Advancing National Service

What We Can Learn From Our Veterans

November 19, 2014
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What We Can Learn From Our Veterans
Fewer than 1 percent of Americans have participated in the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, a stark contrast to previous generations. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
A new book teaches us to see the incredible contributions soldiers make after their return home.

As more and more service members take the long and winding trip home, America is bracing for their return. But beyond the stories of struggling with adjusting to civilian life is a group of men and women who are returning to make amazing contributions including volunteering, feeding the homeless and building playgrounds.

But rather than recognizing these accounts along with those of vets who suffer from mental illness or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), most of these stories go unheard.

That’s because fewer than 1 percent of Americans have participated in the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan (only about 5 percent if family members are included) — a stark contrast to previous generations who had direct connections to military life.

But a new book from Howard Schultz, chairman and chief executive of Starbucks Coffee, and Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran is seeking to change that disconnect and help weave our veterans back into the American narrative. “For Love of Country: What Our Veterans Can Teach Us About Citizenship, Heroism, and Sacrifice” details numerous accounts of life on the warfront and how the valor and bravery of our service members transcends back home.

“In 1946, if your neighbor was watering the street at night because he was kind of crazy from shell shock, you knew that everyone coming back wasn’t crazy because your brother or son or husband had served and was successfully transitioning,” Chandrasekaran tells the New York Times. “We don’t have that common understanding anymore. So if someone goes and shoots up Fort Hood, there are all those people who think all vets are a bunch of killers-to-be. And that’s not the case. So the aperture needs to widen.”

While politicians and media continue to focus on vets who struggle with life back home, Schulz and Chandrasekaran aim to illuminate accounts — even those who suffer from trauma or injury — of service members who have made huge contributions to or continue to thrive in business, education, community service and government.

“We want the legacy of this generation of veterans to be serving with courage when the country called on them to serve overseas and then, when they came back, making the country stronger through continued service here at home,” says Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL and Rhodes scholar.

In 2007, Greitens formed Mission Continues, a nonprofit that connects about two dozen teams of veterans with community service across the United States. The group works with nonprofits and offers veterans fellowships to volunteer for six months while providing a food and rent stipend. More than 1,000 fellows had volunteered at 600 various groups by mid-2014, according to the Washington Post

Of course, there are plenty who still struggle with the transition, and it is our responsibility to ensure they’re welcomed back with respect. The Office of Veterans Affairs estimates that around 11 to 20 percent of more than 2.4 million post-9/11 veterans suffer from PTSD, and while more companies are pledging to increase the number of veteran hires, it’s important to diminish the bias that all vets are damaged, and that those who are, are not worthy. More than anything, it is these men and women that can teach us about leadership and valor.

“It is I who should be learning from you,” Schultz told a group of West Point cadets while speaking about leadership in 2011 . “You are the true leaders.”

It’s a lesson we should all remember.

MORE: The Military-Civilian Divide Doesn’t Have to Be as Wide as It Currently Is

 

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