08/25/2011 08:13 pm ET | Updated Oct 25, 2011

What Will Post-9/11 Veterans' Civic Legacy Look Like? It's Up to Us

Three years ago I became deeply interested in this question: what is the civic legacy of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan going to look like? We know well the legacy of World War II veterans, the 16 million men who returned home and served on water and school boards, started local United Ways and Habitat for Humanity chapters. On the flip side, the men who served in Vietnam returned home to very different communities, ones that did not appreciate or understand their service and all too often kept them on the sidelines of civic life.

This generation of veterans is at a crucial juncture. The over 2 million men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom chose to serve after 9/11 and during a time of war, are quite literally an all-volunteer force. They are also less than 1 percent of the American population, meaning that most Americans live their lives without ever understanding the sacrifices these service members and their families make each and every day. These veterans return home to a nation that has yellow ribbons on the backs of their cars and "welcome home" ceremonies at airports, but they also return home to a nation where every story in the news is about how their generation is in crisis: unemployed, suffering from PTSD, beating their wives, getting divorced, abusing drugs or committing suicide. It paints a picture of a generation of veterans who are charity cases instead of civic assets.

In a national survey of post-9/11 veterans, 92 percent said that serving the community they returned home to was important to them. They were keenly aware of the needs of their communities and overwhelmingly wanted to serve on diverse issues, ranging from the high school dropout crisis to cleaning up rivers and disaster relief. They were able to match the skills they gained in the military with the skills nonprofits desperately needed.

Most alarmingly was this finding: 90 percent of veterans believe Americans can learn something from their example of service, yet only 44 percent feel like leaders in their communities today. Our veterans know the ethic of service they have and its value, but when they take their daughters to school, walk into City Hall, or go to their place of worship, they're not sure anyone around them understands.

In my mind, how our nation views its returning servicemen and women will be the single most defining issue in how this generation of veterans fairs over the next 60 to 70 years that they live in this great country. If we welcome them home with a sense of gratitude that affirms that they are civic assets, and that their service is far from over when they take off their military uniform, they will be affirmed and discover a renewed sense of purpose. If we allow the negative story line to dominate the media, if we tolerate that there are veterans who are now homeless or jobless, or if we allow these men and women to simply come home to dark rooms, we will fail them.

At The Mission Continues, we endeavor every day to affirm the strengths of this generation of veterans and to connect their skills to the needs that exist in the communities that they return home to. To date, we have had over 160 wounded post-9/11 veterans serve as Fellows with our organization. These men and women have chosen to accept a challenge, not charity. They have served in communities from Hawaii to Maine, mentoring at-risk youth, cleaning up the environment and training guide dogs for other disabled Americans. They have continued their service while getting their lives back on track -- finding a job, applying for college or securing an ongoing role of service. These Fellows' stories lay the foundation for what this generation of veterans can be: the backbone of our communities. It is our responsibility to show our gratitude by asking them to serve again.