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John M. Bridgeland is President and CEO of Civic Enterprises, a public policy firm in Washington, D.C., and Mary McNaught Yonkman serves as Chief of Staff.
Since the dawn of the 21st century, nearly two million Americans have served in our nation’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These servicemen and women have risked their lives on battlefields from Kabul to Baghdad, not as a result of government mandate, but as a voluntary act of courage, conscience, and commitment. They reflect the ethic of service that undergirds our nation’s founding and persists to our present day.
As we found in our new report All Volunteer Force: From Military to Civilian Service, which was released today, these veterans’ commitment to serving our nation does not end when they take off their combat fatigues. Although they have given much, veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan maintained that they have a great deal left to give. Their service did not begin and end on those battlefields: they are ready to continue to honor our country through service, this time as civilians.
According to our nationally representative survey of these veterans, the first of its kind, 92 percent strongly agreed or agreed that serving their community is important to them and 90 percent strongly agreed or agreed that service was a basic responsibility of every American. Even while they were serving in active duty, 70 percent of these veterans felt motivated to volunteer in their communities and 50 percent had already volunteered since returning home, a rate almost double that of the adult population as a whole.
Additionally, while they wanted to serve wounded veterans and military families, their interests extended well beyond that: 95 percent of veterans said they wanted to serve wounded veterans and 90 percent wanted to help other veterans and military families; 88 percent said they wanted to participate in disaster relief; 86 percent said they wanted to serve at-risk youth; 82 percent said they wanted to help older Americans; 69 percent said they wanted to help conserve the environment. Their interests in serving are as diverse as this generation of veterans itself.
Continuing to serve after they have returned home is important to the veterans’ mission of helping the American people remember that service is the thread that connects each and every one of us. Service is in their DNA. It is the mantra that they live by and that they truly believe is the foundation of America. As these veterans have told us, they strongly believe that Americans can learn something from their example of service. They understand that service is an integral part of what makes this country great and are eager to pass this ethic on to their fellow citizens. More than this, they have acquired many skills during their time fighting abroad that could aid our American communities: management and supervision, the ability to lead diverse groups of people, and team building skills among others.
In addition to the welcome back parades and “thank-you”s, we need to ensure that opportunities for volunteering are available to these veterans to use their skills on American soil. It is our responsibility as a nation. And it is time that we unleash the talents and skills of this amazing generation in our very own backyards. It can help our nation and the veterans themselves.