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Young veterans want the public to listen to their needs, not worship them as 'heroes.'

By Nov. 11, 2014 | 11:00 a.m. EST | U.S. News and World Report

By the end of this year, the Pentagon will have only about 9,500 troops in Afghanistan. As 13 years of combat operations come to a close, it’s time to pivot. We need to turn our attention toward service members and veterans here at home, and we need to engage with them.

For the last decade, the dialogue between civilians and veterans has consisted mostly of “I support the troops” and “Thank you for your service.” That’s typically where it ends. There is a lack of connection; as a country, we are too busy telling veterans what we think of them and not taking the time to listen.

Two feelings are relatively commonplace among today’s young veterans. First, many of us are uncomfortable being thanked for our service. It’s not because we don’t appreciate the sentiment; we simply prefer that people carry the conversation beyond the thank you – which is rare. Secondly, none of us like to be called heroes.

Despite this, millions of philanthropic dollars are spent each year to “thank our heroes.” Americans jump at the chance to support the mountain climbing expeditions, new home giveaways and complimentary tickets to sporting events for “wounded warriors” or deserving veterans.

[SEE: Editorial Cartoons on the Middle East]

Americans support these efforts with their checkbooks, but don’t stay engaged long enough to understand if they positively affect veterans in the long run. Those long-term outcomes – for both veterans and communities – should be most important.

For example, we shouldn’t care about the fact that an organization provides an amputee with a state-of-the-art prosthetic; we should care about the outcome – what will he do with his new leg? If he becomes a third grade teacher, as he stands in front of his students, the prosthetic is a success. If he uses the leg to rob a bank, then it was a failure.

There is a fundamental disconnect between how Americans use financial resources to support veterans and how most veterans would describe the support they really need. If more people took the time to listen to what young veterans want, the responses might surprise them, and it might change the destination of their next check.

More than 4.8 million people have served in the military since 9/11, and 2.6 million of them have already returned to civilian life. Because there was no draft, each service member volunteered. Through this act alone, veterans demonstrate high levels of civic engagement.

[READ: Stop Swindling Our Soldiers]

A sustained combat conflict with an all-volunteer force has, more or less, been an experiment. Yet, by the very nature of the process, society is disengaged, and therefore, less able to learn from the experiment.

Instead, the majority of the nation chooses to pay attention to the rare instances of veterans who are suffering or struggling with reintegration, instead of the increasingly common stories of veterans who are succeeding and making the country stronger.

Like many of my fellow veterans, I invested my 20s in serving this nation, and now I am looking for a return on my investment. But I'm not looking for a parade. I'm turning to my fellow Americans for opportunity, understanding and high expectations, so that my military experience can pay dividends for our country in the long run. This is what most young veterans are asking for.

[READ: The Path to a Stable Iraq]

Here at home, this country has many problems to solve: poverty, education, the environment and so on. We also have at our disposal a group of trained leaders begging to help.

So, if you want to help – that is, if you want our help – listen. Understand that we will take on the challenges that our communities face. Know that we excel at community service, disaster relief and working with children. Believe that we solved problems for you overseas, and we can solve them in your back yard as well.

My generation of veterans is not down at the local post telling war stories. Look around: we’re improving the parts of your community that you don't like to drive through. We’re teaching at your children’s schools. We’re inside nonprofits, local governments and small businesses solving pressing national problems.

Today is the day that you can pivot. The day that you can change your view on a group of young Americans who volunteered to fight our nation’s longest war. Start listening, and we’ll help you make this country a better place.

 Chris Marvin is a retired Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot and the managing director of the Got Your 6 campaign.


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