Living with Purpose: A Conversation with U.S. Navy SEAL and The Mission Continues Founder and CEO Eric Greitens

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To understand what The Mission Continues is, you must first understand what it is not: it is not a charity. What this national nonprofit does is challenge post-9/11 veterans to serve and lead in communities across the nation. The Mission Continues is the brain-child of CEO Eric Greitens, a Rhodes and a Truman Scholar, former U.S. Navy SEAL officer, New York Times best-selling author, and recipient of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Eric shares with us the inspiration behind his nonprofit, how The Mission Continues serves veterans, and how veterans can continue to serve their nation.

Why did you create The Mission Continues?

Greitens: When I was serving in Iraq on my last appointment, I was serving as the commander of an Al Qaeda targeting cell. My unit’s mission was to capture mid-to senior-level Al Qaeda leaders in and around the city of Fallujah, Iraq.

In March 2007, my team came under attack and we were hit by a suicide truck bomb. I ended up being fine. I was taken to the Fallujah Surgical Hospital. I was treated there and 72 hours later, I was able to return to full duty. But a number of my friends were hurt far worse than I was and when I came home to visit them, I also went to Bethesda Naval Hospital to visit with some recently returning Marines.

I asked them about their units, about their hometowns, about their deployments and then when I asked each one of them, “What do you want to do when you recover?” every single one of them said, “I want to return to my unit.” Now, the reality was for a lot of the men and women who I was talking with was they were not going to be able to return to their unit.

One of them had lost both his legs, another had lost the use of his right arm, part of his right lung, and another had lost a good part of his hearing. And so I said to each one of them, “Tell me if you can't go back to your unit right away, tell me what else you’d like to do.” Every single one of them told me that they wanted to find a way to continue to serve. They didn’t necessarily use the word ‘service.’ One of them said, “I had a rough childhood growing up and I’d like to find a way to go home and maybe I could become a football coach or a mentor.” Another one said, “I'm thinking about going back to college and maybe finding a way to become a teacher.” Another one said that he was thinking about going back to his community to get involved in law enforcement.

What became clear to me as I was leaving the hospital that day was that I was just one of a long string of visitors all coming in to see these men and women and to say to them, “Thank you. Thank you for your service. Thank you for your sacrifice.” It was clear to me that they appreciated that. It meant a lot to them when someone came in just to say thank you.

But it was also clear to me that in addition to thank you, what they also had to hear was, “We still need you.” What they also had to know is that when they came home, we saw them not as problems but as assets. When they came home, we still believed in them enough and were willing to challenge them. And so, when I was leaving the hospital that day, I called two of my friends who are disabled veterans and we decided to do something about it. They put in the money from their disability checks, I contributed my combat pay from Iraq and we used that to start The Mission Continues.

Our original plan was to focus on changing just one life at a time. From the success of our early fellows, we've now grown The Mission Continues into a national nonprofit organization that is working with veterans in 43 states around the country.

When your duties as a Navy SEAL ended, what was it like to transition to civilian life?

Greitens: When I came back from Iraq, the first time I drove off the base, I drove past a Wendy’s drive-through. As I drove past, there was this long line of people and I remember thinking to myself that nobody knows. Nobody knows what's going on in Iraq and I wondered if anybody cared. Actually, I had this impulse at the time to pull my truck over, get out, and walk across the parking lot and stop people and ask them, “Do you know what's happening in Iraq? Do you know what people are actually doing overseas for you?”

Is that what inspired you to start The Mission Continues?

Greitens: Yes, I recognized that one of the challenges a lot veterans have is that they’ve been overseas and they have these incredible intense experiences—they’ve lived through pain, they’ve lived through suffering, they’ve lived through difficulty and hardship, they’ve created deep bonds of friendship, and they’ve lived through moments of incredible joy and happiness.

When they come home, it's often difficult to figure out how you share that experience, how you communicate that experience with the rest of your community. One of the things that we found at The Mission Continues is that so many men and women have this desire to share that experience when they come home. One of the things that we try and do is to create an environment for them where they can share that experience with other veterans and also learn how to take that experience and that story out into their community where they can continue to serve and to inspire.

How important is public service to vets?

Greitens: All of the men and women who have joined the United States military since September 11th, 2001, they’ve joined a volunteer military. They made a decision at some point in their life that they wanted to challenge themselves, that they wanted to grow and that they wanted to be of service and when they come home or they transition out of the military regardless of whatever challenges they're facing, even if they’ve lost their eyesight or they’ve lost a limb or they’ve been severely burned and they have post-traumatic stress disorder. When they come home, they still have that same desire to be of service and they still have the same need, the universal human need, to live a meaningful life.

So what we do at The Mission Continues is that we challenge them just as they accepted a challenge to join the military. We challenge them to find a way to continue their mission of service here at home and then we help them through The Mission Continues program to actually design a program, a service and leadership program in their community where they can continue to serve.

How hard or easy is it in general for vets to transition into civilian life and what's the scope of the problem?

Greitens: We have over a quarter million veterans who are going to transition this year from the military into civilian life. Some of them make those transitions incredibly easy; some of them have great difficulties in those transitions. What we know is that for every veteran who’s coming home, they all have a need to find a way to continue to live a purposeful life, to live a meaningful life here at home, and we also know that every one of those 250,000 men and women who are coming home have a tremendous set of skills which we need them to use here at home to make our communities stronger.

So, there's a tremendous challenge that the country faces. But at The Mission Continues, we also know that this is a tremendous opportunity, that the men and women who are coming home have fantastic leadership skills, they have fantastic teamwork skills, they know what it takes to complete a mission, they understand how to inspire people in difficult circumstances, and they bring all of those skills back to our community. We think there's actually a great opportunity if we can help this generation of veterans to transition successfully.

Can you describe what some of the service projects that The Mission Continues does?

One of the other projects that we have at The Mission Continues is that we engage Americans in days of service. We have a service project program where we work with thousands of veterans around the country to do service projects alongside their fellow citizens. What we know is that it's less than one percent of the country that serves in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and we know that many people respect veterans but might not know them or understand them. We know that many people, when they first think about veterans, they think about post-traumatic stress disorder, they think about traumatic brain injury, they think about unemployment and they might think about suicide.

We want our fellow Americans to get to know this generation of veterans for what they still have to give. So this year, we will have over 27,000 Americans join us in days of service where we do school rehabilitation projects, environmental cleanups, baseball park buildings and Habitat For Humanity builds. What they begin to see is that there is a fantastic generation of men and women who have served in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and the Horn of Africa and they return to our country and they can be not only stellar public servants, but also tremendous examples of service to the entire community.

You’ve said The Mission Continues is aimed at post-9/11 vets. What about pre-9/11 vets? How can they get involved with The Mission Continues?

In the days of service program, we’ve had many, many pre-9/11 veterans. Veterans from the Gulf War, veterans from Vietnam who’ve come out and who have joined us serving alongside this generation of veterans. We've also had many Vietnam-generation veterans become financial supporters of and investors in The Mission Continues because they’ve said to us that they wish that there was something like this for their generation when they came home.

There are the days of service, but then there's the fellowship program. Can you talk about the fellowship program?

Greitens: The fellowship program is the flagship program at The Mission Continues. What happens in the fellowship program is that a post-9/11 veteran who has served for at least two years in the military and has an honorable discharge or a veteran whose service was cut short as a result of an injury we work with them to design a new mission of public service for them in their community. Through The Mission Continues Fellowship, they work with Habitat For Humanity, with Big Brothers Big Sisters, with the Boys and Girls Clubs, with the National Park Service, they become biology teachers, martial arts instructors, and youth hockey coaches.

Through an intensive six-month service and leadership program, they begin to rebuild their own sense of purpose here at home, while also strengthening their communities. Our objective is that at the end of The Mission Continues Fellowship, they go on to fulltime employment or fulltime education and they have what we call an ongoing role in service, meaning that they're finding a way to continue to be of service in their communities. We want The Mission Continues to be, for them, a transition from being a veteran to being someone who is a citizen-leader in their communities who continues to serve and to inspire.

How does what The Mission Continues offers compare with other organizations out there for vets?

Greitens: I think what's unique about The Mission Continues is twofold. One is that we're not offering charity. We're not offering a hand out. What we are offering is a challenge. And we're offering assistance with the challenge to continue to serve and inspire in communities across America. A lot veterans and people who know veterans and support veterans understand the importance of offering that challenge and they understand the importance of respecting everything that veterans have done and respecting everything that they still have to give. So that’s one of the makes us unique, is this aspect of challenge.

The other thing that makes The Mission Continues unique is that while a lot of people are focused on doing things for veterans, we're focused on everything that veterans can do for their community and can do for the country. It's that mindset that I think makes so many veterans of all generations appreciate what we do at The Mission Continues. We partner with hundreds of organizations around the country to create opportunities for The Mission Continues fellows to serve. And so, we work very closely with other nonprofit organizations.

One of the things that also makes us unique is that we have a really rigorous approach to measurement and a rigorous focus on results. I think it's that focus on results which have led so many corporate partners, family foundations and civic groups to invest in The Mission Continues, because they see we're able to create real results in an environment where lots of organizations are operating.

How do you think The Mission Continues helps vets the most?

Greitens: I think that the way we help veterans the most is that we help them to rebuild a sense of purpose as they make their transition back home. We let them know that we see them as assets; that they still have something to offer to their community. Not only do we say that to them as individuals, but we help to create a community of The Mission Continues fellows who know each other, who support each other and who are all committed to this vision of continuing their service.

For you as a person, who had the vision for this organization and help found it, what do you get in return when you see the effect that your missions have on vets?

Greitens: Just last weekend in Dallas, we started a new Mission Continues Fellowship class with 70 fellows. At the end of the orientation, all of our Mission Continues fellows take The Mission Continues Fellowship oath. Just like they raised their right hand and they take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution when they joined the military. As The Mission Continues fellows, they raise their right hand and they take an oath as fellows to continue their service to their community and to their country for the rest of their lives.

When I saw those 70-plus Mission Continues fellows take that oath, it made me incredibly happy, because I knew this was an entire group of men and women who had decided that being of service to the country, being part of a team, being willing to work through pain in order to serve a larger purpose, that those were not just things that they did in the military, but those were things that they learned in the military and they're going to carry forward for the rest of their lives.

How can nonvets support your cause?

Greitens: There are several ways that nonveterans can support our cause. The first is to invest in The Mission Continues program. We've had individual investors, we've had civic groups who are investors, corporate groups who are investors, and by investing in The Mission Continues Fellowship Program, they help us to ensure that the veterans who are coming home are going to make this transition from veteran to citizen leader.

I think one of the reasons why people enjoy investing in The Mission Continues is because of our focus on results. They're able to see a very clear difference from point A where a veteran started to point B where they finish when they complete The Mission Continues Fellowship. The other thing that people can do is they come out and join us in our days of service. We love having individuals, having school groups, having civic groups come out and join us for these days of service which happen throughout the year and around the country and people can find more information about how to volunteer at Greitens.missioncontinues.org.

Your life has been filled with accomplishments. What would you say have been the most meaningful for you?

Greitens: The most meaningful thing for me is when I know that I've been able to make a positive difference in somebody else’s life. When I get calls from the men who I served with in Naval Special Warfare and they tell me that because of my influence in their life that they went back to college, or that they're finishing college, or that they're running their own business now, or that they're leading in a new way, that’s a source of really deep satisfaction.

At The Mission Continues, I've had a number of fellows who have told me that because of what we've done at The Mission Continues, that they who were once considering taking their own life, who were once doubting whether or not there was a need for them here at home, who were once doubting whether or not there was a purpose, that they are now living happy, joyful, and productive lives, that’s certainly been the greatest achievement we’ve had.