Post-9/11 veterans find new ways to serve at home.
The day after leaving the U.S. Army, Spencer Kympton, M.B.A. ’04, packed up a U-Haul truck and drove from Georgia to Cambridge. The West Point valedictorian, who grew up in a military family, had spent eight years as an aviation officer on tours in Korea, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Central and South America. Yet he felt barely any sense of loss or disconnection in moving on. “I went right into a new intensely team-based setting at Harvard Business School,” he explains, “with defined missions and a new, shared identity with peers that immediately replaced the experience of being in the military.”
Twelve years later, Kympton is president of The Mission Continues (TMC), a nonprofit organization that provides a similar context for post-9/11 veterans struggling to find a foothold in civilian life. “Many of this generation have deployed four or five times and often with the same men and women,” he notes. When they come home, those bonds are often severed, along with “the only real identity that person has had, many from the age of 17. Layer on to that, they may be dealing with war wounds, the invisible scars of war, trying to reconnect with relationships at home, the need to find a job—and right there you’ve got monumental challenges for them to overcome.”
The Mission Continues puts these veterans to work in volunteer “platoons” with “squad leaders” to tackle wide-ranging civic projects: mentoring children and refurbishing schools in Boston; tracking down homeless veterans in Phoenix who may want help; and building sustainable agricultural networks that supply fresher food to families in Washington, D.C. In The Bronx, a new platoon is partnered with DreamYard, which pairs arts education with community projects. “These are long-term revitalization efforts in some of the most disadvantaged areas in New York City,” says Kympton, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and young son. “The veterans provide all the blocking and tackling.”
The 30 platoons, each with 80 to 100 people, are led by trained veterans who are paid a stipend based on impact. (The Boston platoon leader is Rachel McNeill, A.L.B. ’14, a seven-year army veteran; former U.S. Marine Regan Turner, M.B.A.-M.P.P. ’13, is TMC’s West Coast regional director.) Each unit defines its own mission. “What’s most important is that we find a cause that speaks to them,” says Kympton, who became a McKinsey & Company consultant and senior leader at Teach for America after Harvard. “Licking envelopes is not the kind of work that will restore a sense of purpose in life.” One top funder is TMC’s national partner, The Wounded Warrior Project, a larger nonprofit that reinvigorates injured veterans through about 20 different programs. Corporate sponsors such as Boeing, Target, and Goldman Sachs provide 40 percent of TMC’s current $7.5-million budget; the balance comes from individuals, foundations, and philanthropies, including The Paul E. Singer Foundation, New Profit Inc., and Got Your 6.
The platoons are essentially “healing by helping” models that build crucial peer relationships through familiar, mostly physical work with a clear goal. All are linchpins of military life and, arguably, of any well-balanced civilian life as well. “Serving others is a very human concept—it creates meaningful connections,” notes Kympton, who is well versed in research on the positive effects of volunteerism that drive the success of AmeriCorps, among other groups. Veterans, however, “are especially prone to act: they all stepped forward in the wake of 9/11,” he adds. “This is action therapy—that’s why it’s so effective.”
Eric Greitens, a Rhodes Scholar and Navy Seal veteran of four anti-terror missions, founded The Mission Continues in 2007. Fours years later he hired Kympton, who is now running and expanding the organization. Greitens remains on the board of directors, along with the Kennedy School’s David Gergen, professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership, and VICE News correspondent and former Navy Seal Kaj Larsen, M.P.P. ’07.
Initially, The Mission Continues trained small groups of veterans as “fellows” who worked 20 hours a week on six-month-long projects linked to other nonprofits, earning roughly $7,000. Surveys on the effect of this intensive experience have shown increased confidence, social integration, peer connections, and political engagement among fellows, and even improved family relationships. “We measure for self-efficacy,” says the organization’s Northeast regional director, Aaron Scheinberg, M.P.A./I.D. ’11, a 2003 West Point graduate who was deployed in Iraq. Even the three-day orientation for fellows, he adds, “is a magical experience—and I don’t use that term lightly. You see people who were at home sitting on the couch feeling bad, feeling socially isolated, with no structured path to contributing the skills they know they have collected. Here, they find a renewed belief in themselves.” Many also find more tangible success, such as permanent jobs, new career paths, professional mentors, and incentives to return to school.
To date, about 1,100 veterans have completed the program, and each quarter, 100 more are chosen from upwards of 300 applicants. Former fellows, such as McNeill, who studied international relations at the Extension School, typically lead platoons. Still, these numbers barely register, given the nation’s five million post-9/11 veterans.
To reach more people, Kympton, Scheinberg (who also has an M.B.A. from Columbia), and others at TMC in 2013 established the first pilot platoons in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Orlando, and San Diego, and have since expanded to the current 30. (By 2016, they plan to have 135 units up and running.)
Whether the positive outcomes of the fellowships can translate equally well to members of the much larger platoons, who typically volunteer less time, and less frequently, is not clear. “We are still experimenting with scale,” Kympton readily admits. “We can’t answer those questions about impact with five platoons, but we think we can with 80 platoons. We are very focused on making sure these service platoons are actually having meaningful impact.” To help find out, he continues, the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation recently awarded TMC a grant to fund an independent evaluation of the effects of community service on individuals in 10 platoons. Significantly enlarging the fellows program, although a good idea, is too costly with “private dollars alone,” Kympton adds. TMC has not yet taken or pursued government money, but is exploring whether there are creative ways to tap into GI funding or other resources at the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Veterans Administration.
Roughly 60 percent of those in TMC’s fellowship and platoon programs have an officially recognized disability, but the nonprofit selects a range of veterans: anyone for whom a community mission will make a significant difference, Kympton explains, people “who have the potential to have a real impact on their communities that will endure across generations. We talk a lot about legacy.” Older veterans are also welcomed, and participate in some of the platoons. Kympton acknowledges the challenges veterans face, now and historically, but he and Scheinberg also believe that news coverage, through the “frequency or tendency to focus on issues like PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] and veteran suicide, has created the perception that those issues dominate this generation.”
Scheinberg, who has himself experienced a degree of PTSD, points to TMC’s strong rehabilitative component, but adds: “The truth is you can struggle and be successful. You can be negatively affected by combat, as most people would be, and still come back and be a leader in your community.”
In Boston, the 80-member platoon aims to “improve education and help local children,” says leader Rachel McNeill, a Wisconsin native who was medically retired from service in 2010. So far, that has entailed renovating an art room at the Mather Elementary School and creating work spaces for teachers who had none at the John W. McCormack Middle School.
When McNeill moved to Boston to enroll at Harvard, she already had friends here, but says, “It would have been easy for me to isolate myself.” Instead, she found a way to continue serving by applying her visual communications degree at Warrior Writers, which teaches veterans to use the arts to understand and express their experiences. McNeill formed and built a local chapter and was instrumental in publishing two anthologies of veterans’ writings and artwork; in fact, she spent her six-month TMC fellowship at Warrior Writers while finishing her bachelor’s degree. In April, she took on the Boston platoon where, as on every TMC project, veterans and civilians work together, learning about and trusting each other more along the way.
Scheinberg knows the value of mediating such cultural divides. As a student at West Point on September 11, 2001, he was one of only a few cadets majoring in Arabic. He was eventually sent to Iraq between 2005 and 2007 as an infantry platoon leader, stationed just south of Baghdad in the so-called Triangle of Death. “When I first got there, there were nightly raids and we were trying to get the bad guys off the streets,” he reports. “We soon realized that tactic wasn’t working and we needed more hearts-and-minds work, and started getting money from our division to do social-support and civic-infrastructure projects.” Because he spoke Arabic and “understood the culture a little better than the others in the unit,” Scheinberg had already formed working relationships with local officials, and was put in charge of the new “civil affairs” mission. “I had 90 projects with contractors and $10 million in cash,” he says. “I was only 24 or 25 and I ran my own contractors and town council meetings and I got a little paranoid because I was handing out large sums of money on a weekly basis to contractors and it was impossible to tell whether they were connected to insurgents or not.”
When he left the military, he returned to school and then went into consulting—but found it lacked meaning. He eagerly took Kympton’s offer in 2012 to become TMC’s director of strategy and research, despite a wariness about traditional veterans organizations. “I have met amazing World War II, Korea, and Vietnam veterans,” he says—including a man from his hometown, Philadelphia, who was a caring pen pal during especially rough times in Iraq. But Scheinberg and many of his peers are put off by what they view as a primary focus on advocating for benefits.“I don’t like the approach of treating us like victims or charity cases,” he says. “I just didn’t want to be a part of it.”
At The Mission Continues, he points out, the benefits just keep coming. “I get to help my community, and be a leader with other veterans, all while building an organization, which is very entrepreneurial,” he explains. “I do some high-level thinking, then go paint a local school and be with children—and showcase what a veteran can do.”
Like Scheinberg, Kympton never found the mission of private consulting—“generating profits for our clients”—meaningful enough. He transferred to McKinsey’s social-sector practice and worked for the FBI and the Department of Defense before being assigned to the education-reform effort in Washington, D.C., under former mayor Adrian Fenty and education chancellor Michelle Rhee, M.P.P. ’97. “It was an emotionally charged environment and what it did for me—for the first time since I had been in the military—was to show me individuals who were so passionate about an issue that they were going to throw themselves into it full-throttle. That’s why I left McKinsey for Teach for America.”
Three years later, he became TMC’s first executive. “One of my best friends from West Point had followed a very similar path,” Kympton reports: leaving the army, going to business school and into consulting. But he never found an absorbing niche. “Ultimately, he answered the call to go back into the military and deployed to Iraq. Three weeks later he came home in a body bag.…I don’t want that to be the story of this generation.”