Solidarity of service will bridge divides
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The two of us have known each other for more than a decade. We have run in the same circles. We testified before the same congressional committees, attended the same galas, and spoke from the same podiums at conferences and conventions. We stood side by side at community-wide service projects that brought people from every walk of life together.

Many of the people who joined us in these crowded rooms saw the things that made us different. If they had closed their eyes for just a moment and listened, they would have heard the myriad things we have in common. They would have realized how much we both love our families and our country. They would have understood the bond we share as Marines and as veteran advocates whose lives have intersected around a common purpose to build understanding, empathy, and ultimately bridges between civilians and service members. Above all, they would have felt, in our words, our genuine passion to serve others.

If they had taken a little longer and gotten to know us, they would have learned that our wives have encountered some of the same challenges as military spouses, mothers, and as caregivers. They would have discovered that our children followed in our footsteps — a son enlisting straight out of high school to serve in the Marine Corps and a daughter currently a freshman at the U.S. Naval Academy.

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During these challenging times, we have grown closer — sharing, listening and supporting one another more in the midst of COVID-19. In the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd we pledged to bring people together and make a difference with our actions — together.

We realized our nation lost an opportunity to bridge divides and heal on the 19th anniversary of 9/11. However, we remain undeterred. We believe that our friendship and the bond we have forged through a common belief in service is a metaphor for how our nation and its citizens can overcome ever-widening divisions that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, social unrest and upcoming elections.

As veterans, we are saddened that our nation and communities are divided. It hurts to see Americans divided, because we are focused on what makes us different instead of the things we have in common, like our passion for service and the belief that America is, and always will be, the greatest nation on earth. We know from our shared experience that every American wants to serve our country, and they want to serve others, too.

We must stop holding on to the differences that we see in one another and embrace opportunities to share, talk, listen and find common ground. We believe the best way to achieve this is through hands-on volunteerism at community-wide service projects.

The two of us witnessed this firsthand in our nation’s capital and with Operation Gratitude in nine other cities over the 16 months leading up to COVID. We saw communities united through service. Every race, color, creed, — civilians, military, veterans and first responders came together in service and built bridges. In cities like Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia citizens from every walk of life laughed, sang, danced and made meaningful connections that strengthened their communities.

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Just two months after 9/11, we have opportunities once again to build bridges. We will not let the pandemic and the elections steal these opportunities away from communities in need. Over the next few weeks, we will serve together alongside other volunteers in a hands-on way to support local police officers, firefighters, EMTs and veterans in our own neighborhoods and surrounding communities in D.C., Virginia and Maryland. These service projects and in-person deliveries of Halloween Candy for first responders and care packages for Veterans Day are not only expressions of gratitude, they are real opportunities to unite Americans.

In our lives, and in America, there is a common thread that demonstrates service to others will bridge divides. We believe that this solidarity of service is the best way, and perhaps the only way, to reunite our country.

Kevin M. Schmiegel is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who now serves as the chief executive officer of Operation Gratitude, a national 501c3 nonprofit. Sherman Gillums Jr. is a retired Marine chief warrant officer who now serves as the chief advocacy officer for AMVETS and advisor on the BRIDGE Council.