Eric Greitens remembers returning home from Iraq, asking wounded soldiers—suffering from missing limbs, missing lungs—what they wanted to do next. One after another, they said, "I want to return to my unit." When Greitens asked, "What if you can't return?" They said, "I want to find a way to serve."
Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, runs a group that helps veterans do just that—keep serving. The Mission Continues awards fellowships to former soldiers, allowing them to lead local community-service projects.
On Thursday, Greitens joined thee other military veterans onstage at Newsweek and The Daily Beast's Hero Summit in Washington, D.C., to talk about creative ways to give soldiers a second act.
Tawanda "Tee" Hanible, a gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps, was among them. Once a rebellious teen, she joined the Marines in a desk job, then later married and went to Iraq as a young mother. She's now the founder of Operation Heroes Connect, which links veterans with at-risk kids.
She described one particularly difficult kid who was paired with a staff sergeant. "He stuck with this kid from day one," she said of the sergeant, who became a real mentor. "He just continued to be on his side." The boy got his GED and is joining the Army, she said—a win for both.
Another panelist, Army veteran Howard "Ford" Sypher, is director of field operations for Team Rubicon, a veterans-service group that swoops in to provide disaster relief when humanitarian crises hit. Working now in areas decimated by Hurricane Sandy, he said, "Veterans are leading the way to recovery."
Greitens, the former Navy SEAL, said he survived a suicide truck bomb in Iraq, and desribed the camaraderie that comes from serving in the military. It's not "individual capabilities" that carry a person through in moments of pain, he said, but "somebody on my right who's counting on me, somebody to my left who's counting on me." When soldiers return home, he noted, they seek that sense of community.
Panelist Anthony Emanuele works on the recruiting end of the industry, enlisting young people to begin their careers in the Coast Guard. He said he's seeing a surge of interest among high school and college students, in part due to the economy. "We don't really have to sell it," he said of the Coast Guard. "People want to be a part of those rescues … they want to be in a position where you can build that leadership—you can save someone's life and have an impact."
Moderator Mellody Hobson, president of mutual-fund company Ariel Investments and a financial correspondent for Good Morning America, asked the group if the desire to continue serving after war is about adrenalin addiction—a way for junkies to find a "fix." The group said perhaps so—but noted that the fix was in service of others. Not a bad drug.