Imagine having a job that is so consuming that you eat, sleep and play alongside your teammates for months at a time in austere environments.
You each dress the same way, struggle for a worthy cause and are often called to sacrifice of yourselves for the benefit of others. You are respected and valued in your community. You sometimes risk your lives for one another, and in so doing, forge an unbreakable bond of camaraderie.
Then one day, it all abruptly ends.
That’s the experience of many veterans like me — that abrupt ending and loss of identity is all too often destabilizing. I know it was destabilizing for me.
I struggled greatly with my transition to civilian life. And in talking to my veteran sisters and brothers, I’ve found that my challenges of separating from military service are closer to the rule than the exception.
There are many ways to deal with the perpetual transition to civilian life including talking to someone, staying active, finding your support system, and pursuing a new mission in life. But there’s one thing that’s been particularly helpful for me, and for many veterans I know: continuing to serve long after taking off the uniform.
As part of National Volunteer Week, the Department of Veterans Affairs is spearheading a new initiative: VetServe 2022. VetServe is a celebration of veteran service and a call-to-action aimed to encourage the nation’s 19 million veterans to join on April 21 to volunteer, in any way, for our nation and neighborhoods. Over the course of this week, VA leaders, members of Congress and our Veteran Service Organization partners will engage in a series of meaningful service projects.
We believe that VetServe will help veterans improve their well-being by reconnecting to their service roots. In fact, research demonstrates that volunteering as little as two hours a week can lead to improved sense of well-being, reduces stress and even increased life expectancy.
We also know that many veterans are still serving every day across America, and we want to highlight their great work. A 2017 report on Veterans Civic Health Index found that veterans volunteer more often than their non-veteran counterparts, veterans are more likely to engage in close relationships with their neighbors, and veterans are among America’s most dedicated voters. In short, veterans are our country’s greatest civic assets — and VetServe aims to underline that fact.
This idea was inspired, in part, by the many veteran-led organizations and individuals who are still serving and making the world a better place. Just look at Team Rubicon — an organization started when two Marine veterans, Jake Wood and Will McNulty, became determined to support the relief efforts following a devastating hurricane in Haiti. Team Rubicon is now a successful, internationally recognized disaster relief organization.
Then there’s Steven Champ, who after serving in the U.S. Air Force, retired with 23 years of federal service and has since volunteered at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Florida, for 13 years. When asked why he continues to volunteer, he said he still felt “young and strong” and wanted to continue giving back and “being part of something bigger than [me].”
For me, the desire for a sense of belonging and a search for a new purpose led me to help start a non-profit, Action Tank, with fellow veterans. Our mission was to focus our considerable experience to address the complex societal problems facing our community.
We came from diverse backgrounds, specialized in different fields but we all shared a bond through a deep sense of continued service. The relationships developed in this group coupled with the impact we had in our local community helped me heal. And their actions are helping to build social capital with local leaders.
The bottom line is veteran service not only has a positive impact on our country and communities — it also helped veterans like me, who needed a new mission. So, today, we are asking veterans everywhere to do three things:
- Commit to volunteering on an issue that matters most to you and your community. Your ‘boots on the ground’ perspective is best positioned to fulfill local needs. If you need some ideas of how or where to serve, we have resources for you here.
- Share your story of service on social media and tag #VetServe2022. We want to celebrate you and your success stories. Help us shine a light on the issues that matter to you and your community. Visit VetServe 2022: Share Your Service Success Stories Below! | RallyPoint.
- Bring a friend or colleague along to volunteer. Create force multipliers by recruiting those in your inner circle to serve.
Whether you choose to plant a tree, package boxes at a food bank or offer to serve with a local nonprofit, what matters most is that you go out and engage. You will likely find that there are fellow veterans already there serving and stepping up where we’re needed most, just like we always have.
You will feel better for your volunteerism. Your community will benefit from your involvement. And your passion and dedication for service will help our country thrive today and for decades to come.
Veterans like me may have taken off the uniform, but we are still serving because it’s who we are and simply part of our DNA.
Chris Díaz is a former Fleet Marine Force corpsman, who served in the U.S. Navy from 2007-2012. Díaz now serves as VA’s deputy chief of staff and White House liaison.
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