In Fellowship We Find Leadership
Nor could he imagine that a full-scale Russian invasion would come and make his work supporting Ukraine’s veterans even more consequential.
To understand how Boerstler came to have such an outsize impact so far from home, one needs to understand that part of the German Marshall Fund’s mission is to cultivate the next generation of transatlantic leaders. The crown jewel among its leadership programs is the Marshall Memorial Fellowship (MMF), a scholarship program for future leaders in politics, business, and civil society.
Founded in 1982 to familiarize young Europeans with the United States, the fellowship now prepares around 70 people every year for leadership roles on both sides of the Atlantic. The training is wide-ranging. Participants receive up to a year of instruction and mentorship in their home countries, followed by an intensive travel program to deepen their knowledge of the other side of the Atlantic. GMF also organizes regular meetings between current and former participants, helping to expand and intensify its leadership network, which now connects nearly 4,000 people in business, politics, media, academia, science, the military, and civil society.
Founded in 1982 to familiarize young Europeans with the United States, the fellowship now prepares around 70 people every year for leadership roles on both sides of the Atlantic.
Some MMF alumni and participants of the fund’s other leadership programs have advanced to the highest levels of political and corporate life. They include France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Hungary’s once liberal-minded Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, US politician Stacey Abrams—and people like John Boerstler.
The former soldier, who had served in the US Marine Corps, including a combat tour in Iraq, saw firsthand how inadequate the support for veterans often is. Too few understand that soldiers returning from war or even from ordinary military service often come home traumatized by what they have seen and in need of psychological support. Others feel socially excluded and lack the skills to find anything other than poorly paid work. This places a heavy burden on them and on their families.
Boerstler made it his life’s work to change that. While touring Europe as a Marshall Memorial Fellow, he saw that some countries took much better care of their veterans. For example, Denmark, where, Boerstler learned, community-built veterans centers involve multiple stakeholders working hand in hand, from the Ministry of Defense to local nongovernmental organizations delivering mental-health services. He also looked closely at how the governments of France, the United Kingdom, and Israel treat their soldiers after they have left the military. He took these “lessons learned” back to the United States, Boerstler explains, and applied them “with significant results,” first to his veterans community in Houston, then elsewhere.
In 2016, he met a Marshall Memorial Fellow from Kyiv who was visiting Houston. Igor Goncharenko was working for Ukraine’s government and worried about the many hundreds of thousands who had fought in Donbas and had no infrastructure for a successful transition after returning to their communities. Ukrainian veterans were left woefully short of care, abandoned to deal with economic hardship and trauma alone.
Boerstler told Goncharenko about what he had learned in Europe and invited him to look at how he was now trying to improve the care for US veterans in the Houston area. Goncharenko was intrigued and together they came up with the idea to create a similar program in Kyiv. Looking for financial support, they outlined the project and applied for a GMF grant. That marked the beginning of a three-year project in Ukraine, which ultimately led to the establishment of a veterans ministry.
In the end, they won over Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was initially unconvinced. With the growing tensions in Ukraine, Zelensky finally accepted the gravity of the issue, and a new veterans agency and special programs for war returnees were born.
Boerstler helped to set up a group of experts in Ukraine and invited input from high-ranking military leaders from NATO and non-NATO countries. President Barack Obama’s former secretary of veterans affairs, Robert McDonald, was one of them. In the end, they won over Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was initially unconvinced. With the growing tensions in Ukraine, Zelensky finally accepted the gravity of the issue, and a new veterans agency and special programs for war returnees were born.
Three years later, in January 2021, US President Joe Biden appointed John Boerstler as the chief veterans experience officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs and entrusted him with the task of providing service members, veterans, and their families with the highest possible care.
The work of the veterans ministry in Ukraine is, sadly, more important than ever as hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are fighting to defend their homeland—but thanks to Marshall Memorial Fellows John Boerstler and Igor Goncharenko, there is a strong institution standing prepared to help veterans and other members of society process the trauma of war.
Next | Creating a Transatlantic Bridge Builder
History records that June 5, 1947, was a beautiful day when US Secretary of State George C. Marshall visited Harvard University to announce a generous gesture from the United States to a Europe in ruins.
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In 2020, mass protests erupted in Belarus following yet another rigged election in a country that has been under authoritarian rule for decades. The protest movement started with young people, but quickly swelled to include hundreds of thousands of Belarusians of all ages and from all walks of life.
This year the German Marshall Fund marks its 50th anniversary and the 75th anniversary of the Marshall Plan. These historic moments serve as an opportunity to highlight the achievements of one of the most important American diplomatic initiatives of the 20th century and how its legacy lives on today through GMF and its mission. Learn more about GMF at 50.