Over the last decade of war, 2 million veterans have transitioned from military service back to civilian life in the United States. In the next 10 years, an additional one million will follow suit.
As veterans make this transition after more than a decade of war, they face some unique and daunting challenges: from accessing government benefits to going back to school or finding a job in the civilian economy; from coping with physical injuries to dealing with invisible but very real injuries like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
A few statistics put the challenge of veterans' reintegration in context:
- 7.5% of post-9/11 veterans were unemployed (as of April 2013).
- Some 37% of all post-9/11 veterans report experiencing PTSD (49% for those who served in combat).
- 38% of recent veterans report experiencing strains in family relations when they return home (55% for those who experienced combat).
Although public support for veterans has never been higher (greater than 90%), the gulf between civilians and those who serve in the military has never been wider. Today, less than 1% of Americans serve in the U.S. armed forces.
In practice, this means that what I experienced on my wedding day is more common than not: one side of the church was filled with active duty service members (my husband's Navy buddies) and the other side (mine) included many people who had never even met anyone in the military.
This civil-military gap can make reintegrating returning veterans into our communities that much more difficult.
According to a 2011 Pew poll on the military-civilian gap, 44% of post-9/11 veterans (and 51% of those who served in combat) say their readjustment to civilian life was difficult (compared to just 25% of veterans from other eras).
Furthermore, a whopping 84% of recent vets believe that the American public has little or no understanding of the problems faced by those in the military or their families.
As former CJCS Admiral Mike Mullen said of this gap, "I fear they [most Americans] do not know us. I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle."
But there is some good news: the data also shows that community service can be a powerful aid to the reintegration process and to bridging the civilian-military divide.
According to the All-Volunteer Force report, 92% of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan agreed that community service was important to them, and that service is a basic responsibility of all Americans.
This same report showed that veterans who engaged in community service when they returned home had an easier time reintegrating than those who did not.
Indeed, many veterans report finding a renewed sense of mission and meaning through service here at home. For many, community service offers them a chance to reconnect to "a mission that matters," to restore a sense of accomplishment and having impact, and to experience the kind of teamwork and community that reduces their sense of isolation and creates a positive sense of identity.
Consider, The Mission Continues, a service organization that since its inception in 2011 has placed more than 35,000 veterans in intensive community service fellowships in 230 cities across 45 states:
- 86% of the veteran fellows reported that their service experience was a positive, life-changing experience.
- 90% thought it improved their chances of getting a job or improved their performance on the job, and 93% said the experience significantly contributed to their career goals.
- 91% also said they would continue to engage in service in their community.
Similarly, Team Rubicon, a service organization that deploys veterans to work on disaster relief, has demonstrated time and time again that veteran-led teams of civilian volunteers can make remarkable contributions in helping communities hard hit by natural disasters. The most recent case in point: Hurricane Sandy. This is a "win-win-win" situation - for the communities, the civilian volunteers, and the veterans.
The bottom line is that engaging returning veterans in service here at home has emerged as a "best practice" for reintegrating veterans, for meeting the unmet and often urgent needs of communities, and for building bridges to the civilian populations they serve.
That's why we are proposing, as part of this National Service summit, greater flexibility to allow veterans to use their existing GI benefits to participate in national service. We hope to dramatically expand the opportunities for veterans to serve here at home.
Imagine a world in which every veteran leaving military service has an opportunity to reconnect with their community through service here at home. Imagine a world in which veterans become a vital force of rejuvination in our towns, cities and rural communities. Imagine a world in which we bridge the civilian-military gap through shared experiences of service.
Our first President, George Washington, once said, "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation."
Expanding service opportunities for returning veterans here at home will not only benefit veterans and our communities today, but may also influence the willingness of future generations to serve in the U.S. armed forces.
Expanding service opportunities for veterans is a way to keep faith with the men and women who have put everything on the line for their country; it is also an investment in the future strength and security of our great nation.
This post is part of a collaboration between The Huffington Post and The Aspen Institute, in which a variety of thinkers, writers and experts will explore the most pressing issues of our time. For more posts from this partnership, click here. For more information on The Aspen Institute, click here.