In the Arena

Service Can Save Us

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Here’s an update on my cover story, “Can Service Save Us?” from last summer.

I’ve spent the past two weekends with The Mission Continues, the excellent national service program for returning veterans I wrote about in July. You may recall that TMC gives fellowships to veterans who come up with six-month service missions, approved by a local host organization; it also requires the veterans to complete a personal development curriculum, with monthly reading assignments and essays. It is very selective:  only 10% of those who applied were accepted for fellowships this year.

Last week in Houston, I attended the orientation session for Delta Class–80 new fellows from around the country, who brought the total for 2013 to more than 300. It was an inspiring weekend, including a dirty, dusty service project, cleaning up a Jesuit school in a poor neighborhood of Houston. This past weekend, I attended TMC’s annual Veterans Day gala in St. Louis:  Jon Stewart–who has worked on TMC service projects and used TMC members as interns (and hired two of them)–was the featured speaker and honoree, and he was terrific, as always: funny, of course, but also thoughtful about the value of the work that TMC does. But…and I’m sure Jon won’t mind this–he was overshadowed by the two speakers who came after him, Mission Continues fellows Jaime Magellenes and Rachel Gutierrez, who spoke passionately about the impact their fellowships had on their lives.

They are not alone. This morning, The Mission Continues released the results of a multi-year academic study of 400 TMC that reinforced those stories with facts. Key findings include:

·   Professional Impact: Fellows reported that the program helped them improve their job performance (90%), chances of getting a promotion (86%) and chances of finding a job (90%). [Note: many TMC fellows have full-time jobs in addition to the 20-hours they spend on service each week.]

·   Family Impact: Nearly half of study participants reported that the fellowship improved their relationships or communication with their families.

·   Veteran Health Impact: 27% screened positive for depression at the beginning of the program, while 13% did so after completing the program.

·   Community Impact:  Nearly all participants (95%) stated that The Mission Continues Fellowship Program allowed them to make a contribution to their communities and 78% reported having a stronger attachment to their communities.

Rachel Gutierrez represents the next phase of TMC work: She organized a Service Platoon of 30–including Vietnam and Korean War veterans, as well as some civilians–in Phoenix. They gathered at 3:30 am on consecutive nights and did a census of the homeless veteran population in Phoenix. The city government promised it would provide housing and services for the veterans who were identified and photographed by the TMC platoon. (TMC President Spencer Kympton said that there were plans to launch Service Platoons in other cities this year, which is a major development–an attempt to move TMC’s impact beyond its fellowship program and out into communities across the country.)

This is important work. As I’ve written before, these young veterans are assets, not liabilities. Yes, some of them have physical and psychological problems, but they’re also returning from the wars with a counterinsurgency skill set that points them toward public service. They inhabit a value system that we civilians should study and, in some of its aspects, emulate. They are disciplined and motivated, they have a strong sense of community–of being part of something larger than themselves–and of country.

They are the antidote, at least for me, to the depressing toll of political paralysis that I chronicle most days. So congratulations and thanks, to TMC founder, Eric Greitens, and his obsessed, wonderful staff for another year of excellent work.