- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 11, 2009

As the nation honors millions of veterans who served their country in numerous wars, those fresh from battle in Iraq and Afghanistan say they are ready for another tour of duty, but this time as a civic engagement in their home communities.

The public often hears about rocky transitions for returning veterans, with problems as dramatic as suicide and homelessness. But a poll by Civic Enterprises, a public policy firm, presents a very different picture.

The results of the survey, being released Wednesday, show that 90 percent of returning veterans want to continue to serve their communities in some capacity.

“The public perception is that they are damaged in some way when they come back,” said John Marshall Bridgeland, chief executive of Civic Enterprises. “They view veterans as already having served their country and think they should be left alone because they have given the ultimate sacrifice, risked their lives, and that their service is done.

“But what this survey shows is that service is embedded in their DNA,” Mr. Bridgeland said. “They believe they have a lot to teach, especially to young people.”

Although 89 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans agreed that other Americans could learn from their service, only 44 percent said they consider themselves leaders in their communities.

Nearly 70 percent said they have not been contacted by a community group or place of worship, while 54 percent said they were contacted by a veterans service organization. However, of those who did speak with veterans groups, only 21 percent were asked to serve their communities.

As one veteran in the survey said: “Recognize our usefulness. We are not charity cases. We are an American asset.”

Of those surveyed, 95 percent said they wanted to help wounded veterans, 90 percent wanted to serve other veterans and military families, 88 percent were interested in disaster relief, 86 percent wanted to help at-risk youths and 69 percent wanted to help conserve the environment.

Nearly seven in 10 said they had not volunteered because they had not been asked.

Sonja Meneses, a 12-year Army veteran featured in the survey, became partially deaf from repeated attacks on her convoys by insurgents in Iraq. Upon her return, she was awarded a fellowship from Mission Continues that paid for her to volunteer at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Clarksville, Tenn.

“It’s great to hear children say that I am their role model, because it means I have to be doing something right,” Ms. Meneses said.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, authored the survey’s foreword and said this generation of veterans also will be the new generation of leaders.

“This report is evidence that veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are ready to reconnect to their communities; they just don’t have access to or knowledge of all the pathways to do so,” Adm. Mullen said.

“The bureaucracy can lay out the vision and put the resources behind it, but only through local communities — with real people willing to lend a hand, people who know our veterans — can the vision become a reality,” Adm. Mullen said.

The survey was intended to better understand the assets and needs of veterans in order to better integrate them once they return home.

A total of 779 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans took the survey online from Jan. 27 to March 9. The poll’s margin of error was 3.5 percentage points.

The report made recommendations to local, state and national leaders that began with changing the dialogue that veterans are not challenges to society, but contributors to society. Its suggested actions included public service announcements and destigmatizing post-traumatic stress disorder.

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