Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs fellow Kate Bateman speaks during a panel discussion Sept. 25 at The American Legion National Headquarters office in Washington, D.C.

Legion hosts panel discussion about veterans’ contributions to national security

The American Legion’s National Security Division hosted a panel discussion with Spirit of America on Sept. 25 on Veterans Continuing to Serve: Harnessing the Power of American Veterans in Support of National Security.​ More than 25 veterans and civilians attended the event, held at the Legion’s National Headquarters office in Washington, D.C.

“The last two decades of conflict have revealed a requirement for whole of society approaches to our nation’s security and stability challenges,” said National Security Division Assistant Director Eric Goepel. “Given the current threat environment, it has never been more vital that we harness all aspects of national power to prevent, mitigate and resolve conflict.”

Goepel said one often-overlooked resource is the veteran community represented by The American Legion. The experiences, expertise and commitment of these servicemembers have tremendous potential when it comes to the benefit of the nation’s security.

“At the end of the day, we can’t rely on government alone to be able to take on these threats. It just simply is not realistic in this 21st century threat environment (that we live in),” said Isaac Eagan, chief operating officer for Spirit of America. “We owe it to our men and women in uniform (and those serving overseas) to give them every resource we can bring to bear as a country.”

Spirit of America, a privately-funded nonprofit charity founded in 2003, offers patriotic assistance to troops and diplomats in support of their missions abroad. The organization is dedicated to providing resources that are beneficial to the nation’s safety and success at-large.

“I think there are two real clear benefits that maybe we all think about every day,” Eagan said. “Number one is providing a way to really tap into the resource (that unlocks) the potential of our veteran community, especially veterans from this newest generation of soldiers who are just taking off their uniform. They want to go and continue to serve – they understand the capabilities, the expertise and the resources that they bring to bear as veterans. They don’t want to step away from the mission entirely.”

Through a groundbreaking partnership with the U.S. military, Eagan said Spirit of America’s all-veteran field team works alongside deployed American troops to provide private-sector resources and know-how that support their missions. Once a critical need that can’t be met by the government is identified, Spirit of America seeks donations from American citizens so it can provide fast and flexible support.

“I think giving American citizens a way to directly engage, making them a partner in this (effort) and making them feel as if they have a true sense of agency in supporting our missions abroad is a very, very powerful resource,” he said. “Fundamentally, having a more engaged, more informed, and more educated citizenry makes for a far better-run country.”

When it comes to harnessing the power of veterans in national security, Goepel said Spirit of America is a prime example of citizens working together to bring the nation’s strength to bear.

“Far too often debates about the proper role of the United States in the world are boiled down to clichés,” said Kate Bateman, a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security/Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs. “Military operations are critical but we also need front-line civilians, diplomats, development workers, lawyers, police trainers and others who can work with local people and can tackle the root causes of conflict and instability. We need them to make it less likely that our troops need to deploy.”

For Bateman, dealing with long-term security challenges in the United States must involve a civil-military approach. Veterans can play a major role in helping other Americans better understand what threats face the nation and the tools needed to resolve them, she said.

“We’ve spent more than 16 years largely focused on mowing the grass. It is about time that we pay more attention to the soil,” said Bateman, a former official at the U.S. Department of State and Department of Defense. “Even if the U.S. had unlimited resources, many of the changes that must happen, that will make us safer, cannot be made by us. We alone cannot make (everlasting) change in another society; only the citizens of that country can make such change. Chances are the United States is going to keep trying to improve governance and security in other countries. Our track record is merely not great, but we made these efforts because we need other countries to be able to secure themselves so they don’t harbor threats to us.”

Having supported U.S. personnel in 51 countries, Spirit of America has completed more than 770 projects, including countering ISIS in northern Iraq. The organization has an open request for identification of local needs – personnel serving abroad are encouraged to email that information to staff@spiritofamerica.org.

“Spirit of America and the things that they represent is one aspect of what is different today. We need to have things like Spirit of America that tie the American people to this contemporary threat environment that we’re operating in,” said Retired Army Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland, former commander of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command. “We know, in our core, that everyone should experience the freedoms that we have. I think we’re in a special place and that’s how we need to take a look at it going forward.”