A grateful nation that serves together is united
© Getty Images

Much like 9/11, Veterans Day this year will come and go without an opportunity to bring communities together in large numbers and celebrate the two things we need right now to reunite America — service and gratitude.

This premise may seem far fetched to some, but think back to what it was like 19 years ago on Sept. 12 when our entire nation was united because we heard and answered the call to serve together. Recall the last time you stood alongside your neighbor at a community event or parade to express appreciation to those who serve. Remember the pride you felt as an American when you volunteered with other grateful citizens who joined forces to give back to their community or others less fortunate in a hands-on way.

In the wake of an election that has further divided our country and communities, it is time to put aside our differences and recognize what we have in common, like the passion to serve our country and one another and the true power of a simple act of gratitude and kindness.

ADVERTISEMENT

For the past 12 years, my life’s work has been focused on bridging divides that exist between civilians and those who serve in the military or as first responders. My commitment to this cause was born from my experience as an officer in the Marine Corps. During my two decades in uniform, I saw hundreds of fellow military families who felt disconnected from their civilian counterparts, and I spoke to thousands of transitioning service members and veterans who struggled to assimilate back into communities and civilian life.

Bridging the civilian-service divide will only be achieved by breaking down barriers and creating opportunities for American citizens to make meaningful connections with those who serve and protect them.

Hiring Our Heroes, the nonprofit I founded in March 2011, bridged that divide in the private sector through a grassroots movement that demonstrated the value of veterans and military spouses in the workplace. Operation Gratitude, the nonprofit I lead now, is bridging that same divide with a similar grassroots movement that brings communities together through a common bond of service and gratitude.

The mission of Operation Gratitude to build bridges and forge strong bonds between civilians and our military, veterans and first responders through solidarity of service and gratitude has taken on a whole new meaning. Our work has brought together dozens of communities like Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Baltimore, and has grown in importance over the past several months. I believe this is the model we must use to reunite Americans in cities across our country.

Celebrating Veterans Day tomorrow is a good place to start. Across the country, we have an opportunity to honor service, not only with our words but with our actions. Every American can take a minute to say “thank you for your service” to a veteran. In my experience, they will reciprocate that gratitude and say “thank you” for the support and recognition of the sacrifices they and their families have made.

ADVERTISEMENT

We must not let the current environment or naysayers discourage us from serving others and expressing gratitude. Over the past few days, I have heard more and more nonprofit leaders and fellow veterans preach that saying “thank you for your service” is disingenuous or doesn’t mean anything. They couldn’t be farther from the truth. Statements like these are counterproductive and exacerbate the civilian-military divide. In my mind there is nothing worse than being ungrateful for genuine appreciation. If anything, we need a little more gratitude in this country right now, not less.

With that said, it is also important to go beyond saying “thank you for your service.” People shouldn’t be afraid to take the next step and ask a veteran what it was like to serve in the military; to deploy and be separated from their loved ones for months at a time; and to move multiple times with their families relocating to a new home, a new neighborhood, and new schools every two or three years.

The fact is, saying “thank you for your service” is the start of a conversation that leads to a meaningful connection — one that builds understanding, empathy, and ultimately bridges divides. I have seen it firsthand, time and again when civilian volunteers have delivered care packages to service members, military families, wounded heroes and caregivers, first responders, health care heroes, and veterans. There is a recognition and appreciation of service on both sides of the divide — for the person receiving the care package and for the person who made it and delivered it.

As I write these words, hundreds of grateful Americans are delivering care packages to 26,000 veterans in all 50 states and D.C. Quite simply, they will serve those who served, and they will say “thank you.” I can’t think of a better way to unite our nation.

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.