Many veterans are well-equipped to take leadership roles in American society. FedEx and Walmart were founded by veterans. Political philosopher John Rawls was a veteran. Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Jimmy Stewart: all veterans. Of the 45 Americans who have served as President, 31 have been veterans.
But today we live in a disconnect between the victim culture that’s become so dominant and the reality of what veterans can contribute to American society. The policy apparatus in Washington, aided by sensational journalism, and also by parts of the charitable-industrial complex, have created a popular image of veterans centered on their alleged dysfunctions and brokenness and needs. Hard data show that veterans score significantly better than non-vet peers on most social indicators. Yet incessant questing after ever-larger entitlements and benefit payouts has created the impression that PTSD, homelessness, addiction, violence, and other maladies afflict most vets, and that veterans as a group must be viewed as clients rather than climbers.
Our veterans-service organizations once promoted veterans into civic leadership and used their associations to contribute broadly to American civil society—with many positive impacts still reverberating today. But the post-Vietnam focus on expanding benefits has now become all pervasive for these organizations, which too often act like rent-seeking interest groups. There is an outsized focus on what veterans require, rather than on their capabilities and what they can contribute.
Our country needs these storied organizations to recover their historic mandates in leadership development and community service. And we need entirely new nonprofits that help veterans lead, rather than training them to receive. The V.A. has become by far the largest and fastest-growing civilian bureaucracy in Washington, a bloat which is not sustainable. Far more importantly, veterans who truly need help are now choked in a system clogged with people who have been talked into the idea that they need to get onto the gravy train. Most vital of all, our fractured country needs the civic leadership and community glue that veterans can provide.
Veterans want this, too. Over the past decade, new vets organizations have sprung up to fill the self-improvement/civic-improvement roles abandoned by the legacy organizations. These new organizations emphasize work, community and public service, camaraderie, and personal development as mechanisms to help veterans thrive. They do almost no lobbying or political advocacy. Instead, they have attracted hundreds of thousands of younger vets by providing creative ways to help them connect with peers, thrive as individuals, and serve the country and local communities.
These organizations echo the words of Navy veteran John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Each of these organizations, in various ways, promotes the idea that the best way to serve veterans is by asking something from them—encouraging them to become the leaders they are trained and tempered to be.
Commentators from across the political spectrum have bemoaned the challenges facing America: political polarization, a hollowing-out of civil society, ineffective public schools, loneliness and isolation, substance abuse, fatherlessness, cycles of poverty, declining knowledge of civics, and so forth. Imagine a country where veterans are equipped and sent out to change those things.
It is not a pipe dream. Many of those who have worn the uniform have courage, resiliency, capacities to inspire, and a patriotism that America can use today. We must stop treating these men and women as problems, and instead mobilize them to create solutions. Previous generations of veterans viewed individual success and civic leadership as natural civilian follow-ons to their armed service in behalf of American institutions and ideals.
Paradoxically, they discovered in the process that helping others thrive, and build character, and live safe lives is also a great path to personal satisfaction, healing, and growth. It is time to recover that vision for a new generation.
Shaun Rieley is director of veterans programs at The Philanthropy Roundtable.