Five million volunteers. Five million husbands, wives, sons, and daughters. Five million soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who have fought for a dozen years. Next year, the last of these men and women will come home from Afghanistan. What comes next for this generation of veterans? What will their legacy be?
We've faced this question before. The World War II generation earned degrees, opened businesses, fought for civil rights, and grew the world's strongest economy. But when Vietnam veterans came home a generation later, many found their return as difficult and unforgiving as their fight overseas.
Many of the veterans who served after September 11th have their toughest fight ahead of them. Many veterans report that the public does not understand them. 44% are struggling with the transition to civilian life.
Twelve years of war have left some young veterans with scars, but also with leadership experience and maturity far beyond their years. They are the best educated, best trained, most professional generation of veterans in American history. We called on them after September 11th, and I believe we should call on them to serve again.
At The Mission Continues, we've seen veterans thrive when they continue their service after leaving the military. When these men and women take on new missions, they also reconnect with their communities, renew their sense of purpose, and launch new careers. We've seen them take the lead in some of the toughest battles we're fighting here at home. Instead of fighting against insurgents, they're fighting for quality education, healthy families, safe neighborhoods, and stronger communities.
Every military mission relies on teamwork. These new missions are no different. Across the country, veterans are forming teams and taking action.
In San Diego, men and women who shook sand out of their boots in Iraq and Afghanistan will be up to their elbows in soil at community gardens, growing healthy food for local schools. In Phoenix, teams of veterans will take to the streets and meet with the city's homeless face to face, signing hundreds of them up for programs that will help them rebuild their lives.
These efforts are just the beginning. We can have thousands of veterans across the country organized into hundreds of tight-knit teams. These veterans can rebuild the camaraderie and sense of purpose they had in their military units - this time in their own neighborhoods. They can put the leadership, technical skills, and teamwork they learned in the military to work strengthening their communities.
In 1946 no one knew that the veterans of World War II would become the Greatest Generation. But years before there were books written about them or monuments in their names, those veterans started building a legacy. They built it piece by piece, with countless small acts driven by the values they learned in service - stick together, watch out for your friends, complete the mission.
This generation has the same opportunity. If we rally behind them, 2014 will not only mark the end of the wars the followed the September 11th attacks, it will mark the beginning of a movement of veterans who came home and continued to serve. In five years, we can look back on the most successfully reintegrated generation of veterans in American history. In twenty years, we can look back on a generation that built a stronger nation.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute to recognize the power of national service, in conjunction with the National Day of Service and Remembrance on September 11th and the 20th anniversary of the signing of the AmeriCorps legislation on September 20th. The Franklin Project is a policy program at the Aspen Institute working to create a 21st century national service system that challenges all young people to give at least one year of full-time service to their country. To see all the posts in this series, click here. To learn more about the Franklin Project, click here.