Changing the Narrative About Veterans

In honor of Veterans Day, The Philanthropy Roundtable hosted a conference that focused on exploring ways funders might approach veterans as assets to their communities.

Brandon Millett, the Roundtable’s vice president for marketing and communications, kicked off the half-day event on Tuesday. A military spouse and co-founder of the GI Film Festival, Millett discussed the power of storytelling to change the narrative around veterans. Military personnel and veterans, he pointed out, have been portrayed negatively in movies and television, feeding an assumption by the public that veterans are damaged goods, morally depraved, or worse. Through the GI Film Festival, Millet and his colleagues aimed to improve how veterans are portrayed in movies.

This is important, he noted, because veterans have much to contribute to society, particularly in the areas of civic education and civic leadership.

Veterans as civic educators

The conference’s first panel considered veterans as civic educators. Historically, veterans and veterans’ organizations have been at the forefront of civic education. From the American Legion’s Boys State program to the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Voice of Democracy speech program, veterans have long been intimately involved with instructing rising generations in the history, principles, and institutions of our country. Yet, despite a renewed interest by the philanthropic and nonprofit communities in supporting civic education, little consideration has been given to the contributions veterans could make in this area.

The panel brought together representatives of two organizations that are leading the way on this connection: Dylan Dalzotto, program director for the Joe Foss Veterans Inspiring Patriotism program at Arizona State University’s School of Civic Thought and Leadership, and Eugene Halus, vice president of education at the Freedom Foundation at Valley Forge. The conversation was moderated by the American Enterprise Institute’s Rebecca Burgess, a thought leader in both civics and veterans’ affairs.  

Veterans as civic leaders

The second panel considered veterans as civic leaders. As with civic education, veterans’ organizations have historically provided community-based posts through which former service members could provide organized community service and civic leadership. Recent years have seen a decline in this civic leadership by veterans, however—prompted, at least in part, by a rise in the image of veterans as damaged and needy, rather than as potent civic assets. 

The panel brought together representatives from three of the top organizations in the field—Team Rubicon, Team Red White and Blue, and the Travis Manion Foundation—all of which seek to equip and deploy veterans for community and civic leadership. It was moderated by Marcus Ruzek of the Marcus Foundation, a leading funder in the veterans’ space.  

The event concluded with a keynote address by journalist Tim Carney, author of the bestselling book Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive and Others Collapse. Carney drew on his findings in that book to argue that veterans need communities to return home to, just as communities need veterans to contribute their skills and talents in order to thrive.  

In the wake of World War II, veterans returned and built the America we know today. The military remains among the most trusted institutions in American life. More than ever, we need civic leaders and educators who are committed to sustaining a vibrant and thriving America. Who better to lead the way than those who have put their lives on the line for their country?  

Veterans can be powerful civic assets, but only if they are equipped and deployed to fill those roles. Telling the right stories about who veterans are—and what they can achieve—underpins the success of all other efforts. 

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