Service members, get involved in government

As we approach Memorial Day and pause as a nation to honor those who have fallen in defense of our freedom, our collective memories often turn to past conflicts. It is striking to realize that this will be the 14th consecutive year we pay tribute while our nation remains at war. The length of time that our American soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen and airwomen have been actively engaged in combat is remarkable. What is perhaps more telling is the fact that most Americans feel at peace and continue to live their daily lives without being directly affected by the war. This is unlike every other major conflict in our nation’s history. Our country is at war, while by every domestic indicator, we appear to be at peace.

Forty years ago, the situation was quite different. Our troops were finally home from what was then our longest war, but the nation understood what those returning veterans had experienced. What those veterans would face at home bore little resemblance to what today’s veterans experience.

ADVERTISEMENT

While much of the national recollection of that period remains negative, we cannot forget that the lessons learned from the Vietnam War sent shockwaves lasting more than a generation through our government. This was not limited to Congress — the Department of Defense and every branch of the military underwent seismic shifts in policy, doctrine, training and many other areas to ensure that we fixed what needed to be fixed. And the way we treated veterans also changed, not only on a societal level, but governmentwide as well. The Department of Veterans Affairs was elevated to the Cabinet level, underscoring the need to keep promises made to those who fought and sacrificed for the United States.

The United States of 2015 looks very different than it did in 1975. It is important to understand that much of that change following the Vietnam War came as a direct result of returning veterans who insisted upon making a difference here at home, making their voices heard and making things better.

Today, the nation feels at peace because the direct impact of war is felt by very few. For the roughly 10 percent of the nation’s population that has served in uniform and the 1 percent of service members who have seen combat, change is needed. The crux of the struggle a generation ago — the struggle that resulted in change with respect to how we interact with, care for and understand our veterans came from the fact that veterans lacked a voice; they didn’t always have the opportunity to be heard.

In the final analysis, the nation did ultimately hear those veterans. And things did change. This is no more evident than in the role now held by veterans in our society and on display in popular culture. It remains safe to say that the perception of our veterans is very different than it was 40 years ago — for the better.

So, the challenge is no longer in giving veterans a voice, but in giving them empowerment. We now hear our returning service members loud and clear.  Listening isn’t the issue, getting results is.

If we are to improve for the sake of tomorrow’s troops, we should look no further than the ones who serve and fight today. We must provide veterans and members of the armed forces with the resources they need to succeed once they come home from war.

This should include encouraging, recruiting and supporting veterans running for elected office on every level. We also need a concerted effort on the part of government to actively recruit and hire veterans — not simply to enhance the federal workforce but to get veterans into policy- and decision-making roles that will directly effect how we fight wars and, more importantly, how we provide quality care once they return.

According to the Pew Research Center, only about 20 percent of Congress has served or is serving in the military. Now consider for a moment that out of the approximately 6,000 congressional staff, less than 200 are veterans.

This challenge should extend to the business community as well. Much is said about the added value of veterans in the civilian workforce but much more can be done in cultivating the leadership and results-oriented focus that veterans bring to the table.

We can improve opportunities and outcomes for a generation of new veterans. We can send a message to tomorrow’s troops that we’ll have their backs. We can make a change, but we need to get started today.

Brown is co-founder of HillVets, a bipartisan veterans group that seeks to increase veterans’ involvement in government and advocacy. Brown is a candidate for the House of Delegates in Virginia’s 44th District.