Personal experience tells me today's 2.7 million Afghanistan and Iraq veterans are poised to become tomorrow's next big thing.
By the end of this year, all but 9,800 of them will have left Afghanistan, ending 13 years of military engagement in the country. Now we must identify the tipping point to ensure these heroes can succeed where they live.
As the Brigade Commander in the volatile Diyala Province for 15 months in 2006-2007, I watched my troops carry out remarkable feats of bravery and perform selfless acts of courage. They demonstrated all the qualities one could want in the toughest of situations - smarts, guts and compassion.
I worry that our vision for veterans and their families is not 20/20. In fact, I posit that we do not have a vision for their future five or ten years down the road. I worry because the American people know what our military is, but they may not know who we are and what we are capable of.
This disconnect will grow stronger when America is no longer considered at war. To paraphrase the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), the sea of goodwill will turn into an ocean of apathy.
This is truly unfortunate because these young men and women embody the best of their generation. They personify the new, truly global community with world views on politics and religion that are drawn from first-hand experience. Their skills in science, technology and medicine, learned on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, have impacted everyone from the Boston Marathon bomb victims, who benefitted from new emergency medicine techniques to multiple criminal investigations using satellite and drone search techniques.
Our veterans are not different. They are not damaged. They simply need the same access to the key elements all Americans need to ensure a sustainable life:
- Education to improve their ability to succeed in the private sector;
- Meaningful employment - one that pulls in a "family wage";
- Access to services that cover the "whole person" - among them, health care, child care and transportation
But even with thousands of programs operating to bridge the gaps and improve the outcomes of soldiers transitioning to civilian lives, a 2012 CNAS report finds that veterans are not receiving the care and services they need to transition successfully. There is only so much that the government can do.
How can Americans step up to support this generation that is primed for prominence? It can be done through small, simple acts:
- Think local. Support a community organization that helps veterans such as Easter Seals. Volunteer once a week or once a month.
- Be inclusive. Get to know a veteran better through peer-to-peer mentoring. This could be as simple as introducing the mentee to one's social network and fostering connections.
- Encourage hiring. Vets bring amazing leadership and organizational skills to the table. Consider hiring a vet or ask the company's HR department to be more proactive in hiring veterans for all positions.
- Tutor a vet. Many colleges have Student Veterans of America chapters that would welcome individuals who want to tutor or review papers.
The National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics projects the number of veterans from recent conflicts to jump by 36 percent in the next five years. Many of these veterans came of age after 9/11, when terrorism invaded the U.S., driving increased security but also increased patriotism and civic engagement. It was this desire to tangibly support their country that propelled many to volunteer for military service, even though it meant deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan.
We were all affected by the events of 9/11. Thirteen years later, there is still much more that can be done. This generation has spent more than a decade at war. As we transition into peace, it's time to reach out and connect with these amazing individuals. With just a small amount of your understanding, attention and support, they are ready to move on - and move up - to greatness.