Can Service Save Us?

It just might. By helping returning troops regain their sense of purpose, veterans’ groups are proving that public service is therapeutic

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TIME Magazine Cover, July 1, 2013
Photo-Illustration by Andrew B. Myers for TIME; styling by Kirsten Reader; typography by Joe Zeff Design

This self-help ethos stands in stark contrast to that of the more traditional military-related charities. Eric Greitens, the founder and CEO of the Mission Continues, is notoriously tough on veterans who come to him with service-related excuses. “People understand the tremendous sacrifices that veterans have made — and they instinctively want to do something for them,” he says. “And that sometimes leads people to give veterans an excuse: Oh, you didn’t show up for work on time. It must be that you have posttraumatic stress disorder. Oh, you’re disabled. Don’t even try. Or, you’re being a bad partner to your husband or wife, or a bad father or mother. It must be that you lost a bunch of friends. We simply do not accept those excuses.” Jake Wood has little tolerance for veterans who see themselves as victims. Posttraumatic stress is, he believes, a condition that can be battled and defeated. “If you’re out doing disaster relief,” Wood says, “you’re less likely to be thinking about yourself and more likely to be thinking about the people you’re helping. You’re also presenting yourself, and other veterans, as a model, as a potential community leader.”

Although the data about the beneficial effects of community service on recent veterans is skimpy, there is a wealth of more general evidence that shows the physical and psychological benefits of service, particularly for the elderly. Dr. Nancy Morrow-Howell of Washington University has conducted many of the relevant studies — for the White House Conference on Aging, for AARP — which show that community service provides clear health and psychological benefits, including greater longevity, reduced depression and a greater sense of purpose. “Actually, the elderly are a really good comparison group for wounded veterans,” says Dr. Morrow-Howell, a co-author of the Mission Continues study. “They have to cope with a reduced ability to function physically. Many of them lose their sense of purpose and community after retirement. If they’re widowed, they feel isolated. They need to rebuild their lives, rejoin the world.”

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In a remarkable study from Ohio State University, two groups of elderly patients in senior day care were asked to make gift baskets. One group made them for themselves; a second group was told they were making the baskets for homeless people in their community. The second group experienced a greater sense of satisfaction and psychological well-being than those who were simply making the baskets for themselves. “Service enables them to find their value outside their own suffering,” says Barbara Van Dahlen, the founder of Give an Hour, a group of mental-health counselors who work with veterans, headquartered in Bethesda, Md., but serving across the country. “I don’t think there’s a mental-health professional on the planet who would disagree with the basic principle that serving others is therapeutic. This is not rocket science.”

“We Still Need You”
“Lives have been saved. lives have been changed for the better,” says Greitens, 39, a Rhodes Scholar and former Navy SEAL. In 2007, he was serving in Iraq as part of an al-Qaeda-targeting team when his barracks was blown up by a truck bomb. Greitens wasn’t badly wounded, but several of his close friends were. A few months later, he visited Bethesda Naval Hospital to comfort the severely wounded veterans there — and he had an epiphany. As he moved from bed to bed, talking to young men who had lost limbs, lost vision and hearing, lost parts of their brains, he asked each, “What do you want to do now?” The answer was always the same: they wanted to return to their units. And if they couldn’t do that? he asked. They wanted to go home and serve in some way — teach school, coach, work in the community. He found himself saying to the wounded veterans, “Great. We still need you.”

(MORE: The End of al-Qaeda?)

Greitens came to Bethesda with unique insight into the power of service. As a college and postgraduate student, he had worked in refugee camps all around the world. He’d found that the people who kept themselves busy in the camps fared better than those who didn’t. The worst off were the young men, whose lives had been violently truncated — by ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, by genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda. They had lost their sense of purpose; unlike the older people in the camps, they had no children to care for. But if they were put to work, helping out with the soccer teams Greitens was organizing, or working in the kindergarten, they began to feel better about themselves.

So he developed the idea of offering six-month service fellowships to wounded veterans, if they provided him with a plausible mission plan and a host agency willing to sponsor them in their home community. He and some friends funded the first few fellowships with their combat and disability pay. They started slowly, built the program carefully. One of their first fellows worked with an equine-therapy program in Texas; another, a woman named Sonia Meneses, was sponsored by the Boys & Girls Club near Clarksville, Tenn. Sometimes it didn’t work so well; sometimes the veterans who applied were just looking for a handout. To counter that, the very first Mission Continues fellow, a severely wounded former Blackhawk pilot named Chris Marvin — came up with a slogan, “It’s not a charity, it’s a challenge.” In fact, Marvin took the fellowship but refused the stipend. “I had a 100% disability,” he later told me. “The money could be better used by someone else.”

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