St. Louisan wins national humanitarian award

Eric Greitens is pictured at his downtown office. 

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

At 38, Eric Greitens has lived a full life and then some. A former Navy SEAL in Iraq, Greitens was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, where he wrote his doctoral thesis on children in crisis areas. He majored in ethics at Duke University, where he graduated summa cum laude. 

In 2007, he founded The Mission Continues, a non-profit that helps veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan adjust to civilian life, find jobs and educational oppportunities and discover ways to continue to serve their fellow human beings. He has written two books, “Strength and Compassion,” a collection of photographs he took in Bosnia, Rwanda and Cambodia, and “The Heart and the Fist,” his account of being a SEAL in Iraq, which was a New York Times bestseller. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Advertisement for The J

Having become bar mitzvah at B’nai El, Greitens was influenced at key points in his life by teachers. When he was a boy, Bruce Carl, his Sunday school teacher, took him and others teenagers to spend the night in a downtown St. Louis homeless shelter. Years later, while at Duke, Professor Neil Boothby took Greitens, who calls himself a social entrepreneur, to Bosnia to learn how young people who had survived the killings in the former Yugoslavia were coping.

Greitens graduated from Parkway North High School in 1992. He is married to Sheena Greitens of Spokane, Wash.; they live in the Lafayette Square neighborhood. They are unaffliated.

We spoke in Greitens’ book-lined office at the headquarters of The Mission Continues south of downtown. A large photograph of President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, hangs on the wall. The non-profit has an $8 million budget. This year, it is expected to train 500 returning veterans in its fellowship program. 

When I first heard of you and saw your resume, I thought this guy is too good to be true. Have you heard that before?

Yes, yes, I have.

And you don’t seem to be really “out” about your Judaism.

Right.

The arc of your life, at least as far as the military and physical prowess part of your resume, run counter to the contemporary idea of the Jewish American male. What made you want to become a Navy SEAL officer and fight in Iraq?

I had a lot of great role models when I was growing up. One was my maternal grandfather, Harold Jacobs, who told me stories about boxing in the Great Depression when he was growing up. He told me about the great Jewish boxers and baseball players and basketball players. I grew up knowing that I wanted to live a physical life, as well as an intellectual, spiritual and moral life. There is this Greek ideal of bringing everything together. This was all held together by the idea that you had a duty to be of service to others. 

What made you come back to St. Louis and set up this organization to serve veterans?

I was serving as the commander of an al-Qaeda targeting cell. It’s March 8, 2007 and my team and I are in Fallujah. Our mission was the capture mid- to senior-level al-Qaeda operatives. My team was hit by a suicide truck bomb. Their intent was not only to create casualties by the explosion, but also to release poison chlorine gas. A Marine beside me and I grabbed each other, and we made our way outside the barracks. I fell down on my hands and knees. My eyes, mouth and my throat were burning. I saw that I had blood on my uniform. I realized it was the blood of my friend Joel. I was fine and 72 hours later, I returned to duty. When I came home weeks later, I visited Joel at Bethesda Naval Hospital. When you ask those young men and women, who are in their 20s, what they want to do, they all say they want to go back and be with their unit. I knew that the harsh reality was they were not going to be able to go back to their units. One of them had lost both legs; another had lost use of his right arm.

I asked them, “If you cannot return to your unit right away, what else would you like to do?” Every single one of them told me they wanted to find a way to continue to serve. One wanted to go home and coach high school football. Another wanted to teach. Another wanted to get involved in law enforcement. What they needed to hear was, “We still need you.” What they had to hear was that when they come home, we see them not as problems but as assets, that we welcomed them home and we want to find them a way to be of service here at home. I called two disabled friends and told them my idea. They both put in some of their disability money and I put in my combat pay, about $3,500. For me, that was about $125 a month, tax free. 

When I was in Bosnia in 1994, I saw survivors of the ethnic cleansing. So often what I saw in the camps were the parents and the grandparents who had really young kids. They knew they had to wake up every day to be strong for someone. The people who weren’t doing well were people my own age, late teens and early 20s, who felt their lives had been cut short and they didn’t have anyone counting on them. I noticed here in the United States that there was no organization challenging veterans, telling them “You still have a purpose here. We need you to continue to serve.” That was the genesis of The Mission Continues.

What will you do with the $100,000 you will receive for the Bronfman Award?

I have not actually thought about that yet. That’s something I have to talk about with Sheena. We just heard about it a couple of weeks ago, and I want to be thoughtful about it.

Do you expect to have a life in politics at some point?

At some point in my life, I do think that will be a great way for me to serve. I also think it’s important for people who go into public life to have very broad experience. The Greek idea of the art and science of public life as creating and sustaining communities, I think we are all part of public life.

How long will you continue running The Mission Continues? 

I am committed to making sure that The Mission Continues is successful. Any great founder will build something that can live on. It’s not about me; it’s about The Mission Continues and this generation. I think the organization still needs me, at least for a little while. I will certainly stay engaged for the rest of my life. As for being the CEO, it might be only for a couple of years. I have thought about public office, and I have also thought about university administration. 

Which side of the political line do you come down on?

I am staying very independent right now because I think it’s important for this generation of veterans. As a military officer, I always stayed independent.

How did you get your commission as a naval officer?

Officer Candidate School at Pensacola, Fla., in 13 weeks. I found OCS, initially, to be disappointing. I didn’t think it was tough enough. I wanted to be running the obstacle course. I envisioned these wizened old drill sergeants who would really push you. What I found at OCS is that it was a great way to learn how to lead, and I ended up enjoying all the men and women who were in my class.

You have an attraction for conflict areas. Why is that?

I had a wonderful professor when I was at Duke. Neil [Boothby] took me to Bosnia to do international humanitarian work. I had a powerful experience there. Growing up here in St. Louis, and being at B’nai El, people always talked about “never again,” this idea [of preventing] another genocide or ethnic cleansing. Here I was, I am an adult, I am in college, and it’s happening again in the world. I was 20 years old. I was in Bosnia, and I wanted to respond. I wanted to play a small part in that. The work I was doing was really simple. I was helping Neil understand what was happening to unaccompanied children. These were kids who had lost their parents, who lost them in refugee camps or had been killed. I helped out with kindergarten and I helped them set up a soccer team. I was driven by this idea that the world had to respond, and I wanted to play a part in it.

That’s also what made me want to join the military, seeing what happened in Bosnia, seeing what happened in Rwanda. I saw that things only came to an end when people were willing to use force to bring it to happen. What the world requires of everyone is that you have a combination of courage and compassion. Without compassion, courage has no direction. Without courage, compassion falters.

What do you think is America’s role in the future?

My own experience, having been overseas, is that the average person overseas still looks at America as a place they want to be. In Albania and Cambodia, people would come up to me all the time and ask if I could help them with a visa, apply for a scholarship, get a job. When you spend time overseas, you get a greater appreciation for this country. For all the difficulties we have in the United States, this is the best place in the world to be an immigrant.

Are we a country that’s lost its way, or are we still leading?

We need to make the decision that we should lead. In many places, America needs to re-assert its leadership and be proud of what we have to offer the world. We have students from throughout the world who make up the graduating classes of our colleges and universities, and I think they are a great talent pool for America to draw from. I think people being in contact with real Americans is one of the best things we can do for our foreign policy. The investment we make in the Peace Corps is one of the best foreign policy investments we make. And there’s bipartisan support for the Peace Corps.  

Have we as a country evolved in how we treat military veterans, today vs. Vietnam, for instance?

The men and women from the Vietnam generation have been great supporters of The Mission Continues because they want this generation of veterans to have a different homecoming. It’s a welcome change. It’s also important, now that we have a volunteer military, that we make sure that we keep solid civil-military relations. People have to understand the veterans. Even if you add up everyone who served over the last 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s still less than 1 percent of the population. What we need to do is make sure communities understand the people who go overseas to fight. At Mission Continues, we have service days where we bring thousands of people out to do service with veterans. They can see veterans in a positive light. Sometimes, where people think about veterans, they might think about post-traumatic stress or brain injuries or suicide. We want them to see veterans as assets, as civic leaders.