Investing in America’s military veterans through education and employment opportunities will benefit local communities greatly, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said here today at Columbia University.
Columbia University is the first of many “conversations with the country” Mullen intends to make in an endeavor to help local communities understand the value of their military veterans.
“This is the beginning of an effort to connect with communities throughout the country about the challenges [the military and veterans] face to connect with America,” he said to an audience of students, student veterans and faculty here. “I believe that investment on the part of America and Columbia [University] will be paid back tenfold over the course of the next decade.”
The admiral said he’s reaching out to colleges and universities because they are community-based and tied to community leadership. He said he is looking to local leaders and influencers to help “repay that debt” of service, he feels is owed to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
“We have tens of thousands who’ve gone off and done what our country wanted them to do and faced perils of war, seeing things they never thought they would see,” Mullen said. “Their lives have changed forever, in ways they don’t even know yet. They have sacrificed enormously, and in over 5,400 cases, they’ve paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
The results of war are also evident in the families. Spouses and children have been affected “in ways that none of us imagined just a few years ago,” he added.
Veterans want the opportunity for education, employment and to take care of their families, he said. And although the Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs are actively seeking new initiatives to help this cause, it’s not enough, he said.
Getting America’s communities and small towns involved is the only way to effectively reach out to those veterans and their families, he said.
“The only way this can scale to effectively reach all of those who’ve given so much is to have all three of us work together, but the scalable capabilities lie in the community,” he said.
With similar visits throughout the next year, Mullen is hopeful that communities will accept his challenge and spread a “sea of goodwill” to military veterans, he said.
Mullen explained the reason for this initiative by reflecting on his past five decades of military service. He was commissioned in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War. It was a time when the country turned against its military servicemembers, he said.
“We were unable as a country to separate the politics from the people [in uniform],” he said. “The scars I have from that timeframe run deep, and as [wars in Iraq and Afghanistan] started, it really was the first question I asked myself: Were the American people going to support our men and women in uniform?”
Whether or not servicemembers garner public support is a question deployed troops often express to Mullen during his visits to the Middle East, he said.
The fact that Americans today do support the individual servicemembers even if they don’t support the government’s decisions “has been incredibly uplifting” for Mullen, he said.
Mullen noted Columbia University’s effort to reach out to potential student veterans and ensuring they understand and receive their educational benefits as an example. This sort of relationship is taking place in other northeastern and Ivy League schools and sets a great example for other communities and institutions to follow. However, the nation can do more, he said.
“Part of being here today is emphasizing connecting the local community with veterans who’ve been through a lot, especially those who are wounded and ill, and their families,” Mullen told reporters following his remarks. Also, “making sure they have a shot at the future, education and training, jobs, mental health support … I’m hoping New Yorkers will continue to reach out.”
Mullen will speak to local officials and veterans in Pittsburgh, Penn., tomorrow. He’ll close out his three-day trip in Morgantown, W.V., but plans to continue his conversations with the country in future travels.