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Profile in Courage

11/1/2012

Tyler Britt ’13 has always been fascinated with the life of a Navy SEAL — the brutal training, the daring missions and dedication to their work.

“I’ve always admired their ability to push themselves, and to do it for other people with little to no recognition,” said Britt. “It’s their drive, their commitment and the sense of teamwork that I think is so impressive.”

In his leisure reading, Britt came upon a book written by Eric Greitens, a Rhodes Scholar and humanitarian who joined the elite ranks of Navy SEALS, and wrote about his experiences in the Middle East in The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL, released in 2011. The book went on to become a New York Times bestseller.

Tyler was captivated — and he knew his Brooks classmates would be, as well.

That’s why Tyler and Caroline Trustey ’13 have organized Greitens’ upcoming visit to the Brooks campus. Their sites are set much higher than just having a cool speaker come to campus for a couple hours of storytelling. As co-heads of the Phillips Brooks Society, the duo is challenging Brooks students to raise $10,000 this year for Greitens’ non-profit organization The Mission Continues, which provides community service projects for returning veterans.

Current students have grown up in the post-9/11 era (the oldest students were around 7 or 8 years old in September 2001), so the idea of honoring veterans who have served for much of Brooks students’ lifetimes seemed appropriate, according to Tyler and Caroline.

“It’s truly a noble cause,” said Tyler. “We wanted to focus on Mission Continues and, more broadly, veterans, because, we feel there is a new generation of Americans who deserve our help because of the service that they have given to this country.”

Greitens will be on campus Monday evening, speaking to an all-school assembly.

"One of my favorite things about Mr. Greitens is his selflessness; not only will he share an unbelievable story about his work as a Navy SEAL but his humanitarian work is incredible, as well," said Caroline. "Through his humanitarian work and The Mission Continues, Mr. Greitens highlights how it is possible to have a substantial impact on the lives of others, something the PBS hopes to engage the entire Brooks community in doing this year."

Greitens has been in the news quite a bit lately, promoting Warrior’s Heart, and talking about the treatment of veterans, and his Mission Continues organization, which he founded in 2007. His work has been covered on NPR, CNN, NBC, CBS and Fox, as well as in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and many other news outlets. He recently released his latest book, The Warrior’s Heart, which is an adaptation of Heart and Fist for a young-adult audience.

From Humanitarian to Warrior and Back Again
Greitens grew up in Missouri, and after attending Duke University, where he studied ethics, philosophy and public policy, he went on to attend the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar from 1996 to 2000. There he earned a master’s degree and a doctoral degree. As part of his doctoral research, he worked as a humanitarian volunteer and documentarian in Rwanda, Cambodia, Albania, Mexico, India, Bosnia and Bolivia.

In 2001 he joined the Navy and was deployed four times in the War on Terror, earning both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. In 2007, a suicide truck bomb hit his unit. While Eric’s injuries weren’t life-threatening, “there were a lot of people hurt worse than I was,” he says. He went to Bethesda Naval Hospital and met with returning soldiers.

That visit was the spark that lead to creating The Mission Continues. In talking to these injured vets, he found a common thread — they didn’t want money or even attention and thanks.

“What they wanted to do was continue their service, even if they couldn’t continue serving in the U.S. military,” says Greitens. It’s a trait among those who sign up for military duty, he explains. “All veterans have the potential and desire to serve in their community” whether that community is a military unit in Afghanistan, or their hometown neighborhood back in the States.

So in 2007, Greitens used his combat pay and the donated disability checks of a couple of friends from the military, to found The Mission Continues in St. Louis. The idea was that more than anything, veterans want to feel useful when they return from war.

“It’s not a charity, it’s a challenge,” is the group’s motto, and its mission is to award community service fellowships to post-9/11 veterans, “empowering them to transform their own lives by serving others and directly impacting their communities,” according to the organization’s website.

Mission Continues fellows serve for six months at a local nonprofit organization addressing key educational, environmental or social issues. Each veteran works to achieve one of three goals at the end of their six months: full-time employment, pursuit of higher education or a permanent role of service.

“The intention was to focus on changing one life at a time,” said Greitens. Now five years later, the organization will have more than 500 fellows, and this year alone, has seen 20,000 volunteers help in their efforts.

Not only does the community service work challenge veterans and inspire them, but it also inspired the community of people around them who want to invest in their success, said Greitens.

“For me, the most powerful moments for the organization are when I can see the impact of the work in the lives of our fellows. When they tell me it’s given them a renewed sense of purpose, or that it’s been impactful for them and their entire family,” Greitens said.

He’s also heard inspiring feedback on his books. “I’ve had people tell me that reading the book has helped them to make decisions about confronting fears in their own life,” he said. “People have started volunteering in their community or started training for a triathlon.”

The Myth of Modern Veterans
The myths and truths about veterans have evolved with every war in the 20th century. The response veterans received upon returning from Vietnam was much different than what World War II veterans received, and vets returning from the Afghanistan and Iraq face a far different response.

During testimony before Congress in March, Greitens said he believes “we have a battle on our hands to determine what the legacy of this generational of veterans if going to be.”

In his opinion, that battle is still being fought.

“If you polled 100 people off the street right now, they’ve associate this generation of veterans with service, sacrifice and honor,” he said. “But they would also say PTSD, unemployment, traumatic brain injury, suicide, alcoholism or self-medication.”

This summer, The Mission Continues partnered with Hollywood television and movie production company Bad Robot to complete a nationwide survey of civilians’ perceptions of post-9/11 veterans. “It showed a great over estimate of veterans who had PTSD, when in face the majority of them are ready to get back to work, ready to go to school,” Greitens explains. “People tend to think veterans have lower levels of education, when in fact they have higher rates than people believe. They vote more often, they are more engaged in community service.”

Greitens knows from his military service that PTSD and other related post-war problems are real for a small number of veterans, but “when people don’t know a lot of veterans, they don’t have any context for it. The reality is that many people don’t know a veteran from Iraq or Afghanistan, or they don’t know someone who’s been wounded or is challenged in some way. So they tend to associate those challenges with the entire population of veterans.”

“There’s a great respect for veterans, but there’s also an uncertainty about the roles they are going to play when they come home,” Greitens said. “This is a generation that responded to a call to service [after the Sept. 11 attacks] and fought the longest wars in American history. They’ve come back and made the country strong by finding ways to continue to inspire others in their communities. The World War II generation fought overseas, came back home and took positions of leadership. I believe that this generation of veterans has that same leadership potential.”

Message to Young Adults
Greitens said his message to teenagers like Brooks students is to think about the possibilities that lie ahead of them.

He knows that for many teens, asking them to think about their lives after high school or college is sometimes a challenge; he feels he was in the same boat when he was a teenager.

“I wasn’t sure what direction my life was going to take when I was a teenager. I certainly never predicted … that I would start boxing, that I would have done documentary photography, or international humanitarian work, or that I would have become a Navy SEAL,” Greitens said.

He said like the people he’s talked to who have confronted their own fears and changed their own lives, teenagers can think the same way.

“Teens understand this concept of a frontline — the place in your life where you’re challenged, where you might be afraid, where things are difficult, or where you might encounter pain or suffering,” he explained. “What young people appreciate is learning how you can navigate those frontlines successfully.”

He said his books and public talks share stories about people of the same age as Brooks students, facing their own frontlines — teenagers in a refugee camp in Bosnia, or people just a few years older in Navy SEAL training. His hope is that students who hear these stories will use them to reflect on their own lives.

“All of us have opportunities to help create ourselves. We make choices to become compassionate people, become talented people,” he said. He referred to the popular Choose Your Own Adventure book series (popular with tweens and teens in the ’80s and ’90s), where the reader was given different choices that lead to different outcomes in each mystery book.

“Students now are at a place where they are choosing their own adventures, making choices that will shape the direction of their lives. We actually have the opportunity to create who we are — it’s both exciting and fearful, and that’s what life is about,” he said.

If it sounds like Greitens is telling teenagers to figure out their whole lives right now, he truly isn’t.

“Sometimes we put a lot of pressure on young people when we ask them to envision what their life will be like at 50,” he said. “What we can do for young people is to put good role models in front of them, and be good mentors to them, to help them make those choices.”

Parents Invited
Eric Greitens’ visit comes at the end of a long weekend following Parents Weekend here on campus. Parents are invited to attend Greitens’ talk. All students should be back on campus at 7 p.m. Greitens talk begins promptly at 7:30 p.m.

Want to know more?
To learn more The Mission Continues, click here to visit the organization’s website. To learn more about Eric Greitens, click here to visit his website.