More than 37,000 active duty military personnel live in Colorado. We also boast a veteran population of more than 413,000. That means close to 10 percent of the Centennial State’s 5.3 million residents have served or are serving. Yet, too often, civilians’ only association with this population is through Hollywood films. This conversation series provides a different kind of connection. We regularly sit down with a veteran who’s having a positive impact in his or her community. We’ll talk about their experiences both in the military and after, and highlight the important contributions these valuable men and women make to their communities once they return home. This month, we handed the tape recorder over to Denver’s Mike Liguori, a former Marine whose 2012 memoir The Sandbox: Stories of Human Spirit and War details his experiences overseas during the Iraq War.
Editor’s Note: These conversations contain mature content and, occasionally, explicit language.
The Mission Continues Service Platoon Leader
Thornton native Jordon Daniel was a student at Front Range Community College when he watched the towers go down on 9/11. The child of a military family, Daniel felt an obligation to join the fight, and less than a year later, he enlisted in the Navy. His five-year military career took him to Iraq, Afghanistan, even on anti-drug operations in the Caribbean Sea. After he was honorably discharged, Daniel struggled with the transition to civilian life, searching for the camaraderie he loved in the military and the satisfaction of serving something bigger. He discovered it in the Mission Continues in 2011. Founded by Missouri Governor-elect and former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, the St. Louis-based nonprofit works with “platoons” around the country to help veterans find purpose through community service—and to bridge the military-civilian divide by incorporating veterans and nonmilitary in volunteer efforts. As Denver’s platoon leader since January—a volunteer position—Daniel leads more than 500 volunteers, civilian and veteran, in community service projects that range from rebuilding trails to working with orphans. In 2016 alone, the platoon has logged 4,000 hours of community service. This is Daniel’s story.
Mike Liguori for 5280: You’re from ocean-less Colorado. So what made you join the Navy?
Jordon Daniel: The Navy is in my blood. I’m a fourth generation sailor. I grew up in the veteran/military community in Colorado: My father, both my grandfathers, my great-grandfather were all in the Navy. It’s been a part of me for my entire life.
What did you do in the Navy? What was your responsibility?
I was a masters of arms, essentially the military police for the Navy. I had a handful of responsibilities like conducting anti-terrorism measures overseas. I was attached to a personal protection detail for one of the admirals in the 5th fleet in Bahrain. Everywhere he went, I went with him.
You got out after five years. How did you change in that time?
I think the thing I noticed the most was that my maturity level grew exponentially. In the Middle East, I saw a lot of cool things, and I also saw a lot of jacked up things, but you grow as a person due to those experiences. Certainly, going to places outside of the US helped me gain a newfound appreciation for everything that we have in this country.
I grew from my service as well, but I didn’t really see the noticeable differences until a couple of years after I was out of the military. How was your transition when you got out?
I had a pretty rough transition. I had a tough time adapting to civilian life especially when I came home. I had a tough time getting around and recognizing my hometown; I was also going through a divorce, so that didn’t make anything easier for me. But with all of that compounding together, I felt I gained a lot of strength from it. Certainly, my experience wasn’t unique. In fact, a lot of people who get out of the military deal with similar things. As I have grown and matured, I have been able to help others getting out not make the same mistakes I made.
If you don’t mind sharing, what were some other things that were hard for you when you got out?
First thing I tried to do when I got back was reconnect with my old friends, and it was pretty evident that because of my experiences and what I had gone through that we didn’t have that same connection we had growing up. Not having that support group to rely on anymore made it tough. I was searching for something to be a part of and get involved in, and because of my time in the military, I ended up getting a job as a security contractor and going back overseas as a civilian.
Why did you do that?
Looking back I was searching for something: employment, adventure. Maybe I was running away from some problems I was having. When I went into contracting, I was working around veterans again from all branches, and I was in my comfort zone—being around people who had done similar things as I had.
You’ve been out now almost 10 years. What do you miss about the military?
Well, I do miss being 30 pounds lighter (laughs). But I really miss things like the camaraderie, a sense of purpose, that sense of serving. I have always had a servant’s heart—that was ingrained in me from a young age—and because of that, after getting out of the military, I felt kind of selfish… like I had more to do. And that was tough feeling to have. But continuing to serve in a similar capacity as a contractor and being around other veterans helped bridge the gap in my transition. I was able to feel more connected to the military again even though I wasn’t in, and I think it inspired me to help when I came home.
You’re part of the post-9/11 generation of veterans who are continuing their service to their country in new capacities. You have been doing that with the Mission Continues as the Denver platoon leader. Why?
I wanted to make a positive impact in the community. And a lot of the veteran-based nonprofits in Colorado were doing just that so it was a perfect fit. I went out and helped people during the floods in 2013 with Team Rubicon. I got to be a part of helping veterans get in shape with Team Red White and Blue. And I started volunteering in the community with the Mission Continues in 2011. That’s what got me going in the beginning. Now, being able to help veterans and bring them to these organizations is a big part of the reason I continue to do it.
What are some of the community service projects that veterans—and the Mission Continues—are tackling in the Denver community?
Veteran homelessness is a problem in Denver. I think there are over 70 organizations that are combating homelessness and because of their efforts, there aren’t as many homeless veterans on the streets today. The Mission Continues Denver Service Platoon has one of the most engaged and largest memberships in the country, and we have donated over 4,000 hours of community service since I took over the platoon in 2016. We’ve rebuilt trails, worked with the local Habitat For Humanity, and worked with orphans at Mount Saint Vincent.
A year ago, the Mission Continues began including not just veterans but also nonmilitary in their platoons. For a long time, it has been said there is misunderstanding between the military and civilian world. In your platoon, have you seen the narrative change because of these projects?
Absolutely. That was something that came with my experience. When I first joined, some of the organizations were exclusively for veterans. Today, a lot of the organizations are around 60 percent veterans, 40 percent nonveterans. I can’t tell you how helpful that has been for our platoon. It certainly does change the conversation. I remember serving with Team Rubicon during the flood with a guy named Dave. I asked Dave what branch he was in, and he said, “Oh man. I wasn’t in a branch, but I definitely love getting out there and helping people and being around a bunch of salty, foul-mouthed, rowdy vets.” The light bulb went off for me: Veterans don’t have a monopoly on the sense of service; everybody has that sense of service. It’s just how they choose to express that and feed that desire. Everyone’s path is unique. We may have never served overseas, but we are serving together now.
If you’d like to learn more about volunteer opportunities with the Mission Continues, visit missioncontinues.org/denver.