Military history

Epilogue: The Mission Continues

I COULD HEAR the whomp of the Chinook helicopter's blades before I saw its gray outline against the black sky. I stood thirty yards from the airstrip with my bags at my feet, and despite the plugs in my ears, the high-pitched whine of the twin engines was deafening as the helo set down and kicked up a swirling storm of dust. I shook my buddy's hand, picked up my two stuffed duffel bags, and jogged toward the bird.

For me, the whomp and dust of a helicopter always suggested the promise of something about to happen, and I felt a familiar buzz of adrenaline as I stepped up the ramp and into the helo. I carabineered my bags to the deck of the aircraft and stepped past Iraqi prisoners sitting blindfolded, their hands zip-tied behind their backs. I wondered what was going through their minds. They had been captured, yanked from their homes, only a few hours before, and now they were on a helicopter for the first time in their lives surrounded by unfamiliar smells and sounds, with no idea where they were headed.

This helicopter was devoted exclusively to our task force, and along the sides of the aircraft sat special operations personnel wearing beards and nontraditional uniforms, their weapons resting lightly in their hands. Beside them sat civilian contractors, one of them wearing new, ill-fitting body armor that rode high on his heavy stomach.

The bird made a number of stops in the black of night, and at each stop the crew chief held up a sign that said RAMADI or BAGHDAD or the name of some other base, to let everyone know where we had touched down. Commandos walked off, others stepped on, the helo's blades still spinning. As we took off from Baghdad and headed for Balad, I thought, This is the last leg of my last trip of my last day in Iraq. In Balad I was scheduled to board a plane for home. I sat on the port side of the helo, and as we flew I looked past the gunner out the window onto a black night. I let my mind drift. I was going to be met in Virginia by a beautiful girl, devilishly smart, warm, with an eyes-over-the-shoulder smile that always made my world brighter. I was thinking about walking with her down the beach.

Bright red tracer rounds flew past us into the sky. I expected some reaction from the crew—a hard banking maneuver, some return fire from the door gunner, but we flew straight ahead, tracers still ripping into the sky. Why aren't we evading? Over the past few months, six helicopters had been shot down over Iraq. My mind worked to come up with some explanation. Maybe those are our tracers? But they're too close. The tracers kept whizzing by, our pilot flying the same line.

I thought, Not now, on the last leg of my last ride on my last day of this deployment. Then the helicopter banked hard to port. A few more tracers flew past and then finally the door gunner racked his weapon and pulled the trigger and bullets barked out at the ground below.

When we landed safely in Balad I knew that, barring anything bizarre—being hit by a wild mortar round, choking to death on a turkey leg in the chow hall—I'd get home safely, and when I made it to my rack on base I dropped my duffel bags and took off my body armor. I unbuttoned the left chest pocket of my desert camouflage top and took out a St. Christopher medal given to me by a Catholic friend, a Buddhist prayer scroll from a Buddhist friend, an angel coin from a Protestant friend, a hamsa from a Jewish friend, and a coin imprinted with a Hindu deity from a Hindu friend. Before the deployment I had figured that it would be a bad move to turn down any prayers that were offered. I'm not sure which one did the trick, so I said simply, "Thank you, God," as I stepped out of my uniform.

When I made it home I called Joel Poudrier, whose head injury in Fallujah had led to his evacuation all the way to Virginia. I hadn't seen him since the morning of the truck bomb. When I got him on the phone, Joel said, "They put a ridiculous number of staples in my head, and the Marines are making me go to a psychologist to see if I'm crazy. Problem is, I was nuts before the explosion, so he's got no way to tell if I've changed." Joel told me that his golf game was coming back and that his family was happy to have him home. We made a plan to get together.

Three weeks later, still getting used to the routine of home, I was stepping out of my truck when my cell phone rang.

"Hey Eric, it's Joel."

"Hey man, how's it going?"

"I got some bad news."


"Travis Manion was killed yesterday in Fallujah."

I stood on the street. A red-and-white taxi slowed at a stop sign and then accelerated away.

Joel said, "I heard this morning..."

I thought of the last time I'd seen Travis. The day of the suicide truck bomb, Travis had run straight across the compound—rifle in hand and Marines behind him—to aid us. He was the first man to join me on the roof.

When the casevac convoy arrived to take the injured to Fallujah Surgical, I said to Travis, "You got it?"

"Yeah, I got your back, sir."

"Take care of your people" is one of the principal lessons of military leadership, and my people were not just SEALs, or SWCC, or the men in my targeting cell. Serving overseas, everyone in uniform is part of the same team. Everyone is away from their family. Everyone is exposed to danger. Everyone endures the same long, hot days, hears the same bad jokes, reads the same old magazines. Everyone loses friends. If we take care of our people on deployment, why should that change when we come home?

After Joel and I met with the Manion family, I made arrangements to visit the wounded at Bethesda Naval Hospital. As I pulled into the hospital, I thought, There is only one reason I'm not a patient here: luck. If one RPG had been better aimed at our Humvee, if the suicide truck bomb had detonated two feet closer, if the shots at the helo had hit their mark, I could have been lying in one of those beds.

As I pushed open the heavy brown door to one of the hospital rooms, a young soldier lying in bed caught me with his eyes and followed me as I walked into the room. Gauze bandages were wrapped around his neck. He'd taken a bullet through the throat.

"How you doin'?" I asked, and he wrote on a yellow legal pad, "Fine, was actually having fun over there before this."

His young wife sat next to him with red-ringed eyes, her hand on his shoulder. Most of the Army's wounded were at Walter Reed, but this soldier—for some reason having to do with his care—had been brought to Bethesda. I joked that he was in enemy territory at a Navy hospital, and he wrote, "Navy actually OK, some of them," and he smiled. We communicated a bit more, and as I walked out of his room, I was thinking, What's this guy going to do next?

I walked into another room where a Marine had lost part of his right lung and the use of his right hand. With his good hand, he took mine and shook firmly. His mother sat hunched at his side, and it seemed to me that she'd been there for a very long time, trapped in worry and confusion and heartache. I guessed that the Marine was nineteen, maybe twenty years old. He reminded me of many of the men I had served with. I could picture him cleaning his weapon on a sweltering morning in Southeast Asia, turning a knob to check his radio frequency before a mission in Kenya, or strapping on his body armor before a night patrol in Iraq.

We talked for a while about where he'd served, how he'd been hit, and where he was from. I asked him, "What do you want to do when you recover?"

"I want to go back to my unit, sir."

I nodded. "I know that your guys'll be glad to know that."

In Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape school we were taught the "Stockdale paradox," named after Admiral James Stockdale, a POW in Vietnam for seven and a half years who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his leadership while in captivity. Stockdale taught that as a leader, you must embrace reality and be brutally honest about the harsh facts of your situation. At the same time, you must maintain hope.

The reality and the brutal fact was that this Marine was not going to be back on the battlefield with his unit any time soon. So how could he maintain hope? In Croatia, Rwanda, Bolivia, India, and a dozen other places overseas, I'd seen people rebuild their lives by renewing their sense of purpose.

I said to the Marine, "If you can't go back to your unit right away, what would you like to do?"

He said, "I thought about that a little bit. You know, I had a rough childhood growing up. The Marines was the best thing that happened to me. Those men steered me in the right direction. I've thought that maybe I'd like to go home and maybe be a coach. Maybe I could go home and be some kind of coach or mentor for young kids."

In another room, I talked with a Marine who had lost both his legs. His head was shaved in the Marine Corps high and tight, and his upper body was still powerful.

I asked him, "What do you want to do when you recover?"

"Go back to my Marines, sir."

After we talked a bit longer, I asked him, "And if you can't go back right away, what would you like to do?"

"I think that maybe I'd like to stay here at Bethesda. I want to find a way to help these other Marines to recover, let them know there's hope for them. I was pretty down when I first learned that I lost my legs, but I've had a lot of wonderful people that helped me, and so I'd like to help out other guys that come in."

Later, I talked with a Marine who had been hit by a roadside bomb.

"How's your hearing?" I asked.

"In one of my ears it's bad. In the other it's getting better. The doctors say they think it'll come back. I hope it'll all come back soon."

The Marine's father stood leaning against the wall. When I asked him what he would like to do if he couldn't go back to his unit, he said that he might want to become a teacher. His dad added, "We've been talking about him going back to college to get a teaching degree."

As I left the hospital that day, I knew that these men and women had a long stream of visitors who were coming to the hospital to tell them, "Thank you." The visitors—other service members, government officials, celebrities, friends, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts—were all telling these men and women, "Thank you for your service. Thank you for your sacrifice." And it was clear that our men and women appreciated that. It meant a lot to them when they heard, "Thank you."

I also realized that these men and women had to hear something else. In addition to "Thank you," they also had to hear, "We still need you." They had to know that we viewed them not as problems, but as assets; that we saw them not as weak, but as strong. They had to know that we were glad they were home, that we needed their strength here at home, that we needed them to continue to serve here at home.

I knew from my experience working with Bosnian refugees and Rwandan survivors that those who found a way to serve others were able to rebuild their own sense of purpose, despite all they had lost. I knew from my time in refugee camps and my time working with children of the street that to build a new life in the face of great challenge, what mattered was not what we gave them, but what they did.

Our wounded and disabled veterans had lost a lot. Some had lost their eyesight. Some their hearing. Some had lost limbs. All of that they could recover from. If they lost their sense of purpose, however, that would be deadly. I also knew that no one was going to be able to give them hope; they were going to have to create hope through action.

I did some research when I left the hospital and found over one hundred organizations that served wounded warriors. There were groups that paid for the education of the children of fallen soldiers, groups that assisted wounded veterans to build adaptive housing so that they could live independently with disabilities, and groups that served as advocates for veterans.

I found plenty of organizations ready to give to veterans or to advocate for them, but no organizations that were ready to ask of wounded veterans that they continue their service.

I wanted to welcome returning wounded and disabled veterans not just with charity, but with a challenge.

So I donated my combat pay to begin a different kind of veterans' organization, and two friends contributed money from their disability checks. My plan with The Mission Continues was to offer fellowships for wounded and disabled veterans to serve at nonprofit, charitable, and public benefit organizations. We would provide wounded and disabled veterans with a stipend to offset cost-of-living expenses and with mentors to help them build plans for their post-fellowship life. Most importantly, we would provide them with the challenge and the opportunity to rebuild a meaningful life by serving again in communities here at home.

When I committed to work as a volunteer CEO, a good friend asked me to rethink my plans. "How are you going to make money? How are you going to support yourself?"

I thought of Jason and Caroline, who had left everything to work with the street children of Bolivia. I thought of the nuns I had seen in the home for the destitute and dying in Varanasi, India, of the aid workers who had flown to Rwanda. I thought of Earl Blair, who dedicated his life to teaching young men to box. I had learned that there came a point in their lives when they simply had to listen to their hearts and trust that if they did the right thing, all would work out in the end.

If we were going to build a culture of service, I would set the example. I knew that there were a number of fellowships that existed to support leaders of innovative organizations. If I led well, I might obtain a fellowship to support myself. It would be a challenge, but if I was going to challenge others, I had to challenge myself.

Tom and Janet Manion inspired me. They had set up the Travis Manion Foundation, its motto being the famous saying, "If not me, then who?" I thought about that for myself. I had been in some of the world's worst situations, and I had learned from people who had turned pain into wisdom and suffering into strength. I had studied public service organizations for years, and because of my military service I understood these men and women; we had worn the same boots, carried the same rifles. If not me, then who?

I also thought about the guys in the hospital at Bethesda. I thought about the challenge that they faced. They had served overseas, been wounded, and now I was going to ask them to build new lives here at home. If I was going to ask that of them, then certainly I could ask it of myself.

My most difficult moment in Hell Week had come in the tent—when I let myself focus on my own pain and fear. Then I became weaker. The same thing was happening here. When I asked, "How am I going to support myself? What if I fail? What if this is an embarrassment?" then I grew weaker. When I thought about Joel, when I thought about Travis, when I thought about all of the wounded and disabled veterans fighting to rebuild their lives, then I grew stronger.

I focused on changing one life at a time.

Chris Marvin was driving home from a physical therapy session when a radio commentary by my friend Ken caught his ear. Ken was talking about the war stories his grandfather had told him as a child. When Chris pulled into his driveway, he cut off his engine, but kept the radio on: "Bullets today aren't any friendlier than they were back then. I've seen what they do. And now there are IEDs and suicide truck bombs and all manner of horrors my grandfather never faced. War stories will never sound the same to me as they did when I was little. I see past the punch lines now. Yeah, I still laugh along with the double amputee who jokes about losing $300 worth of tattoos. But I know how real the pain is when he tells me his only regret is that he didn't stop enough shrapnel with his own body to save his squad mate from getting hit."1

A tear rolled down Chris's cheek. Three years before, Chris's Black Hawk helicopter had crashed during operations over Afghanistan. He broke his legs, his foot, and his right arm; shattered the bones in the right side of his face; and severely damaged both knees, his hips, and both shoulders. He was barely conscious when a man ran up to the wreck.

"Is the aircraft on fire?" Chris gasped.

"No," said the man.

"Am I the worst one?" Chris asked, thinking, If I'm the worst injured, everybody else will be OK.

What Ken described—a man who failed because he couldn't save the life of his fellow soldier—was what Chris felt after the helicopter crash. Before hearing the commentary, no one had put into words that feeling of sacrifice and camaraderie forged through service.

After the radio piece finished, the host announced: "Commentator Ken Harbaugh is a former Navy pilot," and explained that he worked with a nonprofit that aimed to help wounded and disabled veterans volunteer in their communities.

Chris thought, I'm a wounded veteran. I should contact that guy. Chris Marvin became our first fellow.

As a fellow, Chris served with other wounded warriors. He led service projects, counseled his wounded friends, and worked with us to create a model for helping wounded veterans begin to serve again here at home. Dozens of wounded veterans owe their first steps in service to Chris. Today, Chris is an MBA student at Wharton and still an active member of our team.

Even with the success of Chris's fellowship, our work remained a struggle. I lived on an air mattress in an empty apartment, and after we'd made a commitment to fund our second fellowship, I was planning to fund it using my credit card.

A few dozen people came to our opening in St. Louis on February 28, 2008. Among them was Mathew Trotter, our second fellow.

Mathew was an eleven-year veteran of the United States Navy. In late 2004, in a shipboard accident, he tore the Achilles tendons in both his legs. In addition to the torn Achilles, small bits of bone splintered and planted themselves in the muscles along the bottom of his feet. Every time Mathew moved, bone splinters cut his tendons. He underwent reconstructive surgeries to repair the damage, but with both legs in casts during his recovery, he could not stretch, and scar tissue damaged the nerves in his legs.

When the doctors cut his casts, Mathew tried to walk, and "every step felt like I was walking on nails." Excruciating pain shot from his heels, up his legs, and into the small of his back. No longer able to do physical training, he gained 150 pounds. He fought to rejoin his men on the ship, but after his fourth surgery, the Navy handed him his transfer papers. At the bottom of the first page, in the box labeled "Reason for Discharge" it said, "Service member is unserviceable for shipboard use, therefore unable to proceed in the Navy." Mathew had served ten years in Navy aviation, and he had sometimes filled out paperwork that designated certain equipment as "unserviceable." Now he felt like he'd been stamped "unserviceable."

When he returned home to Texas, he moved into a trailer and lived off his disability pay. No one would hire him. "It was the hardest time of my life. I used to be in charge of 160 people. Now here I was, absolute bottom of the barrel. My wife left me then and I sunk even further." In late 2007 Mathew heard about The Mission Continues. When we talked with Mathew we asked him the same question we've asked every wounded and disabled veteran since then: we need you; how are you going to continue to serve?

Mathew told us that he wasn't sure, but that he'd always liked working with horses, had always liked working with kids. So we contacted a Texas nonprofit called Horses Helping the Handicapped, which specializes in horse riding as a form of therapy to help children with physical and mental disabilities.

For six months, we paid for Mathew to serve as a mentor and role model for children with physical disabilities. Mathew did incredible work with children, and then on his own initiative he visited the burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Standing in the physical therapy room in front of some of the country's most severely wounded veterans, he talked about his experience.

"Equitherapy is physical therapy, except with a horse. Any physical therapy done on the ground can be done on a horse. When I started physical therapy, I was only able to walk a hundred yards. With equitherapy, I could ride a horse for six miles. You work your upper and lower body, strengthen your core, legs, and arms. Before therapy, I had to use a cane to walk. After therapy, I haven't touched my cane in months."

At the end of his presentation Mathew asked the veterans, "Now, how many of you want to do some of your therapy with horses at the Equitherapy Center?"

Everyone in the room raised his hand.

"Well," Mathew said, "I'm not going to take any of you."

The veterans traded confused looks.

"I'm not going to take any of you," he paused, "unless after your therapy is done, you come back to the Triple H Ranch and volunteer to be mentors to the kids who come to the ranch for their therapy." Mathew explained that his life had changed when we challenged him to begin to serve again. Now he was going to challenge these wounded veterans to begin to serve again.

When Mathew's six-month fellowship finished, he was hired full-time at the Triple H Equitherapy Center. He continues to serve as a role model and mentor for children with physical disabilities, and he continues to oversee a group of veterans who do therapy and then return to mentor children. Today, Mathew is going back to school part-time to become a licensed physical therapist while continuing his employment at Horses Helping the Handicapped.

When Mathew became a fellow, I named his fellowship in honor of Travis Manion and invited Janet Manion to come to our launch in St. Louis. There she met Mathew, who told her, "This fellowship changed my life. I am trying to live Travis's values every day, so that what he stood for will live on."

He continued, "I measure my goals in 'This guy's able to walk' and 'This guy's able to move his hands.' And it's just so much more rewarding. It allows me to help other guys who are in the same situation or worse than I am. I bring the veterans in, so that once they go through the therapy, they get back out there helping the community by helping the kids in the program. We use the military guys as role models for the kids, and they inspire the kids to get better."

Later, when I spoke, I saw my mom sitting next to Janet Manion, both of them crying, and I knew that it well could have been Travis here talking and my mom showing a video. Since that day, I've talked hundreds of times about our work. That speech was my hardest, but as I watched my mom and Janet side by side, I knew that I had made the right decision.

From our very humble beginnings, The Mission Continues has awarded over one hundred fellowships to wounded and disabled veterans like Chris and Mathew, and in October 2008 the President of the United States stopped in St. Louis to recognize our work. In our Tribute Service Projects, men and women come together to "continue the mission" of fallen service members by serving in their communities. We believe that the greatest way to honor those who have fallen is to live their values. With our wounded veterans as examples of courage, we have built a movement of service, and we have had over twelve thousand volunteers who have performed over seventy-five thousand hours of service in communities across the country.

Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and author of Man's Search for Meaning, wrote that human beings create meaning in three ways: through their work, through their relationships, and by how they choose to meet unavoidable suffering. Every life brings hardship and trial, and every life also offers deep possibilities for meaningful work and love.

I've learned that courage and compassion are two sides of the same coin, and that every warrior, every humanitarian, every citizen is built to live with both. In fact, to win a war, to create peace, to save a life, or just to live a good life requires of us—of every one of us—that we be both good and strong.

Recently I was at Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida, to do my reserve duty. Toward the end of a long run, another SEAL and I caught sight of a statue of a lone armed soldier looking out—eyes forward. Was he resting a moment? Midstride? Standing guard? Behind him the names of fallen warriors were engraved in a wall. We walked to the wall and searched for the names of our friends. I looked at name after name, but...

"Here they are."

I walked over. We both touched the names of our classmates, our fallen friends. We stood awhile.

"You ready?"

"Yeah. Let's go."

We ran in quiet for a while, both of us humbled by our good fortune to have known worthy people and to have loved them. Both of us humbled by the incredible gift of continued life.

I write these lines sitting at peace in a cabin in mid-Missouri, where a single quotation hangs on the wall: "I shall pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again."2

Life is short. Life is uncertain. But we know that we have today. And we have each other. I believe that for each of us, there is a place on the frontlines.

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