Op-Ed in Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Garrett Cathcart   |   November 14, 2022

By Garrett Cathcart

Nov 11, 2022

Op-Ed in the AJC: This Veterans Day, don’t thank me for my service. Join me instead.


Every November, the country comes together on Veterans Day to celebrate and recognize veterans for their service to the country. Social media is flooded with emotional photos and with words of appreciation. There are free dinners at restaurants and parades line countless communities.

Personally, I am often and sometimes awkwardly thanked for my service. I’ve learned over the years to say, “it was my honor and you’re worth it” and I really mean it.

I deeply appreciate how our country recognizes the sacrifices of service members and veterans. It was not that long ago that my comrades of the Vietnam era received vitriol instead of gratitude. We are still healing from 20 years of war and face an uncertain future — it matters when people raise their hand to swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution.

The “thank you for your service” is a meaningful recognition from a citizen to a veteran that the citizen understands democracy must be defended to thrive — and in the current state of our threadbare democracy – to survive.

Veterans have sacrificed a great deal to defend our freedoms, and I have borne personal witness to some of those sacrifices. My memory of a soldier dying in my arms in combat will never leave me. Nor will the duty to ensure their sacrifice was not in vain.

Building a thriving country, ensuring our freedoms and defending democracy, however, requires more than a well-trained and professional fighting force.

It requires the very same citizens who say “thank you for your service” to serve here at home too, and that is my new mission – to inspire my fellow citizens to serve in their communities even in small ways. Those small ways add up to big impacts.

I am challenging everyone this Veterans Day to take a moment to think of how they can serve others in their community. When we serve in our communities, we make them stronger and more resilient. When we build stronger communities, we build a stronger country.

There are many forms of service at the local level: volunteering with a nonprofit to deliver meals, mentoring a young person, creating an event to clean a park, or even just helping a neighbor in need.

Like many of my fellow Americans, I have great anxiety about the direction we are going as a country, and often wonder how to correct the course we are on. It starts in our communities. Neighbors don’t know each other, the social and civic fabric of our communities are eroding, we live in bubbles and never interact with others.

There is a very simple solution in theory, but one that’s very difficult in practice.

Go out, meet your neighbors and serve your community together. When we sweat together, serve together and maybe even share a meal together — we will be a part of a movement to heal our country.

Actions, however, mean a lot more than words. Rather than simply talking about the example veterans set, it is my hope that Americans honor veterans by following their example and serving their country.

Veterans have learned about serving a cause greater than themselves while creating bonds with people from all kinds of backgrounds and practicing servant leadership. Through our service to the country, we found common purpose and a strong sense of community.

Many Americans do serve their country and communities outside of their work. We see it in the countless nonprofit organizations and volunteer hours that improve our communities. Similar to veterans, those who volunteer find a sense of purpose and community. It is why I and so many veterans continue to serve our country by volunteering with organizations we care about in our communities.

At a time of so much division in the country, volunteering and service can be a way to bring people together. It offers an opportunity for Americans to find common ground and purpose that transcends the issues that divide us.

Unfortunately, only about 25% of adults volunteer their time and talents. That number has been declining over time. For all the talk about the virtue of service, we see fewer Americans engaging in said service outside of their work.

That is why we must move beyond talk and take actions to serve our communities so that we can better honor the service exemplified by veterans.

So this Veterans Day, as much as I enjoy the recognition, I’d like Americans to not thank me for my service. I want them to join me in it — here at home where we need it most.

Become a leader, get to know someone with a different background than yours and come together to build a better country on Veterans Day and every day.

Garrett Cathcart is the Executive Director of More Perfect Union, a veteran-led movement to strengthen our communities and heal our country. Garrett is a U.S. Army combat veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and currently serves as an assistant professor of military science at Georgia Tech.