An Interview with Tony Goodlette

Tony Goodlette is reluctant to stop working. At 73, he’s finally put in for retirement from the US State Department. He’s retired before, but after the 9/11 attacks he returned to work on security issues to protect State Department facilities from terrorists—including personnel and civilian visitors. He’s also a 37-year member of and senior leader within the SGI-USA Buddhist organization. His practice of Nichiren Buddhism has helped in surviving and transcending a variety of challenges to his health while contributing to successes in the workplace and the community.

Quarterly: You spent eight years in Vietnam, from 1967 to the fall of Saigon in 1975. That’s much more than the time that most US military personnel (including the generals) spent there during the war. Tell us what you were doing all that time.

T. Goodlette: I spent the first three years in the US military. I left the country for a day and came back in the employ of a variety of consulting firms associated with other elements of the US government, as well as the US State Department.

Quarterly: Can you be more specific?

T. Goodlette: Up to a point, without naming names. As you probably know, from history books and movies, most wars offer many opportunities for people to profit illegally—selling goods, materiel or weapons on the black market. You can read examples of that in a book by June Collins, a woman met while in Vietnam. I spent much of my time combating those kinds of activities working for a major defense contractor associated with a federal agency that will remain nameless. I worked closely with the US military, security and law enforcement, civilians and South Vietnamese government officials. 

Quarterly: You were there until the fall of Saigon and helped evacuate people in 1975? 

T. Goodlette: Yes, a very difficult and traumatic time. Over the course of six days, with limited sleep, I ensured the safe evacuation of hundreds of American families and South Vietnamese from various locations within the country.

Quarterly: You also married and had children while you were there? 

T. Goodlette: Yes, my first two marriages came while in Vietnam. I have a few grandchildren as well. My son, daughter and their children all live in the US.

Quarterly: You weren’t practicing Nichiren Buddhism while in Vietnam? 

T. Goodlette: No, I was practicing Zen Buddhism then; it went well with the martial arts and militaristic mindset that I had then.

Quarterly: So how did you become a Nichiren Buddhist?

Tony in front of a Vinnell sign in Arabic and English
Tony with coworkers in Saudi Arabia

T. Goodlette: After leaving Vietnam in 1975, I got further into military sales contracts and security with the “private sector.” I put that in quotes because the contractors themselves were integrally linked to US government agencies. I spent a lot of time in the Middle East until 1979. All during that time, I managed to succeed at essential tasks while suffering from PTSD and being a maintenance drinker. It all caught up to me in the form of attempted suicides and failed marriages.

Then I met a woman practicing Nichiren Buddhism with the SGI-USA. Two other women, one Korean-American and the other Japanese-American gave me some publications with guidance and encouragement from Daisaku Ikeda, the President of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI). His writings and the teachings of Nichiren showed that my life precious and unique. So too are the lives of all humankind. My third marriage came the week I began the practice of this Buddhism. Like the previous ones, this one eventually failed. Not every marriage works out — even for Buddhists! Here’s another photo, with me and some other guys I worked with in Saudi Arabia.

Quarterly: But you’ve now been happily married 29 years?

T. Goodlette: Yes, and we will stay that way! She keeps me on track—on the straight and narrow. 🙂 We have a wonderful relationship, strengthened through our faith.

Quarterly: What would you say your Buddhist practice has brought to your work? 

T. Goodlette: Before my Buddhist practice, I simply did what needed to be done. I did it well. After beginning the practice, I did the same but with compassion and integrity. In other words, doing what needed to be done without damage to others–financially or otherwise.

Through 1998, I worked in a number of executive protection, security and government contract entities. Nearly all involved contract negotiation, supervision of other staff and involvement with diverse groups of people with competing agendas. For the last seven years—1991 through 1998, I worked as Associate Director for Facilities Management at American Bankers Association; a bit of a departure from the government/security services. I left there to semi-retirement, with an on-call consulting service. Then the 9/11 attacks occurred.

That brought me back to the State Department, in a senior position in State Department security. This is where I’ve been for the last 15+ years.

Quarterly: What successes or contributions have you made as a result not just of your experience, but also of your faith and practice? 

T. Goodlette: I came back to government service after 9/11 with a Buddhist perspective. I intended to transcend politics in resolving needs and concerns of affected agencies or parties for the sake of Kosen Rufu [loosely translated as world peace through the spread of Buddhist humanistic principles and an understanding of the law of cause and effect]. Some agencies had offered me big financial rewards to return to a more militant mode from my past to go after terrorists, rather than work on more collaborative and humanistic projects. I chose the State Department in security services.

In my duties, I’m a facilitator/mediator among various government entities and the vendors in fulfilling contract/project goals within budget, etc. Along with others, I’ve opened more than 50 facilities, with over 2 million square feet of office space. GSA runs the contracts, but State Security is responsible for ensuring that personnel and the public are safe from attacks and ordinary risks like asbestos removal in older buildings. We’ve made over $37 million in security enhancements over 15 year period and saved millions of dollars through contract negotiations.

Quarterly: So what’s been the impact on coworkers and people you supervise? 

T. Goodlette: About 70% of employees who have worked directly or indirectly for me have advanced in their careers through my mentoring and training. That correlates with the function of leaders within the SGI-USA. The mission of those leaders is to develop the faith and practice of members—to serve them, not tell them what to do. As I’ve progressed in the SGI, I’ve also progressed in the workplace, with the same non-authoritarian attitude.

Quarterly: While making these contributions in the workplace and the SGI, you’ve been severely challenged by several medical problems. Tell us about those issues and how your practice helps you deal with them. 

T. Goodlette: Well, with several years spent roaming around Vietnam, I was exposed to Agent Orange. I assume that some of my conditions stem from them. Others have more commonplace causes that anyone might suffer from, including interactions among the many medications I’ve been on. Here’s the list:

  • Type 2 diabetes, which generally is under control but I did once go into diabetic shock due to missing some essential self-care during a busy time at work. I’ve been battling it the last 18 months, which does take its toll on focus and productivity. So I think it is time to finally retire! J
  • Doctors discovered a benign but troublesome brain tumor in 1996. A national SGI-USA leader advised me to make a vow—a conviction for a fellow member’s happiness. Surgeons couldn’t operate due to the location of the tumor, in time after making that vow, the tumor went away without treatment or medical intervention.
  • During a flare up of congestive heart failure—doctors removed 20 pounds of fluid from my body. It’s a latent condition but not a current problem.
  • I’ve lost 85% of my hearing in one ear and 65% in the other. I assume, that comes from the places I’ve been and the things I’ve been exposed to. It makes work a little more challenging but saves me from some extraneous conversations.  😉 
  • A few months ago, while stopped at a traffic light on a busy Northern Virginia parkway, another vehicle rear-ended me. I suffered a concussion from the whiplash, requiring several days of “brain rest”—no TV, no computers, no smart phones, etc. But I’ve been back at work since.

Quarterly: So how do you go to work every day with all of this? 

T. Goodlette: Life goes on and so do I. I have a job that needs doing and I’m the best man for it. But I’ve been doing my best to get others ready to take over. So as soon as the paperwork goes through, I’ll be out of there an use my time for more SGI activities and some well-deserved family activities with my wife and grandchildren.

 

A brief biography of Tony Goodlette

Tony was born in upstate New York, the son of a professional musician and a hardworking blue-collar worker, a strict disciplinarian with high personal standards. That strongly influenced his character while growing up. While still young, his father abandoned him. Tony lived in a series of foster homes, the last of which had well-educated and caring foster parents.

After high school, where he did well, he entered the military. Tony says, “I still felt angry at my father. I developed a passion for excellence and a fundamental arrogance. I had to be the best.” He served three one-year tours in Vietnam, earning a Bronze Star. 

Through his Buddhist faith and practice, he has replaced his anger and arrogance with equanimity and compassion. He lives in Northern Virginia, among the suburbs surrounding Washington, DC.

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5 thoughts on “An Interview with Tony Goodlette

  1. Fascinating interview with Tony. I’m happy to learn of another successful war vet.

    • Thanks! I’ve known Tony the whole 37-years he’s been practicing with the SGI-USA. Amazing he’s still walking around with all the health hassles. 🙂

  2. Manuel Avaro

    What a fascinating life-and faith- adventure! I met Tony in 2008 and I’ll never forget him. Great leader and humble and inspiring person. Another life proof that you can be a warrior and a SGI Buddhist.

    • John Maberry

      He is indeed a wonderful guy. I’ve known him for 37 years and just visited him Sunday the 29th of October on a trip back to Virginia. Saw lots of remarkable people in the DC Metro area over the last ten days.

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