The Power Of Purpose

11/07/2011 08:44 am ET | Updated Jan 07, 2012

After their military service, many veterans struggle to find purpose without the structure, mission and camaraderie of a military unit. It is time we help them find it again.

At the center of the human spirit lies purpose.

Purpose compels us to act. Purpose drives us to achieve. Purpose shapes our identity, and this identity then impacts how we pursue our professions, our communities, our education, and our ideals.

Strip a person of purpose, and you leave them with a void -- emotional, spiritual, physical. The first-time marathon runner may be unprepared for the void they experience after they cross the finish line. The recent retiree may languish on the backside of the milestone they sought for years. The runner and the retiree alike are experiencing life without the purpose that once drove them.

For the 5 million Americans who have voluntarily served in uniform since 9/11, their time spent serving in the military has been richly defined by purpose. For countless enlistees, cadets, and officer candidates, military service begins with a demonstrated commitment to serve our country. It is codified in their oath of enlistment. It is tested during their training. It is shared with others when they join their units and execute their missions. And for more than 2 million of them over the last decade, their commitment to serve has taken them to Iraq or Afghanistan, where it has been forged alongside their comrades-in-arms in the deserts and mountains and streets and seas of the Middle East.

Today, thousands of these enlisted soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are returning home. They have honored their commitment, and whether due to retirement, redeployment, injury, or disability, they are leaving the military and assuming the status of "veteran." The sense of loss that many face with this transition can be overwhelming. For many veterans, the loss of purpose might lead to unemployment, relationship troubles, substance abuse, and, in an alarming number of cases, suicide.

Veterans Day is a day when millions of Americans -- many who otherwise have no connection with the military -- acknowledge the sacrifice and contribution that our soldiers have made to secure our way of life. The day is typically marked by parades, events, TV specials, news stories, and gestures of recognition and thank yous. Our veterans deserve every ounce of our gratitude. But they deserve more than just gratitude. They deserve new purpose.

Studies have shown that veterans can rebuild purpose at home not only by finding the strength within themselves, but by helping others -- through community service and volunteering. It is through service to others that their own purpose again comes into focus, giving them the direction to pursue a job, or an education, or to build a community.

For the past four years, The Mission Continues has offered veterans the opportunity to serve again. During their six-month fellowships within community-service organizations, our fellows are rebuilding the sense of purpose they had in the military, while serving the community around them. The 200 fellows who have completed, or are completing, their fellowships are now purposeful people again. They have re-committed to serve...they have reenlisted in their communities. And they are testaments to the power that comes not from charity, but from a direct challenge to serve again.

We are proud of our fellows' triumphs. But we have only just begun. Millions have served since 9/11. Hundreds of thousands are struggling to again find purpose. They can all prevail and be citizen leaders in their communities, if we as a country commit to challenge them again.

More organizations, more communities, and more individuals must place service at the center of their approach to welcoming home veterans. We are grateful that we are not alone in this movement. ServiceNation: Mission Serve, for instance, has challenged all citizens this Veterans' Day to stand next to veterans in days of service nationwide, providing opportunities for all citizens to appreciate the values of our veterans. Team Rubicon and Wounded Warrior Project have also stepped up to challenge veterans to serve again. But the need is great, and the numbers are many.

I believe that this generation of veterans is poised to be the next greatest generation. This Veteran's Day, join me in thanking our veterans for their service, but also join me in telling them that we still need them. I suspect you'll uncover that sense of purpose that makes them so special.