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The next greatest generation

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Paging through notes from several years ago, I came upon a copy of the cover story of a Time magazine article that presented readers with an interesting premise: veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might prove to be America’s next Greatest Generation.

The article, written by Joe Klein, profiled several vets who’d already made a difference here at home. Central to their thinking was the idea of loyalty.

“We were trained in the military never to leave a fallen comrade in the field,” said one. “But do we bring them home just to leave them alone? That didn’t seem right.” Together with a buddy, he formed an organization to do handicapped access projects for other vets called Purple Heart Homes.

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By extending their concern beyond their own generation, those vets were already making contributions to those who had gone before them, including needy Vietnam-era servicemen, who represent nearly a third of all veterans, and who, at the time they returned home, didn’t get much support from their fellow citizens.


The returning veterans were bringing skills that seem on the wane in American society, qualities we really need now, wrote Klein: “Crisp decision making, rigor, optimism, entrepreneurial creativity, a larger sense of purpose and real patriotism (as opposed to self-righteous flag-waving).”

Klein quotes a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who said two things set veteran students apart from others: their discipline and the fact that they’re very serious about their work.

At a time when an alarming number of citizens seem shrill and simplistic and unable to focus on the larger needs of the country, the core values of the military may be just what we need—the understanding that everyone rises and falls together, that the needs of the society at large trump the desires of the individual.

As one of the vets quoted in the article said, “We’re a group that really wants to see America become a better place. We hate the divisive politics of the baby-boom generation. They’re running the country into the ground.”

According to Klein, many returning vets feel closer to one another than they do to either political party, and seem committed to working together regardless of political differences. But as he noted, “there is another, competing and decidedly conservative sense that is common to veterans: that American society has gone soft and is filled with whiners, an entitlement culture lacking a sense of individual accountability.”

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Craig Nagel, Columnist

That vets should feel this way only makes sense, given the nature of the military. As any vet can tell you, you’re trained to focus on service, and to adopt a get-it-done pragmatism. When, back in civilian life, you encounter citizens who stroke their own egos at the expense of the larger good, you feel little sympathy.

As another of the vets quoted in the article said, “The toughest part of leadership is telling people they have to do something that involves pain.”


Given the state we’re currently in, we may well need our returning veterans to help provide the energy and leadership needed to get us back on track, and to help us refocus on the common good. And that will probably involve some pain.

Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at

Opinion by Craig Nagel
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