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No American left behind: The life of Tampa rescue guru Bryan Stern

Bryan Stern leads an A-team of global operators on life-and-death missions to get Americans out of harm's way. His leadership mantra: Don't be a spectator.


  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 5:00 a.m. July 10, 2024
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Combat Veteran Bryan Stern founded his first American rescue organization, based out of Tampa, in 2021.
Combat Veteran Bryan Stern founded his first American rescue organization, based out of Tampa, in 2021.
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Good leaders, according to basic management protocol, give credit to their team and people around them. Even better leaders genuinely mean it.

Then there’s Bryan Stern.

For the last three years, Stern has led a team of highly-specialized people doing unfathomably risky work in some of the world’s most dangerous places. First through an organization dubbed Project Dynamo and more recently through the Grey Bull Rescue Foundation, both based in Tampa, Stern and his cohorts, some 70 people, are essentially last-option rescue all-stars. In three years Stern, 44, and his teams have executed 600 missions and rescued more than 7,000 people, who, due to war, fire, hurricanes and more, can’t get out of where they are. Hotspots Stern and his team have been to range from Hawaii to Haiti, Russia to Ukraine and, of late, the Middle East.

“We do whatever we can to get people out,” Stern says, with the we being former special operators and intel experts who all realize sometimes the American government isn’t the solution to these specific life-or-death crises. “We move at the speed of need — not at the speed of government.” (Stern says there are other things Grey Bull is not, among them, “we’re not a Seal team. And we're not a warzone Uber.”

Asked about some leadership lessons he’s learned the last three years, Stern — a decorated, multiple-tour combat veteran of the U.S. Army and Navy, whose recognition includes a Purple Heart — is immediate and forthright. “Everything we do is hard,” he says, “but nothing happens without a team. This really is a team sport. The stuff we do absolutely takes a village.”

A recent 35-minute virtual call I had with Stern to talk about leadership was part history lesson, part motivational speech. (During our chat, and in other interviews he’s given, Stern laments fundraising is an important part of the job — and the one task he enjoys the least.) We spoke during an early afternoon in Florida while Stern was somewhere in Lebanon, standing under a stone wall as the sunlight dimmed around him. Stern says he was in the Middle East in early July with the expectation the Israel-Hamas conflict was about to heat up. 

“I’m laser-focused on one thing and one thing only and that’s to help people who don’t have any options,” says Stern, who’s lived in Tampa for eight years. “When you’re calling us, it’s the worst day of your life. You’ve called every person you know, every senator. You’ve called the congressmen. When you call us, it’s because you’re in a bad position. You’re out of runway.”


Rescue me

Some of Stern’s leadership wisdom and lessons include: 


Act decisively

Stern knows all about working on tight budgets: The first iteration of this effort, Project Dynamo, had $1.82 million in contributions and donations in fiscal 2022, according to public tax filings, against $1.5 million in expenses. But lack of resources, says Stern, can also be an invitation for a leader to get more creative with potential solutions. “One of our new board members told me before a recent mission he thought we were a little light on money for this kind of work,” says Stern. “I asked him, when have we ever been cash fat?”


Remain calm
Bryan Stern and his Grey Bull Rescue Operation team headed to Lebanon in late June. He says they had no specific assignment, but signs pointed to forthcoming escalations in Israel's war against multiple terrorist organizations.
Courtesy image

In our conversation, Stern gets animated and excited talking about the rescue missions. Like the time they got an American out of Russian captivity after eight days, early in the Ukraine invasion. Or the 117 stranded Americans they got out of Afghanistan in August 2021, after the much-criticized haphazard U.S. troop withdrawal. Despite those high stakes, Stern says the best leaders he’s worked with know how to slow down the chaos. “From a leadership standpoint you have to understand that everything you do is going to be in crisis,” he says. “Leadership under pressure is when you’re in a lot of cruddy situations you have to be able to break things down. I’m really good with puzzles and figuring things out.” 


Be true

Stern says an underappreciated facet of good leadership is loyalty. He’s spoken often about his oath to the U.S. armed forces, including in our conversation, noting your commitment to codes like no one gets left behind doesn’t vanish, even when you are no longer in the military. “That oath doesn’t have an expiration date,” he says. “It’s like a tattoo. It never goes away."


Will to survive

A conversation about leadership with Stern also delves into the leaders he admires. 

The name Grey Bull itself was inspired by one of Stern’s heroes, U.S. Army Col. Arthur David “Bull” Simons, who participated in and led multiple high-risk rescue operations in World War II and the Vietnam War. Simons was awarded the Silver Star during World War II for his actions in the famous Cabanatuan Raid that rescued some 500 prisoners of war, most of whom were survivors of the Bataan Death March. After retiring from the military, Simons, according to the Simons Center for Ethical Leadership and Interagency Cooperation in Leavenworth, Kansas, took on a private assignment from entrepreneur H. Ross Perot: Two of Perot’s employees were arrested and imprisoned in Iran. Simons organized a rescue mission and ultimately freed the two men, fleeing across the mountains into Turkey and returning to the U.S. in February 1979.

But Stern’s admiration for Simons stems more from an effort that was actually unsuccessful — at least in rescuing people. That effort, what Stern calls a “profound story of hope and resilience,” was when Simons led a raid on the Son Tay Prison in Vietnam, planning to rescue American soldiers held captive by the North Vietnamese. But the prisoners had been moved before the raid. No one was rescued. “Despite the mission not achieving its primary objective, the prisoners heard about the raid and were filled with hope, knowing that brave Americans were fighting for their freedom,” the Grey Bull website states, in recounting Simons’ story. “This gave them the strength and will to survive their captivity.” (The Son Tay Raid, according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, was “was one of the most complex and dangerous missions" of the Vietnam War. “It laid the groundwork for future joint forces operations by serving as a model of organization, cooperation and flexible execution.”

That Simons story is Stern’s why. He loves the creativity, the persistence, the willingness to do things and go places others wouldn’t do or go to. “(Bull) had a lot of good ideas but a lot of people thought he was crazy,” Stern says. “Some of my ideas sound crazy but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. They just work.”

Combat veteran Bryan Stern served in the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy and was awarded the Purple Heart.
Courtesy image

A Queens, New York, native, Stern says the military wasn’t on his to-do list when he was a kid. The son of a lawyer and judge, Stern thought he would be a lawyer or an architect. That changed when he attended the New York Military Academy, a boarding school north of New York City that closed in 2015 after operating for 126 years. (Stern quips he’s the third most famous alumni of the school, after Donald Trump and John Gotti Jr.) 

Stern and I, through his media and public relations team, postponed multiple interviews, mainly because he got unexpectedly called away. He maintains a rapid-fire pace, he says, because he’s motivated by his mission and a “leaders eat last” mentality to be there, at the front, for his team. Sometimes, he says, he holds back on ideas and is more of a cheerleader and someone to energize the team. He quickly adds that the boardroom isn’t necessarily his thing. “I’m a mediocre CEO,” he says. “I’m OK. But I’m really good on the street.” 

Stern says his next non-rescue mission is to build a for-profit side of Grey Bull, with the idea of aiding businesses with American citizens in high-risk areas worldwide — much like his hero Simons did. Stern can use another one of his leadership principles in that effort: don’t quit. “Leaders never ever give up,” he says. “There is no no. It’s find another way.”

 

author

Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.

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