Most Americans know that President Truman was faced with the difficult decision about whether or not to use atomic power during World War II. But what most don’t know is that after the war, Truman asked our veterans to play leadership roles in their communities as civilians. At the end of World War II, President Truman sent a letter to all honorably discharged WWII veterans with this message:
“To you who answered the call of your country and served in its Armed Forces to bring about the total defeat of the enemy, I extend the heartfelt thanks of a grateful Nation. As some of the Nation’s finest, you undertook the most severe task one can be called upon to perform. Because you demonstrated the fortitude, resourcefulness, and calm judgment necessary to carry out that task, we now look to you for leadership and example in further exalting our country in peace.”
As both a wartime President and a World War I veteran, Truman recognized the need to challenge our nation’s veterans.
Through my own military experiences, I also saw the need to not only tell our veterans “thank you,” but also “we still need you”. After I returned from service in Iraq as a Navy SEAL, I visited with wounded Marines at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. Even though their wounds had cut their time in the military short, each Marine expressed an unwavering desire to continue serving his country. I noticed that many people were offering things to wounded veterans, but I knew it was essential to ask something of them. After visiting Bethesda, I used my combat pay to start The Mission Continues so that we could challenge our veterans to serve again.
The Mission Continues offers competitive fellowships to engage wounded and disabled veterans who have served since 9/11 in service here at home. These veterans draw from leadership skills honed on the battlefield to now benefit their communities. A typical Fellowship lasts 14 weeks, during which the Fellow receives a living stipend so he or she can serve full-time at a local charitable organization. Each Fellow provides a tangible good such as mentoring at-risk children, organizing veterans support groups, or helping the disabled enjoy the outdoors again.
In addition to our Fellowship program we encourage veterans from all eras and citizens of all backgrounds to complete service projects in their communities. Last month, we had our largest service campaign to date during National Volunteer Week. Over a 9-day period, nearly 700 volunteers and supporters participated in 29 projects across the nation, dedicating 2,000 hours of service. Veterans and citizens served side by side, preparing lunches for homeless veterans, beautifying war memorials, and serving as buddies for the Special Olympics.
I attended a service project in honor of Lt. Daniel Riordan, who lost his life in Iraq in June 2007. Nearly 60 volunteers, both veterans and civilians, gathered at the Soldiers Memorial in downtown St. Louis to landscape and beautify the grounds. Dan’s family was in attendance, but so were many others – most who didn’t know Lt. Riordan but wanted to serve their community while honoring Dan at the same time. It was incredible to see our nation’s veterans answering the call to service in their communities.
Volunteers and staff have shared similar experiences from the projects they attended throughout the country. Among the stories shared were a third grade student learning to dig a hole from an Army veteran while planting a tree on his school grounds, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans working alongside those who served in Vietnam, and wounded and disabled veterans receiving fitness training. National Volunteer Week has come and gone, but the idea of continued service has not.
Much as Truman challenged our veterans to be leaders in their communities, I encourage you to think about our returning veterans and the incredible service they still are able to give to our country. We should not only tell them “thank you” for their service, but also “we still need you.”
Eric Greitens (MO ’95) is Chairman and CEO of The Mission Continues and a Senior Fellow at the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri.