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The almost 2 million men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan return home to a grateful nation as our newest generation of veterans. That said, they represent less than 1 percent of the total population and are all too often misunderstood as charity cases, instead of civic assets.
We now have a generational fight to win here at home – one that cements the men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan as citizen leaders. We won that fight, in many ways, with the service members who returned home after World War II. They went on to be the backbone of their civic communities – serving on local water and school boards; starting local chapters of Habitat for Humanity and the United Way. And we lost the fight, on many fronts, with the brave men who returned home from Vietnam – they were marginalized from the civic lives of their communities. The fate of those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan hangs in the balance.
This generation of veterans face difficult transitions home, serious challenges with mental health, and significant barriers to family stability. We must address those issues. But, if these obstacles become the only identifiers of this generation of veterans, then we have failed as a nation and lost out on this generation of veteran’s tremendous civic potential.
The men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan do not lose the skills developed in military training when they take off their uniform. In fact, those very skills would be immensely valuable to their communities who struggle with homelessness, at-risk youth looking for purpose and engagement, environmental challenges and disaster relief.
At The Mission Continues, we believe there is no better way to honor Veterans Day than with a day of service. Tomorrow, we are doing service projects in cities across the country, bringing veterans, active duty military and civilians together to make over schools and libraries, pack stockings to send to soldiers overseas, and volunteer at local substance abuse facilities.
We also believe there are three on-going responsibilities we owe this generation of veterans:
- to give individual wounded veterans the opportunity to find new ways to serve at home;
- to create a movement of civilians who want to serve alongside veterans to honor the memory of our fallen service members; and
- to fundamentally reshape the way our nation welcomes homes veterans—by not only telling them “thank you” but also that “we still need you.”
The Mission Continues Fellowship Program begins to accomplish these goals by offering wounded and disabled veterans the challenge of identifying and fixing a problem in their community. We offer a cost-of-living stipend to post-9/11 wounded and disabled veterans so that they can volunteer full time at a nonprofit or community organization. This allows the veterans to learn additional skills they need to help them transition from military to civilian life.
These are Fellows such as Anthony Smith, who was serving in the Reserves after years of active duty service. His unit was called up to deploy in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004, where his unit came under attack. While assisting other soldiers to the bunker, he was hit by a Rocket-Propelled Grenade (RPG). After being treated on the battlefield, he was listed as Killed In Action and placed in a body bag. After a nurse searching for his dog tags discovered that he was still breathing, the doctors went to work on him again. After sixty-two days of being in a medically induced coma, he awoke to find that he had lost a significant portion of the right side of his body, including most of his right arm. In addition, he had impaired hearing and spinal cord damage. Today, Anthony still suffers from a traumatic brain injury and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Returning back home to Blytheville, Arkansas, Anthony lost his job as Chief of Police and had a hard time finding work due to his disability. Though he felt that people were thankful for his service and the sacrifice that he made, it seemed no one believed that he could be successful with his disabilities.
Today, Anthony is a Mission Continues Fellow working with the Boys and Girls Club of Mississippi County and the Delta Community Outreach Ministries. He chose to serve in this area because of the lack of male role models in these low-income communities. Anthony said:
By young people seeing and hearing about my struggles in life, I hope they will be encouraged to continue on in life regardless of their circumstances.
He has a black belt, and will use his expertise in martial arts as a part of his mentoring model to build self-confidence among the youth he works with. He believes through his fellowship he will be able to build the skill set and relationships to open his own martial arts facility.
Veterans Day is an opportunity to honor all those who have bravely put on the uniform to serve their country, but it is not solely a day for looking backward – we must be focused on the road ahead for our veterans. There is no better way to welcome home this generation of veterans than to celebrate what they still have to give their communities and to serve alongside them.
Guest blogger Mary Yonkman is the Chief Strategy Officer at The Mission Continues (www.missioncontinues.org), a nonprofit that provides post 9/11 veterans an opportunity to serve again. She is also the wife of an active duty Navy pilot.