Are Young Americans the New Greatest Generation?

Time Magazine columnist and author Joe Klein believes that the young veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are America’s new Greatest Generation.

On Wednesday evening, he led a discussion at the LBJ Library on the impact these young men and women are beginning to have on the United States.

As part of a nationwide tour to promote his recent Time cover story, “The New Greatest Generation,” Klein and three veterans talked about what led them to join the military, how serving has changed their lives, and how the country can begin to right itself with young leadership.

Seth Moulton decided to join the Marines in spring 2001 as a senior at Harvard, a decision that perplexed his friends and family. At the time, his mother told one reporter that “the only career choice that would upset me more would’ve been a life of crime.” But after 9/11, Moulton said he felt vindicated in his decision, that he would be one of the few people who could actually do something about the situation.

That idea of having the ability to remedy a problem was a strong undercurrent in much of the evening’s conversation. Klein’s cover story is about how the skills that young veterans are learning in combat zones translate to strong leadership and productivity once they return to the civilian arena.

Tommy Sowers, a former Major in the Army Special Forces, said that for all the glory that might be associated with fixing a large problem, nameless sacrifice is what really gets things done. “You shouldn’t wait for someone else to act,” he said. “You don’t wait. If there’s a problem, you fix it.”

They also talked about some of the new appreciations and broader perspectives they had after returning home from combat. Moulton said that he gets frustrated when people complain about petty annoyances like long lines. “A friend will come up and be like, ‘Oh, man, I just had the toughest day ever at work,’ and I’ll just look at them and be like, ‘Really?'”

Matt Pelak served in the Army for 12 years and is currently working as a firefighter and paramedic in New York. But he is also part of Team Rubicon, a disaster relief organization comprised of military veterans. Rubicon has sent teams to Haiti for earthquake relief, Pakistan when heavy floods devastated the country, and to Alabama and Missouri this past spring when tornados ravaged the land. Pelak said that veterans thrive in disaster relief because they are trained to handle the chaos. “With a group of vets,” he said, “you can accomplish almost anything.”

Several times in the conversation, the four members of the panel brought up the idea of national volunteer service as a way to give back without necessarily entering the military. The idea generated ample applause among a crowd mostly made up of the original Greatest Generation.

Moulton mentioned that Teach For America and the Peace Corps were both great ways to do service, but that more needed to be done. “I think it’s important to work for a cause bigger than ourselves,” he said. “You don’t want to waste your talent and skills. We need to make service seem logical, not just something our parents told us to do.”

The group further discussed veteran affairs and Sowers, who currently works a senior advisor to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, brought up the new G.I. Bill aimed at getting 500,000 vets on their career paths. He called it a good return on investment.

As Klein said later on in the hour, “Our veterans are an asset, not a liability.”

Photo by David Valdez. Left to right: Tommy Sowers, Seth Moulton, Matt Pelak, Joe Klein.


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