"The opportunity to serve my country again"

By Neal Pointer, Vietnam veteran and AmeriCorps VISTA member with Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity

Earlier this month, I participated in Habitat’s Veterans Build on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

As a Vietnam veteran, it was a remarkably emotional and healing experience to stand on hallowed ground and build houses that will one day provide safe, decent, affordable shelter for families in need.

And it was an experience I never would have had without AmeriCorps.

I signed up as an AmeriCorps VISTA member two years ago at the behest of Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity. I’d been volunteering there for nine years when someone on staff, who knew that I’d done a tour in Vietnam, asked me to apply so that I could create a program to help serve veterans and their families.

I like to joke that at that moment, I was drafted for a second time.

The truth is that AmeriCorps has given me the opportunity to serve my country again. I feel blessed to be the person at Dallas Area Habitat who gets to reach out and help veterans in need.

The military has always stressed the importance of serving and the importance of helping your buddy even beyond military service. Once soldiers leave the military, they often feel lost because they no longer have a structured way to serve. AmeriCorps gives veterans a new way to serve, a new team to belong to, a new mission to accomplish.

Time magazine recently published a cover story about the therapeutic benefits of public service for veterans. I know from experience that those benefits are real.

What I’ve always loved about Habitat is the tangibility of the work. It’s an amazing feeling to see a house go from concrete slab to frame in the space of eight hours. There’s something intensely satisfying about going home at the end of the day knowing you’ve done something as a team that you never could have done on your own.

And it’s not just veterans who benefit. Talk to any of my fellow AmeriCorps members in Dallas, and they’ll tell you how much they get out of helping others.

Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about creating a large-scale national service program — a voluntary civilian counterpart to the military. In fact, this week, retired Army General Stanley McChrystal is leading a summit about the possibility as part of the Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project. It’s an exciting idea and though not totally unique, a better way to unite the country in service to others.

There are 80,000 others like me serving with AmeriCorps this year, all working to make our corner of the world a better place. But it would be a greater place if more Americans could experience the feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves, of knowing they were making a difference in the lives of their fellow Americans.

It’s an incredible way to serve our country.