Every day on HuffPost, we're highlighting one 'Greatest Person'- an exceptional individual who is confronting the country's economic and political crises with creativity, generosity, and passion. Today is Veteran's Day, and we're excited to feature Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq War veteran and the founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association, as our Greatest Person. The IAVA, which is the nation's largest nonprofit for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with some 200,000 members, fights for the well being of our men and women in uniform after they return from combat. We sat down with Paul to discuss the IAVA, the state of the military today, and how he plans to celebrate Veteran's Day.
Huffington Post: Why did you found the IAVA? What are the organization's main objectives?
Paul Rieckhoff: Quite frankly, I was pissed off - and I wanted our voice represented in the national dialogue. I wanted people to listen to us. And I wanted this country to support my guys and their families better. When I moved back to New York City after Iraq, I met some Iraq veterans who were struggling to pay rent and put food on the table for their kids. I met vets who were having a hard time at Walter Reed. And vets who were homeless and living in the shelter with their kids. That was just plain wrong. These men and women had served our country on the frontlines, and yet they were slipping through the cracks at home because our country wasn't really paying attention. Too many vets couldn't find a job or get in to see a VA counselor for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It was outrageous. I came together with a couple other frustrated vets and we started IAVA from nothing. We had no money. No office. Just a website and a lot of passion. Fast-forward six years, and we're now the nation's largest nonprofit for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families.
HP: How does the IAVA distinguish itself from other veteran organizations?
PR: IAVA has a totally different model. We're not your grandfather's veterans group. We respect all the other vets groups--and work with them regularly -- but we serve a very different, very new community. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans paid their dues in combat, so we don't charge fees for membership. You also don't have to drive miles to find us because we're connecting with new veterans exactly where they are: online. We're on the ground too, but we aren't bound to the restrictive costs and bureaucracy of running thousands of physical veterans halls. We're like the Amazon of vets groups. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are incredibly diverse as a community, and the one common thread we share is that we're all Millennials. Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, you name it - and we're connected to it. That's why in 2008 we partnered with the Ad Council to launch Community of Veterans - the first and only online social network exclusively for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Early this year, we also launched The Rucksack to connect new veterans with access to resources, exclusive giveaways and more - everything from free business suits to NASCAR passes. We focus on creating products that improve the lives of our members.
HP: You graduated from Amherst with a B.A. in political science. How did this affect your decision to go into the military? Describe the experience of going to the military right after four years at a small liberal arts college.
PR: Amherst and the military might seem like totally different worlds. They're not. They share many of the same values - specifically, the same sense of obligation to give back through service. In retrospect, my decision to join the military after graduation was a natural extension of what I learned in the classroom at Amherst about leadership and service. Amherst taught me to look globally, and it taught me to think critically -- all things that served me well in Baghdad. My education there was as integral to my development as a military leader as boot camp.
HP: How long did you spend in Iraq? Describe for us that experience. What exactly was your role in the operation?
PR: I served as an Army First Lieutenant and infantry rifle platoon leader in Iraq with the Third Infantry and First Armored Division from 2003 to 2004. We conducted over 1,000 combat patrols in and around Baghdad for about a year. But it's impossible to describe the entirety and scope of the experience in a paragraph. I wrote a book about it--and still didn't get it all in. I'll probably spend the rest of my life trying to convey to friends and strangers exactly what we experienced over there. I'm just proud that all 38 of my men returned home alive to their families.
HP: Did you have trouble readjusting to civilian life when you returned?
PR: Definitely. Coming home hit me like a ton of bricks. I was in Baghdad one week, and Brooklyn the next. It didn't take too long to realize our military families were at war, but America was clearly disconnected. We had hundreds of thousands of troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and yet the top news headline that January was Janet Jackson's indecent exposure during the Super Bowl. Back home, most folks were living life uninterrupted. That was tough to accept after being shot at for a year. And after seeing some of my buddies really struggle. I was pissed off. So I started IAVA to bridge that military-civilian disconnect. I had the support of my family, but I still felt alone as an Iraq veteran - and I didn't want others to feel the same.
HP: What does it mean to you to be a veteran? What does the US military represent to you? What, in your mind, is the military's role in this day and age?
PR: Our military today is America's 911. When there's a problem in the world or back home, they call us. Service members are charged with everything from counterinsurgency in Afghanistan to relief work in the wake of Katrina and Haiti. In the process, the military and veterans community is impacted by every major policy issue that affects the American people, from healthcare to immigration to gay rights to education. I'm a product of the military system, and it instilled values and skills that are critical for leadership everywhere from Capitol Hill to running a nonprofit. Being a veteran means simply putting those values and skills to use to continue serving my country. I needed to find my next mission in life, even without the uniform. And I think many other vets from my generation feel the same way.
HP: How do you feel the military should respond to veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
PR: It starts with breaking down the stigma. I can't repeat this enough: no one comes home from war unchanged. We know today that nearly 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are screening positive for invisible wounds like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury and depression. The military is making some progress to change this, and at IAVA we're pushing to improve access to mental health counselors and resources so service members making the transition from active-duty to the VA don't fall through the cracks.
HP: What do you do to celebrate Veteran's Day?
PR: I work. And I love it. Today, I'll be marching up Fifth Avenue in New York City with hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the nation's biggest Veterans Day Parade. I've marched in the parade every year since I came home from Iraq. It's a great way to reconnect with the vets I served with and to loop new veterans into IAVA's mission. This year, thousands can join us across the country by marching online with IAVA on Facebook and Twitter - in one click you can help us show new veterans we've got their backs this Veterans Day.
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