Sonia Meneses was a 12-year Army veteran deployed for two combat tours in Iraq. After repeated exposure to weapons fire and explosions caused almost total hearing loss and bouts of unconsciousness, she was evacuated from Iraq and felt like a failure because she didn't get to complete her mission. Meneses said that community service on the home front "gave me the opportunity to believe in myself again and helped me realize that just because I am injured and have my own disabilities, I can still be a great help to someone." Meneses is one of nearly two million Americans who have now served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We know that many returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have rocky transitions home - thousands are homeless, unemployed, struggle financially, and file for divorce. Americans do a great job welcoming veterans at the airport and government worries about their health care, but a report released today shows that far too little is done to reintegrate veterans into community life and to continue to engage them in the very service that defines who they are and can help them with their transitions home.
Released today, the first-ever nationally representative survey of the civic lives of our nation's returning veterans from America's two latest wars shares both disturbing and hopeful news. Only 13 percent of these veterans strongly agreed that their transition home was going well and only 9 percent shared that view about how the needs of their families were being met. While nearly nine out of ten veterans believed that Americans could learn something from the example of service of veterans, only half consider themselves leaders in their communities. Strangely, after the parades and yellow ribbons, nearly seven in ten veterans said they had not been contacted by a community institution, local non-profit or place of worship, even though these groups are central to a veteran's reintegration into civilian life.
America's support for veterans should not stop at the airport gate. More than 90 percent of veterans believe serving their community is important to them and a basic responsibility of every American. Veterans who volunteered said their transitions were going better than those veterans who did not volunteer and the same held true for the family transitions of the veterans who were civically engaged. Even veterans who were not currently volunteering were willing to give significant time every month serving their communities.
Veterans of course want to help other veterans and military families, but their compassion goes far further. They want to help at-risk youth and older Americans, and participate in disaster relief and conservation of the environment. What's more, they have acquired skills in Iraq and Afghanistan - management and supervision, logistics and operations, and team-building and leading diverse groups of people, all skills that come in handy for the next generation of coaches, tutors, mentors, disaster response teams and more.
How our nation treats its returning veterans says a lot about our gratitude for their service and the respect we have for the skills they have acquired. Ironically, after sacrificing their lives for our country, veterans are a vulnerable population during the transition home and our new data shows that Americans can do much more to help them.
New efforts at the national, state and community levels will help. We must begin by changing our national dialogue from viewing returning veterans as charity cases to embracing them as civic assets in their communities.
We must de-stigmatize Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and educate non-profits on how they can effectively engage the returning veteran in service. The new Veterans Service Corps just authorized by Congress will engage veterans in full-time national service on the home front, and Governors and Mayors can integrate veterans more effectively into their state and city service initiatives.
Faith-based institutions can surround veterans with the support of loving parishioners, schools can welcome them into classrooms to share their stories of valor and service to inspire the next generation, and businesses can redouble efforts to integrate them into the workforce. Congress can pass the Troops to Teachers Enhancement Act.
America can do much more to thank our veterans for their service by smoothing the transitions home. Sargent Meneses tells us why it's so important - before she engaged in community service she said, "I was having a hard time with myself. I felt like I was a failure, that I didn't get to finish my mission...I fell into depression just thinking that something that I loved to do so much had to stop." Every American can help a veteran by ensuring their mission continues and by remembering that to the veteran, it is all about love of country.
John M. Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises and former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and USA Freedom Corps when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were launched. Mary McNaught is Chief of Staff of Civic Enterprises and the wife of a Naval aviator. Both are co-authors of the report released today, All Volunteer Force: From Military to Civilian Service found at www.civicenterprises.net