Summer 2015 – Interview with Eric Greitens

A scholar and Navy SEAL shares his secrets for reintegrating vets at home

A Navy SEAL, Rhodes Scholar, Purple Heart, champion boxer, social entrepreneur, humanitarian photographer, and now candidate for governor in Missouri, Eric Greitens is always on the move. On returning from Iraq in 2007, he used his combat pay to found The Mission Continues, a fellowship program for veterans transitioning to civilian life. Since then it has sent 1,300 fellows out to serve in their communities.(For more on The Mission Continues, see “Just What the Doctor Ordered.”) With his latest book, Resilience, a collection of letters sent to a fellow SEAL struggling to adjust at home, Greitens hopes to help many others discover strengths that can help them succeed. Philanthropy sat down with Greitens to discuss his nonprofit work and the surprising places it has taken him.

Philanthropy:  Why did you decide to join the military?

Greitens:  After finishing a Ph.D. from Oxford University, I had the option to go to a consulting firm, which promised to pay me more in my first year than both of my parents combined ever made in any year of working. Another option was to stay at Oxford and teach. A third option was the United States Navy, which promised to pay me $1,332.68 per month if I joined.

They said, “The minute that you sign up you’re going to owe us eight years. In return, we’ll give you one and only one chance at Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL training. If you make it you’ll be on your way to becoming a Navy SEAL, but if you don’t then you’re still going to owe us eight years and we’ll tell you where and how you’re going to serve.”

It’s not a great recruiting pitch, but I wanted to test myself, I wanted to serve. I walked into the rotunda at Rhodes House—a fancy mansion on the Oxford campus—and looked up at the names etched into the marble. Those were the names of scholars who left in World War I and World War II to fight and die overseas. I stood there thinking that if they hadn’t made that choice I wouldn’t be here. I believed that everything in my life, everyone who invested in me along the way, had prepared me to serve and make a difference.

Philanthropy: You’ve often said that servicemembers represent the most talented cross section of America. What is it about their training and experience that forms them in that way?

Greitens:  I worked with 19- and 20-year-old men and women from around the country from every conceivable background. They come together and you see them launching aircraft, talking on radios, loading their rifles, squeezing into Humvees, driving into the streets of Fallujah, kicking down doors behind which there are terrorists.

These are men and women of incredible physical courage who are able to form teams to serve a common purpose. They have this experience of sharing together, serving together, suffering together, succeeding together. In the civilian world we’re looking for people who can take on a mission and create results, look at a complex problem and figure out how to break it down. That’s what you’re responsible for doing in the military.

Philanthropy:  Even with all that talent, when they come back home many servicemembers feel they’ve been highly trained for specific tasks that don’t apply here. What do they have to offer?

Greitens:  To understand what we can become we often need to have a model. When there was a draft, people served alongside motorcycle mechanics and artists and teachers. They had all these models around them of potential lives that they might live when they left the military. Now in a volunteer force, they serve with people who all signed up for the military. It can be difficult to see, at first, how to take this tremendous experience and all of these skills and actually translate them. Show them models of success. There are lots of people who have dealt with these doubts and gone on to build their own companies, to meaningful private-sector employment, to school to finish their degrees.

I remind veterans, “When you were overseas you were serving the people beside you, and you were also serving a set of ideals about your country, and you should be proud of that. Bring that sense of pride home. You’re very well equipped to build a productive and flourishing life.”

At The Mission Continues we have veterans work at places like Habitat for Humanity or Big Brothers Big Sisters. They realize that they know how to inspire people in difficult circumstances, which is useful not only in Afghanistan, but in helping third graders who are struggling to read. They realize that they have what it takes to bring together a team of people who have no common background.

Philanthropy:  When veterans are transitioning to civilian life there are so many changes and choices going on at once. Where to begin?

Greitens:  Everybody gets focused on how. How do I find a job? How do I apply to school? How do I support my family? At The Mission Continues we concentrate on why:  “You have to make this transition because your community still needs you, because your country still needs what you have to offer.”

For many, the greatest difficulty is losing their sense of purpose. We need to help people rebuild that purpose here at home and put a great team around them—that’s what made them successful when they were overseas. They woke up every single day and they had a mission that was right in front of them; they knew other people were counting on them.

When you are serving others and a purpose that’s larger than yourself, it gives you a reason to get up every day. This is a problem faced not only by veterans, but also by civilians when they retire, athletes when they leave the game, parents when their kids go to college, workers when they lose their business or their job. Everybody asks the question, what am I here for now?

There is a lot of wisdom in our philosophical and religious traditions that we no longer pay attention to today. In Resilience I talk about the Roman Stoics, who had a practice called the premeditation of evils. They would purposefully think about things that might go wrong and plan how to react to them. This is just like the mental rehearsal that we used in SEAL teams. What’s going to happen when I’m underwater and I feel out of breath? I’m going to remind myself to stay relaxed.

When veterans come home and they’re worried, doctors and parents tell them not to worry. That’s terrible advice because they’re going to worry anyway and now they just feel bad about it. I encourage veterans to read widely and apply ancient wisdom to their lives today.

Philanthropy:  With its emphasis on service, The Mission Continues runs against the grain of more conventional nonprofits that are focused on giving things to veterans more than on asking them to rise to challenges. Where did you come up with the idea?

Greitens:  I did a lot of international humanitarian work before I joined the military and there were several key lessons that helped me with veterans.

When I first went to work in refugee camps in Bosnia, I saw that the people adapting best were often parents with kids who they had to wake up and be strong for every day. People lost friends, family, and every material possession they’d ever owned, but what helped them make it through was the knowledge that other people were counting on them. The people I noticed struggling the most were older teenagers, young adults, people who felt like their lives had been cut short but did not yet have anyone else relying on them.

In Rwanda, I was working with kids who had been separated from their parents during the genocide or the refugee movements that followed. There was a volunteer in an orphanage who was himself a refugee. One day his friend who was running the home asked him if he’d help. He had every reason to say no, but instead he walked through this tarp door every day, and all of the kids would jump up and run to him. He said that serving those kids helped him survive. All because he had a friend who asked him to serve even in an incredibly difficult situation.

At The Mission Continues we’re working with men and women who have lost eyesight, lost limbs, been physically injured. They’re dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury, and we ask them to serve. They make our community stronger and they get stronger themselves.

Philanthropy: Your trajectory from humanitarian work to the military is not the usual course.”

Greitens:  When I was in Bosnia, ethnic cleansing was taking place. I was talking with a guy in one of the refugee camps who said, “Don’t misunderstand me, I appreciate the fact that there’s a shelter over my head and there’s food for my kids, but if people really cared they’d be willing to stand with us and protect us.” I didn’t know what to say at the time. I realized later that what he said was true, that if you really care about something you’re willing not only to offer compassion but to act with courage.


Eric Greitens spent several years studying humanitarian crises around the world before joining the Navy. He took this photograph of a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who found new hope and strength in caring for the children in his refugee camp. (Eric Greitens)

Later in Rwanda I saw that a million people had been killed while the world stood by. I came to believe that in certain situations people with strength need to stand up and use that strength to protect others. Without courage, compassion falters. And without compassion, courage has no direction.

Philanthropy:  Another thing you took away from your international work was the contrast between what you call a “morality of intention” and a “morality of results.” Can you say more about that and how it might inform philanthropy?

Greitens:  For my dissertation I studied how international humanitarian organizations worked with kids in war zones. What we knew is that in almost every emergency the number of truly unaccompanied children is at most 1 to 3 percent of the population. It’s extraordinarily unusual. For instance, I have an infant son at home. If—God forbid— something happened to both me and my wife, our parents would take care of him. If something happened to them, my brothers would take care of him. If something happened to them, neighbors and friends would step in. This applies to families around the world.

Yet when I got to Goma, Zaire, UNICEF was estimating that there were more than 250,000 unaccompanied children out of a population of 1.2 million. Here’s what happened. After the Rwandan genocide, the international aid community set up orphanages because everyone wanted to help vulnerable kids. In such a complex and difficult environment, when you start providing food and water and shelter and clothing and education via an orphanage, desperate caretakers send their kids there. This was a problem that was created by wonderful intentions and fueled by a lot of money, but without the discipline to make sure it was actually working.

The way they fixed it was by interviewing kids as they came in. It’s not that hard to break down a seven-year-old. He says, “Hey, my parents died. Can I come to the camp?” And you say, “I’m so sorry. That’s terrible. You must be heartbroken. Where’s your mom right now?” “Oh, she’s waiting for me outside.”

So we’d talk to the parents and tell them they can send their kids to school here during the day and we can provide blankets and cooking tins and fuel and shelter and all of the things that they need to care for their own children.

With a morality of intentions, we clap for ourselves. It’s fundamentally selfish because it rests on what I say, not what I actually do for someone. The same thing works at a personal level. If somebody decides to tutor a third grader, that’s a wonderful intention. But if he or she shows up for those lessons unprepared, just wasting that child’s time, it actually contributes to illiteracy.

What great leaders and citizens do is hold themselves responsible for a morality of results, because what matters is making a difference in the lives of real people. That’s why when we started The Mission Continues, we had not only a financial audit, but also an audit of our effectiveness every year. We had no control over the survey questions or how they were administered. We wanted to know whether it was really working. We were always trying to get better.

Philanthropy: Did anything in those evaluations surprise you?

Greitens:   I made a lot of mistakes, which happens in the beginning of any new adventure. For instance, I had this great name before we became The Mission Continues: We were the Center for Citizen Leadership, because I wanted veterans to come home and be citizen leaders. But I went to a fundraiser and someone got up and said, “Eric’s got this new thing and it’s a Citizen-centered Leadership Center for Citizens.” People had no idea what it was. So we changed the name.

Another learning point was the ideal length of the fellowship. We found out that if it was longer than six months the fellows started to think of it as permanent support, like a job. That wasn’t the intention. If it was less than six months, the experience wasn’t substantial enough to have the effect that we wanted. We came to find that six months was about right for fellows to connect to their strengths while maintaining forward motion in their lives.

Philanthropy:  You often talk about facing troubles and coming out of them stronger. How do you distinguish between something to fight through, and a time when you need to change course?

Greitens:  That’s one of the reasons why the morality of results is so important. You have to pay a lot of attention to the feedback that the world is giving you, and if the feedback is that your program to help third graders learn how to read isn’t actually helping, then you can maintain the goal but you have to change the program.
Resilient people and programs are responsive to feedback. So if you’re doing something new, from social entrepreneurship to building a business, you should welcome all of those discouraging results. Every one of them brings you closer to figuring out what works.

Philanthropy:  You are a frequent critic of our disability compensation system and the common understanding of veterans as broken. What’s wrong with this, and how does it need to change?

Greitens:  If you ask people right now to name ten words associated with veterans, people will say honor, service, sacrifice, courage. They will also say post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, unemployment, suicide, workplace violence. People are associating veterans both with a lot of heroic qualities and with a lot of supposed brokenness. 

We have incredibly capable men and women who come home and want to be productive citizens, but too often our system will say to them “You are disabled, here’s a check for the rest of your life.” People often don’t want to accept a check, but it begins to creep in insidiously. They think, “I’ve been gone on a long deployment. I want to spend some time with my kids. I’ll do this for a little while and be comfortable.” And when a job offer comes they think, “If I took that job I’d actually make less money than I would if I’m on disability, so I’m going to let that one go. I’m going to wait for the perfect job.” They keep waiting, build a set of habits at home, and then they’ve been unemployed for two years and it really is hard to get a job.

People designed this system from compassion, but if we really care we have to change the system. We have to change it to one that’s going to help people to live the most productive lives possible. In addition, veterans have to get out and show people they’re strong. And from a wider cultural perspective, we need to have leaders who have served in the military and can speak to this issue.

Philanthropy: What do you say to someone who is falling into that spiral of dependence?

Greitens:  You say “I recognize you have been hurt and it’s going to be hard. Take hope in the fact that many people have been hurt before and found a way to make it through. I want to give you that opportunity because I respect you. I also want to make clear you are going to be responsible for making choices to make your life better.”

When we take away people’s responsibility, what we’re really doing is taking away their control. The more responsibility people take for their lives, the happier they’re likely to be.

In the Navy, one of the things we trained for was how to survive if we’re ever taken prisoner of war. You can have your freedom taken away from you, your control of your day, your food, your very ability to stand up. And yet still you can remain in control of your thoughts.

What resilient people recognize is that while we are not responsible for everything that happens to us, we are responsible for how we react. Give people practical things they can do—painting the walls of a church, building baseball fields, whatever. When they start to take action they begin to see that they can make their own lives better, happier, and more fulfilling.

Philanthropy: The theme running through your work is that selflessness and service to others will actually change your own life. Why is that, and how does it apply to philanthropy?

Greitens:  We all need to serve a purpose that’s larger than ourselves, and when we make a decision to do that it strengthens us. We call on strengths that we didn’t even know we had because they’re needed by other people.

When a problem arises you organize people, you raise philanthropic dollars to solve it, you volunteer. We do this better in the United States than anywhere I have been. Our society is resilient because the civic sector can quickly and effectively solve problems in this way. And one of the beautiful things is that this also helps the givers.

The advice that I give to anybody who wants to start a nonprofit organization, and especially to kids who are in college and want to change the world, is figure out a way to change one life.

In the beginning at The Mission Continues we changed one veteran’s life. And then we were able to take that success and show people that if you invest in this program we can do for another veteran what we did for him, and we did it again. By focusing each time on changing one life, it helped us build a program that now affects thousands of lives.

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