In the Arena

The Mission Continues

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San Diego

You might ask yourself how a political columnist recovers from all the bile and poison accumulated during endless months of watching politicians run for President. And especially after the last six months. For me, therapy inevitably consists of writing about people and programs that make a difference, and policies that actually work. I’ve spent the past few weeks doing that–and you’ll see the fruits of my labor in the print magazine over the next month. But this weekend I’m doing something really cool: I’m attending the orientation session for Bravo Class 2012 of The Mission Continues, the terrific public service program founded by former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens.

I wrote about Eric, briefly, in my cover story about the “New Greatest Generation” of veterans last August. He’s a remarkable fellow, a graduate of Duke University and a former Rhodes Scholar who spent some of his youth doing humanitarian work in Calcutta with Mother Theresa, in Bosnia and Rwanda. He decided, after spending several months with genocide survivors in Rwanda, that the victims and innocents needed more than humanitarian support, they needed to be protected with military strength. So he joined the Navy and was selected for the SEALS, a process he described in very compelling fashion in his book, The Heart and the Fist.

But merely serving wasn’t enough for Greitens. When he came home, he decided that wounded veterans needed a pathway back into society. He thought the most creative way for this to happen was through public service. He raised some money and began granting six-month fellowships to vets who came with him with mission plans for work in the community. He started The Mission Continues in 2007, with 3 fellows. There have been hundreds since then. There will be approximately 500 in 2012 alone. This weekend, Bravo Class–114 fellows strong–is going to be inducted at Petco Stadium in San Diego before the Padres-Phillies game on Sunday. Yesterday, they began three days of orientation sessions. Today they did a major service project, partnering with Wells Fargo employees to clean up the banks of the San Diego River.

I’ve been hanging around talking to the fellows, who hail from both sexes, many different races, thirty one states and five branches of service (there’s one fellow from the Coast Guard). These are unforgettable people. Some have been severely wounded, many have suffered traumatic brain injuries–over breakfast this morning, three of them described to me how it feels to get blown up–most have suffered from post-traumatic stress. They’ll be serving other veterans during their fellowships, as well as working in teaching, environmental programs, Habitat for Humanity, programs to help victims of human trafficking and a host of other forms of public service.

Greitens–a very compelling speaker–gave the keynote  last night and he ended it with a memorable image from Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington. “What we’re doing here is as old as America itself. Every generation of veterans has suffered,” he began, and then told the story of  Washington trying and failing to rally his troops at the Battle of New York. As the Americans broke and fled, the general dropped the reins of his horse and stared down, ignoring the British troops who were rapidly approaching. “It seemed a suicidal impulse,” Greitens said, “He felt he had failed his country.” But Washington’s aides saw this, grabbed the reins and led their General away from danger. “We still need you, they said,” Greitens told his fellows, using one of the most powerful sentiments in The Mission Continues’ arsenal. It was, he’d said earlier,  the sentence that he believes wounded veterans most want to hear: “We still need you.”

At the beginning of the orientation session, Spencer Kympton, a former Blackhawk pilot and The Mission Continues’ Chief Operating Officer had used that same line. “And obviously you think you still have more to give,” he said, staring out at a large room of TMC fellows in blue polo shirts. “Look to the left and right of you. This is your new unit. This is your new branch of service. So stand up and shake hands with your new brothers and sisters!” There was a rush of air–sort of like the concussion that proceeds the mind-ripping roar of an IED, only this was the exact opposite, a blast of relief–and then cheers and handshakes and hugs throughout the room.

And so, the next time you hear about an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran going berserk, or suffering from post traumatic stress, or needing a job or living homeless, think about the 114 members of Bravo class–and the nearly 400 other Mission Continues fellows who are coming to a community near you to help out, continue their service and become, in Greitens’ words, “citizen leaders.” This is an extraordinary generation of veterans–intent not only on healing themselves, but offering their services to the rest of us, too. And we do need them. Best Wishes to Bravo Class on their new deployment.