Guest post by Nicholas Zevely, The Mission Continues
The Mission Continues challenges post-9/11 veterans to rebuild purpose through community service. Through a 26-week community service fellowship, each Mission Continues Fellow dedicates 20 hours/week to volunteering with the local nonprofit organization of their choice. To date, over 250 veterans have been awarded fellowships with organizations including Habitat for Humanity, American Red Cross, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
In a recent study conducted by the Center for Social Development at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, 71% of Mission Continues Fellows reported furthered education post-fellowship, 86% had successfully transferred their military skills to civilian employment, and 100% of Fellows polled would recommend the program to a friend or family member. The true impact of the fellowship program, however, is best understood after having met a current Fellow, an experience that never ceases to leave me humbled and inspired.
Four days after starting at The Mission Continues, I met Josh Eckhoff. Having made it through two tours in Iraq, and the suffering of a Traumatic Brain Injury that led to 13 months of intensive rehabilitation and two more years of recovery, Josh needed a new challenge. He applied for and was awarded a Mission Continues Fellowship in 2011to volunteer at the St. Louis Science Center where he provided tours to young visitors.
This past fall, I met Kristen Parrinello at our Annual Summit in St. Louis. Following her time of service in the Navy, Kristen went on to receive her MBA and start her own social media consulting firm. Still compelled to serve her community, Kristen completed a Mission Continues Fellowship with Furnishing Hope, a non-profit organization committed to providing improved living environments to families in crisis.
Josh and Kristen typify the compassion, dedication and ethic of service present in our veteran community.
On a macro level, the cost of not engaging veterans in meaningful service or employment means the unique skill sets and leadership of the 5.5 million men and women who have served since 9/11 will go underutilized. Our veterans are assets. The failure to not only welcome them home, but ensure a successful pathway to civilian life is a guaranteed detriment to our economic and social wellbeing as a nation.
On a personal level, the failure to adequately engage veterans upon returning home risks a much graver cost. The majority of veterans return home without injury or disability and the greatest challenge in their transition may be finding a job. For some veterans, however, a decade of war has left scars too deep to heal. In the most damning statistic of the nation’s preparedness to welcome home our military men and women, the Department of Defense estimates that from 2005 to 2010, service members took their own lives at a rate of one every 36 hours. Mission Continues Fellow and U.S. Army veteran Andrew Berry told us, “Since I retired in September 2009, I’ve had seven friends – seven – who served with me in Iraq, who have committed suicide.” After being shot twice and surviving eight explosions, Andrew also suffered from PTSD and TBI. Today, he serves with Orlando Vet Center, counseling other veterans to overcome their injuries and become leaders in the community.
If we continue to challenge individuals like Josh, Kristen and Andrew to reenlist in their communities, then they will come to define not only this generation of veterans, but this generation of Americans.
Nicholas Zevely is an AmeriCorps VISTA and Communications Coordinator with The Mission Continues, a veterans service organization based in St. Louis, Missouri.