THE GREAT DIVIDE
Looking past monuments, parades for vets' next steps
By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 12, 2013
WASHINGTON — Instead of thanking veterans, Blake Bourne wants Americans to ask them to do more.
“No matter where I go, when people hear I’m a veteran they immediately say, ‘Thank you for what you did,’” the 31-year-old Army veteran said. “But we’ve almost gone too far with that.
“It feels like most people want to tell you that you did enough work, and now it’s time to relax and take a knee.”
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were the first prolonged conflicts to be fought by America’s all-volunteer military, and many troops are returning looking for more opportunities to volunteer.
For Bourne, that meant joining Mission Continues, whose stated goal is to help veterans reintegrate into civilian society through continued service. He’s almost six months into a fellowship with the group, receiving a small stipend to spend his time coordinating community volunteers in Charlotte, N.C.
“You can have 5,000 people come out and applaud a group of veterans, and that’s great, but what does it really do?” he said. “I think I’d rather see that same group go out and plant trees, maybe help just a small group in the community, but really engage and show what they can do.”
The idea of second service among returning troops has led to a rise in recent years of a new breed of veterans groups, ones that avoid lobbying and public affairs in favor of direct community interaction.
“This is a generation of volunteer servicemembers,” said Spencer Kympton, director with Mission Continues. “Many of them don’t feel like they need to be given anything. What they need is a new mission.”
Officials at Team Rubicon, a disaster response charity of veterans volunteers, has a stated goal of giving returning troops “a renewed sense of purpose” through emergency response work suited to their military skills. Team Red, White and Blue, which runs sporting events for veterans and civilians, sees physical activity as an common experience and easy entry point for military reintegration efforts.
And at Mission Continues, new fellows like Bourne take an oaths stating that “our personal service did not end with our military service, but has only just begun.”
Group organizers believe that getting veterans involved in community outreach programs is more beneficial to them and the country than petitioning for broader benefits.
“The country is doing a solid job communicating their support and thanks to veterans,” Kympton said. “But there is hesitation to ask veterans to serve again, and to use their talents. It seems ungrateful.
“So there’s an acknowledgement that veterans need outreach, but maybe not a real understanding of what that means.”
The question of how to properly honor this generation’s war heroes is one the country will be grappling with for decades. Build a memorial? Make a new holiday? Leave the yellow ribbons up a little longer?
Americans already witnessed the start of that debate last year, when veterans groups sparred over a public parade to mark the official end of the Iraq War.
Pentagon officials opposed holding a large-scale ticker-tape in New York, saying such a celebration would be insensitive to the servicemembers still over in Afghanistan. The White House instead opted for a state dinner honoring representatives from the Iraq conflict, a high-profile but decidedly not public event.
Advocates like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America argued a parade would engage more Americans and give this generation of warfighters a better sense of welcoming. But others called the idea little more than a publicity campaign, with little real use to returning veterans.
Congress is considering creating a national panel to grapple with those topics. The Commission on America and its Veterans — the brainchild of Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash. — would hold conversations around the country on commemoration and reintegration for veterans, and suggest ways to “bridge the gap” between military and civilian communities.
“After a painful decade of war, the United States needs to take the time to regain its equilibrium and find peace,” McDermott said in a March speech introducing the idea. “Without a formal process for acknowledging the physical and psychological costs of war, our collective trauma may undermine our country for decades.”
By many accounts, that’s what happened in the years following Vietnam, with protests and animosity targeted at the warfighter rather than the war. The bitterness of that welcome home has tempered little over the decades, and led many troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan to worry about their homecoming too.
“No one ever asked Vietnam veterans if they wanted a parade,” said Peter Aylward, a senior consultant on the Defense Department’s Vietnam War Commemoration effort. “It was never really about people accepting or not accepting the war. It was about what was the right way to honor those warriors and their families.”
Aylward said he sees many communities and corporations trying to fix that now, with outreach programs for both young and old veterans. Many of them are simply symbolic gestures — yellow ribbons, sales discounts, American flag pins — but he calls them an important step forward.
Joe D’Entremont, president of the Massachusetts chapter of Rolling Thunder, has been pushing the last five years to get sports teams across the country to set aside a highly visible stadium seat for POW/MIA troops. He’s already gotten the New England Patriots, the Boston Bruins and a handful of minor league baseball teams to sign on to the idea.
“It doesn’t have a direct impact, but you don’t know how many people that kind of symbol can reach,” he said.
Looking to connect
Even the best community service projects engage only a small fraction of the people who come out on holidays and proudly sing the national anthem. But the connection those service efforts create is much greater, Bourne said.
The group welcomed its latest class of fellows last month in a ceremony at the Sept. 11 memorial in New York City. The venue was symbolic not just for its relationship to the recent wars but also for its contrast to the charge given to the veterans: Don’t let monuments and parades be the lasting legacy of this generation.
Bourne said he was the first veteran to work with the community coordination group Hands on Charlotte.
The lack of familiarity has led to some bumpy transition but also a better appreciation of how his skills fit into civilian challenges. His military mission planning surfaces with every rehearsal for public events. Same with his logistical and problem-solving pedigree.
And it made him feel useful and welcomed again.
“Service is really part of our personality,” he said. “You still have that desire to be part of something bigger. So if you come home to nothing more than a 10 percent military discount, it squashes your sense of purpose.
“We’re losing a valuable asset.”