Tim Smith, left, and Eric Greitens are fighting to steer returning military veterans to public service.
John Fedele for TIME
November 5, 2015 5:59 AM EST

In the Spring of 2010, I wrote a Time cover story about the efforts of Jeremiah Ellis, a 30-year-old Army captain, trying to govern the town of Senjaray in southern Afghanistan. It seemed to me he was using a different skill set than the old-fashioned salute-and-charge-the-hill military. He was trying to protect the local population, and serve them by providing public-works projects–the people wanted him to reopen their school–and deal with the local warlord and elders. It occurred to me that these skills might be preparing him, and thousands of others like him, for a career in public service back home. Ellis stayed in the military, but a 2009 survey showed that 90% of returning veterans want to continue their service in their communities back home. Charlie Mike, which means “continue mission” in military radio code, is a book about two such veterans–former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens and Marine Sergeant Jake Wood–who came home and founded brilliant public-service organizations. Eric’s initiative, the Mission Continues, began with a trip to Bethesda Naval Hospital.

“What do you really worry about?” Eric asked Steve Culbertson, the CEO of Youth Service America.

“I worry about those kids coming back from the wars with no arms and no legs, and even more about the ones coming home with significant brain injuries and posttraumatic stress disorder,” Steve said. “What do they do next? They’re the same age as the kids that I work with in high schools and colleges, and yet there’s something about them that is so different because they’ve had this military experience.”

“Do you want to meet some of them?” Eric asked–and as he said it, he realized, with no small amount of guilt, that he hadn’t visited the wounded at Bethesda Naval Hospital.

“Could we do that?” Steve asked.

“Absolutely,” Eric said.

Eric’s assistant Rachel Wald arranged the visit. Eric wore his khaki uniform, SEAL pin prominent. He seemed a different person to Rachel, even more serious than usual. They went to the amputee ward and she was just … stunned. Afterward, she couldn’t remember how many men they’d visited or what had been said. She just shut down, terrified that she’d lose control. Everything was white, the doctors wore white, the patients were swaddled in white bandages. There were men whose entire heads were covered by bandages. Eric would go up to them and ask where they’d served and whom they’d served with, and what their situation was now. She remembered that Eric and the patients–some of whom were severely truncated, others severely disfigured–talked easily. She nodded sympathetically toward the wives and parents in the rooms, but she was stymied–there was nothing credible, or perhaps even intelligent, to be said. “Sorry” just didn’t begin to cover it, and indeed, it might seem callous.

Steve Culbertson thought, as they moved from room to room, that if the rest of the parents of America could see the amputee ward, they would end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan tomorrow. He, too, was struck by Eric’s ease and composure with the men, and the respect they accorded his uniform. The troops had all sorts of visitors–celebrities, politicians, the President himself–but Eric had been there with them, and he spoke their language, an acronym-soaked argot Steve could barely understand. Eric asked them what they wanted to do next, and each, no matter how seriously injured, said the same thing: “I want to go back to my unit” or “my guys” or “my brothers.”

The question Steve really wanted to ask at this point was: But what if you can’t go back because of your wounds? What would you do then? That would be too bald, too cruel, though, so he began to ask them, “What do you want to do after you retire from the military?” Many–a surprising number, Steve thought–said they wanted to work in the public sector: teach, coach, join the police or firefighters (again, given their wounds, these latter choices were unlikely). He began to discuss the work he did, getting young people involved in service to solve the problems the country faced–education, poverty, climate change, housing and so forth–and asked if they might be interested in doing something about that. Not one of them said no, although Steve couldn’t tell if they were just being polite. Given the severity of their wounds, how could any of them think clearly at this point?

They stayed for an hour or so. There was no great aha moment, just the accretion of emotion and amazement at the strength of the young sailors and Marines … and the realization that if their strength wasn’t harnessed in some way, it might wither into hopelessness and depression. As he went from bed to bed, talking to the men about their futures, Eric found himself saying, “Great. We still need you.”

It was a sledgehammer sentence. He could see it in their eyes. And he knew–he was absolutely convinced–that it was true: the country did need them. Despite their wounds–and because of their wounds–these veterans could come home and be examples, leaders, full-metal citizens.

Eric called his two closest friends, Ken Harbaugh, who was up at Yale Law, and fellow SEAL Kaj Larsen, on his cell phone before he reached the parking lot. “I know what we’re going to do,” he told Ken. They would help wounded veterans to make the transition into civilian life by doing public service in their communities.

Over the next few months, Eric and Ken came up with a plan to offer fellowships–which sounded less academic and slightly more prestigious than scholarships–to wounded veterans who were willing to go out among the civilians and do some of the same sort of public-service work they had done in the villages of Iraq and Afghanistan. To receive the stipend, they would have to find a local service organization to sponsor them and supervise their work. The core idea was there from the start: if they were helping other people, they might not spend so much time fretting about themselves. They might make new friends, make the transition to civilian life more easily and maybe even re-create the same sense of purpose they’d had in the military.

Tim Smith wasn’t wounded in Iraq, at least not physically, but he came back strange. His best friend, Norman “Doc” Darling, had been killed with seven others by an IED in Sadr City in April 2004, one of the bloodiest months of the war. Their unit moved to Mahmudiyah in the Triangle of Death, just south of Baghdad. The war was very bad there too. FOB St. Michael–their Forward Operating Base–was pummeled by mortars and rocket-propelled grenades every day. Tim was never injured, but he was seriously rattled–and that began to manifest itself physically. He developed an allergy to dust. His eyes swelled with severe conjunctivitis whenever he went outside. Tim figured his body was telling him something important: don’t go outside.

Tim began to change dramatically when he and his wife Terri returned to St. Louis in February 2007. Loud noises jolted him; there were nightmares and anxiety attacks. He slept with a gun under the bed. He wasn’t funny and outgoing the way he’d been before. Much of his personality had been deleted–and he couldn’t tell his wife why and wouldn’t tell her what had happened over there.

He was also having trouble finding work, or even rousing himself to go look for work. They went on food stamps and were ashamed of it. On the evening of July 4, 2007, the extended family gathered for a picnic in their backyard, which was adjacent to Sublett Park, where there would be a big fireworks show. As the sun set, and just before the fireworks began, Terri noticed Tim rush back into the house–something was definitely wrong–and she decided to follow him in. He was sitting on the bed, weeping. She had never seen him cry before, and it terrified her.

She sat there until the sobbing left him, like a slow-moving storm turning to drizzle and then steam on a summer night. It was the fireworks, he told her. He couldn’t even handle the damn Fourth of July fireworks show–it was right out there, and obvious, the noise predictable, but it brought back all those months of being mortared. He looked at her, bleary, lost. “We’ve got to do something about this,” Terri said.

They went to the Veterans Administration, which was where Tim met Monica Matthieu, a sociologist then attached to Washington University. She was struck by how determined Tim was to push past the PTSD and get on with his life. He had just found a veteran’s-preference job at the central post office, working midnight to 6. He began taking classes in the morning at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. He was 15 credits short of a B.A. in social work. After class each day, he would go home, study, sleep for four hours, then report back to the post office at midnight. “What should I do when I get my degree?” he asked Matthieu.

“What do you want to do?”

“I’m not sure, but I do like helping people.”

She told him that he should think about getting a master’s in social work at Washington University.

“Really?” Washington University was where the rich kids, the smart ones, went. Tim figured it would be a real stretch for him. He was still feeling semiparalyzed, especially when he was alone in the middle of the night at the post office.

“Why not?” Matthieu asked, and in asking, she knew. “Don’t worry, I’ll help you.” And she did. Tim worked on his grammar and writing and read the books she told him to read. “This guy,” she thought, “is the only man I ever met who does exactly what I tell him to do.”

He was still suffering, though. There was a morning at UMSL when he left a building after class and the sun was at a certain angle or something–he wasn’t quite sure–but he was back in Iraq, freaked and sweating profusely. He ran back inside the building, gathered himself, took deep breaths and went to his next class. Sticking with it, day after day, took incredible courage and determination, Matthieu thought.

So it was a no-brainer when Eric Greitens told her that he was looking for fellows at the Mission Continues. She told Tim about the program, the idea of veterans volunteering in the community. She told him he should meet with Eric, and of course he did.

“Tell me about yourself,” Eric said, opening the first significant interview to take place on his old brown leather couch in St. Louis. Tim spoke hesitantly, in a swallowed Midwestern mumble, but he told Eric the whole story: what had happened to him in Iraq and, more significantly, what was happening to him back home. He found that talking to Eric was easy, even though he was an officer. Tim told him more than he’d ever told Terri.

“How would you like to do a Mission Continues fellowship?” Eric asked.

“What’s a fellowship?” Tim replied.

Eric explained the program, and Tim said, “Wow. That sounds like a pretty good deal. I’d love to do that.”

“Well, then,” Eric said, extending his hand, “welcome to the Mission Continues. Where do you want to serve?”

Tim served as a volunteer, then as a staff counselor, at the VA, and also pursued his master’s in social work. One day in class, studying urban economic development, he had a thought and wrote down cleaning. There were hundreds of veterans like him, going to school by day and looking for ways to make money at night. He started a business, Patriot Cleaning Services, which used veterans to clean up offices. The business slowly gained steam, and Tim slowly regained confidence. Eventually, there was enough business that he could devote himself to Patriot full time. He even coined a slogan: “We do corners.”

And that’s what I’ve learned from the veterans I’ve met over the past five years: they thrive on the good feelings that come from helping others. They are a generation of volunteers, every one of them. The Mission Continues has had more than a thousand fellows, and thousands more are working in local service platoons across the country. And the rest of us have something we can learn from them this Veterans Day: that active, full-metal citizenship not only helps veterans return from the wars to regain a sense of purpose and stability, but it also helps to build a stronger country. Eric Greitens is running for governor of Missouri as a Republican in 2016; other veterans across the country are moving into leadership roles. In a time of rampant cynicism, they are a cause for real optimism about our future. And the example they set–of active, rather than passive, citizenship–points the way toward a more robust American democracy in the future. As Eric Greitens said, we thank them for their service. But we really do still need them.

This appears in the November 16, 2015 issue of TIME.

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