the process of the comprehensive report in order to get feedback because they ... LGBT troops were asked to provide input, but couldn't do so, they were in this catch 22. Because to do so would've meant that they would've violated the Don't Ask, Don't Tell law. So, I got to know him on the phone. The day before the repeal, he called me up and he said, "Sir, I want you to know that I serve in the Air Force and I'm really worried that once it's found out that I serve in the Air Force that there's going to be very negative connotations. Can you help me?" I immediately called the Air Force Chief of Staff and I said, "I want you to know that the head of Outserve has just told me that he is from the Air Force and I want your word that once his name is revealed that there will be absolutely no repercussions whatsoever with regard to his service." And he easily made that promise. And the day of the repeal, we weren't going to be allowed to have any major celebration. Interestingly enough, one of the very senior military leaders who had been supportive said, "This is going to happen, but we're not going to spike the ball." And I'd invited 10 men and women in uniform who were LGBT from all the services, who I knew were serving on my staff and elsewhere in the Pentagon to stand in the back of the press room just to be able to watch this. And afterwards, come into my office. I live in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware and I had been to my home here the weekend before and I bought two cases of Dogfish Head Ale. And I brought them into my office and I thought, "We're going to each open a bottle of this and toast this." Well, it turned out that not only did those 10 people come in, but people got word from all throughout the Pentagon. And I had the people who had led the transition from the Marines, I had people from the Secretary's office, I had people from all five services, I had people from organizations that had worked on this. Gay, straight, young, old, men, women, all five services. My room was packed, about 60 people. And all of a sudden a young man comes in with a book. And he says, "Sir, you know me as JD Smith and my name is Josh Seefreid and I want you to be the first to know who I am and I want you to have this book." Which essentially was a story of men and women in uniform, all their stories, about 50 or 60, of what it was like to serve in silence. We all opened a beer and everybody was there. And I've never felt such comradery in my life and it was then I knew what belonging meant. What inclusion meant. What it was like for those people to now feel like they were going to be whole people again. That's what inclusion means. That's what belonging means. And that's what it means to solidify the rights and the service and the wellbeing of everybody who serves in uniform, regardless of who you are, your rank, your color, your sex, your sexual orientation. That's critical to our national security, Ken. It means that we are protecting all Americans.
KH: We recently had a conversation on Burn the Boats with MJ Hagar about ending the combat exclusion, a drive that she helped lead and which Secretary Panetta, who we also had on the show, finally did. And the common thread I think it's pretty simple: if Americans want to serve their country, if they want to fight for their country, give them the chance. For crying out loud, I just don't understand the continued resistance looking at the ongoing transgender ban to giving Americans a chance to serve their country.
DW: You're so right. And I think the basic issue here is fear. People get afraid of things. We get afraid of each other. Because often the information that we get is so twisted, so incorrect and based so much on fear and hate that when we take those elements out, we see that the people we were afraid of are actually sons and daughters and neighbors and cousins and schoolmates and people with whom we've been interacting all our lives. And they're part of the community. I think once we address those issues and we realize that, it's going to be a whole lot easier to move forward. That Senate vote to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell was I think 65-33. And it included Republicans, I think the most surprising and interesting vote at the time was that of the Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, who was a surprise vote and said, "I can't vote anymore to let people who are serving their country to make them hide and live a lie."
I was confident that this was going to be repealed and you know that at the time, it was like a musical chairs of issues. It was a lame duck session, the new START Treaty was up, the budget package was up, and Don't Ask, Don't Tell was up. And it was like musical chairs. Everybody thought two of those three were going to pass, but not everything. And I was confident that it would. Because when I saw Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman and stand on the Senate floor with Harry Reid right after the second vote defeating Don't Ask, Don't Tell saying that they would make it a standalone, I thought, "There are going to be enough members of the Senate who are going to look themselves in the mirror and understand that this was a vote of conscience." I certainly hope that in the next Congress that there are enough members of the Senate who will do the same thing and members of the House of Representatives. I think once we have an administration that will lead in terms of bringing us together as opposed to dividing us and feeding on hate, that we'll get the motor starting again.
KH: I want to get your thoughts on leadership more broadly and the intersection between that and social change and how, as we began this conversation, you ensure that the wheel turns forward. You referenced Will and Grace and the changing social mores that allowed for this policy to be repealed. But what is the right balance between waiting for society to be ready, between executive leadership from the President on down, even when opposed to the prevailing social mores of the time, between court decisions that sometimes run dramatically counter to public opinion, but are the right thing to do. In a democracy, how do you think about that balance?
DW: I don't believe there's a prescription or a formula, Ken. I believe it begins with all of us as citizens, as voters, as Americans. I think the kinds of social change that we saw take place between the implementation of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and its repeal essentially reflected that kind of progress in American society. I think those who lead our military, they themselves are not the instigators, they're the people who respond to the social changes that are going on around them. They do so understanding that there's a Commander in Chief and that there's a political process led by civilians that is responsible for leading that. I think that with regard to the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, just like in 1948 with the integration of African American troops into the military, what we are seeing are forces in this country that are expressing themselves and demanding that the country live up to its values. All men are created equal, citizens need to be treated equally. We have not done this perfectly, by any means. The repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell was a major step forward. That doesn't mean we're done. What we've seen with regards to the Trump Administration's backwards steps on transgender troops being allowed to serve in the military, things like job rights inequality, those remain to be addressed. Challenges to achieving those remain, and in some cases have increased. It doesn't mean society stops. And the military is not on Mars. It's not an institution that is separated from society. It's an institution that includes all aspects of society. This is one of the reasons, for example, that I co-founded Vets Community Connections, which is an effort to try to bring way more Americans in communities all across the country into the reintegration process for returning vets and the military. It's because those who have served like you have on the battlefield, are not apart from society. You're part of society. What you see with regard to the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell reflects it. And we need to make sure that we involve far more people in understanding the need to include, give a sense of belonging to, and support those who've worked on the battlefield, as you, my friend, have done so spectacularly yourself.
KH: Thanks for bringing us to the present because I want to spend most of the rest of our conversation talking about where we are now. As I survey the legal and political landscape and as others have remarked, it is becoming abundantly clear that some of the institutions we used to count on are not just undemocratic by design, they're becoming anti-democratic. I'm looking at a Senate that represents an increasingly smaller sliver of the American public just by how they're apportioned, at a Supreme Court that has become so politicized that the majority of Justices are now appointed by Presidents who received a minority of the vote. Do you worry about real backsliding? I mean, the transgender ban is one small example, I shouldn't call it a small example. It is a deeply painful example that hurts our national security. But then I look at cases like Obergefell. I look at what the Supreme Court may be asked to consider when it comes to issues of equality for Americans of all stripes. And I'm afraid. Where do you sit?
DW: I'm afraid as well. Because I agree with you that some of these institutions have taken major steps backward. I mean, I grew up at a time where people respected the people who were elected to the Senate and the House, those people were statesmen and women. That the Supreme Court ... That those who were nominated to be Justices were judged on their merits, that the nomination process was never questioned, and most Justices got 70, 80, 90 votes in the Senate. This latest nomination was the most partisan of any. And I don't see that changing in the near future. And I have to make a personal comment in saying that the men and women whom we've seen as statesmen and women in the Senate and in the Congress, we're seeing fewer and fewer of those. I mean, John McCain, I was a different party than John McCain, but he was one of the last of those who reached out across the aisle. I think one of the selling points for Joe Biden during his Presidential campaign was that he offered a credible chance to begin restoring that kind of bipartisanship. But Ken, that's going to take a long, long time. On the Supreme Court, while I am not someone who favors court packing because I think the definition of that just means you're doing this on the basis of math. But I do believe that the proposal that Joe Biden made during the campaign about establishing a commission, a bipartisan commission of experts, and Republicans and Democrats to see how you get to the root causes of eliminating the kinds of injustices and hypocrisy that was reflected in Merrick Garland never getting a hearing and Amy Coney Barrett being confirmed sooner than a package to help those who've been so adversely affected by the coronavirus. How that kind of process can be reversed is something we need to do. That doesn't have anything to do with numbers and packing it, has to do with process. I also have to say that I was heartened in 2018 to see a new generation of Democrats, your generation and your colleagues, elected to Congress. I wish you would've been among them and someday I think you certainly will be if you decide to do that again. But those who've served on the battlefield, those who've served in national security and those who understand the issues that you're outlining here, the weakening of our institutions and what needs to be done to strengthen them, that was a hopeful sign. There's a lot of people who don't want to go into elective office and public service. My friend and former assistant, Pete Buttigieg who ran for President, I think led the way in talking about national service of the type that you and Alan Khazei and so many others have exemplified in this country. But I think there needs to be a new focus on that and that that needs to accompany a look at our institutions and who runs for them and why they run and why they succeed, in order to reverse a trend that I think you outlined correctly.
KH: Well, thank you so much, Doug. We end every episode of Burn the Boats with the same question, what is the bravest decision you have ever been a part of?
DW: I think the bravest decision I've ever been a part of has been Don't Ask, Don't Tell. And I think also the Senate vote to confirm me as the first openly gay person to serve in a senior capacity at the Pentagon. But I have to tell you that the bravest people I've ever met are your colleagues who've served on the battlefield in uniform. I have so many friends who have. And when I left the Pentagon I asked my military assistant, "What can I do? How would I ever pay something like this back?" My dad was one of the last survivors of Iwo Jima, he was in Seabees. And I did not serve in the military because of a physical issue. But I asked him what could I do. And he said, "Sir, just go out there and tell people that we don't walk on water and we don't all go postal. We're just people who live in their communities and we're looking to come back and be part of that again." That was the reason for founding Vets Community Connections. It's one of the reasons that I so admire what you have done with Mission Continues and Team Rubicon. So, I would say the bravest people I've met are you and your colleagues.
KH: Thanks Doug, it's been an honor talking with you.
DW: Thank you.
KH: Thanks again to Doug Wilson for joining me. Yesterday, December 22nd, marked 10 years since President Obama signed the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal into law.
After the new year, I’m talking with Senator Sherrod Brown from here in Ohio. He talks about the dignity of work, his Senate desk 88, and the role of fear, and hope, in politics.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.