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Donna M. Butts Headshot

A Kinder, Gentler World for Our Veterans

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Over four decades ago, Led Zeppelin first sang, "...a new day will dawn for those who stand long,/and the forest will echo with laughter." While the true meaning of the lyrics can be debated, what does ring true is the way in which our troops are now welcomed home and thanked for "standing long" to protect our freedoms.

Veteran's Day is when we offer our thanks and gratitude to our nation's vets through wreath laying ceremonies, parades and military exhibits. It's "a new day" for returned soldiers and former military, who are enjoying a shift in the national mood that went from vilifying Vietnam and ignoring those who served to fully embracing this commemorative day.

Nowhere is this shift seen more than in intergenerational programs across the country and abroad that serve as lifelines for military families and engage older vets as mentors. Among those who offer programs that connect older adults, children and youth is The New Hampshire Veterans Home (NHVH), which has weekly activities that mix their older residents with middle and high school students in activities including playing board and trivia games based on U.S. and world history, farming and discussing career goals.

The multicultural and international population at Tilton, one of seven schools the NHVH collaborates with, helps both students and residents learn about each other's cultures, while learning they're more alike than they thought.

Exchanges like these are a win-win-win. They're a win for young people who get extra attention, guidance and support. They're a win for older vets who enjoy a greater sense of purpose. They're a win for communities empowered by collaboration, pooling resources and engaging in cooperative problem solving.

Those community services make shared sites -- facilities where children, youth and older adults receive services -- like Easter Seals' Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Inter-Generational Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, invaluable. Through their Little Warrior Program, the center provides free childcare for children of wounded soldiers. These young people, whose parents saw trauma first-hand, can inherit what Dr. Anita Brown called intergenerational post-traumatic stress distorder (iptsd).

The research suggests that anger, anxiety and heightened sense of vulnerability are some symptoms that children of wounded soldiers are likely to experience, according to Brown, a clinical psychologist at the Defense Centers of Excellence.

Easter Seals helps offset these signs early by caring for young people from six weeks to 13 years old. Older adults play a vital role in the program reassuring, comforting and caring about the young ones during these important developmental years. The parents say the children respond well to the extra support and caring they receive from their intergenerational friends.

There's something else that comes from these cross generation bonds, according to the late cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead: "If you associate enough with older people who do enjoy their lives, who are not stored away in any golden ghettos, you will gain a sense of continuity and of the possibility for a full life."

Earlier this year, World War II veterans, residents of Chester County, Pennsylvania's Lakeside Assisted Living, impacted the lives of students at a local elementary school. During the veteran's visit, the benefits were two-fold: students got additional context on the war they read about in school books, while veterans felt valued as they shared their personal histories with a future generation.

At the Southwestern Veterans Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the vets did the active listening. During the center's Intergenerational Reading Program, students from Transfiguration School shared their stories in either one-on-one or small group settings. The program's goal, like other shared sites, is to enhance all participants' quality of life by improving attitudes toward elders and share life experiences.

The Memory Project in Canada takes the intergenerational endeavor to another level. Through an educational partnership between Historica Canada and the Ontario Seniors' Secretariat, The Memory Project brings the Veterans of World War II, the Korean War and peacekeeping missions into school classrooms and over the Internet.

Veterans Day provides the perfect opportunity to renew our national promise and stand long for our vets who deserve our respect and a new day, who make it possible -- as Led Zeppelin sings it -- for our forest, and future generations, to "echo with laughter."