The Mission Continues – without Greitens
By JESSE BOGAN | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Published: August 5, 2017
ST. LOUIS, Mo. (Tribune News Service) — He had a stellar military career in the Navy. He co-founded a national charity to provide leadership opportunities for veterans.
He is a political outsider with an Ivy League pedigree taking on career politicians.
Sound familiar, Missouri?
Well, meet Ken Harbaugh, candidate for Congress in Ohio.
"If you can sit down with a warlord, you can sit down with somebody on the opposite side of the political aisle," Harbaugh, 43, said in an interview.
Eric Greitens, Missouri's Republican governor, may be the best-known and most successful elected alumnus from the top ranks of The Mission Continues, a St. Louis-based nonprofit group.
But others are following his lead.
Harbaugh co-founded the organization with Greitens a decade ago and was its first executive director. Harbaugh said they met on their first day at Duke in 1992 as part of the same scholarship program.
Greitens went on to study global humanitarian efforts as a Rhodes scholar. Harbaugh graduated from Yale Law School.
Both ended up in the Navy, Harbaugh a pilot, Greitens a SEAL. Both spoke publicly about visiting wounded service members at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland.
"Sir, I lost my legs, but that's it. I didn't lose my desire to serve," Harbaugh recalled one Marine telling him then.
Encounters like that were the seeds of The Mission Continues, which provides hundreds of fellowships and other programs to empower veterans to serve in their communities, anything from mentoring at-risk youths to beating back chronic homelessness.
Treat veterans as assets, not liabilities, is one mantra. It's not a charity, it's a challenge, is another.
Millions of dollars in donations poured in, as Greitens shared the compelling story nationwide in speeches and books. Greitens left the organization in 2014 and soon ran for office.
Meanwhile, the mission has continued without him.
"We have gotten much more robust in what we offer to veterans, and our scope has gotten more national in scale," said Spencer Kympton, president of the organization. "The uniqueness and the strength of the model speaks for itself because it's beyond one individual."
Studies suggest The Mission Continues helps veterans have a better outlook by being civically engaged. Politics seems to be a natural outgrowth.
Apart from Harbaugh, who left the organization in 2012, a regional director just resigned to run for Congress in West Virginia, vowing to "bring the 'service' back into public service."
American veterans have been drawn to politics since the Revolution. They say they are battle-tested leaders.
Now, at a time when the number of veterans in Congress has dipped low, a correction may be underway, with a new wave forming out of service members who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, where the longest war in U.S. history is still underway.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a double amputee after her Black Hawk helicopter was hit by a rocket propelled grenade, came back to Illinois to run successfully for the U.S. House and Senate.
Others, like Jay Breneman, 34, are building up steam on the local level. Vowing to end the status quo, he lost a recent bid for mayor of Erie, Pa., but remains chairman of the county council.
Breneman, a former The Mission Continues fellow, said he's the only combat veteran serving in local government there, which can be frustrating.
"My military experience has made me a little restless," he said. "I understand that things take time. I don't want to sit around waiting for things to happen."
St. Louis University political scientist Ken Warren said military experience is perhaps the best attribute for a national candidate, but he said campaign promises to vote conscience over party, or to go rogue if needed, almost always fall short, once someone is part of the deeply entrenched two-party system.
"It's naive for anybody to think that once they become elected to Congress they can act independent of party," Warren said. "They can't. They literally have party whips. If you don't comply, you will be ostracized."
He said Greitens, a former Democrat, gets away with doing what he wants because he's an executive. Still, Greitens has alienated some veteran Republican lawmakers in the Missouri Legislature.
"If you want to be an independent voice, you are not going to be one in a legislative body," Warren said. "You will be very, very unpopular if you do that."
And likely won't get re-elected.
Political parties on the national level have become polarized in recent decades. In 2015, members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted along party lines 75 percent of the time in hundreds of roll call votes. Warren said the percentage was much tighter when party leaders actually weighed in on issues they cared about.
Harbaugh, who flew reconnaissance missions in the Middle East and other areas, said the voting data is a reflection that the right people aren't always being sent to Congress. Polarization, he said, means lawmakers are putting party first, rather than their country.
"When I lost an engine off of North Korea, I didn't turn to my co-pilot and ask, 'Are you a Republican or a Democrat?' We solved the problem," Harbaugh said. "We got the plane down safely."
It's telling that one of the decisive votes in the Senate's recent rejection of a proposal to repeal and replace part of the Affordable Care Act came from John McCain. Before becoming a Republican senator from Arizona, he was shot down over Hanoi and endured several years as a prisoner of war.
"Veterans have proven to not just say they are putting country before party – but attached their lives to that promise," Harbaugh said. "That commitment can be part of the solution to the standoff, the disaster that is D.C. today."
Continuing the mission
Greitens once told a group at Harvard that he founded The Mission Continues in 2007 while sleeping on an air mattress. In the early days, it was called the Center for Citizen Leadership and met at the St. Louis Public Library.
Today, the central office is in Soulard, but Kympton, the president, works out of a regional office in New York. Other offices are in Houston, Chicago, Washington and Los Angeles.
Donation money is still flowing. In 2016, The Mission Continues received $12.3 million, up from $8.5 million the year prior. There are 64 employees, with plans to reach 70 by the end of the year, the most ever.
"We tried to build out a model that was national in scope and had a variety of ways for veterans to engage in community service once they took the uniform off," said Kympton, 44, a former West Point valedictorian.
He said they've built on the fellowship model that got the organization going. In addition to more than 300 fellowships each year, they've added "mass deployments." In June, 75 veterans were flown to Atlanta to do a week's worth of service projects dubbed Operation West Side Surge.
Also, 71 "service platoons" with large teams of veterans have been formed to carry out volunteer projects every quarter in 36 cities.
"Those service platoons are challenging thousands and thousands of veterans to serve in the largest urban centers of our country," Kympton said.
On July 29, a service platoon of about 65 volunteers in blue T-shirts showed up early at Normandy Kindergarten Center in north St. Louis County. "Reporting for duty in your community," read a sign hanging on a fence.
"We can get a lot done with a group this size," said Jess Peter, city impact manager in St. Louis for The Mission Continues, before dispatching everyone to paint various parts of the school interior.
Classrooms were "mission critical," she said, "so there isn't one or two teachers who feel like they didn't get the love."
From there, they'd try to get to the hallways.
The platoon leader, a retired military chaplain, helped manage the volunteers, many of whom worked at Boeing. A few others had ties to the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership.
Austin Moir was six months into his job as a Midwest project specialist for The Mission Continues. He said the Normandy area was the latest in a string of stops, including Detroit, Chicago, California and Boston.
"It's a lot of pulling people together for a common cause," he said.
One of the volunteers with a cup of yellow paint in his hand at the school was Orion Foeller, 28. He grew up in Ferguson and ran the computer network for the main weapons system on a guided-missile destroyer.
He said he struggled to transition from the Navy to civilian life until he was accepted in 2012 as a fellow with The Mission Continues.
"Probably one of the best things I've done," he said. "They gave me a shot. That's all I really wanted."
He seemed to board an express train to success. His first stop was the St. Louis Science Center, where he was a volunteer.
There were networking opportunities, too. Foeller recalled Greitens introduced him one time as the speaker at an event at the Ladue home of Maxine Clark, founder of Build-A-Bear. Former Democratic Missouri Gov. Bob Holden was in the audience.
Foeller said he was nervous about speaking. He'd never done anything like it. Greitens encouraged him, he recalled, telling him to remember that most people just wanted him to succeed.
Foeller ran into Clark at another event later. Soon, he was hired at Build-A-Bear. He has since completed a master's degree in cybersecurity management from Washington University and works on a P-8 Poseidon aircraft simulator at Boeing.
Politics is something else Foeller said he's passionate about. In 2012, he helped campaign for Barack Obama in North County. He said he might circle back to it later, though he didn't like knocking on random doors and running a phone bank.
"It's a far-out idea," he said. "I am just focusing on my career."
It's unclear how many veterans affiliated with The Mission Continues have actually pursued public office, but two of its former leaders announced this summer they are running for Congress.
Harbaugh, the co-founder and first executive director, most recently ran Team Rubicon Global, a relief organization that has trained 45,000 veterans to respond to disasters. He said he's running as a Democrat because the incumbent isn't showing up for work and happens to be a Republican.
In July, Aaron Scheinberg stepped down as director of The Mission Continues Northeast sector. He studied Arabic at West Point and served in Iraq. He holds advanced degrees from Harvard and Columbia University. Now, he's running for Congress.
"Aaron Scheinberg is not a career politician," his campaign literature says. "Aaron is a husband, father, a military veteran, a West Virginian, and leader who has dedicated his life to building our communities and serving our country."
But the leap from nonprofit to politics isn't always a clean one.
In April, the Missouri Ethics Commission slapped Greitens on the wrist for violating campaign rules regarding campaign disclosure. His campaign was fined for not disclosing that The Mission Continues helped with a donor list. The Associated Press reported in 2016 that Greitens' campaign used the list to raise $2 million.
"I don't know anything about Eric's situation," Harbaugh said. "I will say we have been incredibly careful about firewalling the two. Granted, there is an incredibly steep learning curve. All the regulations around campaign finance, you could get a law degree on it. It's been a real education."
Kympton, president of The Mission Continues, said the organization responded to the Ethics Commission's investigation by fully cooperating.
"We've always had strong systems that have protected our donors' interests and our donors' information," he said. "It's been something we have been committed to since our inception and stand behind that."
He added that it's not coincidental that people affiliated with The Mission Continues are gunning for public office.
"It's fairly natural to try to take that impact to a different level," he said of community engagement. "One way to do that is trying to get involved in state or national government. I am proud. Hopefully it's bucking a trend that has been happening for decades."
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