When I wear a Marine Corps T-shirt, people invariably ask me if my husband serves. “He does,” I say proudly. They always respond by asking me to thank him for his service.  Gone are the days when I mention that I, too, am a veteran. I am always grateful for the sentiment, regardless of whether it is expressed towards me personally.

Today, Veterans Day, is when Americans give a collective thank you to those of us who served. I appreciate their acknowledgement and do not take it granted. Not so long ago, such warm feelings were in short supply for troops coming home from Vietnam.

Still, I don’t believe it’s healthy for our country that “service” is shorthand for “military service” and that “those who served” implies only veterans. After all, there are numerous forms of service just as important as military service, and the responsibilities of citizenship belong to all of us.

It’s a responsibility that Americans all over the country take to heart as they selflessly donate their time and effort to help others. In our society, such essential work isn’t sufficiently valued or encouraged. My hope this Veterans Day is that we create a national culture of service that inspires more people to roll up their sleeves and get to work in their communities.

This is exactly what our country needs right now. After yet another brutal election season, Americans are more divided than I’ve seen in my lifetime. We’ve retreated deeper into our political tribes. Debate has given way to demonization as we fixate on our differences. This factionalism saddens me, and I know I’m not alone.  

It’s not only politics that’s creating divides. The Internet, which was supposed to connect us all, has also succeeded at the opposite. The virtual public square has proven to be no substitute for the real thing, where people gather to form the kind of meaningful social bonds that can’t be made on social media. Increased atomization has contributed to an epidemic of loneliness, which goes hand in hand with an epidemic of suicide.

A resurgence of citizenship would help reweave our delicate social fabric. Most immediately, group volunteer efforts provide assistance to those who need it. But they also serve to strengthen our communities in another way; they bring together people of various races, religions, and political persuasions in common cause.

I believe veterans are well-positioned to help spur this resurgence. Polls tell us that the military is the most trusted and admired institution in the country. If we lead by example on the community service front, we can leverage our revered status to help our country, again.

Veterans know how to put aside differences for the good of the mission. When the price of second-rate teamwork can be death, you have no choice but to relate to your sisters and brothers-in-arms first and foremost as human beings, regardless of their identities or beliefs. The necessity of unity is instilled in every member of the military, and vets can share this lesson with our civilian counterparts. 

Many veterans have continued to serve on the homefront. I myself am a founding member of Impact100 Oakland County, a community of women who award high-impact grants to nonprofits in our county totaling over half a million dollars since 2016.  I’ve also had the honor of supporting refugee families as they adjust to life in metro Detroit. This year I will host my third annual baby shower for refugee families, whose newborns will be a first-generation American citizen.

Choosing to participate in these activities seemed like a natural extension of my military service; in each case, I was championing American ideals. Like my military service, it reminded me that our divisions aren’t as severe as you’d think from social media or the cable news. When I volunteer in my community, I take away hope, the most valuable commodity of all.

Jess Bell is a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran who served two tours in Iraq and a member of Veterans for American Ideals.

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