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Eric Greitens began the month of April with a difficult phone call from an Iraq war veteran lying in a hospital bed in Hawaii. The young man, a Missouri native, was severely wounded in May 2007 by an improvised explosive device.
"He has a traumatic brain injury, broken ribs, two punctured lungs, severe damage to his legs and arms, and injuries to twelve vertebrae," explains Greitens shortly after the call. "He'll be back to Missouri in a month, and he wants to work. I have to figure out a way to make that happen."
Greitens has seen his share of misery over the years. The trim and honey-haired Rhodes Scholar, with degrees in development studies and politics, worked with orphans in Rwandan refugee camps and with land-mine victims in Cambodia, among numerous other human-rights missions.
As a White House fellow, he was dispatched to assist with educational rebuilding efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and, as a Navy SEAL officer, Greitens hunted down terrorist leaders of Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia and Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Now 33 and released from active duty, Greitens is at last back on his home turf and facing new challenges as chairman of a nonprofit — the Center for Citizen Leadership (CCL) — that he created last fall. Its mission: To put wounded veterans back to work in public service jobs. As the applications for the CCL's "Mission Continues" $6,000 fellowships continue to pile up, Greitens will soon find himself struggling with the grim dilemma of having to choose between a veteran who's lost one leg and another who's lost two.
"I don't want to have to tell these guys we can't fund them," says the 1992 graduate of Parkway North High School. "We're just going to have to work harder."
So far the CCL has operated on a shoestring. To launch the program, Greitens ponied up his lieutenant's combat pay and tax-free earnings from Iraq — a total of $3,500. Two fellow veterans chipped in about $3,000, and another friend put in $10,000. (Greitens is working without a salary.)
But then, starting small was the whole point. "I'd seen a lot of nonprofits," explains Greitens, who began his human-rights work at a Croatian refugee camp after his freshman year at Duke University. "A lot were inefficient and many failed to deliver the services as well as I thought they should've. So for the Center, we decided from the beginning that we would show people what we could do with our own money first before we went to others for support."
With a volunteer network and fellows now in place nationwide, word of the CCL is spreading. The morning after a current recipient gave a recent talk to a small group of wounded vets at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, six new applications materialized.
In May the first fellowship for a St. Louisan will be awarded to an Iraq vet who wants to become a social worker. He will assist Veterans Affairs with a new project involving post-traumatic stress disorder. Others are involved in high-tech biomedical research, alpine wheelchair athletics and horse-assisted physical therapy.
"We tell people we're not offering charity. We're offering a challenge. By mid-2009 I would like for us to have changed 50 lives," asserts Greitens, sitting beneath a poster-size photograph of John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby — one of Greitens' political heroes.
"What I think is so special about Eric is he doesn't come from a financially well-heeled family, or have the right last name, or anything like that," says former Missouri Governor Bob Holden. Holden is also an informal adviser to the CCL. "He's a self-made individual who's made a tremendous contribution already to all of us, and who still has his best years ahead of him."
Greitens thrives on rigorous, intense activity. He was an amateur boxer at Duke and Oxford. He's run marathons since high school. His silver cuff links are engraved with "26.2." Last fall he ran the JFK 50 Mile race through Washington County, Maryland, in ten hours and fourteen seconds. The Navy SEALs seemed a natural fit when Greitens was looking to join the military in 2001.
After counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan, Africa and Southeast Asia, Greitens deployed to Iraq in October 2006, where he led an Al-Qaeda targeting cell during a seven-month tour in Fallujah. According to the certificate that accompanied his Bronze Star, Greitens was responsible for killing or capturing "dozens" of senior Al-Qaeda leaders. On March 28, 2007, he sustained minor injuries to his throat and eyes when a car bomb laced with chlorine blew up outside his barracks in Fallujah. "I'm very glad to have served," he says, "and I'm also very glad to be home."
One of the first things Greitens did upon returning stateside to Washington, D.C., was visit wounded Marines at Bethesda Naval Hospital. It was there that he hatched the idea for the Center for Citizen Leadership. "They felt the country was doing a wonderful job of saying 'thank you' to them; there were long lines of visitors every day," says Greitens. "But what they really wanted to hear was, 'We still need you. You're still an asset to this country.'"
Matthew Trotter, the CCL's first fellow and a former Navy electronics engineer who severely injured his ankles and legs not long after the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, calls the program "a godsend."
"Every other job interview I went on was like, 'We can't hire you because you don't have enough mobility to do the job,' or, 'We understand you have all this Navy training, but you need to have a four-year degree in electrical engineering.'"
Trotter's fellowship with an equine therapy program outside San Antonio, Texas, recently turned into a full-time position as a veteran outreach coordinator. He says it's a happy ending to several frustrating years trying to navigate his re-entry into civilian life.
"Honestly," adds Trotter, "[the CCL] would not have happened if it hadn't been a group of veterans thinking, 'How can we help each other?'"
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