On Veteran's Day, we should think deeply about what we are doing (or are not doing) as a nation to support our vets at home.  According to the Army Times, unemployment for post-9/11 returning vets is 9.2 percent.  This is considerably higher than the nation’s unemployment rate of 5.8 percent.  More alarming, the Department of Labor states that for vets under the age of 25, the unemployment rate is 25 percent. It’s fair to say that we as a nation have been unprepared to meet the needs of the roughly 3 million young Americans that have completed their military service and returned home.   

So what can we do about it? I had an idea, and it’s working.  Let’s create jobs that engage our veterans as leaders and problem solvers for the challenges facing youth in America.   After all, veterans possess a unique set of skills from leadership, discipline and team building, to a sense of purpose and mission.  Why not employ those skills in urban parks, schools, playgrounds and nonprofits to inspire kids who need these adult role models to guide them away from violence and other negative behaviors?  This year, Up2Us announced a new initiative to do just that, Operation Coach.

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Operation Coach engages returning veterans as paid youth sports coaches in underserved communities throughout Miami. Through a partnership with the Miami Heat, Laureus USA and Mercedes-Benz USA, Up2Us hired, trained, and placed eight veterans to work with nearly 750 at-risk youth.  Not only did the youth gravitate to the presence of these war heroes in their parks and playgrounds, but the veterans found that being a coach helped them more easily transition into domestic life.   Here are a couple of their stories.

Former Marine Sergeant Alvaro J. Ayala, currently teaches and coaches martial arts classes at an Up2Us member organization called Outside The Ring Champion.  Alvaro grew up in Nicaragua and moved to Miami at the age of 12.  After high school, he enrolled at Harding University where he played soccer for a year before enlisting in the Marine Corps.  Alvaro became a Sergeant Marine Embassy Security Guard and served in many parts of the world during his 5 1/2 years of military service. Upon his honorable discharge, Alvaro returned to Miami to continue his education and is currently enrolled in Florida International University while serving in Operation Coach.  

“I didn’t want to be anything else,” said Alvaro.  “I realized that being a coach is what makes me happy.  That I really enjoy it regardless of how much money I’m being paid, so I decided to go for it as a career.  I even changed my major to recreation and sports management, because this is what makes me happy.” 

Adjusting to a life in which he is no longer serving active duty for the Marine Corps has been challenging, but Alvaro has accepted a new challenge in working with at-risk youth.  “These kids are not being trained for a war, they are being trained for a different battle, that is life.”  His desire to make a difference in the lives of kids has provided him with a renewed sense of purpose and motivation to succeed. 

Another success story is Kleiton V. Almeida, a former Petty Officer Third Class in the Navy.  Kleiton currently works at an Up2Us member organization that is a public school that services six homeless shelters in Miami - Eneida M. Hartner Elementary School.  He was born and raised in Brazil.  During this time, he fell in love with sports and in particular, soccer. When Kleiton moved to Miami as a teen, his passion for soccer continued and his desire to give back was born.  He went on to enlist in the Navy.  He was an accomplished Boatswain Mate earning a Navy and Marine Corps achievement medal for his contributions as a Master Helmsman. He served honorably and was deployed to the Persian Gulf during operation Iraqi Freedom.

Upon his discharge, Kleiton faced challenges transitioning into mainstream society, but he continued his studies in physical education as he promised his mother he would do before serving in the military.  In May of 2014, he graduated with a Physical Education degree from Florida International University. His unique blend of compassion and discipline have earned him praise from the Eneida M. Hartner Elementary School principal and staff where he serves in Operation Coach, and his kids love him! 

“I came at them with discipline,” said Kleiton. “But at the same time, I came at them with the attitude of: I’m here for you and I’m here to help you, so if you need anything you can come and talk to me.  You can come see me and I will do my best to help you.”  He says it’s working, and he isn’t the only one—the principal credits Kleiton for helping to significantly decrease discipline issues at the school. 

These are just two stories that illustrate the way in which our returning veterans can use their unique skills and knowledge to improve the lives of our nation’s youth, and the communities in which they live.  So this Veterans Day, let’s remember those who have served our country abroad and honor their service by creating meaningful employment opportunities for them back home.  I call upon other nonprofits, private industry, and the government sector to work together to reduce veteran unemployment -- one coach at a time.

Caccamo is founder and president of Up2Us, a nonprofit that trains youth coaches to be mentors.