COCO member Lee Freeman was medically discharged from the Air Force in 2004 after 15 years of proud and honorable service. When he returned to civilian life, he found himself disoriented and missing the sense of mission and purpose he had felt as an officer. Now, as the City Impact Manager of The Mission Continues (a national nonprofit that empowers veterans to keep serving and succeeding) he has reconnected with that sense of purpose—and aims to help other vets do the same.
How did The Mission Continues first come across your radar?
When I was discharged, I didn’t know which end was up. I was commissioned as an officer in college, then went straight into the Air Force in 1989, so my adult life had all been spent in the military.
After my unexpected exit, I bounced around in different jobs for eight years, and I went to grad school and became a licensed therapist in Minnesota. Around 2011, I stumbled on The Mission Continues—I read an article about their fellowship program and how it made a big difference in the life of this veteran who had been trying to make sense of the civilian sector after their service ended.
I applied for the fellowship, which is open to post-9/11 vets with a clean criminal history and an honorable discharge. Fellows get to choose a nonprofit that they’ll serve for 20 hours a week over six months—ideally an organization that will have a meaningful impact on community, such as Habitat for Humanity or Boys and Girls Club—and in exchange, The Mission Continues provides a monthly stipend and some structure around setting goals, building networks, etc. So far fellows have served with more than 600 organizations across the country.
When I went to the launch of my fellowship class in L.A., there were 75 vets in a similar position as me, trying to make sense of civilian life. Even though I didn’t know these vets, I knew them. The camaraderie was almost instant. That was the first time since leaving the Air Force that I felt connected to anything.
How did you make the jump from volunteering with The Mission Continues to working for them?
After my fellowship with a nonprofit mental health agency ended, The Mission Continues was just launching the Service Platoon program. Service Platoons are teams of veterans and non-veterans that work to solve a specific community challenge. (In Washington, D.C. a service platoon works to reduce hunger among inner-city youth. Another platoon in Phoenix works to eradicate chronic veteran homelessness.)
They said they wanted to start a service platoon in Minneapolis, so I shaped the whole program here as a volunteer. Then last spring, they said they wanted to place a City Impact Manager in Minneapolis—someone on the ground to bolster the programs and build community relationships. They offered it to me, and I didn’t have to think very long before accepting.
And now you’ve got a dedicated desk at COCO NE, surrounded by startups and entrepreneurs…
I’m the only local staff member, and for a while I was working from home, but that’s really hard—boundaries get blurred between work and life. Then I found COCO and started working here last December.
Initially, I felt intimidated, thinking, what do I have in common with these people? They’re all small businesses and startups, but I realized I’m building this program from the ground up, which isn’t all that different. I’m building relationships, having meetings, doing a lot of similar things as other COCO members, but for different reasons.
I met Tim O’Neill from Bunker Labs through COCO. And if there’s a product or service I learn about here that vets can benefit from, I’ll pass it along. I love the Wednesday Hoppy Hours, and all the connections that form there.
So what’s on the horizon for The Mission Continues? Is there a North Star, or big guiding vision?
Within last year, we’ve doubled our staff nationally, so we’re growing as an organization. Ultimately, we want to become the premiere national volunteer nonprofit in delivering services to the community.
A lot of veterans show up at our events, and you don’t know why they’re there. You think, am I really making a difference? One told me recently that he volunteers because his younger brother was killed in combat, and he does it to honor his memory. You never know why people show up, but you hear stories like that and it gives you fuel to keep planning these groups and these events.
We’ll do booths at the State Fair, and people ask what we’re offering vets. We’re not giving them housing vouchers or tangible services. But we give them an opportunity to serve others, and we help empower them to use those skills they learned in the military and see their service had value.
The Mission Continues connects them with the reason they volunteered to serve the military and country. It reignites that sense of purpose and selflessness that they may not currently feel where they’re living and working.
Before working with The Mission Continues, my job was to save a company money on stuff and I was questioning why I was doing this—it didn’t have any importance to me. Other veterans might be sitting in a cubicle for 40 hours, or flying around trying to sell something, and when they come to our events it makes it worthwhile. They realize I can make a difference, I do matter, I’m not a liability, I do have value.
My mom once told me we go to work so we can do what we want to do, and I think that’s true. I’m very blessed to do this job.