Veterans find, 'We need you, we still believe in you'

Navy SEAL Eric Greitens (MO & Lady Margaret Hall '96) talks with injured about service
ST. LOUIS — When Navy SEAL Eric Greitens returned in April 2007 from hunting al-Qaida leaders in Iraq, he visited injured Marines at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. Just days before, a car bomb laced with chlorine had blown up outside Greiten's barracks in Fallujah. A Marine friend had shielded him from the brunt of the blast.

At the hospital, Greitens, 34, a Parkway North graduate who lives in St. Louis, asked the wounded if there was anything they wanted or needed. He heard the same response over and over:

"I want to return to my unit, sir."

Greitens knew that for many, that wasn't possible, he recalled. When he pressed them further about life after recovery, many of the patients wanted to return home, maybe become a teacher, a counselor, a coach, a mentor.

Greitens also noticed something else in the hospital: a steady stream of visitors — seniors, veterans, Scout groups — who thanked the injured for their service.

"What they didn't have was someone who told them, 'We need you, we still believe in you ... and we want you to come home and be a contributor to the community,'" Greitens said.

So, with the $3,500 in combat pay he had earned in Iraq and help from two friends who chipped in $1,000 each, Greitens established the Center for Citizen Leadership. The idea behind the St. Louis-based nonprofit group is to help wounded and disabled soldiers pursue careers in public service. Since his return from Iraq, Greitens, a Rhodes scholar and White House Fellow, has enlisted a board of advisers that includes former U.S. Sens. John Danforth, Bob Kerrey, Max Cleland and Harris Wofford and raised about $60,000. He hopes to fund 30 fellowships this year.

Wofford, a Pennsylvania Democrat, called Greitens "one of the most promising and creative new leaders coming out of the experience in Afghanistan and Iraq." He commended the center as "a great way to tap the "talent, energy, experience and wisdom," of returning veterans.

"It's cracking the atom of the power of those people," Wofford said. "We need to see them, and they need to see themselves, as assets, not liabilities. I can't think of anyone to challenge them better than Eric. ... He's asking them to come back and to give this extraordinary example ... of continuing the mission in peaceful ways."

Tim Smith, 29, heard about Greitens' program after he returned to St. Louis last year after four years in the Army, including a tour in Iraq where he lost 11 friends, eight to a single car bomb. Smith, an Affton High School graduate, suffered chronic conjunctivitis and post-traumatic stress.

"I was having trouble losing that many friends in that short of period of time, looking for my weapon under my bed. Just anxiety," he said.

He was working the overnight shift at the post office, but felt he had more to offer. He went to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and got counseling that he said helped a great deal. In turn, he wanted to do the same for others.

He approached Greitens. The Center for Citizen Leadership underwrote a $6,000, three-month fellowship for Smith at the Medical Center. Smith helped identify the potential needs of participants in a program that is designed to help veterans with mental health or substance abuse issues integrate into the community.

"Tim has been very helpful at helping me see things from a veteran's point of view," said Kate Lewis, the VA's recovery programs manager.

Earlier this month, the medical center hired Smith full time.

"I think it lets him use the experience he's had to help other people," Lewis said. "I'm not sure he had that opportunity at the post office."

"When you're working with individuals who are having problems with coping. … to have somebody whose been there and working through that is very gratifying both for the person with the difficulties and the person who's helping them," she said.

In the fall, Smith will start a graduate degree in social work at Washington University.

"The program gave me the opportunity to get my foot in the door and ... become a leader for other veterans that are going through some of the same issues," said Smith, a married father of two. "Hopefully we can help each other."

Greitens left active duty in May 2007 and now lectures on leadership, ethics and other topics. He isn't paid for his work with the center. Smith is one of seven fellows the center has underwritten so far. Others include a veteran who worked with an equine therapy program, another who developed a program to teach wounded veterans to alpine ski and a third who is working as a youth mentor.

"We needed to challenge these guys," Greitens said. "We weren't going to issue charity, but a challenge that we would help them meet, and that was to continue to serve their community and country. Our belief is everyone has service to give."