Missing the Mark With Our Veterans

I waited in line last month to board a flight and heard the gate attendant announce that veterans and active duty military were invited to board the plane ahead of the other passengers. I watched as several veterans made their way to the front to take advantage of this kindness. I held my place in line, waiting for my turn to board, and I was struck by how misdirected these kindnesses have become. I raised my right hand and vowed to serve the citizens of this country, not to be served by them.

Free lunches, discounted dinners, box seats at sporting events - these are now common items many veterans receive as a "thank you" for their service. And while free meals and head of the line privileges are thoughtful, and are certainly appreciated, they are not helping to close the reintegration gap that many veterans are experiencing. In fact, they set veterans apart into a different class of civilian, which further widens the divide between our country's civilian and military populations.

For example, you may have thanked a post 9/11 veteran for their service and watched them shift uncomfortably, struggling for an appropriate response. This isn't a lack of gratitude, it is a result of years of military indoctrination to work tirelessly and with no expectation of thanks or reward. My Marines often joked that their only reward for excellent performance was more work and longer hours. And yet, they continued to excel and to seek increased responsibility for its own sake, proving that their motivation stemmed from a deep desire to selflessly serve, rather than a reliance on recognition.

Today's veteran is a volunteer, and many joined the military before 9/11 and before the United States was forever changed. They joined because they have a heart for service, a need to give back, and a true passion for their country and their communities. None of that changed when they removed their uniforms. But some veterans are becoming increasingly comfortable with the handouts and the entitlement. This shift is an unintended byproduct of our country's rightful desire to give back to our veterans. But there's a better way to do it. We need only to balance our approach with more of what makes our veterans strong and productive citizens.

Let me be clear: our veterans do need something from us, but it's not what they've been getting. Veterans deserve our gratitude, but store discounts simply cannot be the only way that we recognize them. We should be evoking fulfillment rather than entitlement. The best thing you can give a veteran is reassurance that they still have a purpose and a mission.

They need to be told that they're still needed. There are tough challenges facing our nation - from homelessness and poverty to youth violence and blighted neighborhoods. Veterans are skilled and highly-trained individuals who have a passion for stepping up and getting their hands dirty, and we need them to help solve some of our nation's toughest problems. More importantly, they'll experience a transformation when they're able to serve again. While I'm proud of my military service, I'm even more proud of the impact that I'm having through The Mission Continues, as we empower veterans to serve in their communities. I've seen my fellow veterans come together to revitalize neighborhoods, paint schools, plant urban gardens, all intended to inspire future generations to serve. I've seen and felt the transformative power of service to my community.

Here's a thought: instead of encouraging veterans to board a plane early, seat them in the exit row. Ask them to take responsibility for their fellow passengers, the same ones they swore to protect when they took their oath of service. Look them in the eyes and recognize that they have more experience in dangerous and stressful situations than most will gain in their lifetime. Let them know that you're counting on them to lead when times are tough, and to be resourceful as only they can. Then watch carefully as their eyes light up and they recall the strength, purpose, and pride that they felt when they wore their military uniform.

They'll be thankful for it.

They'll make a difference.

And together, with the support of their communities, they'll lead again.