Looking Back and Moving Forward: Onward On Memorial Day
By: Dan Savage, National Program Director, Onward to Opportunity Program, IVMF
I’ve been a veteran, in my mind, since October 20, 2008, the day I stepped off a plane in Nuremberg, Germany, returning from a 15-month deployment to Iraq. Every Veterans Day and every Memorial Day since has felt different for me. Some years these holidays feel somber, some years they feel celebratory. Some years, Memorial Day is awash with memories, some years I kick off summer with a BBQ, a beer, and a parade just like the vast majority of Americans.
This annual oscillation is representative of a broader struggle in my mind – the broader wrestling for meaning. Specifically, the meaning of the losses my friends and I have suffered. The loss of friends, of colleagues, of Soldiers, of classmates. I think I know at least a dozen people who have lost their lives since 9/11 in these two wars, and I don’t think I’m rare among my veteran brethren. I also don’t think I’m rare in the sense that for nearly a decade I’ve wondered what their sacrifice means. It’s easy when you’re far removed from someone’s death to patriotically say that they died for their country, but when you watch it happen, it’s a lot harder to tie it to something specific – to say that this particular event, this loss of this life, kept America safe, even in some small way. And when you watch the country you were sent to stabilize become overrun by ISIS, it makes even the conceptual argument that much harder to sustain.
But recently, this struggle became a lot easier for me. A few weeks ago, I was at an event in Washington, DC, hosted by the USO and Road Trip Nation, highlighting three veterans who’ve traveled the country interviewing other vets about their post-service vocational paths via Operation Road Trip. As typically happens at these kinds of things, there was a panel discussion, and one of the panelists said something particularly poignant. Dr. Susan Kelly, director of the Department of Defense’s Transition to Veterans Program Office (TVPO), looked at the crowd, and remarked that if there was some kind of silver lining to be found in the great tragedy of these two wars and of all of the resulting suffering, it was the community of veterans who have stepped up to serve each other. She looked out at the crowd, mostly comprised of nonprofit, veteran-serving providers, most of whom are post-9/11 veterans or post-9/11 spouses, and said to each of us, “You are the silver lining of these 15 long years of war”. I got chills.
I can’t overstate how much what she said hit home. It’s true, after all. Before these wars, none of this transition support infrastructure existed, or if it did, it certainly wasn’t this robust or well-known. TAP was a mess – it’s certainly not perfect now, but by any measure, it’s leaps and bounds better. Hundreds of employers have come together in vast coalitions to recruit hundreds of thousands of veterans and military family members. The nation’s best hospitals are conducting cutting-edge research and treatment surrounding PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury. Communities across the country are joining forces to stitch together disparate resources into coherent networks of services and support. Veterans have come together by the hundreds of thousands, connecting to their communities, aiding in disaster relief, and conducting public service. Student veterans are uniting on campuses across America to support each other through transition, and the government is supporting veteran business ownership like never before. Public will has been so generous to some organizations which support my generation that it has generated, in some cases, scandal. And for the past four years, working at the IVMF, I’ve been fortunate enough to have been a part of this infrastructure and witness its growth and maturation firsthand.
For the last year specifically, I’ve seen this “silver-lining” on America’s front-lines, the military bases where our servicemembers are making the transition to civilian life. As the National Program Director for the Onward to Opportunity Program here at the IVMF, I’ve had the great honor of traveling all over the country and recruiting a dedicated team who tirelessly fight each and every day to connect members of our generation with meaningful employment opportunities. These program managers and coordinators work with our partners to train servicemembers and spouses, helping them navigate their journey toward careers with targeted employers. Our team – Elisabeth Rocha and Ben Dufay at Joint Base Lewis McChord; Abdiel Maldonado and Aixa Escobar at Camp Pendleton; Anthony Cosby and Angenetta Lambert at Joint Base San Antonio; Patty Piazza, Anthony Bush, and Wendy Weir-Layton in the Jacksonville, FL Tri-Base region; along with Rebekah Stroman and Amy Weaver at the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes Program; Elizabeth Reyes and Gabrielle Persaud at Hire Heroes USA; and my close partner Allison Fisher at Accenture – have been my silver lining.
This Memorial Day, I’m preparing for my own transition – I’m getting ready to depart the IVMF team for my next career step, to join LinkedIn’s efforts to support veterans. I’m proud of the work I’ve been able to accomplish here, of course, but I’m prouder of the work this team continues to do. Armed with Dr. Kelly’s mentality, I think I’ll approach these holidays differently moving forward. I’m proud to be a part of the silver lining. I’m proud that the silver lining exists at all – that my generation has stepped up as robustly it has, and that this infrastructure (hopefully) will remain, so the next generation that goes to war will return home to a public even more ready and able to welcome them than it has welcomed ours.
We can’t change the outcomes of the wars we’ve fought and we can’t bring our friends back. But we have honored their memory through the lives we continue to lead. We have honored their memory through our continued service to our country. And we have honored their memory through our continued service to each other. And for that we can be proud. I’m sure if they were here, they’d be proud of us, too.
Dan Savage is the National Program Director for the Onward to Opportunity Program. He is a former Infantry Officer of the US Army’s 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment and a veteran of the war in Iraq.