During the final presidential debate this week, President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney sparred over the defense budget. The defense budget, however, only tells part of the story of our military strength.
A strong national defense depends as much on the quality of the people in uniform as it does on the weapons they carry, the ships they ride or the planes they fly. The next president must also answer the question: How will we inspire the next generation of Americans to serve? The answer will depend, in large part, upon whether young Americans see the current generation of veterans as leaders who contribute to their communities.
After the Revolutionary War, George Washington said, "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by our nation."
His words are as true for today's professional military as they were for the volunteers who won independence from the British Empire. If the next generation of military leaders steps forward, it will be because they are following the veterans who came before them. The good news today is that a survey this year found that the American people do see veterans as national assets on par with firefighters, doctors and teachers, and 82 percent of recent veterans would advise a young person close to them to serve in the military.
Yet today there are fewer and fewer veterans for young people to follow. Even with the millions of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the veteran population will shrink by half over the next 10 years. Less than 1 percent of Americans currently serve in the military, and those who serve are highly concentrated, living near each other on bases or deployed overseas. In the years to come, fewer and fewer Americans will grow up close to someone who has worn the uniform. Fewer and fewer Americans will hear stories of service from their grandparents over breakfast. Fewer and fewer Americans will see their veteran neighbor wake up to raise a flag every morning.
A smaller veteran population is inevitable. Yet it's also possible that given the right opportunities, the veterans we do have can set an equally powerful example. I believe we can inspire the next generation of leaders to serve in the military by asking the most recent generation of veterans to serve again in communities across America.
Since 2007, more than 500 post-Sept. 11 veterans have volunteered to do intensive service work in their communities through The Mission Continues. Hiawatha Clemons, a Marine Corps veteran, tutored special-needs students at the same school he attended as a child. Anthony DeMarino, an Air Force veteran, worked with the mayor's office to lead volunteer projects in Washington. Rachel Gutierrez, an Army veteran, led teams that built houses with Habitat for Humanity.
The impact they had went beyond the students they taught, the volunteers they led or the homes they built. Their service set a powerful example.
When young Americans see veterans serving as teachers, leaders and volunteers, they have role models to follow.
Veterans who served after Sept. 11 are ready for this challenge -- more than 64 percent of them want to take a leading role in their communities. Their generation is more than 5 million strong, and they can set a powerful example all across America.
Our next president should make it a priority for veterans to be able to continue their service to their country and to inspire others in the process. Much of this work has to take place at an individual and community level, but there are three things that a president can do:
The president should work with Congress to amend the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill to allow veterans to use a year of their benefits to serve full time or part time in their communities. A service option would help veterans transition to civilian life, while allowing them to set a powerful example in their communities.
The Department of Defense should include service programs like AmeriCorps, Teach for America and The Mission Continues in the Transition Assistance Program (TAP). The TAP program gives military personnel important information about what they can do after they leave the military. Continued service leads to successful outcomes for the veterans who pursue it, and the Defense Department should make sure that veterans know about these opportunities.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) should use its position as the leading voice on veterans' issues to raise awareness of veterans' service and leadership at home. Working with community, corporate and civic partners, the VA can launch a robust public awareness campaign to highlight the role that veterans play in society as servants and leaders.
Every generation in American history has been called upon to step forward and serve. The more opportunities veterans have to continue their service at home, the stronger our communities, our military and our country will remain.
Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, is founder and CEO of The Mission Continues.
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