This holiday season, thousands of families are welcoming home children, siblings, spouses and parents from the Middle East. For family members and service members alike, this return marks a long-anticipated and joyful reunion. But for the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines whose return marks the end of their military service, it may also usher in a period of great uncertainty.
After the reunions, the “welcome homes” and the “thank yous” that our returning veterans receive, the national dialogue they hear turns largely to scant job opportunities, post-traumatic stress, school dropout rates and suicide. It is a conversation that suggests they are “at-risk.” Worse yet, it suggests that they are liabilities that we as a country must bear.
Five million Americans voluntarily served in uniform since Sept. 11. In the last decade, these men and women signed up to pursue a mission and were driven by a clear sense of purpose. Countless enlistees, re-enlistees, cadets and officer candidates raised their hands and took oaths, voicing their commitment to serve a country at war. They trained hard here at home. They showed up to their units and joined forces with brothers- and sisters-in-arms. And nearly 2.5 million of them packed up and deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, where their commitments to serve were further forged and tested alongside comrades-in-arms in the deserts and mountains and streets and seas of the Middle East.
While deployed, these men and women did not just fight. They established and helped run local governments. They negotiated treaties. They built shelters, and provided food, water and utilities to those in need. They mentored police forces, farmers and medical personnel. And they did so while placing their lives at risk. As they return home now in large numbers, we must recognize and celebrate what these Americans truly are: our assets.
In 2012, hundreds of thousands of these assets will leave the military. Their average age will be 26. Roughly half will have spouses and children. The will live in every state. These new veterans — who followed a clear sense of purpose into their military service — are seeking purpose again as they transition to civilian life. Our priority must be to help them quickly rebuild, here at home, the sense of purpose they found serving abroad. Failure to seed a new and clear purpose early in their transition risks their traveling an undesirable path to idleness, to unemployment, to substance abuse, or to despair. This path, if not redirected, can easily lead them to becoming liabilities.
We need to preserve these assets by re-engaging them. Today’s veterans need to hear that we still need them. As our recession plods along, and as the domestic problems that we face continue to build, we need people to join forces in our communities. A simple solution exists: challenging our veterans to “reenlist” in service here at home. Recent studies show that one of the most effective ways for veterans to renew a sense of purpose is by helping others, through community service and volunteering. As a new mission comes into focus for them through serving others, veterans find the direction to pursue a job or an education, or to build a community.
Fortunately, a new crop of organizations has emerged to engage veterans as assets. My organization, The Mission Continues, for instance, challenges new veterans to serve six-month fellowships in community-focused organizations nationwide.
For example, in Baltimore, a Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom veteran mentored players as a head coach in a nonprofit football league focused on enriching the lives of underprivileged youths and increasing access to college scholarships.
At the St. Louis Science Center, a combat engineer suffering from traumatic brain injury due to wounds in Iraq is now introducing schoolchildren to the pathology of the brain. At an education center in Nashville, an Army signal specialist who once established communications networks in Kabul, Afghanistan, is now teaching English language skills to immigrant and refugee populations. Outside of Jacksonville, Fla., an infantryman who led reconnaissance patrols in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle is now running a sustainable farm that employs other disabled veterans.
Collectively, they are addressing needs in their communities, and they are charting a new path to the enriching and purposeful life they deserve as civilians.
These four veterans, and hundreds of others like them, answered a new call to service. Each of them once took an oath to serve us abroad, and have now taken one to serve us at home. As thousands of new veterans return to their communities in 2012, they stand ready to take this oath as well. How we deliver that call — now — will determine whether they will be assets or liabilities for generations to come.
• Kympton is a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot, a Harvard Business School graduate and chief operating officer of The Mission Continues, a veteran service organization. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. He wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.