How One Nonprofit Is Helping Veterans Serve Again, at Home
By Lisa Wirthman
After eight years of military service flying Blackhawk helicopters for the U.S. Army around the globe, Spencer Kympton felt something was missing when he came home. He had the skills to transition into corporate life—he earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and then took a job at McKinsey & Company—but he didn’t have a mission.
“Any way that I spun it to myself, it always came back to increasing profits for another organization—and that wasn’t something that I found fulfilling,” he said.
Searching for more meaningful work, Kympton left McKinsey to join Teach for America, a job that felt more fulfilling because he could connect to both community and national needs. Then something happened that changed his life again.
In 2009, one of Kympton’s best friends from West Point, who had followed a similar post-military career path to business school and the corporate world, decided to return to the army. On the outside, like Kympton and thousands of other veterans, he seemed to have successfully transitioned to corporate and civilian life. On the inside, however, something was missing. He, too, missed public service.
“I think he just felt disconnected from this sense of purpose and meaning,” Kympton said. His friend was deployed to Iraq and, three weeks later, was killed when an insurgent detonated a bomb in a public market in Baghdad.
His friend’s experience hit home. Kympton decided he wanted to help veterans transition to civilian life by finding other ways to serve.
He eventually met U.S. Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, who was searching for a president to lead his expanding nonprofit, The Mission Continues, which redeploys veterans to serve in their local communities through volunteer work. He founded the organization in 2007 after returning home from his fourth deployment overseas and visiting with wounded Marines in military hospitals. Despite their injuries, Greitens noted, every veteran asked a common question: “When can I go back?”
They couldn’t go back, but they could continue to serve their country at home, Greitens realized. He donated his combat pay to found The Mission Continues and in 2011 recruited Kympton to keep the mission going.
Many organizations focus on how to serve veterans when they return home. But the jobs, benefits and housing, while essential, often don’t fill the void left by service. “We’re not creating the balance of viewing veterans as a population that not only needs to be served, but that needs to serve again,” Kympton said.
Some 55 percent of the Americans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan feel disconnected from civilian life, and 56 percent say they miss something from their time at war—mainly their fellow soldiers and camaraderie—according to a poll conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation in March 2014.
“When you have a really strong connection to a mission and an incredibly strong connection to the men and women next to you in that mission, and that’s severed on the way home, it’s a difficult thing to wrestle with,” said Kympton.
The Mission Continues grants six-month fellowships to veterans who accept the challenge to redeploy in their local communities. Fellows receive a monthly stipend and spend 20 hours a week leading a service project with a local nonprofit or charity based on their personal passions. Projects have included educating low-income kids and training service dogs for wounded veterans. In their off hours they receive coaching on ways to achieve post-fellowship goals.
By the end of this year, more than 1,000 veterans will have graduated the fellowship program. With the average fellowship costing about $12,500, however, the program is resource-intensive and difficult to scale.
In an effort to reach hundreds of thousands of veterans, The Mission Continues formed Service Platoons, typically led by former fellows, which connect larger groups of veterans to volunteer together in their communities. The idea for this team-based concept came from the orientations for each new class of fellows, who are flown to a single location for the event. “We saw a reconnection across the group … and an incredible relief to be part of a team,” said Kympton. “They had comrades-in-arms again.”
Launched in October 2013, Service Platoons now exist in 17 cities, with plans to have 135 platoons across the country by the end of 2016. For their service projects, the platoons tend to choose common issues such as mentoring at-risk kids, tackling hunger and nutrition, and combating homelessness.
A platoon in Phoenix, for example, went out at 3 a.m. to search the worst neighborhoods in the city for unregistered homeless individuals and connect them with service providers. “That’s a gap that not too many volunteers are going to fill in a community,” Kympton said.
This past weekend, The Mission Continues gathered all of its platoon leaders for a summit in Boston to review the first year of service and help the organization craft its future going forward. “It may seem counter intuitive for us to say, ‘What can you do for us now?’” Kympton noted, “but in many cases it’s absolutely what they need to hear.”
Lisa Wirthman writes about business, sustainability, public policy, and women’s issues. Her work has been published in The Atlantic.com, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Fast Company, Investor’s Business Daily, the Denver Post and the Denver Business Journal.
This article originally appeared on Northwestern Mutual Voice on Forbes.com.