Cover Story: Home Town Hero
St. Louis-Bred Humantitarian Eric Greitens’ Mission Continues.
Eric Greitens almost always smiles. In person, in photos, in CNN interviews…in life…the St. Louis native and founder/CEO of The Mission Continues is unmistakably upbeat and optimistic. But get him onto the subject of injured and disabled veterans whose lives have deteriorated to the point of what seems to be no return, and the boyish grin fades. The former Navy SEAL clearly feels their stress, and his expression becomes one of grim determination. It lasts only a moment—then he’s back on message, smiling and talking about how his nonprofit helps those veterans rediscover a purposeful life. Still, it’s a glimpse into what motivates this man—who, since his days as a Parkway North student, has embarked on an inspiring journey as an author, public speaker, college instructor and national advocate for public service.
All in a day’s work
Greitens runs The Mission Continues, which he founded in 2007, out of a basement office just south of Downtown. Or, more accurately, his 17-member “extraordinarily gifted, hard-working, capable, compassionate team” makes it happen. Greitens signs off on the fellowships his organization awards to veterans—163 and counting—but much of his time lately is spent on the road.
In May, the 37-year-old Greitens slept in St. Louis only twice. His highly anticipated book, “The Heart and The Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL,” had just been released. In no time, it landed on “The New York Times” hardcover nonfiction bestseller list, and he was called on for speeches and radio and TV appearances—all the while making sure his mission continued. His private company, The Greitens Group, is set up so that his income from book royalties, leadership presentations and teaching gigs at Washington University and the University of Missouri¬Columbia can go toward The Mission Continues.
“What I love about my work is that there’s an incredible variety,” Greitens says. The same can be said of his life. He went from Parkway North High School to Duke University in North Carolina to England’s University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He graduated with a doctorate in politics.
It sounds cushy, but Greitens kept things real. Even as an undergrad, he writes in his book, “I knew that I needed to live through something hard and real to become better.” He took up boxing. He found his way to refugee camps in Bosnia and Rwanda—and to humanitarian organizations around the world from Cambodia to Mexico to India to Zaire. He photographed suffering and hope. He studied nonprofits that worked and others that didn’t.
“We built The Mission Continues in many ways based on the principles I had learned doing humanitarian work overseas,” Greitens explains. “I saw that people who did the best in the camps had a sense of purpose toward serving others, like parents or grandparents, who had a reason for living every day.”
What makes The Mission Continues unique among nonprofits for military veterans is that it requires them to work hard—even before they are accepted. For the fellowship application, a veteran must come up with “very specific qualitative and quantitative goals,” plus what Greitens calls an “exit strategy.”
“We’re getting them from a point where some of them have spent 18 months to two years in and around their house—and they’re doubting whether they continue to have value to society,” says Greitens, his face clouding.
How does The Mission Continues help? According to Greitens, it’s all about uncovering what they want to live for. Perhaps he puts it best in his doctoral thesis: “What matters for the long-term health and vitality of people who have suffered is not what they are given, but what they do.”
“How do you want to serve?”
With this six-word question, injured and disabled veterans begin their journey with The Mission Continues’ fellowship team. The journey is based on a philosophy Greitens found to be true through personal experience: People fail when they focus on their own pain rather than on those around them. This mindset is what helped him get through the grueling Navy SEAL training, which he entered in 2001 at age 26. That, and the belief that one of the reasons people sign up for the military is because they want to be tested.
It’s part of the reason Greitens himself set out to join the SEALS. And, being injured doesn’t take away that internal drive. Most of the veterans Greitens met in Bethesda Naval Hospital after he served in Iraq and Afghanistan wanted above all to return to their units. Those visits crystallized his determination to start The Mission Continues. Greitens started asking veterans a hard—and potentially life-altering—question: If you can’t go back, what would you like to do?
In a way, Greitens asks the same question of civilian volunteers. “After the welcome home ceremonies and the handshakes, what can we do for service members?” Thousands of people have answered his call. “On our last Veterans’ Day, we had service projects in 28 cities across the country,” he says with pride.
Fellows of the program work with a partner nonprofit organization like the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity or a youth hockey team. Earlier this summer, for example, Army and Navy veteran Joel Alexander, who lost his memory due to two traumatic brain injuries, oversaw a renovation project involving hundreds of volunteers at a senior citizens’ center in Rolla, MO.
Greitens chose St. Louis as his headquarters specifically because “it’s a community where if you ask people for help, they will help you.” He started out as one person, living on an air mattress, with one part-time staffer and precarious finances. “I knew I needed to be in a place where I could get the community to come together, and that was exactly right.”
Leading the mission
It’s hard to imagine Greitens giving anyone a handout with no strings attached. He talks about wounded and disabled veterans “not as problems, but as assets.” Indeed, successful fellows even those veterans categorized by the government as unable to find or hold a job—are expected to leave for full-time work or education and an ongoing role in service.
Greitens has often been described as a born leader, but he believes leaders are made over time. He returns time and time again to military terminology he picked up as a SEAL and through his continuing US Navy Reserve duty.
He speaks of leaders who show their people they care by challenging them and creating opportunities for them to grow. He says leaders need a sense of humility to see the strengths in others. He believes people gravitate to leaders with a higher sense of purpose—and with a sense of humor.
But leaders aren’t invincible. Sometimes, even when Greitens and his team desperately want to offer support, they step back and realize that the veteran just doesn’t want it. “We have to recognize that our power to influence their life is limited,” he says.
Greitens is up front about his expectations of those around him. You can hear echoes of his old boxing coaches and drill instructors when he says that “to really achieve excellence in anything requires you to embrace fear and pain. But becoming excellent actually leads to a sense of joy and achievement, especially when you’re with a team of people who share those same values.”
Greitens’ lighter side provides reassurance that working for him is not the next closest thing to Hell Week in Navy SEALS training. “I have a tremendous amount of fun at work,” he says, the ever-present smile widening. “You spend so much of your time at work—it should be something that brings you joy.”
Photo credit: Photography by Wesley Law; Art direction by David Hsia