Many years ago, I stepped off a plane from Iraq and onto the tarmac at Pope Airfield in Fort Bragg, NC. The scene was filled with open arms, cheers, the sound of muffled grunts of joy as weeping kids jumped into the arms of their parents, and spouses' soft cries of love and longing. The sounds of reunions were deafening as they bounced off the high walls of the hangar -- it was a sound that I welcomed, and remember to this day.
It was much quieter when I drove the short distance to my home in Fayetteville, NC. There was the normal hum of activity -- the low, distinct rubbery buzz of a bike tire against the new asphalt, faint bursts of children laughing, and the occasional crack of the bat from a game of street ball. Even the fall breeze sounded soft and quiet to me as it whipped through neat piles of leaves, faintly reminding me of the blowing sands on the desolate roads between south Iraq and Baghdad.
I could sense immediately that my experiences overseas would fill that silence with the haunts of war unless I found a way to get engaged, and get engaged quickly.
As the President announced the end to the war in Iraq, I wondered how many more veterans and military families will be coming home to face a similar scene. For many, their neighborhoods and communities will also be filled with a joyful, yet uneasy, silence – and plenty of space for the echoes of war.
Our communities must be ready to welcome our veterans and military families home with more than just open arms. The welcome must come with an opportunity. Just as important, those who have come home from war must reach back to help others assume a new mission as community leaders and national service champions.
The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and the national network of organizations it supports are making those connections happen and looking for leaders like the ones coming home right now. Here are just a few examples of how CNCS is connecting our service members and their families to national and community service:
- More than 16,000 veterans have served in AmeriCorps since its inception, helping other veterans and military families access benefits and services; obtain job training and conduct job searches; provide safe and affordable housing; and mentor and tutor children of service members.
- More than 500 Senior Corps projects and 8,000 volunteers serve at more than 700 Veterans Affairs facilities every year, assisting elderly and disabled veterans, helping military retirees acclimate to life after service, and transporting those in need of medical treatment.
- AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) has supported more than 50,000 veterans through service projects, special events, and disaster relief and recovery.
- The Veterans Green Corps, in conjunction with the Southwest Conservation Corps, has helped dozens of veterans get firefighting and fire mitigation training locally, and they are now in the field saving lives and protecting the nation's public lands.
The war in Iraq has ended and the war in Afghanistan continues -- yet, for some of our combat veterans and military families, the roar of their life experiences overseas can drown out the gentle hum of everyday life. I have a strong hunch that every single one of us is looking for our next mission and standing vigilant and ready for some kind of service to nation to continue here at home.
My friends here at CNCS are here to help you find that next mission and to continue your service. Some CNCS service opportunities include money for college, a modest living stipend, and a period of non-competitive federal appointment eligibility to help you get a job.
All of our national and community service opportunities give you a chance to lead -- a chance to improve the impact and reach of national service and volunteer efforts in our communities. The First Lady has made it her personal mission to call all of our communities to reach out and join forces to make this homecoming meaningful, and impactful.
As we begin a new year and you look to fill the silence with a commitment that matters –ask yourself, “Am I ready to serve again?” If so, join us. We need you.