Helping Them Return to Civilian Life

Ex-Navy SEAL Helps Vets Get Back to Normalcy

Back Home: Returning veterans are honored before a baseball game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.
courtesy of the mission continues
Back Home: Returning veterans are honored before a baseball game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

By Curt Schleier

Published September 09, 2012, issue of September 14, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Just before a Chicago Cubs-St. Louis Cardinals baseball game at the end of July, 100 veterans of America’s military walked onto a sold-out Wrigley Field and took a reenlistment oath. They weren’t planning to rejoin their old units.

Rather, they were committing to a six-month fellowship run by The Mission Continues, which helps returning veterans reintegrate into civilian life by volunteering at local not-for-profit organizations.

Transitioning back to civilian life can be a daunting endeavor. In addition to physical ailments and disabilities, many veterans suffer from traumatic brain injury, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, affecting their ability to rejoin their communities.

“Most vets have people tell them, ‘Thank you for your service,’” said Eric Greitens, founder of the St. Louis-based Mission Continues. “It became clear to me that there was something else they wanted to hear; that we still need them; that we see them not just as problems, but as assets.”

Greitens, a 38-year-old decorated Navy SEAL officer is something of an anomaly. He is a humanitarian whose work in some of the most impoverished areas of the world inspired him to enlist in the military. These battlefield experiences taught him about the need to serve at a time of peace.

Greitens grew up in St. Louis. He graduated from Duke University and earned a doctorate in politics from Oxford University in England. As an undergraduate, he spent a semester in China, where he met young people who had been involved in the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising.

He learned that “history is made by regular people…. That gave me insight into the fact that people can do something larger than themselves.”

This reinforced lessons he’d learned growing up. The product of a mixed marriage, he was raised in a Reform Jewish environment and heavily influenced by his maternal grandfather, Harold Jacobs. Education and tikkun olam, repair of the world, were core values he passed down, Greitens said.

He went on to do humanitarian work in several of the world’s trouble spots, such as Rwanda and Bosnia. There he saw that local militias stymied relief agencies. Humanitarian aid was ineffective unless it had forceful backing.

This revelation led him to join the SEALs. He was deployed in Kenya, Afghanistan and Iraq. He was awarded a Purple Heart after a suicide truck bomb hit his team in Iraq. Greitens’ wounds were minor; he was back at his post 72 hours later. But “some, just an arm’s length away from me, were more seriously wounded,” he said.

Greitens left active service in 2007, and on his return to America he visited troops hospitalized in Bethesda, Md. “All of them said to me, ‘I want to go back to my unit,’” he said. “The reality was that these men and women were not going to go back.”

“Some of them lost both legs, parts of a lung. But they all wanted to find a way to continue to serve. One said to me he’d like to go home and become a sports coach. Another wanted to go back to school and become a teacher. Another wanted to go back to his community and become involved in law enforcement.”

So Greitens threw his Iraq combat pay into the kitty and founded The Mission Continues. The idea, he said, is to “challenge vets to serve, lead and inspire in communities across the country.”

The organization has four cohorts a year, each with between 100 and 125 participants. Each one begins with an orientation and a swearing-in ceremony such as the one in Chicago. While The Mission Continues provides guidance and a stipend — an average of about $7,200 for the six months — the burden is on the vet to find a community project, and to show up.

The organization is supported by donations from corporate heavyweights like the Goldman Sachs Group, Home Depot and Southwest Airlines, which flies the participants to their orientations free of charge.

According to one study, the program has been remarkably successful. Research by the Center for Social Development, at Washington University, St. Louis, shows that two-thirds of the soldiers in the program suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, more than half have traumatic brain injuries and more than a quarter screened positive for depression.

The study found that more than 86% of the fellows saw the experience as “life changing.” After completing their fellowship, 71% went back to school and 86% found civilian jobs.

In recognition of his work, in May 2012, Greitens was awarded the $100,000 Charles Bronfman Prize, which honors young humanitarians whose work is “fueled by Jewish values.”

Natasha Young, a former Marine who served twice in Iraq, can attest to the program’s effectiveness. She left the service last October with a medical discharge after 12 debilitating years. She suffered through two bouts of skin cancer; she also had Lyme disease and was diagnosed with PTSD.

“I’d stopped functioning,” she said in a telephone interview. “I did the bare minimum I needed to do for my son and for people not to ask me what was wrong.”

Her brother, also a vet, told her about The Mission Continues.

At her orientation in St. Louis in January, she saw a lieutenant colonel diagnosed with cancer speak. “I felt ashamed for feeling sorry for myself,” Young said. “What I liked is that [the Mission people] challenged me. They gave me a reason not to stay home and sleep the whole day.”

During her fellowship she volunteered at a veterans center in Massachusetts. She recently completed a project planting two dozen cherry trees at a veterans’ outpatient clinic in Lowell, Mass., each tree named for a deceased veteran. For the project, she partnered with American Gold Star Mothers and coordinated the efforts of more than 120 volunteers.

“Some days are worse than others, but I just get up and fight,” Young said. She’s back in school at Northern Essex Community College, in Haverhill, Mass., and is on the dean’s list, something she still finds difficult to wrap her head around.

“Six months ago you couldn’t get me out of bed,” she said, her voice quivering.

But once a Marine, always a Marine: “Marines don’t cry. My eyeballs are sweating.”

Curt Schleier is a freelance writer and author and regular contributor to the Forward. He teaches business writing to corporate executives.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.