If I asked you today if you know someone who served in the U.S. military, how would you answer? Too often, the response is, “No.”
The National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics projects the number of veterans from recent conflicts to jump by 26% in the next three years. These are your friends, high school classmates, and neighbors. Like you, they came of age after Sept. 11, when terrorism invaded the U.S., driving increased security but also increased patriotism and civic engagement. It was this desire to tangibly support their country that propelled many to volunteer for military service, even though it meant deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan.
We were all affected by the events of Sept. 11. Twelve years later, there is still much more than can be done. To me, a good place to start is by connecting with those in your generation that served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Tom Brokaw called the generation of soldiers who fought in World War II “the greatest generation any society has ever produced,” fighting for their country because it was “the right thing to do.” He further credits this generation for returning home and building the U.S. into a global economic and political force.
Brokaw published his book in 1998, long before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan escalated. He may feel differently today, as I do, in that there is a new “greatest generation.” I believe that two million Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, nearly two thirds of whom are Millennials, are poised to become our nation’s next “greatest generation.”
I know this from personal experience. I led thousands of Millennials during multiple tours in Iraq, including as the Brigade Commander in the volatile Diyala Province for 15 months in 2006-2007. I watched my troops carry out remarkable feats of bravery and perform selfless acts of courage. They demonstrated all the qualities one could want in the toughest of situations – smarts, guts and compassion.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced veterans with skills in science, technology, and medicine and worldviews on politics and religion. The Boston Bomb victims benefited from the application of tourniquets and the emergency room skills of soldiers and medics who served in Afghanistan. The fictional Skynet in the Terminator movies is being made a reality by young soldiers specializing in satellite and drone warfare. And a major strategy in both wars has been a movement to connect with local civilians on a personal level and make them part of the global community, an effort that is enacted on a daily basis by the young men and women on the front lines.
The U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan officially ends this year and shortly, most of our soldiers will be home. I worry about the future for these heroes and their families – not necessarily their future tomorrow or the day after – but their future five or 10 years down the road. I worry because the American people know what our military is, but they may not know who we are and what we are capable of. This disconnect will grow stronger when America is no longer considered at war. At a time when the need will be greatest, the interest will diminish due to lack of awareness. Veterans will struggle in a peacetime status quo.
This is truly unfortunate because these young men and women embody the best of their generation. They are phenomenal and just need a little assistance during transition and reintegration into civil society and they will soar. While their counterparts were working their way through college and postgraduate employment, these veterans were experiencing the world in an amazing way.
But our veterans are not different. They are like you. They require the same key elements in order to ensure a sustainable life for themselves and their families:
- Education – but for them it will help enable transition beyond battlefield knowledge to private sector careers;
- Meaningful employment – one that pulls in a “family wage”;
- Access to healthcare, slightly tailored to go beyond physical and mental diagnosis to include behavioral support such as faith-based care, peer-to-peer listening and mentoring.
But even with more than 400,000 organizations operating to bridge the gaps and improve the outcomes of soldiers transitioning to civilian lives, a 2012 report from the Center for New American Security finds that veterans are not receiving the care and services they need to transition successfully. The Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration can only do so much. We now need the peers and classmates of these young veterans to step up and leverage their social connections to help support the next greatest generation.
How can this new generation support its peers? It can be done through small, simple acts.
- Think local. Support an organization in your community that helps veterans such as Easter Seals. Volunteer once a week or once a month right where you live.
- Be inclusive. Through that community organization, you’ll meet many vets. Why not get to know one better through peer-to-peer mentoring? Introduce him or her to your social network and watch the connections grow.
- Encourage hiring. If you’ve created your own start-up, consider hiring a vet. You’ll be surprised at the leadership and organizational skills they bring to the table. Or ask your HR department to be more proactive in hiring young veterans for entry level positions.
- Tutor a vet. If you’re still in school, see if your college has a Student Veterans of America chapter. Offer your services to tutor or review papers. It’s another way to expand your network and see a different worldview.
This generation has spent more than a decade at war. As we transition into peace, it’s time to reach out to the 1.25 million veterans who are part of the Millennial generation. With just a small amount of your understanding, attention and support, they are ready to become the next “greatest generation.”
READ: PolicyMic's special 9/11 coverage featuring the stories of veterans.