This year’s 4th of July is a unique opportunity to reflect on our nation’s veterans. As our military begins to wind down involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, our nation also marks the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the War of 1812 and the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam War. What came out of these two wars were vastly different public responses.
As the War of 1812 came to a close, Francis Scott Key wrote the words that would one day become our national anthem, a song that evokes pride and patriotism whenever it is sung. In February 1815, when the war concluded, the nation basked in the victory of a “2nd war for independence” that cast aside any doubt that our nation was truly an independent republic.
But, when men and women returned from Vietnam, they were castigated and criticized for their service even though many had been drafted. Rather than being welcomed home, Vietnam veterans faced judgment, scorn and outright hostility in some instances. President Obama recently characterized our nation’s response as a “national shame” and “disgrace” that “should have never happen.”
In an effort to help reintegrate Vietnam veterans into communities, city leaders worked with the National League of Cities in the early 1970’s to encourage veterans to take advantage of their G.I. bill benefits in nearly one dozen cities. No two city efforts were the same, but an independent evaluation in December 1973 that was prepared by the Human Resources Research Organization (HumRRO) of the programs concluded that the most successful efforts at boosting G.I. utilization rates were those that had strong ties with local government agencies providing a variety of services.
With men and women returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan changed by their experiences, cities can once again take a leading role to ensure our veterans are fully integrated back into our communities. Elected officials and municipal staff leaders can help channel the patriotism and pride we feel on Independence Day into meaningful and lasting benefits for both our veterans and our communities.
A practical first step to ensuring veterans are comprehensively reintegrated is making sure they have a safe, stable, accessible and affordable place to call home. It means making sure that home meets their needs if they have a disability. By making sure all of our veterans have a place to call home, we ensure they have a base from which they can find work and bring their unique skills and strengths into our communities.
On occasions like the 4th of July, the pride we have as a country becomes even more evident. But our nation’s pride and gratitude for our veterans exists every day. The challenge for city leaders is to find tangible ways to direct those emotions in ways that best serve our veterans. There are cities already taking action. Learn from them by visiting www.nlc.org/veteranshousing.
Happy 4th of July!