“What branch are you in?”
Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force—servicemen and women from all the branches of the military were sitting in sleek leather chairs around a conference table, breaking the ice with that question time and again. In the offices of the Wounded Warrior Project in Manhattan, 30 veterans gathered to watch the Super Bowl, sipping on sodas on Sunday night.
Two veterans advocacy groups, The Wounded Warrior Project and The Mission Continues, had organized the watch party for their volunteers, in an alcohol-free environment, and provided game day snacks—pizza, mozzarella sticks, garlic knots, and, of course, chicken wings.
As the game was starting, FoxSports shifted from scanning the cheering fans in the stadium to servicemen and women overseas who were watching the game on base. One of the volunteers at the party, Tom Smoot, immediately shouted, “Those are my guys in Kuwait! I know those guys, I served with them.” A sense of pride swelled in the room and all were silent.
The Mission Continues works with veterans to give them new opportunities to be of service to their communities, an aspect some veterans say they miss most once they complete their military contracts. Members build playgrounds, clean up abandoned parks, prepare meals for the homeless, and work with youth groups. Smoot is one of them.
“I was actually looking for a job when I realized I missed my service,” said Smoot, an Army veteran who worked in Civil Affairs. “In the military, you know you’re part of something bigger so when you leave, you realize it’s not part of your life anymore.”
Originally from Baltimore, he has been involved with The Mission Continues 2nd Platoon, The Bronx, since 2014. The organization has four service platoons in New York City—Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn, and Staten Island.
Smoot, 41, didn’t really know what to expect when he signed up for The Mission Continues. He said he had moved to NYC after a long, painful custody battle for his child after divorcing his wife. Smoot works at Memorial Sloan-Kettering and volunteers with The Mission Continues on most weekends. “You just feel really good about getting to help people out and I wouldn’t get to do these things if it wasn’t for The Mission Continues,” said Smoot. “And then I get to come to events like this, and hang out with people who understand my military slant.”
Throughout the night, the chatter around the room consisted of war stories, joking, and, at times, politics. Two veterans, for example, spent the majority of the night in the back corner discussing President Donald Trump.
One of the volunteers at the Superbowl party was Sergio “Tito” Mendez, 33, who served in the Army’s Airborne Brigade. He enlisted when he was 17, seven days before 9/11. “I joined because where I come from it’s a bad neighborhood. You either try to get to college, join the military, end up or jail, or wind up dead,” said Mendez, a Bronx transplant from Patterson, New Jersey.
Mendez has four overseas tours under his belt—two in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, and one in Africa. Today, he is still in the Reserves and is part of every veterans’ organization he could find to volunteer for: The Mission Continues; Team Rubicon; Team Red, White, and Blue; and The Wounded Warrior Project.
“In 2003 there was nothing available to veterans and it was horrible. There were no support groups and so you got into trouble,” said Mendez. “Now there is an outlet for veterans, and all of these groups changed my life.”
Mendez joined his first veteran group in 2008, after living in his car for a year. He says he wound up homeless after Hurricane Sandy, but secured a job interview through The Wounded Warrior Project and has been working for Con Edison as an electrician ever since.
“They knew I was struggling and that I was moving from shelter to shelter,” said Mendez. “Vets need people to check in on them like that. Being a vet, there’s a lot of loneliness, so these groups have to be intrusive in our lives because, if you know veterans, you know they are complicated and will never seek help.”
Mendez welcomed everyone as they came into the office to watch the game and always asked the men and women about their service.
“Nights like these are always good,” said Mendez. “I always prefer the company of veterans because I can share my experiences with them. You can’t pay for these nights.”