Ex-Navy SEAL and Oxford PhD on this generation of veterans: ‘They know what it takes to inspire people when a mission seems impossible’
Eric GreitensEric Greitens in IraqEric Greitens has been a Navy SEAL, a combat veteran, a Rhodes Scholar, and an Oxford PhD. It’s the kind of resume that big-ticket political or business careers are made of, but he hasn’t gone that route. Instead, Greitens is the founder and director of The Mission Continues, an organization that connects veterans to service opportunities after their time in the military concludes.
The Mission Continues has awarded service fellowships to 1,700 veterans, and placed more than 4000 in “service platoons.” The organization attempts to create a social dividend from veterans’ expertise and experiences — while providing veterans with the support network, cohesion, and sense of mission needed for a successful transition to civilian life.
Greitens is also a published author. In his recent book Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom For Living A Better Life, Greitens draws on his experiences as a Navy SEAL — and on thousands of years of literary and philosophical reflection on warfare’s psychological and human toll — to look at how veterans can apply their experience in the military to other, just-as-fundamental aspects of their lives. The book is written as a series of letters
Q: The vast majority of Americans didn’t serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. What’s the biggest misconception that people have of veterans from the post-9/11 wars? And what’s something you most wish the American public would keep in mind in thinking about this generation of veterans?
The greatest misconception about this generation of veterans is that they were somehow broken by war.
The fact is that, yes, it was challenging, yes, it was hard, yes, it was difficult, yes, people suffered and they had to endure hardship and difficulty and chaos and change, and sometimes they had to endure injuries and loss of friends and people who they loved and served with.
It’s also the case that you have a generation coming home that’s been strengthened by their service. Sometimes those very things that were hard also created tremendous growth in everyone who served. Now they’ve come home and they know what it means to lead people through difficult circumstances. They know what it takes to inspire people when a mission seems impossible. They know what it takes to work with a broad spectrum of people form all over the country and bring them together to serve a common purpose.
All of that strength that they bring home is a real asset to the country. And that’s probably the single largest thing that would be good for us to change.
Eric GreitensQ: What do you think this generation of veterans will contribute to America and American society in general?
This generation of veterans compared to their peers is going to take on extraordinary positions of leadership and responsibility throughout American culture. I think that you’re going to see that in universities and in the private sector, the public sector, the arts, and in journalism. Because they’re going to be drawing from a well of deep experience that they’re going to bring to their work.
I think what’s going to be distinctive about them is that they wil be focused around a morality of results. In the book I made a distinction between the morality of intentions and the morality of results. I think that what service in the military really helps you to recognize is that you have to move beyond what you say and what you intend and you have to look very hard at what the results are that you actually create in the world.
I think we’re going to be very fortunate in that we’re going to have a generation of leaders who are going to stand up and take responsibility for making things better.
Q: What is The Mission Continues and how is it unique among veterans groups?
The Mission Continues started as the result of my last deployment to Iraq. I was serving as commander of an Al Qaeda targeting cell. On March 28th, 2007 my team was hit by a bomb. I was very fortunate. My wounds were minor and I was able to return to duty 72 hours later. A lot of my friends, however, were hurt far worse than I was.
When I went to visit them — and I also went to the Bethesda Naval Hospital to visit with some recently returned, wounded Marines — I recognized that when you asked all of the men and women who were coming home what they wanted to to do when they recovered, they all said, ‘I want to return to my unit.’ The harsh reality was that a lot of those men and women were not going to be able to return to their unit right away. And so I said, if you can’t return to your unit right away, tell me what you want to do instead. And every single one of them said that they wanted to continue to serve somehow.
They didn’t necessarily use the word service. One said, “I had a kind of a rough childhood growing up and maybe I’d like to find a way to be a football coach or a mentor.” Another one of them said, “Maybe I could go back to college and become a teacher.” Another one wanted to go home and get involved in law enforcement.
And what became really clear to me that day is that all of these men and women wanted to find a way to continue to serve and that I was one of a long string of visitors coming into the hospital to say to them, “Thank you. Thank you for your service, thank you for your sacrifice.”
It was clear to me that they appreciated that. But what was also clear to me that in addition to hearing, “Thank you,” what they also had to hear was, “We still need you.”
GETTY/Charles OmmanneyA group of Navy Seal trainees in August of 2010 during h**l Week at a beach in Coronado, California.
Q: What are some of the challenges of fostering a sense of mission and purpose for veterans through The Mission Continues? Is it ever a struggle to convey how critical this is, given that it may be a difficult challenge to define or quantify?
This is one of the things I was writing to my buddy Zach Walker about in Resilience, right from the very beginning.
He was saying to me, “I’m struggling.” This is a guy who had been a Navy SEAL, a war hero, an entrepreneur. He comes home. And now when he called me he was an unemployed alcoholic on disability who had been arrested and was now looking at the prospect of having his kids come to visit him in jail.
One of the first things I said to him was exactly related to your question: I said, “Look, Zach, you used to wake up every single day with a mission, you used to wake up every single day with a sense of purpose, you also used to wake up every single day with a team around you, with people who were counting on you and where you knew that you were able to count on them.”
But what happened to Zach — and this is the same thing that happens to professional athletes when they leave the game, it happens to people when they retire, it happens to people when their kids go off to college — a lot of the time people get to a place in their life where they’re uncertain what their purpose and mission is and they’re also in a new environment where they’re uncertain who their team is.
This is the same thing that happens to professional athletes, to people when they retire, to people when their kids go off to college — a lot of the time they’re uncertain what their purpose and mission is and they’re also they’re uncertain who their team is.
At The Mission Continues, we emphasize that you have to have clarity about that purpose.
The way it relates for veterans is they go through our program, they do their service work in the community, they pursue their own personal exit strategy, they get their resume together, get private sector mentors together, and we also put them through a curriculum that’s designed to help them build up resilience.
In the beginning we spend a lot of time making sure they have clarity about their ‘why.’ They know that they have to do what’s hard again, to do what’s difficult, what might be chaotic and deal with change and deal with hardship — and that they have to do this again because their family still needs them, their community still needs them and their country needs everything they have to offer.