11/10/2010 02:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Celebrate Veterans Day With Civilian Service

Veterans Day, of course, commemorates the World War I armistice that occurred on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th year with a day to honor veterans of all wars through "appropriate ceremonies." Unfortunately, for many students and workers, it's just a day off. However, even if there's no parade, you can honor our veterans by serving on that day.

Both the federal government's and Mission Serve, a project of ServiceNation, can help you find a service project near you. For example, in Norfolk, Virginia, Blue Star Families is teaming with Old Dominion University to create care packages and write letters to support military families of deployed service members, while in Phoenix, Arizona, civilians and veteran volunteers will join together to serve food at the Madison Street Veterans Association, a peer-run organization made up of homeless and formerly homeless veterans.

And in Newark, Ohio, Lions Club members will gather together on Veterans Day to assemble care packages for military personnel, inaugurating the Lions Clubs' commitment to address the needs of military families, such as health or low-vision screenings, transportation, medication, glasses, and other needed family support.

Some of these projects don't involve just service for veterans -- they involve veterans themselves in service. For example, in Seattle, the Veterans Conservation Corps, inspired by a Vietnam Veteran from Seattle who made the last cause of his life a 26-year effort to revive neglected stretches of a local waterway, will pair with the Sierra Club and the Washington State Service Corps to restore a local creek through invasive-plant species removal and planting native plants.

The Corporation for National and Community Service recently announced that it plans to make veterans and military families a funding priority in its 2011 AmeriCorps grant competition to allow for more opportunities for veterans to serve as civilians. I admit that when Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) and others first proposed to make service by and for veterans a part of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act a couple years ago, I was not a fan. If you think service ought to be something every American does as a responsibility of citizenship, then veterans have already done their duty and then some.

Here's what changed my mind. As I researched my book, The American Way to Change, I became convinced that service was just as good for the person serving as it is for those who are served. Study after study showed a clear link between doing good and feeling good, particularly for those who are older, depressed, or going through a life transition. And it turns out that veterans themselves want to continue their service. That's not surprising -- the same selfless patriotism that might send a person to a military recruiter would translate well to serving in the civilian world.

The Mission Continues is one organization that recognizes the importance of continued service by a group of Americans who have already sacrificed greatly for the good of others: wounded veterans. It enables disabled veterans to continue serving others through volunteer and civic engagement as a way to help these men and women rebuild their lives.

Consider the story of Army Staff Sergeant Sonia Meneses, whose truck was hit with an explosive device and whose convoy was attacked on additional occasions during her two deployments to Iraq. While Meneses did not seem to sustain significant wounds, during her second deployment she was medically evacuated after losing consciousness several times. Eventually, she was diagnosed with Ménière's Disease -- an abnormality of the inner ear that causes dizziness, vertigo, tinnitus, hearing loss, and pain -- and was medically retired from the Army with complete hearing loss in one ear and 60 percent hearing loss in the other.

At home, Meneses endured periodic spells of extreme dizziness, loss of consciousness, and seizure-like symptoms. For two years, her lifestyle was extremely limited, and she rarely left the house. In June 2008, Meneses decided that she would no longer allow her disabilities to hold her back. She applied for a fellowship through The Mission Continues.

Meneses was awarded a fellowship with Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Clarksville, Tennessee. At BBBS she volunteered forty hours each week, helping with administrative tasks and working with children, including a "little sister" of her own, taking time off only for surgery to correct her balance difficulties. Less than a week after the surgery she was back at BBBS volunteering ten to twelve hours per day. Since completing her fellowship, Meneses continues to volunteer for BBBS on a less intense schedule. Her civilian service helped her triumph over her disability, and she pledges to remain a "big sister" as long as she is needed.

While it may seem counterintuitive, even unfair, to think that people who have sacrificed so much for their country ought to do more, the case of Meneses and countless people like her suggest the opposite: that an important part of the healing process is finding renewed purpose through service to others. That is a lesson for all of us, and one we ought to honor on Veterans Day.