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To ease return to civilian life, St. Louis-based program offers veterans a purpose

Kathryn Hernandez, left, and Blake Bourne work on a project at The Dream Center, a social service site in Los Angeles, California, on January 26, 2013. The two work with St. Louis-based The Mission Continues which places veterans into six-month stints at non-profits before they find full-time employment or go back to school.
When Eric Greitens visited fellow Navy SEALs who had been wounded in Iraq, one of their worries about post-military life surprised him.

“Every single one of them said he wanted to find a way to continue to serve,” Greitens said. “They needed to know that when they came home, we saw them as vital.”

In the weeks after that 2007 visit to the military hospital in Bethesda, Md., Greitens founded the Mission Continues, a group that helps veterans make the often rocky transition to civilian life by placing them in six-month stints with nonprofit agencies that have a high sense of civic purpose.

Starting that summer, the St. Louis-based program, with Greitens as chief executive, chief fundraiser and spokesman, has placed 609 veterans with agencies nationwide.

Some of the veterans have physical injuries. Most do not. But all have served since the 9/11 attacks, and all are apprehensive about re-entering a civilian world so different from the highly structured, task-oriented life of the military.

“When you’re in the military, you have a purpose. You’re fighting for something,” said Nathan Moore, 26, a former Marine corporal who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “When you get out, you have to replace that sense of mission.”

Moore, who was medically retired because of injuries sustained during battle in Sangin, Afghanistan, has been assigned to a veterans program in Greenville, N.C.

The most common placements have been with Habitat for Humanity, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the YMCA, the American Red Cross, Big Brothers Big Sisters and Girl Scouts of the USA. There also have been lesser-known agencies, including the Carolina Raptor Center, the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida and Breakthrough Miami.

The goal is to help veterans “begin to rebuild their own sense of purpose” and prepare for full-time employment, college or trade school, Greitens said. “Lots of organizations give things to veterans. We’re an organization that expects things from veterans.”

Veterans are returning to a society that knows little about military service and where many civilians pity all veterans, assuming they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other woes. That pity can be a trap, Greitens said.

“The most devastating thing that can happen is when somebody gives you an excuse,” Greitens told a recent class of Mission Continues veterans at a meeting in Los Angeles. “As a generation of veterans, we could lean on those excuses for the next 20 to 30 years.”

Greitens, 40, has a varied resume: He was a Rhodes scholar; has a doctorate from the University of Oxford; did volunteer work in humanitarian relief in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia and other locations; won boxing awards; holds a black belt; and has written three books, including “The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL.”

The Mission Continues has financial support from major corporations and financial houses, including Goldman Sachs, the Ford Foundation, Target, JPMorgan Chase and Home Depot.

Among the program’s supporters is producer and director J.J. Abrams. He met with Greitens last month to introduce him to other entertainment industry figures interested in the Mission Continues.

“This is my favorite kind of work,” Abrams said. “It’s solving two real problems in one fell swoop: providing the community with (veterans’) leadership and providing well-trained veterans with a purpose.”

A 2011 Washington University follow-up study found that nearly three-quarters of Mission Continues participants went on to continue their educations, and 86 percent said the program helped them sharpen their leadership skills. Only three of the 609 veterans who have participated did not complete their six-month placements. Slightly more than a quarter of the participants are women.

Each veteran selected for the program receives a stipend of $7,200 for the six months, during which they work 20 hours a week.

Of the latest group, about 30 percent are going to nonprofit organizations that provide services to veterans, although Mission Continues officials would like to decrease that in the future so participants can better acclimate to the civilian world.

“Veterans need to find something bigger than themselves,” said Kathryn Hernandez, 25, who deployed to Iraq as a Marine and will soon join the Miami-based Veterans Ocean Adventures for six months.

Last month, the most recent class of Mission Continues veterans came to Los Angeles for a morning of briefings at the Westin hotel near the L.A. International Airport and then an afternoon of work at the Dream Center, a social services center in Echo Park, before returning to their homes to begin their assignments.

Hernandez and Gregory Updike, 41, who served aboard a carrier in the Persian Gulf, were among those building an outdoor lunch area for Dream Center residents. Updike would soon return to Chicago to work with a veterans center.

Inside the Dream Center — on the site of the former Queen of Angels Hospital — other veterans were painting the walls. Among them was Josh Wyly, 31. The former Marine has been assigned to work with the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C., which uses digital technology to increase the flow of news worldwide.

“Veterans need structure and a sense that what they’re doing matters,” Wyly said. “We need to prove to ourselves and the public that we still have something to give.”

At the morning session at the hotel, Mission Continues official Nick Zevely provided the group with talking points to use when meeting civilians or being interviewed by the media.

Don’t use military jargon or acronyms, Zevely said, and don’t launch into complaints about medical care from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Civilians won’t understand and will quickly tune you out, he said.

As the group settled into chairs in a meeting room, they were easily recognizable as former military members. Some wore military-issue clothing, three were accompanied by service dogs, and one had a prosthetic arm.

Greitens, whose awards include a Combat Action Ribbon and Bronze Star, talks to the veterans not as an author or academic but as someone who has been to war and returned. He stayed in the reserves during the early years of the Mission Continues, finishing his service in 2011 as a lieutenant commander.

“Today, we have all come back and we have to face a new front line here at home,” Greitens said to the group. “We are honored to be serving with you again.”

 

 

 

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