Skip to main content

Veterans are not just heroes or victims

By Eric Liu
updated 12:36 PM EST, Thu January 16, 2014
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
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT