At the time, Smith was preparing to take classes at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, and his mentor there, research assistant professor Monica Matthieu, urged him to get in touch with The Mission Continues, an organization founded by Lt. Cmdr. Eric Greitens. A Navy SEAL officer, a Rhodes scholar and the author of the recently published The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL, Greitens founded the St. Louis–based organization to help wounded and disabled veterans throughout the United States by awarding them fellowships and helping them continue their service with nonprofit agencies. Smith arrived at the organization’s doorstep nervous, not knowing what to expect, but wanting to alter the arc of his life.
Greitens’ brick-walled basement office is eye level with busy 7th Street and just a short walk from Busch Stadium. Bookshelves surrounding his desk reflect a wide-ranging literary interest: fiction by Richard Ford and Raymond Carver, Thomas E. Ricks’ Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq and Greitens’ own dissertation from Oxford. On the wall is a photograph of Robert and John F. Kennedy taken when they were young men. Greitens says the photograph, a gift from his brother, Marc, reminds him of John F. Kennedy’s charge to all Americans to “… ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
Greitens, who at 37 still serves in the Navy Reserve U.S. Special Operations Command, recalls the evolution of Tim Smith: “This is an incredible transformation [from] the guy who I first sat down with to the guy who finished a master’s degree in social work at Washington University in St. Louis, is working full time at the Veterans’ Administration serving others and has now started his own business. All that came about because Tim was able to focus on serving other people again.”
The Mission Continues’ fellowship program lasts for about six months. The organization pays a wounded or disabled veteran $1,000 a month to work part time at a nonprofit with the intention of helping them transform their lives and become citizen leaders on the homefront. Those nonprofits might be Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, Big Brothers Big Sisters or Paralyzed Veterans of America, among others. To date, the organization has awarded around 125 fellowships. Greitens is quick to point out that The Mission Continues is all about challenging veterans rather than giving handouts.
“The difficult thing about the work is that it’s hard for the average American to think about going to a 23-year-old Marine who has lost his limbs and saying to him, ‘You still need to serve,’ ” he says. “But we need to do that, especially when that Marine is spending 12 hours a day in his own home. When that Marine is playing video games all day. When he’s self-medicating. The most important thing you can do is to challenge him, because it tells him that you believe in him.”
In the summer of 2008, Smith and Greitens visited the local Veterans Affairs Medical Center in St. Louis, and Smith soon found his calling helping veterans navigate the system. Not long after the fellowship ended, Smith was hired permanently to counsel homeless veterans and those who, like him, have PTSD. Smith has even launched his own company, Patriot Commercial Cleaning, which he hopes to staff with returning soldiers.