For A Navy SEAL, Balance Between 'Heart' And 'Fist' Rhodes scholar and Navy SEAL Eric Greitens talks about how his deployments to locations like Bosnia, Rwanda and Iraq helped him find the necessary balance between bravery, willingness to fight and compassion.
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For A Navy SEAL, Balance Between 'Heart' And 'Fist'

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For A Navy SEAL, Balance Between 'Heart' And 'Fist'

For A Navy SEAL, Balance Between 'Heart' And 'Fist'

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Eric Greitens was a gifted young college student when he went to the Balkans to work in refugee camps during the summer of 1994. He met a Bosnian woman on a train who asked him, why isn't America doing anything to stop the ethnic cleansing, rapes and murders? Eric Greitens kind of thought that he was. But the woman's question changed his life. Eric Greitens went on to do humanitarian work in Rwanda, Gaza and many other places; earned a doctorate as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford; and then, he became a U.S. Navy Seal, serving in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places.

Now, he's written a book to make the case that humanitarian and military missions need each other - The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL.

Mr. Greitens, who is also founder of a group called The Mission Continues, joins us from member station WBEZ in Chicago.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ERIC GREITENS (Author, The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL): Its my pleasure to be on with you, Scott.

SIMON: And why did that woman's question shake you up?

Mr. GREITENS: Well, it shook me up because there I was - I was a college student, and I was heading to live and work in refugee camps in Bosnia. I was going to work with unaccompanied children, do simple work in the camps -help with the kindergarten, help with the little soccer team, help with the feeding. And I felt like I was really making a difference. But when I got to Bosnia, it was clear that her question was a question that was on everyone's mind.

I remember there was a guy in one of the camps who told me one day - he said, don't misunderstand me. He said, we appreciate the shelter that's here for my family. And I appreciate that theres food available for my kids and a kindergarten thats here - he said. But, he said, if people really cared about us, they'd be willing to protect us. And I realized later that what he said was true - that 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 who we love, is threatened, we're also willing to respond with courage. And so it takes, really, the heart and the fist to love anything well.

SIMON: What can humanitarian missions and military missions learn from each other? What can soldiers and relief workers learn from each other?

Mr. GREITENS: In order for us to be effective in any operation, one of the keys that's essential for us is that we have allies, and that we have a really deep knowledge of what's actually happening in the local culture.

It's oftentimes the case that relief workers, people who've been involved in development projects and foreign assistance, have a real understanding of foreign cultures that the military desperately needs if we're going to be able to work effectively.

On the other hand, 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. Because if we don't pay attention to actually providing security for people, there's very little that we can do for them.

SIMON: You were about to leave Oxford and had attractive offers on the outside, but you went to a fancy dinner for Rhodes Scholars and had what amounts to a revelation there. Do you recall that?

Mr. GREITENS: I do. I was at this dinner for Rhodes Scholars. And we were in the Rhodes mansion, which is this fancy mansion on the Oxford campus. And I remember I looked up in the rotunda, and I saw that etched into the marble were the names of Rhodes Scholars who had left Oxford, and had fought and died in World War II.

And I remember as I was standing there looking up, thinking that if they hadn't have 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. This was - joining the Navy and the SEAL teams was the right way for me to serve.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I mean, there are lots of way you can be of service that don't encounter joining the SEALS and going through a thing like Hell Week, or doing the kind of dangerous things that they do. Why was the Navy SEALS so appealing?

Mr. GREITENS: Part of the attraction of the SEAL teams was the incredible tests that it offered. As you know, Scott, the SEAL team training has a reputation for being the hardest military training in the world. In my class, ultimately, we started with over 220 people and by the time we graduated, we were down to 21.

Part of what appealed to me about the SEAL teams was that test. And the other thing that appealed to me about joining the military in general was, it was an opportunity to serve my country. And the SEAL teams offered an opportunity to lead and to work with an incredible group of people.

SIMON: Do you ever miss the SEALS?

Mr. GREITENS: I do. I do. It's a pleasure for me now to - I continue to serve in the Reserves. And I enjoy being able to continue my Reserve service. 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.

SIMON: Eric Greitens. His new book, "The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy Seal."

Mr. Greitens, thanks so much.

Mr. GREITENS: Scott, it's been my pleasure being on with you.

SIMON: You can read an excerpt about Eric Greitens service as a Navy SEAL in Iraq at our website,

(Soundbite of music)

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