[MUSIC PLAYING] BRANDI GOMEZ: Hi. Welcome to our podcast, MakingCents, brought to you by Navy Federal Credit Union. I'm one of your hosts, Brandi Gomez, and I'll be taking your questions to the experts to help you make sense of your money, pun intended.
Well, hi, everyone. It is Veterans and Military Families Month, and while this month gives us an extra special opportunity to recognize those we serve, military veterans and their families, our mission and purpose at Navy Federal Credit Union is to take care of our country's heroes all year long. Today on MakingCents, I've got one special guest with me.
Mary Beth Bruggeman is a Marine veteran and currently serves as the President of The Mission Continues, which is a national nonprofit that connects military veterans with new missions and under-resourced communities. Welcome to the MakingCents podcast, Mary Beth. I am honored to spend time with you today.
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: Well, thank you, Brandi, so much for having me on and giving us a chance to talk a little bit about the mission continues and Navy Federal.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Well, first and foremost, thank you for your service to our country. I think that's a great place to start our conversation, by allowing our listeners to learn more about you. So tell us about you, your military service, and how exactly did you get to The Mission Continues.
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: Sure. Well, a winding road is how I answer the last question. I graduated from the Naval Academy and after that decided to seek a commission in the Marine Corps.
So I joined the Marine Corps as an officer in 1999 and served for eight years on active duty. And I was a combat engineer in the Marine Corps, which was an amazing, exciting, fun specialty within the Marines. And I had a chance to lead a platoon, which was my dream.
We deployed to Iraq in 2003 as part of the initial invasion into Iraq and had a pretty formative, memorable experience there, where we had a chance to take all the training and preparation we'd been doing for so many years and put it all to the test. And fortunately for me and for our unit, we all came home safely. And I transitioned out, off of active duty, after that one deployment in 2007 and started a family, married a Marine, had three kids.
Big, whirlwind fast forward through a couple of different jobs and career choices, and ultimately landed at The Mission Continues in 2015. So I've been here for about 8 and 1/2 years, and just have been just loving everything with this team and the opportunity we have to make an incredible impact in the lives of veterans and serve alongside volunteers in under-resourced communities and just make a tremendous impact. It's been pretty incredible.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Well, thank you. It certainly sounds like a journey. And I have to ask, because I'm a Marine Corps spouse as well, but why the Marine Corps is what I would like to ask, because when I tell people I'm married to a Marine, they're like, oh, well, he must be a really tough guy. I'm like, I mean, I guess so.
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: I think that's actually part of it. From the Naval Academy, we had a choice of Navy or Marines. And Marines was very selective and I think that's probably what initially drew me to it in the first place. We do share some common traits, us Marines.
And all along, I would say, if I could kind of point to a common thread in my life, I am constantly finding myself choosing the harder path and it's not always a gift. Sometimes it's a real trial. But in this case, I think I just saw the Marine Corps as this amazing challenge. It looked to me like this tremendous band of brothers and sisters who were so proud of what they were doing and were really, really deeply connected, and it just was immediately what drew me to it in the first place.
And I got a lot of that from the Marine Corps. It was very challenging. It was a really different experience being a woman in the Marine Corps, I think, than it is for many. But I definitely found that challenge that I was looking for.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Well, I definitely agree with a lot that you say about Marines having a special bond. I know I always enjoy every second of the Marine Corps ball every year when I get to go with my husband because it's sure to make lots of memories. And it's just really-- I find a lot of joy in just watching them banter with each other at the ball.
So now I'm curious about-- you transitioned out of service, but The Mission Continues. There had to have been a point where you either first heard about the nonprofit. Or what exactly was that like deciding to take on a role within The Mission Continues?
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: When I transitioned, I didn't hear about The Mission Continues. I didn't hear about anything like The Mission Continues when I left active duty. And I was one of those millions of veterans who leaves the active duty military and then instantly feels like they have removed their purpose.
I just felt like I took off my camouflage utilities for the last time in 2007 and that was my purpose. I took it off I put it on a shelf and I left it there for years. And I was raising three kids. I was married to a Marine. I had things I was doing. My transition on the surface--
BRANDI GOMEZ: You were a little busy.
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: Yeah. I mean, I was busy and I had meaning in my life, certainly. I'm not going to say that I didn't. But I really didn't feel like I was serving some higher cause anymore. I didn't feel like I had a mission.
Even-- I had a job. I had a great job. I was, again, on the surface a very successful transition. But there was something really deep that was missing for me. And a lot of push-pull, and I bet you can appreciate this as a Marine Corps wife, a lot of push-pull on who's leading and who's following in careers and jobs, and a lot of communication challenges in the early years of marriage and trying to figure out how long was I going to be willing to put everything I was interested in from a professional standpoint on a shelf and follow this wonderful man around.
And I did for a long time. But ultimately we made a decision as a team that we were going to navigate back to the DC area, which is where I'm from and where we knew there was opportunity and family, and specifically so that I could go to graduate school. And that was my official-- it was like my first official act of really transitioning into a more meaningful career. Up until then, I had had jobs. I had done meaningful things, but it really wasn't the career that I was looking for.
And once we got back here, I went to grad school and I got my master's in policy management. And it was really social policy focused, and so I was studying under-resourced communities and how our communities became so withdrawn from resources and marginalized. And that was a really eye-opening experience for me, and I found that I was extremely passionate about understanding some of those challenges and also working to try to impact them in a positive way.
And so that was where I started to think, hey, how can my experience as a veteran intersect my passion for community development and community transformation and community improvement. And honestly, by luck and persistence and networking, I navigated to a woman who is now a wonderful mentor of mine here in DC, who was on the board of The Mission Continues, still an organization I'd never heard of. But I sat down with her to say, here's what I'm starting to think. Here's what my resume says, but here's what I'm passionate about.
And she said, I got to introduce you to somebody. And she introduced me to the then-president of The Mission Continues, and I went through an interview process and ultimately they had a role open that was a really perfect fit for my experience and skill set. And I got extremely lucky and I came into just an amazing dream job. And I've just been growing ever since. And it's challenging in so many different ways, but such a gift to be a part of this amazing team and do the work that we do.
BRANDI GOMEZ: And I'm sure every day is different. And it sounds like you were able to find even more purpose being part of this organization. Your mind and your heart align, and I think that is so important. It's something that we certainly hear about a lot from our members, is making sure that they find that meaning after service and really get to put their skills to work.
Everything that they learned in the military can still be used after they transition out of service in a way that fills up their cup. And I think that it sounds like you have certainly found that, Mary Beth. Tell me a little bit more, for those that maybe are not as familiar with The Mission Continues, let's talk a little bit more about that. What's the mission of The Mission Continues? But also what are those programs involved?
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: Yeah. So we're an organization that believes in our core that veterans have something that they should be asked to give post-service. And while we're living in a country that so many folks believe that we should be giving to veterans when they leave the military, we take a little bit of a different approach to that. These veterans are coming home with a tremendous amount of skills and experience and a mindset around service to country and a mindset around team and being connected to something bigger than themselves. And we believe that what veterans need most from us as a nation is to be asked to lead again.
And when we're not, when we essentially go home and we kind of fade into society, that's when we lose that sense of connectedness and the sense of purpose that literally breathes life into us. I mean that quite literally, sometimes figuratively, and sometimes quite literally as we look at an epidemic of suicide in the veteran community. So much of this is related in some way to loss of connection, a sense of isolation, and a loss of that sense of purpose that drives us and so intensely drives us when we're in the military.
So The Mission Continues is all about creating opportunities for these veterans to step into leadership roles again. This time, we're pointing them in the direction of where the greatest challenges are in our country, which is our under-resourced communities that have so many challenges. They're meaty challenges that you can really wrap your hands around. And they're getting their boots dirty and getting right back out on the ground where they feel most at home and most comfortable together, so finding that new unit, and providing this set of skills and leadership and commitment and just dedication to a mission that we need in our country right now. So it's kind of a problem and a solution coming together in a really beautiful way.
BRANDI GOMEZ: And such a deep connection through amazing experiences that they've had and some challenging experiences that they've had. I know something that I've appreciated-- Navy Federal, we've been partnering with The Mission Continues now for almost five years. And I will tell you, it's definitely been something that I continue to think about is how much our branch teams are involved with The Mission Continues.
I'd love for you to talk more about the service platoons because when I hear you talk about how there is this camaraderie within the service platoons. They're taking on leadership. They're using those skills from the service. 45% of our branch team members have some sort of [? tire ?] connection to the military. And so I feel like that is why they love these service days so much.
And with the Veterans Day of Service coming up, I want to hear more about that. What are those types of projects and leadership opportunities that we get to support?
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: Yeah. Well, first of all, I have to say a huge thank you to all the employees at the Navy Federal Credit Union who have served with the service platoon, and a big pre-thank you to anybody who will come out after hearing this or hearing more about us. Spread the word. It is for everyone. There is no barrier to entry and we want all comers to these platoons.
So our service platoons, which are active now in more than 40 cities across the country, so hopefully there's one very near you. Our service platoons are-- that is the opportunity to bring people together to complete service projects that do great things in under-resourced communities. There's something that's different about these volunteer opportunities. There's a few things that are really different than if you were to go out and volunteer with most other organizations, and we're very proud of this.
One is just the deep sense of connection that you'll feel at these projects. And we promise that. This is something we hold ourselves to a very high standard on. We want veterans to feel connected to their veteran community, first. We also want veterans and non-veterans to feel deeply connected to each other.
That's hard. I mean, we have a big divide between veterans and non-veterans in this country. And it's not like-dislike. I mean, I think there's a lot of love on every side of that. There's a lack of understanding going both ways in that relationship and it's leading to these really big, significant problems in our country right now, one of which is the recruiting crisis in the military. There's a lack of understanding and appreciation in our nation's young people of what the military is and whether or not they fit, whether or not that's a place where they feel like they can belong.
The fact that we don't understand each other in the best possible way means people feel-- they feel disconnected from the military. They feel like they're on the outside of something and that there's no passing in. That's really harmful for our veterans and it's really harmful for our country overall. So that's the first thing, is we're really just trying to connect people to each other and we're trying to help them feel connected to community.
And particularly for military families that move around so much, it's really hard to plant roots. Again, Brandi, I'm sure you can deeply appreciate this as a military spouse. It's really tough to feel a sense of community outside of your tight military community. But that sense of geographic community, that you feel really rootless for a long time. So we're trying to help them kind of dig those roots a little deeper.
And then the second thing that we feel is really different about our projects is just our approach to the work we do in communities. We take a very thoughtful and a very intentional approach to how we work in under-resourced communities. These often are not the communities in which we live and they are communities that have deep, deep-rooted challenges that go back decades or centuries. And they are lacking resources, but not incredible assets. They have wonderful just people and leadership and community structures and assets that make their community so rich, but really can benefit from this infusion of resources that we can bring through our projects.
So whether you're doing some beautification or landscaping or building outdoor classrooms or revitalizing a community garden and creating spaces where partners and communities, community-based nonprofits and community-based organizations and leaders can serve more people, that's what we're there to help amplify. And coming together around such a purposeful mission brings people together and it kind of forces them into those conversations about differences and what brings them together and what makes them different, and there's real beauty in that. And they're doing really, really great, impactful things.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Right. I know one of my favorite things about your nonprofit model is that you're doing it with the community, not for the community. You're not coming into these communities and telling them what you feel like their greatest need is or the projects that they need to be taking on, but you're truly taking that approach and having intentional conversations and figuring it out, what is the biggest need and how can we use our veterans to help get that work done. So what are some of the sample projects, or can you share a story about one particular project that has left a lasting mark on you?
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: Oh my gosh, there's so many.
BRANDI GOMEZ: I'm sure there's a lot.
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: One of the ones I love to tell a story about because it so perfectly exemplifies how something so relatively simple can be such a big deal, we've been working in a community in West Baltimore for a very long time now. And we've had some consistent partners there and we've been working in a geographic neighborhood in a really place-based way, so just a couple square blocks that we've been deep in for a long time. And the name of the community is Harlem Park West.
And on 9/11 Day of Service years ago, we had a group of veterans and community members and non-veterans from the local area come together, and there may have been 50, 75 of us. And what the community had asked of us was, hey, we have this vacant lot where a townhouse was torn down. We want to turn that into a usable community-- something we can actually use, spend time in, and sit and hang out with neighbors and all sorts of things. So we were able to completely transform that lot, over the course of a day, a half a day, into a what became a community walk-through theater.
It was super cool. There was a raised platform that we built, and we mowed and landscaped everything just to turn it from a vacant lot into a really usable, beautiful space. But the coolest part of the day, the neighborhood had designed a logo for their community. That was the first time they'd ever done that. So the neighborhood association--
BRANDI GOMEZ: Oh, I love that.
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: Yeah. And it was beautiful. They had created-- they had drawn it, they had mapped this whole thing out, and done a whole branding for their small community. And what they wanted more than anything was for people who drove through their community, who-- by the way, this is a neighborhood that sits on a very busy through street that goes to 95. You know I mean? So people pass by this all the time and they don't know that they're passing by a place that's special to anybody. They don't even think about it.
But they wanted people to know. And so they created this logo and we had this beautiful, this really big, I don't know, 6 by 10 sign made, and we dug deep holes and poured concrete and used these 8 by 8 posts that we put in the ground and we mounted the sign with our neighbors. And we have this incredible picture of the sign once it's in place, and it's got, like, 10, 12 people that were on that sign team and just these neighbors not only beaming, tears streaming down their faces because for them, what it meant was we're a place now. We're a place that people can see and it's special and people want to come here. It's like, this is now a destination and not just a fly by, a fly-by community.
And to see the impact that something so relatively simple had on this group of people and these neighbors was transformative for everybody that was there. I mean, the veterans that were there left there-- and the veterans and everybody left there feeling like, we did something really important today. It wasn't hard and all it took was us listening and understanding what mattered to this community, and then delivering on a promise. And it was just it was just such a memorable day.
And all of our projects have little moments like that. Some of them really stick with you in a different way once you form these connections in communities and it starts to feel like another extension of your home. But they're all-- that's the goal, is for all of them to feel that special because they're based around relationships and some long-standing promise that we'll be back.
BRANDI GOMEZ: That gives me chill bumps just to think about how they quite literally and figuratively put a stake in the ground to say, this is our community and we're proud of it. And to have such a unique logo to be able to show off, that is very special, very meaningful. And I know that all of your projects provide just such lasting memories.
And it I'm sure it has to just be really fulfilling for your team to be able to be part of that as well. I will say, I really have enjoyed learning about how The Mission Continues also provides leadership development opportunities for those who have transitioned out of service. I know you all have a women's cohort, so tell me some more about those programs.
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: Sure. So part of what we know is that when veterans like your spouse and myself, when we leave the military, we've got a certain set of skills and they're really important for us to continue to employ places. But we also, if we want to do the kind of work that we do at The Mission Continues, specifically things I just talked about, working in under-resourced communities, working in this really trust-based way, the style of leadership that we learn in the military-- and this is definitely, really, I think hyper true in the Marine Corps-- is a lead from the front. It's, as a leader, you charge the hill and folks will follow. It's very much servant leadership. It's also very much lead from the front.
That's a really ineffective leadership style when you come into a community that's not your own. And so that's a time when you have to learn how to lead from within or from behind or from the sides, and that takes some retooling. So our leadership development programs are all about helping veterans gain the additional skill sets and perspectives and mindsets and tools that they're going to need in order to be successful leading in a really different way, now that they're here at home. And they can take everything they got and they can build on it. We're not leaving that behind. We're bringing that with us.
But it's definitely not enough. And we see that all the time. And a great example is I hear all the time-- this is something that always makes me have some kind of reaction. I hear all the time from veterans, like, we're great at diversity because we served in the military and it was a diverse community. And of course, I served with people from all over the place and the person who was in my platoon or my fire team was this and this, and it was great.
True. All of that's true. The military is great at assembling a diverse group of people. But where the military falls down is in creating an environment that helps all those people really celebrate those differences and keep those differences at the forefront and lean on them to create this highly effective team.
And as a woman, I can definitely say that my experience-- this resonates for me because of my own experience, feeling like the very first thing I had to do when I joined the military was cut my hair short and wear the same thing as everybody around me and dress in uniform, walk uniformly, think uniformly ultimately, and perform very uniformly. And there's really one thing, one way of being that is successful, and that's not inclusive. So there's also this need when folks come out of the military to help them retool some of their skill sets so that they can actually take advantage of everything that's around us and say, I want you and you and you and you and everything you know how to do that's different from what I know how to do, and all of the lived experience have, bring it with you. Let's not ignore it or neutralize it. Let's actually use it to figure out how to build this community walk-through theater or to figure out how to build this community garden because I'm going to need all of it.
And that's a skill set and it has to be taught. And I think folks have to have to see that that's an opportunity and that's one of the things that our programs does.
BRANDI GOMEZ: 100%. Everything that you just said makes me think about our employee resource group that we launched about a year ago, actually. The Mission Continues was a part of that special event. We launched a military-focused employee resource group called Military Community Network. And something that I have found within that group is, just as you were explaining, there's a space for everyone, whether you're an ally, you're a veteran, a spouse, whether it's grandma, grandpa, you name it, there is something for everyone and everyone feels like they belong.
We have a Chat Space and it is constantly full of celebration and camaraderie, a little bit of healthy competition [INAUDIBLE].
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: Some rivalry.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Yes. But it's definitely been such a, I think, a transformative just experience for our team members to be able to feel like they are part of something that brings them all together because of their military roots.
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: Absolutely. I mean, just finding those places that can allow us to feel that sense of connection is huge. And it just unlocks all this opportunity to do more together.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Definitely. And I know that for this month, because we're partnering with you all for the Veterans in Service, I know that we have put out a challenge to our team members to get involved in the giving and volunteering with The Mission Continues. And I think it's something that is so special about our partnership because our mission and purpose here at Navy Federal aligns so well with The Mission Continues. Our employees really, they just rally behind the cause. And I know that many of them are already asking about ways that they can get involved.
But I also saw where there is a Veterans Day of Giving. So can you share a little bit more about that concept?
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: Sure, yeah. We're really trying to make this a wonderfully big thing that catches on in a whole different way, that we are asking people to consider that around Veterans Day this year that we have to continue to invest in the leadership of veterans in this country. It's a little bit of an attempt at a narrative shift, which has to be bigger than The Mission Continues. We can't do it alone, which is why we so appreciate organizations like Navy Federal to help amplify this message. And to all your employees, I just ask them to shout it from the rooftops that veterans have this incredible skill set, and we really need to give them opportunities to lead or they will experience terrible impacts of feeling disconnected and feeling like they don't have a sense of purpose.
So I don't want that to happen, which means we need more opportunities for veterans to lead and step up, and that takes resources. And resources are really hard to come by at any time. But this year on Veterans Day of Giving, we're just asking people to think about a veteran in their life who they believe is capable of tackling an incredible challenge and help us fuel this mission. We want every single veteran out there to have an opportunity to serve. And we're doing it in a very particular way with our service platoons, but we've got to reach all of them. And it's going to take it's going to take all of us and it's going to take work, and we want all of your employees, veteran or non-veteran, to come out and experience what it feels like to serve as part of this veteran-led movement.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Yes. Well, you can count on our over 23,000 employees across the world--
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: Oh, that's wonderful.
BRANDI GOMEZ: --to show up and certainly cry it from the rooftops. They are ready to get involved.
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: Love you all.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Very ready to get involved. Well, I know we are very excited to partner with you all and excited to truly make a difference through time, talent, and treasure. I think that what we can do to champion our communities together is what's going to truly make an impact and provide more of that meaning and purpose for the lives of veterans and their families. So I'm just so grateful that you were here today with us and ask if there's anything else you want to share. We would love to hear it.
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: I would love to give a shout out to one of your employees, actually, if I could.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Yes, let's do it.
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: So I wanted to give a big shout out to Stephanie Aguilar, who is one of your Navy Federal employees who's been volunteering with us for years now in our San Antonio platoon and has stood out as just somebody who has been so deeply connected to the team there and has made a huge impact. And people get so excited every time she shows up at a project. She's part of the group. She's part of the team.
So Stephanie, kudos to you. We're really grateful to you for your commitment to continuing service and to bringing other of your teammates out with you. We love you. We love all of your teammates, and it's been so cool to see just the groundswell of Navy Fed employees who have come out to help and be a part of these service platoons. It's great. Keep it coming.
BRANDI GOMEZ: That makes my heart so happy because Stephanie is one of our community service champions. We have a council of right over 200 team members who have raised their hand to say that they're passionate about giving back. And so to your point, they are across the country, creating volunteer opportunity for our employees to get involved in and use their paid volunteer leave. And she is certainly a superstar, so I am so happy to hear that.
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: Yeah. She's great. We want more of them.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Yes. We are actively recruiting.
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: Yes.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Well, thank you so much, Mary Beth. This has been just a wonderful conversation. I love hearing about your story, the way that you're able to connect your experience to now finding such purpose at The Mission Continues. But also paying it forward to make sure that all veterans are able to find that sense of purpose is something truly incredible. So I'm just so grateful to spend time with you and excited for everyone to learn more about The Mission Continues. So tell us where we can find you all if we want to get involved.
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: Go to missioncontinues.org, and you can click on Get involved and join your local service platoon. You can find information about our Veterans Day of Giving there as well. And we just hope you all will take an interest and come out and serve with us. I'd love to put my boots on the ground next to yours. Really excited to see this movement grow.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Thank you so much. We appreciate you.
MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: Thank you, Brandi. Thanks for having me on, and thank you to everybody at Navy Federal. We couldn't do this without you.
ANNOUNCER: Navy Federal Credit Union is federally insured by the National Credit Union Administration. This podcast is intended to provide general information and shouldn't be considered legal, tax, or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial professional for specific information on how certain laws may apply to your individual financial situation. References to and participation with the military community does not constitute organizational endorsement. Navy Federal is an equal housing lender. Navy Federal Credit Union, our members are the mission.