Veterans Day should remind us that our veterans deserve much more than our thoughts and kind words. The transition from the battlefield back to civilian life is never easy, but long and multiple deployments and a weak job market make this one of the most difficult times ever to be a veteran.
Our younger veterans face a particularly difficult homecoming, and a heartbreaking number are homeless. With tens of thousands returning from Iraq in the coming months and drawdowns in Afghanistan likely in the years ahead, finding new ways to tap into the skills and leadership of returning service members is not just important, it is an imperative.
Our personal experiences – as president of the George Washington University and as CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, have allowed us to see first-hand how much our veterans bring to the table, and how education and service can play key roles in facilitating their transition.
In fact, George Washington's long-standing commitment to educating returning military service members was a priority of the university's namesake and America's first president. GW also holds the distinction of enrolling the nation's first GI Bill recipient in 1944. And in 2009, The George Washington University was among the inaugural group of universities to sign up for the Yellow Ribbon Program, which provides matching funds to private institutions that offer scholarships to veterans.
Welcoming veterans to a university setting presents some unique challenges, but the accommodations George Washington has tried to make have been more than repaid by the unique contributions of these students to the university. Since veterans often look for guidance in navigating government channels to receive tuition assistance and other support services such as health care, GW created an on-campus Veteran Services Office.
We revised our admissions process to accommodate military members applying while on active duty. And we created an orientation system that was friendly to veterans who might have enough credits through correspondence courses to be sophomores or juniors, yet may have never set foot on a college campus. And this year, we created an initiative to engage our student veterans in community service, helping them to make the transition home.
The unique skills, perspectives, and leadership abilities of veterans also make them outstanding recruits for AmeriCorps. Using the skills they honed overseas, veterans are continuing to serve here at home - responding to disasters, building homes, mentoring at-risk youth, and supporting other veterans and their families. More than 16,000 veterans have served in AmeriCorps since its inception, and the Corporation for National and Community Service is actively recruiting more veterans to serve.
Engaging and serving veterans and military families is a priority of CNCS, stemming from the bipartisan Serve America Act and a belief that supporting our nation's troops, veterans, and military families is critical to our national security and to strengthening our communities. Our servicemen and women risk everything to protect America, and it is our obligation to give them the support they and their families need when they return.
There is another benefit from engaging returning veterans in service. A 2009 survey by Civic Enterprises found that younger veterans are eager to continue serving, and that getting involved is likely to improve their transition home. Too many veterans are facing unemployment, substance abuse, and other challenges.
Service can be a way to regain a sense of mission and get back on track. As one disabled veteran said, "My experience as an AmeriCorps member has given me the will to get out of bed every day. It has given me the education and the knowledge to understand my disability and it gives me a purpose in life.”
As America looks to rebuild, we have a returning fighting force eager to engage the pressing problems our communities face. On Veterans Day and every day, civilians and veterans are taking on and solving key problems through volunteerism. Please go to Serve.gov and learn how you can give back to those who have given so much.
Robert Velasco, II is acting CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Steven Knapp is president of The George Washington University.
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