Over the next five years, more than one million veterans will transition out of the military and rejoin communities and families across America. Many politicians speak of them as people with needs, but that's only half the picture.
Our veterans -- steeped in discipline, steeled with the hardships of serving in two overseas wars and equipped with vital skills and broadly applicable experiences -- offer the nation an extraordinary reservoir of human capital and talent.
How can the nation capitalize on veterans' talents? Take a look at these three initiatives, led by veterans, for some of the answers.
Team Rubicon. In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, veterans Jake Wood and William McNulty realized a simple truth: The skills cultivated on the battlefield -- emergency medicine, risk assessment and mitigation, teamwork and decisive leadership -- are invaluable in natural disasters.
They founded Team Rubicon to mobilize veterans to help in the gap between when a disaster strikes and the point when conventional aid organizations respond. In recent weeks, 50 veterans from Team Rubicon worked to rescue people stranded by Hurricane Sandy, delivered emergency supplies to hard-hit shelters and helped treat the medical needs of evacuees.
"We utilize military-style plans and military-style leaderships to be more effective with less overhead and less bureaucracy, to be fast," Matt Pelak, an Iraqi veteran and Team Rubicon's director of strategic partnerships, told an NBC News reporter. "Our teams are good at improvising and adapting. That's what veterans do best."
The Mission Continues. After Navy Seal Eric Greitens returned home from Iraq, he visited wounded Marines at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. Each veteran he spoke with expressed the desire to continue to serve. One young Marine said, "I lost my legs -- that is all. I did not lose my desire to serve, or my pride in being an American."
Greitens used his own combat pay and two friends contributed their military disability checks to found The Mission Continues to use volunteer service to help veterans, many of them wounded, reintegrate in society. The group places post-9/11 veterans in six-month fellowships at local nonprofits, where they help others find meaningful volunteer work, full-time jobs and paths to higher education. In 2007, there were three fellows; in 2012, there are more than 500.
The Community Blueprint. After serving nearly nine years in the Navy, Liz Perez returned to civilian life in southern California feeling good about a new job and a fresh start. But Perez, the daughter of a veteran who was raised on military bases, faced challenges she never saw coming.
"When you're in the military, everything you need is on base," she said. "When I left, I had no support. I didn't know where to go for things like housing or childcare, I didn't realize how much is taken out of your paycheck. I had a really hard time."
For a short time, Perez and her young daughter were homeless, relying on a local food bank to eat. A property manager at the San Diego construction firm where she worked helped her find a place to live and she slowly found the resources she needed to get back on her feet.
Perez has been pursuing a graduate degree and running her own general contracting firm. These days, she's turned her attention to helping other veterans as part of a big, new public-private partnership, the Community Blueprint.
Started by a coalition of 55 organizations, the Blueprint unites community resources to help veterans find jobs, housing and health care; get financial and legal help; and keep their families strong. Instead of dictating solutions, the Blueprint provides a virtual toolbox of proven programs and resources that can be adapted and adopted by local coalitions searching for ways to help.
The effort is led by Points of Light and staffed in part by Liz Perez and 74 other AmeriCorps members, half of whom are veterans themselves. It's supported by the Corporation for National and Community Service (home of AmeriCorps) and ITT Exelis, which has pledged $5 million, along with the volunteer help of its 20,000 employees.
Today there are 20 communities using Community Blueprint tools -- including Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Diego and Seattle. The plan is to increase that number tenfold in the next two years.
"I had to struggle to find the answers," Perez said. "But it gave me a passion to share what I've learned. I want to be able to give veterans the resources I had to find the hard way."
When we call upon our veteran's gifts, we tap into an enormous wellspring of ingenuity and talent for our nation. On Veterans Day we should remember that those who have given so much already, have even more to give. They have helped us defend our country and now they can help us strengthen it.