Our veterans appreciate when people say 'thank you.' But in addition to 'thank you,' they need to hear 'we still need you.' They need to know that when we look at them we see them as assets in strengthening their communities and that we are willing to challenge them to find a way to continue to be of service, —Former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens
When Roman Baca returned from Fallujah, Iraq, he struggled to adjust to civilian life. He bought a house, started dating a wonderful woman — but something still wasn’t right.
Life in the Marine Corps had given him purpose, a way to contribute. But, now, as a civilian, Baca said something was missing.
After several months, Baca said his girlfriend confronted him, "You're not doing OK. You're not the person you were six-and-a-half months ago. You're depressed and mean.'"
Baca wasn't alone. Thousands of post-9/11 veterans have struggled with the transition from military to civilian life.
Today, Star Trek officers of the future are helping post-9/11 veterans, like Baca, find ways to continue to contribute to their communities.
Well, at least the franchise is.
"Star Trek: Into Darkness" director J.J. Abrams, Paramount and Abram's Bad Robot have partnered with The Mission Continues, a nonprofit dedicated to helping post-9/11 veterans and to raise awareness about the need to embrace veterans in our communities.
Abrams, a longtime supporter of The Mission Continues, posted information about the group on the movie's official website, dedicated the film to post-9/11 troops and even recruited members of The Mission Continues to participate in the film.
In a post on The Mission Continues website, Abrams said, "Supporting veterans in their efforts to tackle the challenges facing our communities is a winning combination for all of us. It provides communities with great leaders, and veterans with renewed purpose.
"We hope that fans will join us in supporting The Mission Continues and stand with the men and women who voluntarily defended our country after 9/11, and are continuing to serve us here at home.”
The Mission Continues, founded in 2007 by former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, helps veterans transition from military leaders to community leaders by offering veterans fellowships with nonprofit groups serving their local communities. As their motto states, "It's not a charity. It's a challenge."
Many Americans view Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as national assets, but post-9/11 veterans return from duty and face misconceptions that can prevent them from contributing to their communities.
A 2012 study found Americans believe post-9/11 veterans have lower education levels and, having served their country, deserve time to recover — both of which can impact employment opportunities. In reality, veterans are more likely to have a degree, and rather than wanting recovery time, they wish to continue to serve.
"Our veterans appreciate when people say 'thank you.' But in addition to 'thank you,' they need to hear 'we still need you.' They need to know that when we look at them we see them as assets in strengthening their communities and that we are willing to challenge them to find a way to continue to be of service,” Greitens said in a press release.
The Mission Continues is trying to help veterans contribute by providing post-9/11 veterans with six-month fellowships with local nonprofits. During the fellowship, the veteran works with a member of the nonprofit to address a particular need of the community, such as illiteracy, homelessness or hunger.
For Roman Baca, now a fellowship alumni associate for The Mission Continues, it was dance.
Baca learned about the importance of service during his 2005 deployment to Fallujah, Iraq. His unit participated in humanitarian projects, creating lines of communication between villagers and the troops, building schools and providing new clothing for locals.
“We wanted to have a positive impact on their lives rather than just driving around and flexing our muscles, so to speak,” Baca recalled.
After coming home, Baca missed the sense of purpose that accompanied service.
With the help of The Mission Continues, Baca decided use his talents in dance to help others learn to express their experiences in a non-verbal way.
The Mission Continues offered Baca a six-month fellowship to take his dance workshops to local New York City public schools. Baca also had the goal to provide the same workshops to veterans and even villagers in Iraq.
Baca started his fellowship in December. By January, he was doing seminars for students in New York City public schools. In April, he was teaching dance to children in the Iraqi village of Erbil. And in June, Baca visited veterans in Kentucky.
“The fellowship was an amazing propeller into this experience. (It) was unmatched. I got (to) impact not only my own community, but the community in Iraq where I had served.”
Today, in addition to working with The Mission Continues, Baca is the co-founder of Exit12 Dance Company in New York. The company creates and performs contemporary dances that explore and educate the audience about the realities of war and conflict.
It was the challenge to contribute and not a coddling hand that helped the most, Baca said.
“When they step up and sign on the dotted line that they are going to serve our country, they are already accepting a challenge," Baca said. "When they come home, a lot of them are still young and can contribute. To come home and be coddled, it’s nice, but it creates a charity mentality — that we’ve done all we can do.
“To be told that they can come and still contribute, that’s huge. It was huge to me. I signed up to be a Marine because I wanted to help people. To be able to contribute, to do that, was very important to me."
Learn more about The Mission Continues.
Katie Harmer is a journalism graduate of Brigham Young University and writes for Mormon Times. Email: [email protected] Twitter: harmerk