How We Can Really Help Military Veterans

Question Everything: What does service mean?
Getty Images; Illustration by Kirsten Salyer for TIME

Think about how you can follow in their bootprints

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Veteran’s Day is commonly a day to pay tribute to the past sacrifices and triumphs of the men and women of our Armed Forces. It’s good for our kids to see us honoring those who served, and it’s good for those who served to know we honor their service. But, to me, Veterans Day can be much more. It can be an opportunity for all of us to consider what we can do, as citizens.

In that spirit, I’m reminded of a story: In 1961, in the heat of the race into space. President John F. Kennedy has just declared that the U.S. will send a man safely to the moon before the end of the decade. As legend has it, he paid a visit to NASA. During his tour, Mr. Kennedy approached a custodian sweeping the floor, and, in the spirit of sparking a conversation, asked him what he was doing. Without missing a beat, the janitor replied: “Well Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Less than eight years later, Buzz Aldrin’s boot print on the moon would become a symbol of national pride and mission accomplishment.

This story inspires me. It is an oft-used anecdote that illustrates how unity and clarity of purpose can lead to impact that changes a country and endures for decades.

But what does this anecdote have to do with Veterans Day? A lot.

Buzz Aldrin was a West Point graduate and a U.S. Air Force pilot who served with distinction in the Korean War. The bootprint he left on the moon fell in the middle of a long path of service that he walked—first in the military, and still today as a veteran. For today’s veterans, who have most recently taken off their combat boots, Aldrin’s example can be a challenge: “How will I leave my own mark?”

In response to this challenge, veterans across the country have decided to leave other marks, beyond the bootprints they left in the deserts or dirt of battlefields and training grounds around the world. They are serving now at local schools, community centers and parks from New York to Los Angeles to Chicago to Houston, and everywhere in between. They are making a difference, here at home.

It’s fortunate for all of us that they are stepping up to this challenge. There is no shortage of need for their leadership and service: It is hard to read the news and not learn about communities struggling to overcome poverty, violence, failing schools and poor health.

These long-standing issues won’t be solved by one hard day’s work. They will require a sustained effort from individuals who bring discipline, enthusiasm and a willingness to make a difference. That’s just what veterans are bringing to these issues when they volunteer and deploy into communities.

But they shouldn’t do it alone. We needed them to deploy on our behalf overseas to fight our battles. But here at home, we can join them. Aldrin didn’t make it to the moon without the custodian and the rest of the country standing behind him. As citizens, each of us has a role to play in our country’s strength.

This Veteran’s Day, pay tribute to the men and women who served in our military by considering how you can serve. Look to them for inspiration. Follow in their bootprints, and think about how you can leave your own.

Spencer Kympton is a U.S. Army veteran and President of The Mission Continues, a national nonprofit organization that deploys veterans on new missions in their communities so that their actions will inspire future generations to serve.

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