Veterans Day weekend is a time to honor America's living heroes, some from past wars and some just returning. For many veterans, the hardest part of war is coming home. Veterans Day is a chance to say ‘thank you’ and honor the service of those who make us all so proud.
Ten years ago, I was in Baghdad as a captain with the 82nd Airborne Division. I was one of the lucky ones who made it back home after two deployments. Nineteen of my fellow paratroopers never did. In total, 6,749 of our troops lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This generation of veterans, like those who came before, has been driven to serve our country by a sense of duty and responsibility. Many of these heroes now harness that spirit of service for new missions. Some serve on local school boards and community organizations. Some hold elected office. Currently, 16 members of Congress are Iraq or Afghanistan War veterans.
As a nation, we have learned the embarrassing lesson of a previous era and have rightly embraced our returning veterans. Many are viewed as civic assets, business leaders, and mentors. Our country has made great strides in this regard. But we’ve gone beyond the parades and well wishes, by ending the Iraq War, winding down the war in Afghanistan, ending the shameful policy of Don't Ask Don’t Tell, and passing the largest increase in veteran benefits in our country's history.
Make no mistake: there is much work to be done, especially when it comes to tackling the troubling trend of veteran suicides, homelessness and joblessness, as well as treating PTSD, and providing our heroes with the healthcare and education they have earned. While these issues plague all Americans, they are especially acute in the veteran community.
That's why I'm proud MSNBC is kicking off a year-long testament to the American veteran this Sunday at the National 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero. MSNBC will highlight 12 inspirational films from the Wounded Warrior Project. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 changed the lives of so many, especially the 2.5 million veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many of these stories will illustrate the challenges facing this generation of veterans as they come back home. But most importantly, they demonstrate the principles of selfless service, a lesson all too often forgotten in the halls of power.
Our veterans set a standard that we must all – for the good of our nation – seek to meet in our lives. They are men and women from all corners of the country, with different beliefs and backgrounds, who come together and routinely put the country first. These are lessons we all need to take the heart if we have any hope of solving our country's great challenges ahead.
With less than 1% of Americans having served in Iraq or Afghanistan, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates may have been right when he said military service has become "something for other people to do."
But when it comes to our democracy, and our country's future, we cannot afford to ignore the example set by the courageous veterans who have redefined dedication. And just as a soldier leaves no one behind, we must leave no citizen behind in our battle for progress.
Patrick Murphy is a former U.S. Congressman for Pennsylvania, a decorated U.S. Army paratrooper, and an MSNBC contributor.