Skip to main content

Veterans are not just heroes or victims

By Eric Liu
January 16, 2014 -- Updated 1736 GMT (0136 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eric Liu: The two dominant images of veterans in everyday culture are hero or victim
  • Liu: Veterans want to be known for being great citizens back home
  • He says we should hire, connect, mentor, empower and invest more in veterans
  • Liu: Let's also consider mandating national service, whether military or civilian

Editor's note: Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and author of several books, including "The Gardens of Democracy" and "The Accidental Asian." He served as a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter @ericpliu

(CNN) -- "Lone Survivor," based on the true story of an ambushed Navy SEAL team in Afghanistan, was the No. 1 movie in America last weekend. If you haven't seen it, go see it.

The movie reminded me of a phrase, "citizenship on the cheap," which has haunted me since I heard retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal utter it last summer. He was launching the Franklin Project, an ambitious initiative to expand national service in America. But he was talking about something deeper -- the widening divide between civilians and those coming out of the military.

Because the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been fought by an all-volunteer force, the great majority of Americans have only passing acquaintance with the sacrifices of national defense. Most Americans have not been asked to do anything more for their country during wartime than to thank the troops.

Eric Liu
Eric Liu

That's why McChrystal has called for a rapid expansion of voluntary civilian service programs like AmeriCorps, so more civilians join those who serve in uniform. I couldn't agree more. I'd go further, in fact, and mandate national service, whether military or civilian. That, however, is a pipe dream when our nation can't even fully tolerate mandatory health insurance coverage.

How, then, can American society aspire to something greater than citizenship on the cheap? Perhaps the answer lies not in trying to make more Americans serve but in enabling more veterans to serve in new ways when they come home.

There are more than 2.6 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans today. As our country's longest wars wind down, a million more are expected to return. These are people with leadership skills, professionalism, experiences solving complex problems under high stress while keeping a larger mission in mind. Think America could use a few (million) good men and women like that?

'Lone Survivor' rocks the box office
Essay: Real story behind 'Lone Survivor'

Meet two of them, Rodrigo Garcia of Student Veterans of America and Chris Marvin of Got Your 6.

Got Your 6 is military parlance for "got your back" and Marvin, a former Army Blackhawk pilot, founded this national campaign to bridge the military-civilian divide. It activates celebrities, social media, political and cultural leaders, and every other resource available to advance a simple message: Veterans are assets.

This may seem obvious. But consider the two dominant images of veterans in everyday culture, from movie screens to school assemblies to corporate advertising. One is the hero. The other is the victim.

The hero narrative portrays veterans as Medal of Honor winners with superhuman courage, amputees undaunted by their disabilities, and, yes, lone survivors of hellish battles. The victim story portrays veterans as sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, wounded warriors betrayed by bureaucracy, combat leaders now left homeless and jobless.

To be clear, both narratives have a basis in reality. More veterans than can be counted have indeed been damaged by war, and more than can be counted are indeed heroes of war. They have earned every bit of support, care, honor and gratitude we offer them -- and often more.

But the hero and victim portrayals emphasize two messages: that vets belong on a pedestal, and that vets need your compassion. The veterans I know are looking for a third message: Vets can be great citizens back home.

Consider Garcia, from Student Veterans of America, a Marine veteran who in the crowded years since his deployments has gone to graduate school, started businesses, led Student Veterans of America's expansion to many hundreds of campuses nationwide, and helped run a state veterans affairs department.

The question for civilians is how to create more channels for people like Garcia to continue being contributors and leaders in public service -- not as pilots or infantry commanders but as candidates for office or school principals or heads of nonprofits.

How we do this is simple. We just do it. We foster relationships between veterans and civilians. We hire, connect, mentor and invest in veterans. We support organizations like The Mission Continues and Team Rubicon that plug veterans into community service. We learn from them about how to show up for others.

It's often said that "freedom isn't free." That's true. Freedom is dear. So is great citizenship, and so is deep gratitude. If we truly want to thank veterans for their service, let's make sure each one who returns from war is empowered to be an integrated, vital part of their community's social fabric and civic life.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eric Liu.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1411 GMT (2211 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT