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Is Veterans Day the New Earth Day?

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Did that question get your attention? Thought it might.

My answer is "not yet, but maybe soon." One of the realities of American society is that big social change often reaches the tipping point only when it becomes embodied in the military. The idea that farm boys could go to college had been around for a while, but it never really became mainstream until the GI Bill. Color-blind treatment of minorities in our society is still a hugely unfinished national challenge, but the military was one of the first institutions to integrate. And now, as green technologies and a new, sustainable industrial future move onto the national agenda, leadership is again beginning to crop up in the armed forces.

This week alone, the Sierra Club is involved in three veterans events -- events that are designed to recognize and honor veterans for their service, but events that are also symbols of the reality that the military is an increasingly important force in the evolution of our society to cope with 21st-century environmental challenges:

"The Sierra Club is proud to honor our nation's veterans and committed to easing the transition home for our returning service members," says the Sierra Club's National Youth and Special Projects Director, Martin LeBlanc. "Whether it is by preparing veterans for jobs in the green economy through home weatherization training or by giving veterans an opportunity to acclimate to civilian life with a backpacking trip, the Sierra Club salutes our veterans today and every day."

Today, we are celebrating the Military Housing Energy Efficiency Project (MHEEP) by weatherizing the home of an active-duty Marine in Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. MHEEP is a new project made possible by the Sierra Club's Military Families Outdoors Initiative (www.sierraclub.org/military). Through MHEEP, veterans are identified by Veterans Green Jobs and trained to weatherize residential properties by the Laborers International Union of North America. After the training, the veterans will join the green economy and weatherize the homes of 50 military families in the region. With one in four construction workers currently unemployed -- and as many as one in five veterans unemployed -- there is an urgent need to generate good, forward-looking jobs like those established through this program.

Tomorrow, I'll join other Sierra Club leaders at the fourth annual Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Gala in New York City. This year IAVA will honor David Gelbaum, CEO of Entech Solar, chairman of The Quercus Trust, venture philanthropist and supporter of the Sierra Club's Military Families Outdoors initiative, with the 2010 IAVA Civilian Service Award. Gelbaum's unprecedented and inspiring philanthropic support of this newest generation of veterans has transformed the landscape of support for a generation of veterans and their families.

And on Veterans Day itself, the Club will be participating in one of 20 "Mission Serve" coast-to-coast signature service projects to celebrate and honor our military communities. In Seattle, AmeriCorps, Earth Corps, the Sierra Club, and Veterans Conservation Corps will work side by side to remove invasive plant species and to plant native plants along Hamm Creek. The restoration effort at Hamm Creek was started by John Beal, a veteran who made it the last cause of his life to save this important watershed for salmon.

These celebratory events are only the tip of the green revolution happening in and around the military. The Navy is taking the lead in developing biofuels. The Army would like to electrify vehicles. Military bases have become the testing ground for new low-temperature geothermal heating and cooling technologies.

There is a long way to go -- the Navy still has a very poor record when it comes to the impact of its sonar testing on marine mammals, for example. But if you want good examples to show that the need to change our energy economy to solve both global warming and national security threats is something everyone can get behind, pointing to military leadership is a good place to begin.

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