The platoon mustered at zero-eight-hundred on a balmy Saturday, its members in shorts and standard-issue shirts, ready to be put to work. As they assembled next to the front gate, awaiting orders, a few rocked on the balls of their feet as if preparing for a morning march. Others puffed on menthol cigarettes or rubbed the sleep out of their eyes.
All of them were veterans of the Iraq or Afghanistan war — or both. They had gathered that morning, as they do once a month, not because they had been ordered. None were actively serving in the military. Instead of sleeping late or loafing around the house, they volunteered their labor, spending the next six hours sanding, stripping and painting the walls of a cash-strapped nonprofit organization in Orlando that trains developmentally disabled youth.
Sweaty mornings of community service are part of the veteran experience that civilian Americans rarely see. Stories of painting schools, building playgrounds or feeding the homeless don’t attract the same attention as a mentally ill veteran who goes on a shooting rampage or one who has sustained life-altering injuries.
The press, politicians and even many veterans’ advocacy groups tend to focus, with legitimate reason, on service members who have returned banged up or who are struggling in their new civilian lives. But this fails to convey the full measure of this generation of veterans. That wouldn’t be a problem if Americans knew their military and understood these stories in context, with the knowledge of veterans who are thriving. But fewer than 1 percent of Americans have participated in our latest wars. Add their direct family members, and it is still only about 5 percent of the population.
With so few possessing a direct link to someone who has served, Americans often don’t understand that most of our veterans are not damaged and that many have successfully navigated the transition to life after the military. Even those suffering from trauma or physical injuries can have an enormously positive impact in their communities. Our veterans can make — and are making — valuable contributions in business, government, education, health and community service.
Our all-volunteer force has provided us with the best-trained military in the world. The reliance on volunteers, however, has led many other Americans to pay scant attention to the sacrifice and skill of our warriors. We let them protect us, while we go on with life as usual.
After World War II, even if your veteran neighbor wandered the street at night, agitated with shell shock, you knew that other veterans were going to be just fine. You knew this because you knew them — because your father, sons and brothers had served.
But that tie is no more.
We’ve spent a good part of the past six months chronicling stories of veterans on the home front, along with accounts of valor on the war front, for our book, “For Love of Country: What Our Veterans Can Teach Us About Citizenship, Heroism, and Sacrifice.” This effort led us to the platoon in Orlando, one of two dozen such teams across the country established by the Mission Continues, a nonprofit that helps veterans eager to keep serving their fellow citizens.
“We want the legacy of this generation of veterans to be serving with courage when the country called on them to serve overseas and then, when they came back, making the country stronger through continued service here at home,” said Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL and Rhodes scholarwho formed the Mission Continues in 2007.
Greitens started the group after one of the service members he served with in Iraq was turned down when he sought to volunteer with a national youth mentoring organization. “They asked him kind of elliptically, ‘Did you serve in Afghanistan?' ‘Yes.’ ‘Did you serve in Iraq?' ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, thank you for your service, but we’re concerned about post-traumatic stress disorder,' “ Greitens recalled. “The message was: We don’t want you to talk to our kids.”
We have heard similar stories from veterans seeking employment in the private sector. The concern about prospective bosses prying into post-traumatic stress or asking “Did you ever kill anyone?” prompted one active-duty soldier to tell us that he is more nervous about sitting for a job interview than he is about redeploying to Afghanistan.
Greitens began talking to nonprofits to persuade them to take a chance on veterans, and he offered fellowships to veterans who wanted to volunteer for six months, providing them a stipend for food and rent. By mid-2014 more than 1,000fellows had volunteered at 600different organizations across the nation, from the Red Cross and Mothers Against Drunk Driving to after-school tutoring programs in poor neighborhoods.
As demand for fellowships exceeded supply, the organization conceived of the service platoonsto provide additional opportunities. Veterans have flocked. The Orlando chapter signed up 100 members in three months. It was an easy sell, Greitens said, because warriors in this generation were volunteers to begin with. Participants told us that the weekend work fulfills them, in the same way their military service did.
Among them was Eric Weiss, who drove trucks for the Nevada Army National Guard for eight years and deployed twice to Iraq. After getting out of the military and moving to Florida, he went to a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. “Sitting around, drinking, telling stories — it didn’t appeal to me,” he said. “I joined the military because I wanted to fix problems. Even though I’m out now, I want to keep trying to help fix problems.”
The post-9/11 years have brought us the longest period of sustained warfare in U.S. history. We have met this challenge with a small cadre of citizens who charged forth to serve so that the rest of us could go on with everyday life. We have asked so much of them and their families. The multiple, year-long deployments that many uncomplainingly fulfilled often amounted to more time on the battlefield than their parents faced in Vietnam or their grandparents confronted in World War II. And yet we have sacrificed so little in return.
It is unhealthy for a nation to become detached from those who secure it.
Our country will continue to send smaller numbers of men and women into harm’s way for years to come, as extremists find haven in lawless parts of the Middle East and Africa, but the next phase of our wars is shifting home. More than 1.5 million post-9/11 veterans have already reentered civilian life. Another million will follow in the next few years, as enlistments end and budget cuts shrink our military.
This may seem like a large group, but it is modest compared with the World War II generation. As our elderly veterans pass away, our population will include far fewer Americans who have been to war. Upholding the commitments that the Obama and George W. Bush administrations have made to those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan will require the support of many people who have never worn a uniform.
Paying attention to the many who have returned with serious physical and mental wounds is one way to build that support. But pity isn’t a sustainable strategy. A better recognition of the overall veteran experience — the bad, the good and everything in between — is essential to forging a lasting compact between those who have served and the rest of us.
In October 1945, the Saturday Evening Post published an issue with a Norman Rockwell painting titled “Homecoming Marine” on its cover. It depicts a young Marine in his service khakis, a Silver Star ribbon affixed to his chest, holding a Japanese flag as he sits on a box in a garage. He is talking to four men and two boys, all paying rapt attention.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the nation’s top military officer, keeps a replica of that painting in his Pentagon office. If Rockwell had illustrated a Marine returning from Vietnam, Dempsey said, he would have had to show a crowd turning away. And if he had been alive to capture a Marine upon his return from Afghanistan or Iraq, he probably would have portrayed people too caught up in their lives to listen to the veteran’s story.
“We need the image of our returning veterans to look more like this,” Dempsey told us, placing his hands on the old painting. “They are to be admired because they chose to live an uncommon life in service of their country.”
Howard Schultz is chairman and chief executive of Starbucks Coffee. Rajiv Chandrasekaran is an associate editor of The Washington Post. They are the authors of “For Love of Country: What Our Veterans Can Teach Us About Citizenship, Heroism, and Sacrifice.”
© 2014, The Washington Post