Helping Veterans Move From Military to Civilian Life: A Q & A With Leaders of COMMIT
For hundreds of service men and women re-entering civilian life, the transition can be a challenging and unsettling one. They grapple with how their unique skills and training translate to the civilian workforce and question whether they will find a job that fits their individual goals and needs. While assistance programs existed to address these issues, there remained a gap in information, confidence and imagination for these veterans.
In 2012, Anne Meree Craig and Guy Filippelli collaborated to launch a branch of The COMMIT Foundation, an organization formed to mitigate the gaps. Through mentoring workshops, one-on-one transition assistance, and corporate education, the group strives to make the transition back to civilian life an easier one. The Baltimore program is one of eight across the country, in cities in Northern California, Colorado Springs, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York.
Since its founding, the group has helped hundreds of men and women returning from military service and, in the process, has gained hundreds of supporters — even some high-profile ones like Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who was the organization’s keynote speaker at its gala last year. The operating budget has nearly doubled annually, to a current budget of roughly $260,000. This year, Infantryman Matt Eversmann came on board as co-executive director.
Eversmann’s military experience stands out: his heroism during the Battle of Mogadishu was celebrated in the movie Black Hawk Down.(The character played by the actor Josh Hartnett is based on him.) Matt enlisted in the Army in 1987 and served as an Airborne Ranger, deploying to Somalia in 1993 and Iraq in 2006.
Eversmann’s co-executive director, Anne Meree Craig, also comes to the organization having walked the walk. As the wife of a US Army Ranger veteran, she experienced first hand the difficulties veterans and their families face as they progress into civilian life. She also worked at the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies providing direct strategic and operational support (and she’s a mother of three!).
Like the veterans with whom he works, Matt faced his own challenges transitioning into the civilian workforce. When he discovered the COMMIT Foundation, he says it “offered exactly what I needed when I left active duty.” His goal is to do the same for the veterans who come to COMMIT.
Baltimore Fishbowl talked to Craig and Eversmann, about their personal experiences and the organization about which they feel so committed.
What is the best advise you ever received and followed?
Craig: Before moving to Washington, DC from South Carolina, my father sat me down and reminded me of a few things. One that really stuck was being myself or in his words, “Don’t be black to one person and white to the next.”
In addition, General McChrystal advised that with everything I do, I have to exceed expectations. He noted that with the growth of veterans-related non-profits, the brand credibility has been threatened. People want to help, but they don’t want to waste time or money. I think we’ve exceeded expectations, and not wasted our supporters’ time or money.
Eversmann: The best advice I ever received was to always remember that people are people and always deserve respect and civility. In the Army culture, teamwork, and esprit de corps are essential to success. This is always a two-way street, from General to Private, it works both ways. Sometimes it seems to get lost out here [in the civilian world], the hierarchy of the business world and bottom-line profit trumps the fundamental tenant that every member of the team is a contributor and deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.
What is the best moment of your day?
Eversmann: Any day that there is direct contact with a veteran is magical. We provide one-on-one counseling to veterans across the globe. While each one of them is unique, I get to interact with personalities I know very well. The opportunity to share lessons learned the hard way and to reassure these men and women that the future is bright is so fulfilling. We get to help shape their futures, which is so rewarding. When a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine says thank you, and you know you have made an immediate impact on them, it is just about the greatest thing I can imagine.
Craig: Personally, it’s when my family is soundly sleeping. I find peace in knowing they are comfortable. (Of course, I enjoy that bit of quiet time as well). I also really truly appreciate when I get a few moments of one-on-one time with my husband. He is my best friend and, whether he knows it or not, the power behind much of what I do.
Professionally, it’s when I receive a note from a veteran telling me how our conversation or program greatly benefited him or her. I’ve been completely heartened by how you can change someone’s perspective, path, and life through time, thought, and effort.
What is on your bedside right now?
Eversmann: Sadly, reading glasses! Next to them are my Kindle and a hardback book. I attempt to read each night before bed and try to mix between business and pleasure. Right now I am reading Steven Pressfield’s “The Lions Gate: On the front lines of the Six Days War.” I also have a book about nonprofit management that I alternate.
Craig: A picture of my grandfather Arthur Eugene Morehead, Jr. (“Buddy”). Granddaddy was a Navy veteran of WWII. He died in 2002 at the age of 92 and was a tremendous force in my life. I also have a crystal dome of the U.S. Capital. It was a wedding gift from a former boss who knew my husband proposed to me during July 4th fireworks on the National Mall.
What is the biggest challenge facing veterans coming home?
Eversmann: The biggest challenge veterans face is finding a soft drop zone in which to begin their new mission. As a veteran, I had no idea how much difficulty I would face trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. All I knew was that I needed a job. It never occurred to me that the process could be significantly altered through mentorship. This is a void that the COMMIT Foundation fills well. Trying to find a starting point is seemingly easy, but it requires a trusted agent or mentor to support the veteran as early as possible.
Craig: In addition to the gaps in information, confidence, and imagination, we see veterans feeling like they no longer have a valuable mission or the team to perform. In the military, they are groomed to be leaders and decision makers and they have a tremendous amount of responsibility put on their shoulders from day one. When they come home, they encounter a culture asking “what can we do for you?” rather than thinking what can the veteran can do for them. The veterans report that they often find themselves in a workplace where activity is valued over results and presence over production. It can be frustrating.
There is much talk about veterans suffering from PTSD. How much do you encounter it in your work?
Eversmann: PTSD is such a difficult topic to address as a layman. There are so many veterans who lack the coping mechanisms to adjust from their past life to the new one. One would assume that a veteran leaving the dangers of life in a combat zone to a safe life of corporate America would adjust easily. Unfortunately, everyone is different. We work with all veterans, wounded and non-wounded, visible wounds and invisible. So far, the veterans I have dealt with personally who have had issues are in a support network already that helps considerably.
Craig: COMMIT believes the stigma associated with combat stress has to go away. Anyone who deploys to a combat zone is going to come back with some sort of impression; we prefer to call it post traumatic growth or combat stress. The veterans with whom COMMIT works are some of the most talented in the service, and there is definitely a stigma associated with even discussing the stress of combat. We work extremely hard to ensure that people know it’s okay to feel the way they feel and even better to discuss it. There is an amazing amount of healing that happens through story telling and camaraderie so we encourage and foster that. Personally, what worries me most are the veterans who show no signs of being mentally unhealthy, yet taking their lives. We lost a dear friend a little over a year ago. It makes me feel like a failure and drives me forward every day.
What is the dream career for a veteran transitioning into the workforce? What are the skills that make them uniquely qualified for the dream job?
Eversmann: The dream career is an interesting thought. Broadly speaking, there are those who want to continue to support the defense of our nation and those who want a complete change. I hear many veterans say that they don’t want to travel too much; they want stability for their families. They want to contribute to a culture that rewards them for merit and most closely replicates the world in which they just left. I think that the ultimate dream job is agnostic to industry and more the intersection of the skills and talents brought from the military and the comparable role of leader/manager.
Craig: I think the notion of individuality so often gets lost in the veteran discussion. Any career truly depends on the individual. Generally, I think veterans want to give back. They want to feel like they are accomplishing something. They want to work with a team where they can grow personally and professionally because that is how they’ve been groomed and it is what they enjoy. I always tell executives that in addition to the obvious skills like planning, logistics, administration, and operations, they will be amazed at the level of care and leadership that a veteran will bring to an organization and its business units.
Can you name any local leaders whose prior military careers might surprise us?
Eversmann: I have met many leaders in the area who are veterans. We have judges, lawyers, clergy, bankers, stockbrokers, educators and entrepreneurs in Charm City who have served in the military. One who always jumps out at me was the rector of our church who married my wife and me. Rev. Bill Krulak (formerly of St. David’s Church) was a Marine with a spectacular service record in peacetime and combat. He has since retired but was a fantastic priest, mentor and friend to the Eversmann family.
Craig: I think our Chairman Guy Filippelli is a good example. Guy was an intelligence officer and left the service in 2006. Since then, he has built a number of companies with veterans as partners and employees. Guy’s had successful exits that have propelled him into many ventures. Currently, he and the team at RedOwl Analytics are building an incredible software company here in Baltimore.
What accomplishments is the organization most proud of?
Craig: COMMIT’s greatest problem is that it has created an impression that its bench and its pocketbook are deeper than they are. This impression has been given because of its greatest accomplishments: delivering high quality programs, partnering with the best, serving the best, and consistently exceeding everyone’s expectations at every point of execution.
Over the past 24 months, COMMIT has profoundly impacted the lives of some of the most highly talented post 9-11 veterans. We have conducted six mentoring workshops and one mentoring sports outing. Collectively, the events included over 200 veterans and 120 corporate executives. We’ve brought over 100 veterans through our one-on-one screenings and delivered some incredible results there.
Currently, COMMIT is partnered with Stanford Graduate School of Business for the first Post-911 Stanford Ignite Program, a four-week innovation and business certification program on Stanford campus. COMMIT selected and sent 27 veterans to this program; 18 of the 27 are from the Special Operations community.
We have been a part of numerous corporate education events to include work with Prudential in Newark, NJ; Guggenheim Partners in New York, NY; JP Morgan Private Bank in Washington, DC; and various venture capital firms and technology companies in Silicon Valley to include Andreessen Horowitz and Cloudera.
What is on your wish list?
Eversmann: But in short, my wish is that we can endow the COMMIT Foundation so that we can expand the service using the same model of individual counsel and mentoring for the veterans. A significant endowment would allow us to build our three Lines of Operation (one-on-one counseling, mentoring workshops, and corporate education) to accept more veterans and educational opportunities for them.
Craig: For someone to endow our operations. We run on a small budget with a small staff. It would be nice to continue our focus to serve the veteran and not have to worry about raising money. We run on pocket change compared to other veteran service organizations. We just need to bend the ear of the right person who understands the value of the service we are providing.