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Why Returning Military Members Must Be Challenged To Lead

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Last month, 44,000 troops returned from Iraq for the final time. Many will continue their military careers, but a good portion will separate from the military and re-enter the civilian world. Over the next five years, a predicted one million American service members will take off their uniforms and return to communities across the country, according to a White House estimate. From large East Coast cities to small towns in the Midwest, there are ongoing discussions about what we should to with all of these returning veterans.

How will we find them jobs and homes and education? What should we do with them? But, I prefer to think of it in a different way. I prefer to view it as a systematic dispersion of some of America's most highly trained assets into towns and cities all across the country. I imagine one million people in whom the federal government has invested to develop leadership, teambuilding, and problem solving skills. With all of these veterans re-entering our community, I ask: What can't we do?

There is no doubt that, today, Americans show their appreciation for the service of the military. Yellow ribbons and rounds of applause at airports demonstrate how grateful our country is for the sacrifices that a small portion of our population has made. But, today, do American's feel truly connected to the military? Do we understand what it means to have served? Unfortunately for 84 percent of the veteran respondents polled for a recent study by the Pew Foundation, the answer is no, we don't know our veterans.

Because we don't know and understand these people, we often turn our appreciation and our empathy into pity. We hear about high unemployment rates and struggles with PTSD. And we feel guilt for the tough situations that veterans endure. It's a very natural sentiment, but it might be misguided. Consider that if 13 percent of new veterans are unemployed, then 87 in 100 are holding down jobs. If 20 percent of post-9/11 veterans are suffering from PTSD -- an aggressive estimate--then the vast majority are not, and many of those who are have learned to deal with it.

So instead of seeing veterans as liabilities, as people to pity, or as charity cases, we must -- as a country -- begin to see them as assets to our communities and to the workplace. We must challenge them to lead here at home, just as they led in Tikrit and Jalalabad. If we do, then these trained leaders and problem solvers will respond to the call. When veterans arrive home, this is what they expect. They expect to be challenged.

I know these things because I have lived through them. Four months after I was severely wounded in Afghanistan, I received an unsolicited $500 check from a national non-profit that supports "wounded warriors". I had no debt, I was still on active duty, and -- despite the fact that I was facing 10 major surgeries and four years of physical therapy -- the military would cover all of my medical bills. So why did I get the check? Was it a reward for being wounded, or was it compensation for my broken legs? Uncomfortable with the idea of being a charity case, I donated the money to the local food bank.

My objection to being seen as a charity case stayed with me. I preferred to be seen as someone who still had something to give. So, during the same year that I had my 10th major surgery as part of my long road to recovery, I also volunteered more than 2,000 hours for an organization that challenges wounded veterans to serve in their communities. In fact, some of the best therapy I received was through my ability to continue my mission of service here at home.

Then, in the same month that the military branded me as "unfit for military service" and "permanently disabled", I received a letter of acceptance from a top-tier MBA program. For the next two years I took on the challenge of bettering myself in an academic setting and preparing for the leadership opportunities in my future.

It was the chance to accept these challenges -- and not the charity that is so prevalent today -- that helped me through my recovery and helped me to create a life for myself in the civilian world. So, on behalf of all veterans I ask: do not pity us. Do not think of us as charity cases. Challenge us. We will respond, and we will be great.

This is a message not only for human resources departments at large corporations or for national non-profit organizations or for those who live near military communities. This is a message for every small business owner, elementary school teach, and civic leader. This is a lesson for all Americans -- it is a message for you.

Returning veterans can and will assume the leadership roles in the workplace and in the community that will reinvigorate our nation, but only if we all can see them as the civic assets that they are. Do not doubt that a small change in the way veterans are perceived in the minds of millions of Americans can result in a significant positive impact on our nation.