Young Americans have been fighting overseas wars on behalf of their nation for the last 15 years. We sometimes see those who come back from this service with physical scars, and are aware that others bear less-recognizable wounds. The more common complaint among former servicemembers, however, is of lost purpose and loneliness. From the structured challenges, tight-knit community, and sense of mission in military life, they are shifting to a civilian life that sometimes feels like “every man for himself.” For most veterans, changing gears is not primarily a problem of illness, or failure, or brokenness. It’s a matter of missing potential.
Three rapidly growing nonprofits tackle this issue head-on. They call on veterans to contribute their strength and skills to civilian challenges, just like they did in time of war. These groups reinvigorate a sense of mission and the feeling of being needed. They build bonds among vets, and with allies in the community. Purpose-filled immersions like this benefit former members of the military, their home towns, and our nation.
Each group stimulates veterans in different ways. Team Red, White & Blue hosts physical fitness and outdoor activities. Team Rubicon sends volunteers to help at disaster sites. The Mission Continues organizes men and women to serve people in need.
The veterans who join these organizations express common explanations of their usefulness and consistent enthusiasm for their effects. Participants say that after leaving the military and entering today’s atomized, often solitary, civilian life, they sometimes found themselves isolated and adrift, missing their former sense of being involved in something bigger than themselves. Every single veteran interviewed for this story was looking for connectedness, personal challenge, and something to devote themselves to. Those, much more than material assistance, may be the most valuable things philanthropists can offer today’s veterans of military service.
The most immediate feeling of loss from departing the military stems from no longer being around other soldiers, marines, sailors, or airmen. It’s an obvious change, but one with far-reaching consequences. Almost to a person, veterans mentioned how jarring it was to be thrust among people who lacked any sense of their recent experiences. Team Rubicon volunteer Brianne Richter, who took a job at a Home Depot in Illinois after serving in the Air Force, found it difficult to adjust to working alone. “It’s hard to explain to people who never were in the military,” she says, “but everything in the military is about the group. Once I got out, I missed working as a team.” Rachel Gutierrez, a Detroit native who joined the Army in 2000 to “get the hell out of Dodge” and wound up a sergeant in Iraq, says she mourned the complete trust in others that arises from serving together in combat. “These people always have your back,” she emphasizes. “Once you leave, you miss that so much.”
Team Red, White & Blue is a direct response to the desire of veterans to rely on each other. It was founded in 2010 by Mike Erwin, a West Point graduate, intelligence officer, and combat veteran who was studying psychology and leadership at the University of Michigan. Erwin realized that the self-confidence and social connection built by collaborating under pressure while striving to accomplish military goals could be replicated in civilian life. He pulled some veterans together into local chapters to engage in strenuous physical activities: biking, running, climbing, rowing, or anything that the chapter members wanted to shoot for.
Executive director Blayne Smith was drawn to the organization’s team-building aspect. He had served with Erwin at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and spent three and a half years in the Special Forces with a deployment to Afghanistan. After he left the military in 2009, he got a job as a sales rep for a medical services company in his home state of Florida. The money was good, but he missed the Army. “It was kind of lonely,” he recalls. “I had been a small platoon leader and I really missed leadership…. It was a tough transition for a guy who carried a rifle for the first eight years of his career.”
In 2012, he was approached by Erwin, who had spent the past two years building Team RWB from the ground up. The group had only a handful of full-time staff coordinating its 15,000 members in several cities. The job paid a lot less than sales and came with no insurance, but Smith didn’t need much convincing. “It was pretty obvious to me that I wasn’t going to be okay in the long run doing something I didn’t care about. I knew if I did my best work we could grow it and make it into something special.”
The benefits of physical activities are obvious: Exercise is important not only to health but also to one’s psychological outlook. And Smith thinks the advantages go deeper. Team RWB’s strenuous group undertakings draw veterans into community. “I can meet someone for coffee or a beer, but that won’t necessarily break down the barriers between us. If we go on a long bike ride together, or train for a ten-miler together, we’re sharing stories, we’re working with each other,” he notes. “It’s an unobtrusive way for a veteran who is having problems to reach out, put on the shirt, become part of the team—and maybe connect with people who can help through a rough patch.” Shared hardship and shared accomplishment also encourage goal-setting and personal focus: “If you put a race on your calendar, when you finish it with your team six months later it makes you believe you can accomplish anything.”
Sean MacMillen, an Army ROTC grad, came home to Pennsylvania after three tours in Afghanistan. He felt lonely, gained several dozen pounds, and struggled with depression. “When you take off the uniform, you lose a lot of that camaraderie with the people you had served with. I didn’t have the trust in people that I used to have with the others in my unit…. I just didn’t know how to live in the ‘real world,’” he says, putting air quotes around the phrase.
His involvement with Team RWB changed that. Even though MacMillen was studying public health and training to be a counselor, he couldn’t accept that he himself was floundering. “The hardest thing for a lot of veterans is to admit that they need help,” he notes. At a local trail race, he noticed a group of Team RWB members running together and e-mailed them the next day. After a few months as a member, McMillen volunteered to become the Western Pennsylvania captain; in his 18-month term, he grew his chapter from 40 members to more than 400.
The challenge of leading a busy chapter—connecting veterans in far-flung towns in rural Pennsylvania, organizing fitness and social events, and coordinating with Team RWB headquarters to access training and resources—gave MacMillen a sense of confidence that chased away the demons of his transition (and, as an added benefit, helped him lose more than 80 pounds). When he completed his term as captain, a fellow Team RWB member said in a tribute that MacMillen had put aside his own problems to help others, but MacMillen disagrees. “Actually, what I did was help myself by learning to help others,” he says. “You only keep what you have by giving it away.”
At the core of Team Rubicon is the idea of helping, sometimes saving, others. This organization rapid-deploys groups of veterans and first responders to sites of domestic and overseas disasters. It can have skilled volunteers in a hazard zone in less than 24 hours. Each of its groups deploys as a unit, with sub-platoons receiving work orders each day. Rubiconers are armed with personal protective equipment, hand tools, solar-powered communication devices, and mapping equipment. Volunteers are trained, and unit leaders have deep knowledge and experience in disaster response. The nonprofit receives no government funding, relying wholly on individual donations and philanthropic grants.
Team Rubicon was founded in 2010 by two Marines, Jake Wood and William McNulty, in the wake of a devastating earthquake in Haiti. The pair raised money and supplies from friends and, with a few companions, flew to the neighboring Dominican Republic. Making their way into Haiti, they crossed the Artibonite, the river bordering the two countries. They considered this shallow stream their “Rubicon,” the crossing of which irretrievably committed them to aiding the people of Haiti. The group spent several weeks in camps considered by traditional aid organizations as too unsafe to visit, treating thousands of homeless victims.
Since then, Team Rubicon has mobilized its network of 25,000 veterans wearing its distinctive red hats scores of times in the U.S. and around the world. In operations with code names like “Lost Woods,” “Barbed Wire,” and “Mississippi Mudcat,” they have helped fight forest fires, rescue people and possessions amidst floods, assist in missing-person searches, and respond to all kinds of natural calamities. When a massive earthquake hit Nepal in April, 31 Team Rubicon volunteers were among the first responders. They helped deliver supplies of medicine, food, water, and tents, used former military medics to tend patients, and surveyed damage aerially with drones. In addition to aiding the distressed, the organization seeks to help veterans “bridge the gap” between military and civilian life by reconnecting them to the larger sense of mission that drove so many to enlist in the first place.
As with Team RWB, shared hardship and shared service through Team Rubicon helps build bonds between vets who might otherwise remain disconnected. Jonathan Connors, a native of Jersey City who left the Marines in 1996, grew closer to the generation of veterans who came after him, serving in the post-9/11 wars, thanks to his participation in Team Rubicon. After leaving the military Connors had gone on to earn a master’s degree and work in New York City’s marketing industry. He volunteered with several different groups over the years, but “never quite felt like I was completely invested in what I was doing.”
Then disaster struck close to home: Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Jersey Shore where his brother Sam lived. During the several weeks he spent working to help Sam and his neighbors recover from the storm, Connors noticed that he kept seeing the red hats and logos of Team Rubicon members. “In the beginning, I didn’t feel like I was worthy to ask a group like this if I could volunteer,” he says, seeing them as “highly trained combat volunteers and medics” with skills he didn’t think he had. But he was intrigued, and finally signed up. Throughout 2014, Connors took training sessions and participated in local projects and social events before finally deploying to assist in the earthquake response in Nepal this spring.
He found that the experience broke down barriers that can otherwise divide generations of veterans. Thinking of how young his teammates were when 9/11 happened, he thought of “how much they gave up” during multiple combat deployments. His own military experience was different, yet transferable. “At the base of it, it’s just about the guy on your left and the guy on your right, when you’re doing a muck out for someone whose home was destroyed.”
Team Rubicon also excels in that other military practice: pushing men and women into positions of leadership. Jon Chiang was raised in Tennessee, served with the 101st Airborne in Afghanistan, and left the Army in 2012.
Chiang traveled with Team Rubicon to the state of Georgia to assist in cleanup after a 2014 winter storm brought down trees and power lines. Chiang initially contributed grunt work. As he took part in more training, he moved up to become a team leader. He helped plan operations during a recent wildfire response in Washington state. “So long as you have the motivation and the drive, the opportunity to lead is there,” he says.
Of course, local communities have serious needs that don’t make headlines the way a flood, wildfire, or hurricane does. Even when there is no overt trauma in sight, veterans can render valuable service right in their own communities, notes Spencer Kympton, president of The Mission Continues.
TMC was founded by Eric Greitens, a former Rhodes Scholar (he holds a doctorate from Oxford) and Navy SEAL. After returning from Iraq, Greitens visited wounded veterans at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. He was inspired to hear man after man tell him that they wanted to continue to serve even if they couldn’t be on active duty any more. Greitens pooled his combat pay with the disability pay of two friends to start a program that would take advantage of this deep spirit among veterans. (For more on Eric Greitens, see the interview on page 14.)
TMC runs a fellowship program that pairs post-9/11 veterans with nonprofit groups such as Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross, or Big Brothers Big Sisters. Since the group’s founding in 2007, 1,300 men and women have gone through its fellows program. (Team Rubicon founder Jake Wood started as a TMC fellow.)
The group also sponsors “service platoons” in cities across the country, where veterans come together to focus on local problems such as homelessness, environmental cleanup, or school improvement. TMC, says Kympton, “operates from a fundamental belief that vets have a ton of skills that are redeployable” to civilian needs. “They were part of the country’s first all-volunteer combat force.” Many will volunteer to battle other demons. “They have potential to be far more civically engaged than previous generations.”
Kympton knows something about the difficulty of recapturing in civilian life the sense of high mission that can exist in the military. He was born on the grounds of Fort Belvoir, graduated from West Point as valedictorian, then spent eight years piloting Black Hawk helicopters.
After leaving the Army, he graduated with honors from Harvard Business School and joined the McKinsey consulting firm—a dream job for many people. Yet he “was really struggling to connect with it, and to develop a sense of purpose,” he recalls. One McKinsey assignment brought him to the D.C. public schools just as hard-charging superintendent Michelle Rhee launched a reform campaign. That gig gave Kympton a glimpse of how civilian service could carry some of the intensity and satisfaction of service in wartime. He ended up leaving McKinsey to help build Teach For America.
At one point, one of Kympton’s fellow former officers decided to rejoin the Army after several years of “failing to connect” in civilian life. His friend redeployed to Iraq—and was killed three weeks later. In the crucible of that experience, Kympton decided he wanted to reconnect with fellow veterans. At just that moment, Greitens was looking to expand his rapidly growing organization.
Kympton is not alone in finding a lifeline in service. Kelly Land is a Navy vet who was on active duty from 2000 to 2006, then spent three years as a recruiter, only to be pulled back into active duty for one last overseas tour in Qatar, scheduling missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. At one point he walked away from a helicopter crash in which several of his comrades died. That shook him, but because he was still in the military he found a support network that pulled him through.
Once he left duty, however, that support network fell away. Land experienced setbacks in his personal and professional life, and a fellow survivor of his helo crash who had stayed in the Navy was killed in a second crash. Amid a lot of stress, Land found TMC. He became a volunteer in the newly formed Houston service platoon, which he now heads. “Instantly, I felt like I belonged,” he says. “That’s really the most important thing: not being isolated and alone, but reaching out to others.”
Land’s platoon focuses on health and wellness, especially in a poor area of Houston called Acres Homes, where obesity and diabetes are serious issues. TMC vets have rehabilitated a community vegetable garden, conducted fire-safety training, and helped to revamp a local reading project. Land believes that the support, encouragement, and social connection his veterans offer to each other is as important as the service that platoon members provide to the community.|
“I want us to become a family, a unit here in the civilian world,” he says. He benefited from his tight-knit group’s concern on his latest “Alive Day”—the anniversary of the fatal crash he walked away from. Over a dozen friends from his service platoon took him to a local bar and grill to mark the occasion. “They were there for me,” he says.
Meeting the need
If enrollments are any indication, these new organizations have tapped into a tremendous hunger in the veteran community. The Mission Continues, which started in Greitens’s St. Louis home and had just a handful of staff a few years ago, now has a $7 million annual budget, five regional offices, and a plan for 80 service platoons across the country by the end of the year. Team Red, White & Blue has more than 100 chapters and $3 million in annual revenue. Team Rubicon offered assistance in 31 domestic and international operations in 2014, totaling hundreds of thousands of man-hours, and served at 13 disasters in just the first third of 2015. The group raised more than $10 million last year and has a five-year plan to grow its response capabilities.
This rapid growth has been backed by philanthropy. All three organizations have attracted corporate backing, from firms like PricewaterhouseCoopers, Goldman Sachs, A&E Networks, Southwest Airlines, BAE Systems, Boeing, Target, Nike, ConocoPhillips, and Home Depot, which Team Rubicon credits with its most consistent support over the years, both financial and in-kind. Private donors include the Houston Endowment, the Marcus, Ron Conway, Schultz, and Singer foundations, and others. With millions of servicemembers slated to become a new generation of veterans over the next decade, this will be a fertile field for donors.
With many donors to veterans focused on very traditional services like job fairs, medical and counseling services, home remodeling, and education, these organizations that encourage wellness and flourishing in new ways sometimes find fundraising a challenge. Team RWB’s Blayne Smith urges donors to keep an eye on average veterans, not extreme cases, and to get to the root of the issues they face upon returning to civilian life. “We should be asking, are veterans happy at home?” he says. “Are they happy in their job? Are they keeping the job for very long? Being physically healthy and emotionally healthy, being involved in their community and in healthy relationships, those things precede” the dispensing of benefits.
TMC’s Spencer Kympton also distinguishes between transitional benefits and “reintegration, which we’ve come to learn is a much longer-term endeavor. It involves things that are less observable, like social connection, civic engagement, sense of purpose and meaning. We really believe those things are as important or even more important than the tactical issues” of employment and education.
Megan Andros, who was part of West Point’s first post-9/11 class, heads a veteran initiative of the Heinz Endowment, and has encouraged her foundation to embrace the new model. Heinz has supported local chapters of both Team Red, White & Blue and The Mission Continues, and has worked to cross-fertilize the volunteer efforts of both organizations with other nonprofits it funds. Andros agrees that it’s been hard for many donors to break the mold of what a veterans’ service group should be. “The Mission Continues used to have a slogan: ‘It’s Not a Charity, It’s a Challenge,’” she recalls. “Funders would look at that and say, ‘then why should I give you money?’…. It’s harder to raise funds by saying that vets are strong people who have a lot to give.”
But the fundamental insight of these three new groups—that veterans are a valuable resource and most often need connection, engagement, and a sense of purpose, more than goodies or counseling or another jobs program—is dead right, according to Andros. “This is something we have to get in front of,” she urges.
Justin Torres was a contributing editor to Philanthropy.