Mary Beth Bruggeman, vice president of program strategy, had the opportunity to speak at the NationSwell Summit West last week. She shared her story of service from the Marine Corps to The Mission Continues, and how the opportunity to find a new mission filled a need in her post-military life. 

You can watch the full speech above, or read the transcript below:

I was a Marine when the planes hit the towers on 9/11, a combat engineer serving as a platoon commander in California. The events of 9/11 came to define the rest of my 8-year career on active duty, and, indeed, my life.

When my unit moved across the border from Kuwait into Iraq in March 2003, we were filled with purpose, with pride. We were brothers and sisters united in a community like no other, connected by that shared purpose and fulfilled by the impact that we knew we would have. We accomplished our small piece of the mission in a corner of Iraq that time and sand storms have now erased, and I redeployed home and to my next job as an instructor at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, where I stayed until I ultimately transitioned off of active duty four years later.

And on that final day as an active duty Marine, I folded up my uniform for the last time, tucked it away in my closet and felt an emptiness that swallowed me whole. I had no wounds from my time in Iraq, visible or invisible, but I was struggling just the same. I didn’t need anything from the VA, or from the multitude of generous organizations out there that stand ready to help veterans. On the contrary, it was the very feeling of being needed that I missed the most. I felt at the time as though I’d taken my purpose off when I took that uniform off. I was cut off from my tribe, my community, and I felt like I had all this potential but no direction or momentum.

I wasn’t alone in that feeling. To give you an idea of scale, there are 250,000 men and women transitioning off of active duty every year: that’s the number of veterans we’re creating, and more than 40% of them report feeling a lack of purpose when they transition. That’s a lot of potential to leave sitting on a shelf.

Josue Guerrero is a Marine veteran who immigrated to the US from Mexico when he was a child. Having fled from the cartels, his family landed in a country where, as he says “my language was wrong, my food was wrong, my clothes were wrong, my skin color was wrong. Inside my home we were Mexican, but inside my head all I could hear was ‘Be more American.’”

Josue found community in the Marine Corps, where—for better or worse—everyone is just “green”. People from all walks of life come together around shared purpose and mission. When Josue left the Marine Corps, he felt the same emptiness that I’d felt during my transition, as though he’d shed his purpose right along with the uniform. Unfortunately, his emptiness led him to alcoholism and a suicide attempt, all because he no longer felt useful.

It pains me to think about veterans like Josue, languishing in communities across this country because they- individuals with an incredible wealth of life experience and passion- can’t find their next mission. All the while our communities fall farther and farther behind, engulfed by poverty and violent crime, and the divide that exists in our country grows deeper and wider by the day.

In 2015, Josue found The Mission Continues, and he finally felt powerful again. He was surrounded by veterans and community members that shared his passion for service, and were pointed in the direction of greatest impact, which for him was the community of Watts in LA. He’s been serving tirelessly ever since, and you’ll be glad to know that Josue’s story is a good news story—he came to us to gain the skills that he needed to serve in LA, we pointed him in the right direction, and he took it from there.

For 12 years now, The Mission Continues has been working to connect veterans like Josue with the communities that need them most. Last year, hundreds of veterans and community members joined Josue and his fellow veterans in Watts for a week of intensive service that we call our Mass Deployment. For one full week, we recapture the best parts of a military deployment: the teamwork, the connectedness, the hyper-focus on a mission and purpose. In Watts, we landscaped more than 4 city blocks, refurbished teacher’s lounges, playgrounds, basketball courts, built outdoor classrooms and sensory gardens in a show of positive force that brought people together to generate visible impact.

We, as veterans, are a collection of people that come from communities across this country, and it’s to those communities that we’ll return. But we do return changed. We come home with the confidence that you feel after you do something really hard. We look around us wondering what the next hard thing is that we can tackle. Combating poverty and systemic violence in Watts is hard. As everyone in this room knows all too well, working to solve some of our toughest community challenges…that’s hard. They’re finding their new mission, and it’s the hard that makes it great.

If we’re taking the long view, we’ll open our aperture on what we consider to be a veteran issue. Veterans are more than our backgrounds in national security, than our intersection with the VA and health care for veterans. We are more than the one-dimensional view that so many Americans have of us- the square jawed, type-A, white male. We are passionate advocates for our communities, our national parks, gun safety, equality, diversity and inclusion. Above all, we’ve proven that we are deeply invested in this country, and that doesn’t stop when we take our uniforms off.

We’re out there looking for the next hard thing we can conquer, so when you have a challenge in your community, you want someone to run for school board, coach the bad news bears little league team back to glory, or combat blight and poverty in West Baltimore…if you’re taking the long view, you’ll call a veteran. We’re ready for our next mission.