George Ortiz, a Marine Corps veteran who served for three years after 9/11, didn't think he had done enough. "When I left the military, I felt lost, like I took 20 steps back," he said. "It seemed as if my skills were going away. I needed to serve something bigger than myself." Most of all, George missed the feeling of purpose he had when serving with his fellow Marines.
Today, George is leading hundreds of veterans and civilians at Universal Studios for a day of service benefiting several schools in the LA Unified School District. The project is a collaboration between The Mission Continues, a national nonprofit organization, and entertainment industry leaders, including NBC Universal, Bad Robot Production company, Creative Artists Agency and the Got Your 6 campaign. Ortiz will rally Hollywood movie stars, powerhouse producers, and volunteers from across LA to pack more than 5,000 backpacks with food for food-insecure students.
On Sunday, thousands of miles from LA, other veteran leaders like George will fan out across the Rockaways in Queens, N.Y., to contribute their efforts and expertise to a massive recovery operation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
These projects are important to the Los Angeles and New York communities. But there is another benefit too. George and his peers are showing that recent veterans are assets, not charity cases.
A 2012 public opinion survey by The Mission Continues and Bad Robot found that misconceptions concerning service members are real. Half of civilians surveyed mistakenly believed that a majority of recent veterans suffer from PTSD -- a serious overestimate. Many Americans also believe that veterans are more stressed, more depressed and more likely to have problems with anger than their civilian peers.
"People look at veterans a certain way," George explains, "I'm not crazy, I'm not lazy, I'm not part of any problem. The only way to change people's perspectives is to get out and do something."
In July, as part of his Mission Continues orientation, George stood alongside nearly a hundred other veterans gathered at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Our newest Fellows raised their right hands and took an oath to continue their service here at home. By continuing to serve, Fellows like George Ortiz show communities across America that veterans are not charity cases -- they are leaders.
George is serving his six-month Mission Continues Fellowship with Doors of Hope, a shelter for homeless families in Los Angeles. He tutors homeless children while they complete their homework and their parents focus on finding work. The former Marine takes particular pride in serving as a strong male role model for children without fathers.
And George's service goes beyond the walls of the Doors of Hope shelter. Through opportunities like today's project for the LA school district, he's using the skills he learned in the military to make an impact in his community.
In the Marine Corps, Ortiz worked in supply administration, managing inventories of critical equipment. Today, he drew from that experience to lead the service project at Universal Studios. He was once again organizing a warehouse full of resources for an essential mission, but instead of supplying Marines with body armor, he supplied students with healthy meals.
Ortiz is not alone in using his skills to set a positive example. Over 27,000 veterans and civilians have come together at The Mission Continues service projects in over 240 cities since 2007. These projects have had a tremendous impact. Our Fellows have cleaned parks, built baseball fields, and painted school buildings. Beyond the improvements made on the ground, each of these projects also demonstrated that our most recent generation of veterans is ready to contribute at home.
Natasha Young, a Marine Corps veteran, rallied a hundred volunteers to plant trees dedicated to fallen service members around the local VA center in Lowell, Mass. Rachel Gutierrez, an Army veteran, gathered over $12,000 in donated supplies to revitalize a women's shelter in Anthem, AZ. Tony DeMarino and John Kamin, both veterans of multiple deployments, organized a hundred volunteers to repaint an elementary school in Washington, D.C.
The example these veterans set, the leadership they demonstrate, and the results they achieve are changing public perceptions of veterans for the better, in one community after another.
Overcoming misconceptions about veterans will take time, and it will take all of us. This Veterans Day, as Americans come together to thank our veterans for their service abroad, The Mission Continues are challenging Americans to go one step further. Serve alongside veterans in your community. Serving with veterans honors their past. Even more importantly, it supports their future.
Our veterans are assets, and their mission continues.
Eric Greitens is an Iraq War veteran, a former Navy SEAL officer, and a Rhodes Scholar. He is the founder and CEO of The Mission Continues, a St. Louis-based national nonprofit that challenges veterans to serve and inspire in communities across America.