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To ease veterans’ return to civilian life, program offers purpose

To ease veterans’ return to civilian life, program offers purpose
Army veteran Anthony Smith, left, and Marine Corps veteran Jaime Magallanes paint the cafeteria at the Dream Center in Echo Park as part of an event with the Mission Continues.
(Katie Falkenberg, Los Angeles Times)

When Eric Greitens visited his fellow Navy SEALs who had been wounded in Iraq, one of their worries about post-military life surprised him.

“Every single one of them said he wanted to find a way to continue to serve,” Greitens said. “They needed to know that when they came home, we saw them as vital.”

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In the weeks after that 2007 visit to the military hospital in Bethesda, Md., Greitens founded the Mission Continues, a nonprofit helping military veterans make the often rocky transition to civilian life by placing them in six-month stints with nonprofit agencies that have a high sense of civic purpose.

Starting that summer, the St. Louis-based program, with Greitens as chief executive, chief fundraiser and spokesman, has placed 609 veterans with agencies from California to New York and beyond.

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Some of the veterans have physical injuries. Most do not. But all have served since the 9/11 attacks, and all are apprehensive about reentering a civilian world so different from the highly structured, task-oriented life of the military.

“When you’re in the military, you have a purpose. You’re fighting for something,” said Nathan Moore, 26, a former Marine corporal who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “When you get out, you have to replace that sense of mission.”

Moore — who was medically retired because of injuries he sustained during battle in Sangin, Afghanistan — has been assigned to a veterans program in Greenville, N.C.

The most common placements have been with Habitat for Humanity, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the YMCA, the American Red Cross, Big Brothers Big Sisters and Girl Scouts of the USA. There also have been lesser known agencies: the Carolina Raptor Center, the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida and Breakthrough Miami, among others.

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The goal, Greitens said, is to help veterans “begin to rebuild their own sense of purpose” and prepare for full-time employment, college or trade school.

“Lots of organizations give things to veterans,” Greitens said. “We’re an organization that expects things from veterans.”

Veterans are returning to a society that knows little about the reality of military service and where many civilians pity all veterans, assuming they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other woes. That pity can be a trap, Greitens warns.

“The most devastating thing that can happen is when somebody gives you an excuse,” Greitens told a recent class of Mission Continues veterans at a meeting in Los Angeles. “As a generation of veterans, we could lean on those excuses for the next 20 to 30 years.”

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Greitens, 40, has a varied resume: He was a Rhodes scholar; has a doctorate from the University of Oxford; did volunteer work in humanitarian relief in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia and other locations; won boxing awards; holds a black belt; and has written three books, including the bestselling “The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL.”

The Mission Continues has gained financial support from major corporations and financial houses, including Goldman Sachs, the Ford Foundation, Target, JPMorgan Chase and Home Depot. The program also received an approving nod from now-retired Adm. Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Among the program’s supporters is producer and director J.J. Abrams, whose credits include “Star Trek” and “Mission Impossible” movies. Abrams met with Greitens last month to introduce him to other entertainment industry figures interested in the Mission Continues.

“This is my favorite kind of work,” Abrams said. “It’s solving two real problems in one fell swoop: providing the community with [veterans’] leadership and providing well-trained veterans with a purpose.”

A 2011 Washington University follow-up study found that nearly three-quarters of Mission Continues participants went on to continue their educations, and 86% said the program helped them sharpen their leadership skills. Only three of the 609 veterans who have participated did not complete their six-month placements.

Each veteran selected for the program receives a stipend of $7,200 for the six months, during which they work 20 hours a week. Women make up slightly more than a quarter of the participants.

Of the latest group, about 30% are going to nonprofit organizations that provide services to veterans, although Mission Continues officials would like to decrease that in the future so participants can better acclimate to the civilian world.

“Veterans need to find something bigger than themselves,” said Kathryn Hernandez, 25, who deployed to Iraq as a Marine and will soon join the Miami-based Veterans Ocean Adventures for six months.

Last month, the most recent class of Mission Continues veterans came to Los Angeles for a morning of briefings at the Westin hotel near the L.A. International Airport and then an afternoon of work at the Dream Center, a social services center in Echo Park, before returning to their homes to begin their assignments.

Hernandez and Gregory Updike, 41, who served aboard a carrier in the Persian Gulf, were among those building an outdoor lunch area for Dream Center residents. Updike would soon return to Chicago to work with a veterans center.

Inside the Dream Center — on the site of the former Queen of Angels Hospital — other veterans were painting the walls. Among them was Josh Wyly, 31. The former Marine has been assigned to work with the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C., which uses digital technology to increase the flow of news worldwide.

“Veterans need structure and a sense that what they’re doing matters,” Wyly said. “We need to prove to ourselves and the public that we still have something to give.”

At the morning session at the hotel, Mission Continues official Nick Zevely provided the group with talking points to use when they meeting civilians or being interviewed by the media.

Don’t use military jargon or acronyms, Zevely said, and don’t launch into complaints about medical care from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Civilians won’t understand and will almost immediately tune you out, he said.

As the group settled into chairs in a meeting room, they were easily recognizable as former military members. Some wore military-issue clothing, three were accompanied by service dogs, and one had a prosthetic arm.

Greitens, whose awards include a Combat Action Ribbon and Bronze Star, talked to the veterans not as an author or academic but as someone who has been to war and returned. He remained in the reserves during the early years of the Mission Continues, finishing his service in 2011 as a lieutenant commander.

“Today, we have all come back and we have to face a new front line here at home,” Greitens said to the group. “We are honored to be serving with you again.”

tony.perry@latimes.com


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