When exiting the military, United States servicemen and women are faced with the conundrum of what to do next. While a return to civilian life does not remove the character traits and skills developed during military service, finding an outlet for such talents may be difficult. Since 2007, more than 1,000 post-9/11 veterans have been able to utilize these traits to better themselves and their communities through fellowships, thanks to St. Louis-based nonprofit The Mission Continues.

After completing his service as a United States Navy SEAL, Eric Greitens co-founded The Mission Continues using a combination of his combat pay and the disability pay of two friends. His motivation came from visiting injured servicemen and women at the Bethesda Naval Hospital; he says that each person he spoke with, regardless of injury, noted a desire to continue serving.

"We believe that at The Mission Continues, we're empowering veterans to serve their country in new ways," explains Greitens. "We know that all of these men and women have a spirit of service—it's part of their character. Through The Mission Continues, we help to focus that spirit of service—focus their energy and potential—in productive ways in the community. What this does is it leads to growth and increased strength and wisdom for our veterans, while at the same time improving our community."

This community improvement has included more than 300,000 hours of volunteer work with 608 organizations. Currently, projects have been completed in 48 states and Washington, D.C.

The Mission Continues offers veterans a six-month fellowship program, says Greitens. "During the course of our fellowship, they're doing three things: They're serving in the community. Now, all of our Mission Continues fellowships are built and individualized to fit our veterans…but it's all focused on building stronger communities." Locally, this community involvement includes a variety of nonprofit organizations, such as the Saint Louis Science Center and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. "Second, they're all pursuing a plan to advance their personal goals: they're getting their resume together, meeting with private-sector mentors, applying to colleges, applying for jobs. They do these things while they're Mission Continues fellows so that at the end of the fellowship, they execute what we call an 'exit strategy,' where they go on to full-time employment or full-time education. The third thing that they do over those six months is complete a curriculum that I have designed to build resilience."

The result speak for themselves: 71 percent of fellowship participants furthered their education, and 86 percent were able to utilize military-learned strengths in the civilian workforce.

Outside of the fellowship program, The Mission Continues also offers other ways for veterans and community members to work together, such as service platoons—teams of current or former military who volunteer together—and service missions, which are open-to-all volunteer projects.

"We know that we have to establish a legacy for this generation of veterans," explains Greitens. "Everybody knows there was a World War II generation that came home and helped to build a stronger country; we also know that there was a generation of veterans that came home from Vietnam that had a much more mixed legacy and reception…We want the legacy of this generation of veterans to [believe] We're a generation that went overseas, served with courage when our country needed us, and then came home and helped build stronger communities. That's what we're trying to build."

Volunteer Spotlight: Steve Johnston

Guilt for not serving, startling statistics regarding veteran tribulations, and an interest in war history, as well as the impressive resume of Eric Greitens… These are the things that drove Steve Johnston to volunteer with The Mission Continues.

Johnston, a Janet McAfee Real Estate agent, has been involved with the organization almost since its inception. He met Greitens at a lunch, and "after the lunch was over, I told Eric I thought he was amazing…and basically said, Anything I can do to help out."

Since then, he's witnessed the rapid growth of the organization. Johnston, who now serves as the leadership committee chairman for the annual gala, guesses there were 200 people in attendance at the first event—the number has since more than doubled.

"Mike Mullan, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the guest speaker at the gala two years ago," says Johnston. "He told the whole crowd from the podium that Eric and The Mission Continues were the model for the future of our veterans coming home; when you get it coming from [him], you've got something special going on." The Mission Continues' fifth annual Veterans Day Gala will be held on Nov. 1 at The Chase Park Plaza.

Johnston is involved with more than the gala; he has worked with The Mission Continues on a variety of projects, including a fellowship orientation and volunteer day with the Mathews-Dickey Boys' & Girls' Club, during which the organization completed tasks such as building picnic benches and painting.

"It's great when you get the community together with the veterans," he says. "There's nothing better than us saying, We thank you so much for your service, and they're saying, Well, thank you so much for coming out today and helping us."

For more information, visit missioncontinues.org