- John Noll entered military service with a plan and he left the service with a plan. In between, he learned how to quickly devise alternative strategies that can be a matter of life and death.
Noll joined Starbucks in July as a partner (employee) after he wrapped up two decades in the United States Air Force, where he was a combat controller. Air Force combat control teams are assigned pathfinder missions in which they provide command and control and direct air traffic in dangerous and unstable settings.
“We talk about being able to adjust in the military culture,” said Tom Tice, Starbucks recruiting manager and a fellow veteran who helped bring Noll to the company. “We can make a plan and we can stick to the plan, but we always have to have Murphy’s Law in mind – that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. John epitomizes adaptability. That’s what he’s doing here. He’ll gain a foothold in solving the problem and come in with the rest of the solutions as he learns more.”
Tice first learned about Noll through Don Hood. Hood, who’d joined Starbucks in 2015, told him about a longtime friend in the Air Force who was completing his military career. After talking to Noll, Tice directed him to Camo2Commerce, which helps guide service members transitioning out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord and into civilian life in western Washington state. A fellowship was arranged through Camo2Commerce and Noll reported to Starbucks Support Center (headquarters) in Seattle last spring. Tice suggested Noll choose a few areas of interest to explore within the company and Noll focused on Global Safety & Security.
“I just thought, ‘Well, that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years,’” he said.
Put to the Test
The son of a 21-year Air Force officer who flew covert missions and retired as a lieutenant colonel, Noll spent most of his youth with his mother in Oklahoma. He attended the University of Oklahoma for a while, then dropped out and worked odd jobs before enlisting when he was 24.
He’d learned about the combat control field through a friend and was convinced he could withstand the rigorous demands of a program renowned for its high washout rate. Physically fit with a background in baseball, soccer and gymnastics, Noll believed that the fact that he was “a little older, a little wiser” than most of his combat control classmates would serve him well.
Once in, a demanding set of physical and mental challenges thinned the ranks as weeks passed. Noll recalled a “drown-proofing” test in which he was required to bob, float and dolphin swim for several minutes with his arms and legs tied, then dive to the bottom of the pool and properly recover his equipment with his teeth.
“It was about pushing your limits and seeing what you’re capable of,” he recalled. “People broke.”
Ultimately only five of 150 trainees made the grade. Noll was among the last men standing.
By 2001, he had five years of service behind him. Noll was at Advanced Survival School in North Carolina on 9/11. Two days later he was headed overseas; he didn’t return home for 325 days. Noll ultimately did three rotations in Afghanistan, one in Pakistan and four in Iraq. A helicopter he was aboard was brought down by machine gun fire and he was hit by shrapnel and permanently lost a portion of his hearing in an IED attack. There are eight stars tattooed on his arm to memorialize men he served with who lost their lives.
“People ask me how many times I’ve dodged death and I say, ‘It’s never really crossed my mind,’” Noll remarked. “I never sat there and thought, ‘I wonder how close that bullet was?’ It’s just, ‘Can I save my guys?’ ‘Can I do my job?’ And, at the end of the day, ‘Can I get home?’”
Noll was deployed for the last time in 2006. When he returned, he became an instructor to give back to the combat command field and began to think about the next phase of his life.
A Planned Transition
These days, the 44-year-old Purple Heart recipient is settling in as a new Starbucks partner, supporting the safety and security of fellow partners, customers and property throughout the world. After spending his first months in the Northwest living in an RV parked on his friend Don Hood’s driveway, he, his wife and daughter, as well as two French bulldogs and a lab, moved into their own home just down the block.
Though he looks like he could still run 15 miles and swim laps with weights strapped around his waist like he did as a young combat controller trainee, Noll consciously sought out a one-story house “so, as I get older, I won’t have to be going upstairs.” In the meantime, he has a view of Mount Rainier, which he and his wife intend to climb, and easy access to kayaking and hiking.
“I set a goal for myself when I enlisted,” said Noll, who officially retires from the Air Force September 1 as a master sergeant. “I wanted to achieve a certain rank and I wanted to do it in 20 years. I always had a target in mind. This transition for me is how I’ve planned it.”