Eric Greitens was a gifted young college student when a question from a Bosnian woman changed his life. It was the summer of 1994, and he had gone to the Balkans to work in refugee camps. He was on a train when he met her, and she asked him, "Why isn't America doing anything to stop the ethnic cleansings, rapes and murders?" Greitens thought he was.
"I felt like I was really making a difference," Greitens tells NPR's Scott Simon, "but when I got to Bosnia, it was clear that her question was a question that was on everybody's mind. I remember there was a guy in one of the camps who told me, 'Don't misunderstand me. We appreciate the shelter that's here for my family and I appreciate that there's food available and there's a kindergarten that's here, but if people really cared about us, they would be willing to protect us.' And I realized later that what he said was true. Whenever we love or care for anything in our lives we're willing to respond with care and with compassion, but if something that we love or someone we love is threatened, we're also willing to respond with courage."
Since that encounter, Greitens has gone on to do humanitarian work in Rwanda and Gaza, among other locations, and earned a doctorate as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. After his studies, Greitens became a U.S. Navy SEAL, serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, and founded a group called The Mission Continues, which works with wounded or disabled war veterans to contribute to their communities at home. In a new book, The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL, Greitens makes the case that humanitarianism and military missions need each other.
He says he believes that knowledge of local cultures is a key to the effectiveness of any operation, and that often relief workers carry that understanding.
At the same time, "It's extraordinarily important for humanitarian workers who are working in war zones and places like it was in Bosnia, in Rwanda, working even in places like Cambodia, or today in Iraq and Afghanistan, they need to understand what's happening in terms of the security dynamic that's actually affecting individuals and families and communities," Greitens says. "Because if we don't pay attention to actually providing security for people, there's very little that we can do for them."
Greitens made the decision to join the military while he was still at Oxford, at a dinner for Rhodes scholars.
"We were in the Rhodes mansion," Greitens recalls, "and I remember I looked up in the rotunda and saw that etched into the marble were the names of Rhodes scholars who had left Oxford and fought and died in WWII. And I remember as I was standing there looking up, thinking that if they hadn't made that choice, then I wouldn't be able to be standing here, looking up at them, and for me that was a moment where I felt like this was the right thing for me to do."
He chose a particularly intense course of service: SEAL training is especially rigorous, and the teams are picked to go into dangerous situations. But for Greitens, the demands of that training — "In my class, ultimately, we started with over 220 people and by the time we graduated we were down to 21," he says — and "the opportunity to lead and work with an incredible group of people" outweighed any doubts.
Now that he's out of the service, Greitens says that he misses the SEALs.
"I continue to serve in the Reserves," he says, "But it's tough to replace that sense of really deep camaraderie that you have working with those guys every single day. And sometimes you miss the adrenaline, you miss the excitement."