Can a common bond of service unite our nation?
© Getty Images

Over the course of our careers in the military, private, and nonprofit sectors, we have both seen the power of partnerships, alliances, and coalitions. From joint multinational operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to a massive effort to tackle veteran unemployment led by the White House and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, complex global and national issues were solved when organizations — and diverse groups of people — worked together to achieve common objectives.

For example, the successful collaboration between Joining Forces and the Chamber’s Hiring Our Heroes program dramatically drove down veteran unemployment. The highest levels of our government and the business community worked together, inspiring other national organizations to take action and effect change at the local level. This unique public-private partnership became a model of unprecedented partnerships between military and veteran service organizations that successfully bridged the civilian-military divide in the workplace.

There is little debate that we are a nation divided by our political discourse, but rather than exacerbate the divide by taking sides and building barriers, we see an opportunity to bring diverse communities and viewpoints together by giving Americans, both in and out of uniform, the opportunity to serve together. Like many times in our nation’s history, we can create common ground and build understanding, empathy by bringing together those who have served and the citizens they protect.

ADVERTISEMENT

Last year our organization — Operation Gratitude — did just that, joining forces with 17,000 community-based groups and corporations, in service, to positively impact 619,000 service men and women and their families. We saw the power of partnerships with schools, churches, youth groups and other nonprofits and how it was realized at the community level. We achieved a greater good together than we ever would have alone.

We are furthering our commitment to work collaboratively with other national and local partners at a critical time. Our nation has been at war for 19 years and 200,000 service members continue to deploy annually to various locations around the world. Here on the homefront, we see first responders and health care workers contributing to our nation’s security and well-being like they have never done before. Year after year, a growing majority of military families feel disconnected from their communities and misunderstood by their civilian neighbors, and now health care workers and first responders face similar stressors. The associated widening divide is rapidly becoming a national security imperative that we must address.

Despite repeated calls over the past decade to increase participation in military, national, and public service as a means to bridge the civilian-service divide — from General Stanley McChrystal’s challenge issued at the Aspen Institute in 2015 to the introduction of the bipartisan CORPS Act earlier this year — our country is still waiting for Congress to act. We believe we have an opportunity and must take steps to close the civilian-service divide through a national call to service.

For the better part of a decade, Army mom, Jill BidenJill BidenBiden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president Overnight Health Care: FDA says millions of J&J doses from troubled plant must be thrown out | WHO warns Africa falling far behind in vaccinations | Top CDC official says US not ready for next pandemic The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Sights and sounds from Biden's UK visit MORE, was instrumental in the Joining Forces initiative and addressing the disconnectedness that military families experience in their communities. As a Marine Mom and passionate advocate for military families, Karen PenceKaren Sue PencePence buys .9M home in Indiana There is no pandemic recovery plan without the arts and culture Karen Pence confirms move back to Indiana: 'No place like home' MORE continued that energy while making great strides in closing the gap. As a nonprofit with one million dedicated volunteers, Operation Gratitude made progress, too, over the past two years in cities like Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New York where organizations worked together and focused on a common bond of service that all Americans share. Conversations were started and connections were made as we laid the foundation for enduring relationships between service members and civilians for the betterment of our communities.

Americans across the country volunteered in new and unprecedented ways to help Operation Gratitude ramp up efforts in 2020 despite the challenges posed by a pandemic. This culminated in a holiday care package assembly for deployed troops at the DC National Guard Armory, where the new First Lady, Jill Biden, and the newly appointed Secretary of Defense Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: Biden participates in NATO summit | White House backs 2002 AUMF repeal | Top general says no plans for airstrikes to help Afghan forces after withdrawal Top general: US won't support Afghan forces with airstrikes after withdrawal Biden congratulates newly-formed Israeli government MORE, and his wife Charlene demonstrated their own passion for service, encouraging others to do the same.

ADVERTISEMENT

The fact that Biden and the Austins were an integral part of Joining Forces bodes well for our military and frontline responders. As the administration looks to effect policy changes to address challenges that are unique to service members and their families, governors, mayors, and local officials can foster meaningful engagements that help them find common ground with their civilian counterparts. The result is a more unified society, and citizens more connected with their communities.

Leveraging public-private partnerships to inspire shared volunteerism and service must be part of any solution to close the civilian-service gap. In the process, we may even solve other divisions that exist in communities across the country. Operation Gratitude will join forces with any organization that wants to bridge divides and unite our nation.

Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling served for 37 years in the US Army, retiring as the Commanding General, US Army Europe. He serves on the Military Advisory Council for Operation Gratitude. Kevin M. Schmiegel is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who founded Hiring Our Heroes and now serves as the chief executive officer of Operation Gratitude, a national 501c3 nonprofit.