Jeffrey Hall knows the look of an empty pantry.
“I do remember some days when we only had crackers in the house,” said Hall, 45, who recalled frequent trips to a food bank on the North Side. “A family of four, and crackers and water.”
Hall left Chicago to join the Navy, but he will return this week as a fellow with The Mission Continues, a nonprofit group dedicated to involving veterans of recent wars in meaningful service projects. More than 100 veterans will gather in Chicago this weekend to prepare for six months of work at nonprofits across the country.
Hall, who retired from the Navy as a chief petty officer in 2009 and is now in graduate school, will complete his fellowship at a food pantry near his home in suburban Boston. He said the work there is “very personal, very sobering” because of his family’s past reliance on food banks.
“As a military person,” he said, “you’re used to being a part of a mission. You’re used to serving. It’s about community — it’s not about self. That’s why I found something to be a part of.”
Founded in 2007 by Eric Greitens, a Navy SEAL with a Ph.D., The Mission Continues first focused on helping disabled veterans continue their service. This year, the program expanded to include any post-9/11 military members who served at least two years and were honorably discharged.
More than 650 vets applied for the 103 spots in this weekend’s orientation, which begins Friday at a downtown hotel.
The vets will volunteer Saturday at EdgeAlliance, a North Lawndale housing provider, and then take a service pledge Sunday at Wrigley Field.
Next week, the fellows will begin six months of work with nonprofit groups, such as Habitat for Humanity or a local humane society.
The program provides veterans a stipend — about $7,200 on average — and support as they seek to parlay their military skills into civilian careers. The fellowships are designed to help veterans continue serving their communities while formulating a plan for their post-military lives.
About 370 veterans already have participated in the program. The Mission Continues, which is funded largely by corporate sponsorships but also by private donations, took in more than $7 million in 2011.
Greitens, who deployed four times, said the idea for the organization started after his unit was hit by a truck bomb in Iraq.
Greitens escaped serious injury, but some of his comrades weren’t as fortunate. When Greitens returned to the United States, he visited injured sailors at a naval hospital. Every veteran he met — many of whom were still in their 20s — spoke of a desire to continue serving their country even if they weren’t able to return to battle.
The Mission Continues, Greitens said, is a way to empower those vets while raising awareness about the skills veterans offer employers.
“Because so few people know veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, many people hear things about (post-traumatic stress disorder), traumatic brain injury and alcohol,” Greitens said.
But he said he believes that’s far from a complete picture.
“They’ve already devoted a portion of their life to serving a cause that’s larger than themselves,” he said. “They bring tremendous leadership skills back as well.”
Matt Wolding has been honing those skills since he started a fellowship with The Mission Continues in April. The Navy veteran from Aurora is working with Student Veterans of America, traveling across Illinois to assist new chapters and meet with service members who, like him, are attending college.
“Through service, post-9/11 veterans can rebuild that same kind of purpose we had in the military,” Wolding said. “That camaraderie we had in the military, we find in the fellowship.”