On May 14, 1970, First Lt. James Warren of the 1st Marine Division gave his final orders in combat. "We were deep inside enemy territory and were not supposed to be found," recounts Warren, today president and chief executive officer of Warren Financial Group in Kansas City, Mo. Since 1982, this financial advisor has traveled the country speaking to young people about the values of responsibility and service that he learned the hard way in Vietnam.

That May afternoon, Warren led a force reconnaissance team back from a long-range patrol in Laos toward what he hoped was a safe landing zone. They already had spent five days in the bush. One Marine was injured, and the eight men took turns carrying him through the sharp elephant grass that scratched like claws in the oppressive heat. "We were moving towards the river with the hopes that we could cut across at night. But in the late afternoon, we ran into part of the NVA 90th Regiment. They were about 25 yards away, and it was obvious from the way they were coming at us hard and fast that they were not taking any prisoners. I simply told my Marines to count their rounds and frags and distribute them as equally as possibly. It was time to fight for each other, and I would see them in the morning." Warren never saw any of his men alive again.

If not for Vietnam, Warren, a "tank of a man" who his friends describe as having the wiry build of a short wrestler, would have been finishing up a graduate degree in psychology at the University of Chicago. Instead, he found himself walking out of a military hospital, blown up and pieced back together at age 26. And coming home was no triumph. "I went to job interviews, but they refused to even see me because I was a Vietnam vet," he says.

Still, Warren considers himself lucky. He was hired into a low-level administrative position by a concerned family member and quickly moved up the corporate ladder to a sales position and then to regional sales manager at corporations including The Hoover Co. and Lenox.

Yet Warren never was satisfied completely with corporate life. "I found executives who reminded me of majors who wanted to become colonels by the time the war was over, and they'd do anything for it," he says. "It was more about quotas than people, and it just brought too much back to me."

Warren laughs today as he describes the process of becoming a financial advisor. "In 1978, I paid $5,000 to spend two weeks at an outplacement firm in the Theater District in New York City. I went through a lot of testing and soul-searching and conversations and walks in the park. I told them I wanted a profession that required no inventory, that was embryonic because I had no qualifications, that would be profitable if I were successful and paid me nothing if I failed, that would hold me accountable, that allowed me to deal with my heart in serving people and my head in the process of analyzing their situation and determining the best means of serving them. There were only two concepts at the time. One related to computers, and the other was this thing called financial planning. That's what I chose."

For the next three years, Warren worked 17-hour days, seven days a week until he reached his first plateau-a $50,000 retainer that allowed him to hire more staff and complete his certified financial planner designation. Long before it was in vogue, his company filed as an investment advisory firm in 1984, opting for "full disclosure and total accountability to clients."

"I would lay down my life for any one of them," he says of his clients. His clients respond with a devotion of their own. Today, Warren enjoys a 95% retention rate in a practice entirely built on word-of-mouth recommendations. Several years ago, he "fired" a large block of clients, explaining that, "I only want to work with people who represent an ethical level I can respect."

Warren has achieved considerable financial freedom, yet he has little admiration for advisors "whose idea of success is to retire to the Bahamas and play golf." His speaking career has taken flight in the last 10 years, and he now spends the bulk of his free time mentoring young people, whether they be eighth-grade cadets at the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, Texas, or college football players at the University of Missouri, Arkansas Tech or Central Arkansas University.

"I realized I had a responsibility to stop avoiding my pain," he says. "The only way I could touch people was through my own suffering and vulnerability." In the process, he's helping young people come to terms with the problems in their lives and make sound decisions for the future. "If that means pounding nails for the rest of their lives, so be it, but I want them to take responsibility for that choice."

Warren personifies a principle-based leadership rare in today's business world, says W.R. "Max" Carey Jr., an Atlanta business consultant, former Navy F-4 fighter pilot and fellow Vietnam vet who has asked Warren to speak before the organizations he counsels. The key to Warren's effectiveness as a speaker, says Carey, is that he embodies the principles he promotes. "In my profession, you have so many plastic speakers that stand up and spout glib, plastic things," Carey says. "When Jim speaks, you know you are getting the real deal, that he's coming from the heart."

That kind of authenticity is vital in engaging kids, says retired Marine Maj. Gen. Wayne E. Rollings, president of the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, Texas, where Warren is chairman of the board of trustees and recently spoke at commencement. "You can see the kids really listening and hanging on to what he says," Rollings says. "They can relate to Jim on many levels. He spoke about having to become the man of the house after his father was killed in an accident. He spoke about Vietnam and about the years of rehabilitation and plastic surgery he had to go through. Many of our kids won't go on to a career in the military, and Jim is an example of a professional businessman who became successful, despite all the troubles he had to endure. His message to them is that any job you do, you should try to do to the best of your ability, and that if you work through those tough situations, you will come out stronger."

In his pregame talks to football players, Warren conjures up the grenade that should have ended his own life. "One Marine broke ranks with the hope of grabbing that grenade. He did not hesitate for one second, but he ended up taking the direct hit." Warren also took the impact and flew back 15 feet into a tree with such force that his right shoulder was shattered and both hips dislocated. He woke up 10 days later in the Naval hospital in Guam, his face crushed by the butt of a North Vietnamese rifle. "Sometimes in life, there's a hole that has to be filled, whether it's a gap in the wire in Vietnam, a hole on the football field or a void in a family situation," Warren explains to the players, pointing out that character is more important than winning. "I talk to them about stepping up to responsibility in the way we conduct our lives and serve others. Do what's right, and don't worry about the result. Don't worry what others might do to you. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what happens to you and me but what we're committed to in the process of engaging."

Warren's message is not just about playing better football, but also about becoming a better human being, says Dal Shealy, national president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Kansas City, Mo. Warren makes himself available for the pregame talk, as well as the entire weekend, eating dinner with the players and cheering for them on the sidelines during the game.

He also spends time one on one with individuals who request it. "Many kids feel hopeless because of situations in their family," explains Warren, who grew up in a working-class neighborhood in the steel flats of Cleveland. He relates to the feelings of worthlessness and failure that many kids experience. "When I woke up in the hospital, I was numb, and everything around me was white. I thought I was dead and that I was in heaven. It seemed like a bad joke, because after what I'd been through, I didn't think I'd ever see heaven."

Nevertheless, Warren was hailed a hero, awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star with Combat "V," Purple Heart, Navy Commendation Medal and two Meritorious Unit Citations. Amazing though it may seem, he never pulled his medals out of the box until 1994. "The irony of these medals is that they are the antithesis of any kind of award you would ever hope to achieve," he says. "Sometimes they're predicated on others giving up their lives. And they attach automatically to the painful events that generated them."

But as the guest of honor at the Marine Corps ball in 1994 in Kansas City, Warren was asked to wear the medals with honor. Today, he wears them in tribute to the friends he lost and as an acknowledgment that freedom transcends notions of personal loss or gain. That's a message he shares with young people and one he urges advisors to consider as well.

"It is not enough for us to take care of ourselves and be successful," Warren says. "Our final judgment in our lives is based on how we share our time, our talent and our resources. If we would just focus on that and take that time, we could not only have a cathartic experience, we can go beyond that, and say, 'There's pain only in my remaining silent now.'"