Written By: Colonel (Ret.) James D. McDonough, Jr.
In a field nearby our community in upstate New York, 4,486 daffodils – one for every service member killed while fighting in Iraq, according to my local newspaper – are just beginning to lie down their flowers and stems, thus marking spring and summer’s eternal advance forward and the opportunity to note time this Memorial Day. A couple of them represent guys I served with. The flowers were planted individually there by a family in our community who chooses to remember and pay final respect to the nation’s war dead from Iraq. I can’t help but note the symbolism of daffodils emerging from the earth, renewing life’s cycle this time of year, just as we chose to remember the nation’s fallen yet again.
Their presence reminds me of the value our communities play in the eyes of those who serve, for support from our communities is fundamental to maintaining a ready military and critical to maintaining a bond with its members and their families after their service ends. Communities matter greatly when it comes to America’s veterans and their families; they just don’t know that they do.
In emerging research underway here at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, early insight into the role communities play in serving returning veterans and their families reveals that we have a long way to go to before communities realize their role in supporting America’s veterans and their families. When individuals who have never served in the Armed Forces were asked in a survey, “Whose responsibility is to care for returning veterans and their families?” respondents consistently ranked “communities” at or near the bottom in a majority of their responses. I can’t find fault here with their thinking; it’s only been recently that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs itself began investing its resources in community-based capacity to serve veteran families alongside their behemoth health care and benefits-delivery infrastructure.
That being said, marking this occasion – Memorial Day – provides me with the opportunity to begin communicating the value we see in creating better community capacity to serve veteran families. First and foremost, our veterans and their families (myself included) not only return from military service to find jobs, attend college, and raise families, we come home to join our community above all else. We want to be productive members of society and contribute to the betterment of where we live, work, and worship. Communities are where job opportunities, family highs and lows, educational attainment, and well-being all take place. Communities represent the collective potential for us to succeed and it is here that we must begin to focus and align resources to better serve returning veterans and their families.
According to recent research sponsored by the New York State Health Foundation regarding the needs of New York State’s returning veterans, nearly half of all veterans who responded indicated that they would prefer to receive care and services outside the VA system. And when asked where they would prefer to receive that care, “in their communities” came back as the most frequently cited response. So while veterans themselves in one study indicated they would prefer to receive care and services within their communities, non-veterans in a separate study indicated that communities were perceived to be near last in line when it came to responsibility to serve veterans’ needs. Surprised?
It would be over-simplifying to position these dual perspectives as reflective of the reported disconnect between those who serve and those who don’t. Instead, I’d like to propose that we view this as opportunity; opportunity to create and sustain entrepreneurial community capacity to better serve veteran families of today, yesterday, and tomorrow. That’s what this is about for me here at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families.
Memorial Day is but a brief reminder to all of what national sacrifice looks like. On that field near our home it looks like flowers planted to recall lives lost during war. I would like to think that we could make it more. We have a tremendous opportunity together to position our communities to become better engaged with those who served, and their families. Let’s get to work; I can think of 4,486 reasons to do so.
Colonel (Retired) Jim McDonough is the newly-assigned Senior Director for Community Engagement and Innovation here at Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families. He is an OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM veteran and he and his family make their home in Saratoga Springs, New York.