Paying Veterans to Give Back

Reintegrating returning military personnel to civilian life means more than job training. One nonprofit believes soldiers should first focus on community service as a way to gain a toehold in the workforce.

An employee from the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority explains and offers some forms to Jesus Medina, a Marine veteran at a special veterans job fair in Van Nuys, Calif., on Oct. 24, 2013.
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
Jan. 14, 2014, 5 a.m.

This is the third piece in a weeklong series that ex­am­ines dif­fer­ent pro­grams around the coun­try that try to tackle the un­em­ploy­ment crisis and keep Amer­ic­ans con­nec­ted to the work­force.

Tristan Wil­li­am­son didn’t cut his hair for three years after be­ing dis­charged from the Navy. He felt he was done with the mil­it­ary. He wanted a new, strictly ci­vil­ian life. Yet he was 22 years old on a col­lege cam­pus of 18-year-olds, which cre­ated a vast chasm of dif­fer­ence between him and his peers. “I would avoid any­thing vet­er­an or mil­it­ary,” he said. “But at the same time I didn’t really feel com­fort­able around any­one who wasn’t a vet.”

Wil­li­am­son was “in­und­ated” with vet­er­ans’ re­sources. But, for whatever reas­on, he opened the email about The Mis­sion Con­tin­ues, a non­profit that helps vet­er­ans in­teg­rate in­to their com­munit­ies. The St. Louis-based group wound up be­ing his life­line.

The Mis­sion Con­tin­ues was foun­ded in 2007 by Eric Greit­ens, a former Navy SEAL, to help dis­abled post-9/11 vet­er­ans fig­ure out how to live in the ci­vil­ian world and re­con­nect with the work­force. In 2009, the group ex­pan­ded its pro­gram to all 9/11-era vet­er­ans. “What we’re try­ing to ac­com­plish is em­power­ing vet­er­ans to serve their coun­tries in new ways. That ex­per­i­ence that we took from Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan, we can put to work at home,” said Aaron Schein­berg, dir­ect­or of re­search and strategy for The Mis­sion Con­tin­ues.

The isol­a­tion and con­fu­sion vet­er­ans feel when their mil­it­ary ser­vice is done can be over­whelm­ing. They might have a job when they get back, but it’s at Wal­mart. They might be in col­lege, but their class­mates are a world away from them. They feel the best years of their life are over. They have no idea how to ex­plain to po­ten­tial em­ploy­ers how their mil­it­ary skills trans­late in­to a ci­vil­ian work­force. Many of them are de­pressed. Many have in­jur­ies that re­quire con­stant at­ten­tion.

Vet­er­ans of the post-9/11 era are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­able to un­der­em­ploy­ment or un­em­ploy­ment. The un­em­ploy­ment rate of young vet­er­ans hov­ers around 10 per­cent, high­er than the 6.7 per­cent over­all na­tion­al un­em­ploy­ment rate. There were 241,000 post-9/11 vet­er­ans out of work in Novem­ber, ac­cord­ing to the Labor De­part­ment.

Yet, The Mis­sion Con­tin­ues de­lib­er­ately bills it­self as a ser­vice or­gan­iz­a­tion for vet­er­ans, not a job-train­ing pro­gram, Schein­berg said. “We found that the well­ness as­pect, the de­creas­ing of de­pres­sion by half, the con­nec­tion to a sense of pur­pose and to a new so­cial net­work, the con­fid­ence — that’s our first or­der. That’s our fo­cus.”

The Mis­sion Con­tin­ues of­fers paid fel­low­ships to vet­er­ans to work at non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tions of their choice. The sti­pends are liv­able, along the lines of those re­ceived by Ameri­Corps work­ers, but barely. (Wil­li­am­son said he kept his part-time job at a fish res­taur­ant.)

The ap­plic­a­tion pro­cess can take a sev­er­al months. First, a vet­er­an must find a non­profit where he or she can vo­lun­teer on a sub­stant­ive pro­ject, 20 hours a week for six months. Once the ap­plic­ant has got­ten buy-in from the host non­profit, he or she cre­ates a pro­pos­al port­fo­lio and par­ti­cip­ates in sev­er­al rounds of in­ter­views be­fore fi­nal se­lec­tions are made. Last year, 800 vet­er­ans were giv­en fel­low­ships. The Mis­sion Con­tin­ues got 10 times as many ap­plic­a­tions. Next year, the group hopes to have slots avail­able for 1,000 fel­lows.

The cost-of-liv­ing sti­pends put a hard lim­it on the num­ber of paid fel­low­ships that Mis­sion Con­tin­ues can of­fer. The or­gan­iz­a­tion is fun­ded through cor­por­ate spon­sors — like Gold­man Sachs, Tar­get, Bad Ro­bot, and Boe­ing — and by found­a­tions like the Ford Found­a­tion and the Robin Hood Found­a­tion. But there is only so much money to go around, which means the com­pet­i­tion is tough.

“We have to se­lect fel­lows who show a ded­ic­a­tion to im­prov­ing them­selves. The ap­plic­a­tion pro­cess is pretty rig­or­ous. First, you have to get off your butt and find po­ten­tial non­profits them­selves,” said Schein­berg.

Wil­li­am­son said his ap­plic­a­tion for a Mis­sion Con­tin­ues fel­low­ship was “my Hail Mary” after gradu­at­ing from In­di­ana Uni­versity South­east. By that time, he had a wife and a 1-year-old daugh­ter. He had moved to San Diego, where he had been based when he was in the Navy, but he had no idea what he was go­ing to do.

Wil­li­am­son landed on Vet­er­ans Vil­lage, a drug-and-al­co­hol-treat­ment fa­cil­ity for vet­er­ans. He pro­posed that he do case­work for the non­profit as it was open­ing a winter shel­ter for home­less vet­er­ans. At the end of his fel­low­ship, when one of the as­sist­ant dir­ect­ors left, he was asked to stay on.

“I man­aged to just sort of walk in­to em­ploy­ment a week after my fel­low­ship ended,” Wil­li­am­son said. That doesn’t al­ways hap­pen, and The Mis­sion Con­tin­ues fel­lows know from the start that their goal should be big­ger than just get­ting a job. But nobody con­tests that the work they do can be a valu­able re­sume-build­er.

“The only way to get a job is through per­son­al net­works,” said Jared Cris­cuolo, former ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Be­low the Sur­face, a San Diego-based non­profit de­voted to wa­ter is­sues. Be­low the Sur­face has hos­ted sev­er­al Mis­sion Con­tin­ues fel­lows on pro­jects like film­ing the un­der­wa­ter cleanups for the San Diego Bay. One former Be­low the Sur­face fel­low, Danny Vesh­in­ski, now runs his own en­vir­on­ment­ally friendly boat-clean­ing busi­ness in San Diego, Da Kine Diving Ser­vices.

“While a job or re­fer­ral to a job from a fel­low­ship should nev­er be a fore­gone con­clu­sion, there is ab­so­lutely noth­ing wrong with a fel­low ad­voc­at­ing for a po­s­i­tion for them­selves,” Cris­cuolo said. “We en­cour­age it.”

Only about one-third of The Mis­sion Con­tin­ues fel­lows are act­ively look­ing for work when they ap­ply for a fel­low­ship. Some of them — 10 per­cent to 15 per­cent — are fully dis­abled and simply need a way to get in­volved in their com­munity. About 60 per­cent of them are in school full-time and thus not on the job mar­ket. For the re­main­ing 25 per­cent to 30 per­cent who are act­ively look­ing for work, nine out of 10 have reached their pro­fes­sion­al goals six months after com­plet­ing their fel­low­ship, ac­cord­ing to the re­search about the fel­lows con­duc­ted by Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity in St. Louis.

Those num­bers are use­ful for re­search­ers, but The Mis­sion Con­tin­ues staff in­sists that’s not what the group is all about. All they really want to do is make sure vet­er­ans feel wel­come in their com­munit­ies again.

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