In the Arena

The Mission Continues

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Benjamin Lowy / Reportage by Getty Images for TIME

New members of the Mission Continues, a veteran organization dedicated to community service, founded by former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, donate their time renovating the League School in Brooklyn, NY and take their membership pledge at Ground Zero on May 4, 2013 in New York City.

I spent last weekend watching 73 recent veterans, most of them wounded, begin a 6-month public service fellowship, sponsored by The Mission Continues, the excellent program run by former Navy SEAL, Rhodes Scholar and Time 100 honoree, Eric Greitens.

I’ve written about this program before. It is exemplary. It will grant 300 public service fellowships this year to recent veterans who find a local non-profit agency to sponsor them in their home communities. The Fellows also have to complete a rigorous personal development and leadership curriculum.

There are several stories I’d like to tell you about Bravo Class’s orientation weekend, which took place in Brooklyn–and at the 9/11 Memorial downtown. But let’s start with  one told by Sarah Bradburn, a Mission Continues staff member who keeps track of the Fellows who live in the center stripe of the country, from Texas to Minnesota:

Team,I apologize for the late email; I just returned home, but wanted to immediately document to you the experience that I had during…a 2 hour-plus layover [with some of the Fellows] at the St. Louis airport.

After we arrived in St. Louis, I sent the group on ahead to get us a table at the airport Chili’s while I took Michael Patrick and his service animal Chief out to the animal relief area.  Michael and I were pulled for extra security as the TSA staff weren’t fully professional in working with Chief at our screening.  By the time we made it back through security, the rest of the Fellows were seated at the restaurant and had ordered.

[W]hen Michael and I got close to the table, it was clear that our waitress had been crying – she was red in the face with mascara smears – and the Fellows were clearly giving her a hard time.  I was terrified; my stomach dropped and I couldn’t believe that our Fellows, the amazing new Bravo class fresh off the orientation high, could do this to this poor airport waitress.

After I sat, I calmed them down, and we had great conversations.  Our flights were all delayed, so we were fortunate enough to get a few precious extra minutes together to strengthen the bonds we forged during the weekend.  And as it came to a close, I slipped away to use the restroom before we were to head to our gates and say our final goodbyes.

In the restroom, I encountered our waitress again, and instantly reached out to apologize for how rowdy the group was.  I tried to explain that they were just coming from orientation; it’s such an amazing experience that we all tend to get a little giddy and funny and that they truly meant no harm.What happened next floored me.

The waitress explained that yes, the Fellows did make her cry, but it wasn’t because they were giving her a hard time.  She was having a terrible day and this was coming when her home life had just hit its worst.  She knew she was close to crying from this bad day when the Fellows sat down, but as she came over to take their order, they got to talking and joking with her.  They explained to her that they were on their way home from New York and that they were military veterans.  She tried to thank them for their service, but they stopped her and told her that they had found their purpose again and that it wasn’t defending our country anymore, butrather helping others.  They then told her that their mission for our layover was to make her day a little bit better.   The kindness of strangers is what made her cry. 

We had a lot of great “mission moments” this weekend that moved me immensely.  But the way that this waitress looked when she spoke about such a small interaction with our Fellows did it for me.  It was in the airport restroom that my eyes began to “sweat.”I can’t believe that this happened today, and I just needed to share it.In service,Sarah