Helping veterans meet the challenges of civilian life
By: Kate Uptergrove
“I lost my legs – that is all. I did not lose my desire to serve, or my pride in being an American.”
Those words, spoken by a Marine at Maryland’s Bethesda Naval Hospital in 2007, inspired Parkway North graduate Eric Greitens to found The Mission Continues.
A Navy SEAL officer, Greitens was deployed four times during the Global War on Terrorism to Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, the Horn of Africa and Iraq.
It was while on tour in Iraq that he says the idea for the organization started. His unit was hit by a truck bomb and, while Greitens escaped serious injury, some of his comrades weren’t as fortunate.
When he returned to the United States, he visited Bethesda to check on his fellow sailors. Every veteran he met – many of whom were still in their 20s – spoke of a desire to continue serving the country even if they weren’t able to return to battle.
Shortly after those conversations, Greitens used his combat pay to found The Mission Continues, a national nonprofit organization located in St. Louis that matches post-9/11 veterans with service opportunities in their communities. The opportunities, known as fellowships, require a commitment of 20 hours of service per week for 26 weeks. Veterans, who are known as fellows, are encouraged to follow a personal passion when selecting a nonprofit organization in which to serve.
Before beginning their fellowships, fellows attend a three-day orientation, joining other post-9/11 veterans from their fellowship class for a weekend of training, service and camaraderie. Upon returning home from orientation, they officially begin their fellowships at host organizations. At the end of their fellowships, they are required to plan and execute a capstone service project addressing a key need in their community.
The goal is to bridge the military-civilian divide – allowing veterans to feel more connected to their communities and helping civilians gain a better understanding of and appreciation for those who serve.
A soldier’s story
For Vadi Dodge, of Brentwood, involvement with The Mission Continues made perfect sense.
“I thought it would be a good way to get back into my community,” he explained, “and to give back to it, too. You develop all these skills in the military that you can use to give back at home.”
Not that Dodge hadn’t already given much.
He served eight years in the United States Army, enlisting as an Infantryman. He deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2005. Then, he deployed twice to Iraq, first as a Team Leader and later as a Platoon Sergeant. In 2011, he left the Army to pursue his dream of becoming a criminal prosecutor.
“I was in just shy of nine years,” he said.
Like so many veterans, Dodge found that civilian life left him wanting something more. He longed for the camaraderie and physical challenge of the military. He also longed for the chance to serve.
In 2012 he applied to become a fellow, and in late October he completed his fellowship with America Scores, a national nonprofit that partners with urban schools in a program that uniquely integrates soccer, poetry and service-learning.
“I did a little bit of both,” said Dodge, “helping with the soccer and working in program development.”
Dodge said the organization, with offices in St. Louis on Lindell Boulevard, gave him a great chance to promote youth physical fitness and youth sports. Soccer he says has long been a passion.
Bringing excellence home
“In the military, every day you have this sense of mission,” said Meredith Knopp, vice president of programs for The Mission Continues. “You are expected to perform with excellence every day.”
She noted that “there’s a purpose and an intensity that can be hard for a veteran to find when he or she comes home.”
That is what The Mission Continues offers – both to veterans and to the nonprofits they serve. Perhaps the organization’s core values express its mission best.
• Work hard. We work hard because excellence is achieved through extraordinary effort.
• Trust. We are trustworthy. Trust is the foundation of our team. We earn trust by completing every mission with integrity.
• Learn and grow. We learn and grow by attacking challenges with great intensity.
• Respect. We earn respect through the achievement of excellence. We communicate to everyone around us: You are worthy and you have the potential to contribute.
• Have fun. We have fun. Our work is a source of joy and enriches our lives.
Just as service members take an oath to adhere to the core values of their branch of service, The Mission Continues Fellows also take an oath of continued service in their community.
“It’s very exciting to see the energy that these veterans bring to their fellowships,” Knopp said.
“They come into the program with this amazing energy and passion to serve. What we try to do is, in most cases, is to find a nonprofit in their community where they can put that passion to good use. And, we stay involved every step of the way.
“It’s amazing what they can accomplish with the right mix of support behind them. Often, their fellowships are the catalysts for the next chapter in their lives.”
Transitioning to civilian life
Returning to civilian life after years of dedicated service isn’t easy, especially during difficult economic times. This fall, the need to assist veterans and their families made great sound bites in patriotic candidate speeches, but what does the average American really know about our nation’s youngest generation of returning veterans?
To find out, The Mission Continues and Hollywood film and television production company Bad Robot recently commissioned a nationwide survey to assess how Americans perceive post-9/11 veterans.
The survey, conducted by a bipartisan polling team consisting of Greenburg Quinlan Rosner Research and Public Opinion Strategies and reflecting the opinions of more than 800 Americans, offered the following conclusions:
• Civilians consider veterans as valuable civic assets, but there are some misperceptions that may be hindering the transition home.
• Compared to their non-veteran peers, the public finds veterans more disciplined, having a stronger character and more involved in their communities.
• Unfortunately those surveyed believe that a majority of veterans have returned home suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), when in reality only two out of 10 returning veterans will suffer from the disorder.
• In addition, the public incorrectly assumes that veterans have lower levels of education – a misperception that could impact veteran employment opportunities. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans are actually more likely than their non-veteran peers to have obtained some college education and advanced degrees.
Dodge, who is attending Saint Louis University full time and working toward dual degrees in political science and history, says overcoming misperceptions can be the biggest challenge veterans face.
“What I’d like people to know is that there are so many veterans out there that are giving back to the community and making a difference,” Dodge said. “And that we have so much to give.”
Knopp suggests that the best way to put aside misconceptions and to honor veterans is to get involved.
“Take an opportunity to serve alongside a veteran,” she said, “and be inspired by all that they can bring. Saying thank you is great, but it’s also important to let veterans know ‘we still need you to serve.’”