In August, the veteran unemployment rate was 3.8 percent – the same as that for non-veterans – continuing a multi-year positive trend. The same month, Google announced that it was adding a feature allowing vets to plug their MOS into a job search to find suitable openings.
As with many initiatives designed to help veterans, this led me to a mixed reaction: while I’m pleased to see efforts to support my fellow veterans during our transitions out of the military and beyond, I am simultaneously frustrated at the ongoing perception that we, who volunteered to serve, now need to be served. For most veterans, service is connected with positive outcomes: we are less likely to live in poverty than those who have not served, and have higher education levels and wages. Not only that, but for many of us, the desire to serve continues beyond active duty. According to Got Your Six analysis, veterans volunteer, vote, donate to charity, and are involved with local communities at higher rates than non-veterans.
The volume of this volunteering is astonishing in scope and scale. To give just a few examples: In 2016, nearly 2,000 volunteers logged over 100,000 hours on Team Rubicon disaster relief operations around the globe. Nearly 7,000 American Legion volunteers collectively serve 900,000 hours annually at VA Medical Centers alone. Roughly 17,500 Mission Continues volunteers contributed nearly 200,000 hours of service in hundreds of communities nationwide in 2016. DAV volunteer drivers traveled over 18 million miles, providing over 600,000 rides to veterans and donating nearly 1.5 million hours of their time in 2017 alone.
This outpouring of service to – and with – our communities brings a sense of purpose and meaning that many feel we have lost when we leave the military, along with a deeper level of connection to others. Finding new ways to serve can be an important component of reintegration, with benefits accruing not only to others but also to the self. This has absolutely been true for me. It was deeply disorienting to transition out of my structured military life with its intimate personal connections and clearly defined mission to one in which I had to chart my own path in a city of strangers. Advocating for issues that mattered to me as part of a community brought gravity and focus that kept me moving forward.
To my fellow veterans who feel a nagging sense that something is missing, especially those who are slightly uncomfortable being thanked for their service, your discomfort may be an unacknowledged recognition that your service is not yet over. You have more to contribute. Your nation still needs you, and you will also benefit from the grounding that comes of putting service before self. Whatever your passion or niche, there is an organization out there that could benefit from your talents, energy, discipline, and passion. Get involved, and help lead a renewal of civic engagement in America. (Of course not all veterans are in a position to volunteer at all times: suicide, homelessness, and other issues are serious challenges. If you need help, accept it – many reaching out a hand have been where you are and want a chance to pay it forward.)
To those who want to honor the service of those who have fought for our nation, I urge you to do so by adding nuance to your image of veterans. We are not all heroes deserving of unquestioning adulation; nor are we all damaged or broken beyond repair, in need of an ever-expanding array of services. Veterans are regular people who came from your communities and return to them with new skills, leadership training, and experience collaborating with a diverse array of people in a range of places. Despite – or because of – problems we endured along our journeys, we know how to work hard and are ready to do so alongside you. Rather than assuming we need your help, ask us how we can help each other. Together, we can bridge the civil-military divide and inspire community resurgence.
Kayla Williams is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. She previously served two years as Director of the Center for Women Veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs, serving as primary advisor to the Secretary on policies, programs and legislation affecting women veterans. Prior to that, she worked at the RAND Corporation, where she did research related to veteran health needs and benefits, international security and intelligence policy. She is the author of “Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army,” a memoir of her deployment to Iraq.