Veterans of grueling and bloody conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are gravitating to a new mission: one that involves them laying down their weapons and picking up plowshares.
In recent years, a trio of nonprofit organizations sent numerous postwar veterans into a different sort of battle. Dozens of veterans that work for Team Rubicon USA, The Mission Continues, and Team Red White and Blue deployed battalions of former service members across the country. They collectively donated 350,000 hours of community service — the equivalent of $9 million in payroll hours — to projects such as disaster relief, preserving national landmarks, building homes for the homeless, and landscaping.
These larger organizations are supported by a network of much smaller veterans service organizations with their own unique histories and missions. One group, Chicago's Urban Warriors program, hosted by the YMCA, is populated by combat vets who signed up to work with kids exposed to the city's wrenching violence. One of its members, a Mission Continues alumnus named Abner Garcia, died of a gunshot wound in 2016.
Despite the litany of problems many encounter when they return from abroad, the post-9/11 contingent of veterans has consistently proven to be particularly oriented toward community service.
Comedy icon and TV personality Jon Stewart, a supporter of veterans, told CNBC recently that returning service members "are looking to be re-energized, to regain that identity that they had when they were serving the country."
As he waded in the Bronx River to pick up trash from the polluted waters with other volunteers, Stewart added, "It just seemed like The Mission Continues was this perfect mashup of individuals who are driven to problem-solve."
Vu Nguyen, a city impact manager for The Mission Continues, said most of the veterans he talks to want to make a meaningful impact and translate their experiences into an opportunity to serve.
"We don't just do Thanksgiving Day community service," Joe Quinn, Team RWB's director of leadership development, told CNBC. "That's just selfish, something to do to make ourselves feel better about going home to stuff our face full of turkey. We do service on a regular basis to make a real difference in the community."
Mike Abrams — a Marine Corps veteran who founded the FourBlock Foundation, which educates transitioning veterans for business careers, and who also works in a similar capacity at Columbia University — said volunteering helped him find a sense of purpose.
Service work "gives that little bit of meaning to get going in the right direction and to meet the right people. Having worked with about 1,000 vets who have transitioned through our program, I can say that those who are more apt to volunteer are likely to figure out what it is they want to do a little bit quicker," Abrams said.
The need to serve may have something to do with the fact that post-9/11 veterans have the distinction of being the first all-volunteer force to fight in conflicts that are more regional in scale, said Nicholas Armstrong, senior director
Co-founder and current Team Rubicon CEO William McNulty explained to CNBC that he has been involved with service-oriented groups since his youth. Military service ran in his family, with his father and grandfathers
For McNulty, Team Rubicon's formation was one of circumstance, having been founded in the wake of the massive earthquake that decimated Haiti in 2010 when he and other veterans rallied to help the island's victims.
"We had no intention of starting a disaster-response organization. Haiti was supposed to be a one-and-done mission. But that first mission convinced us that we had a model and that we needed to focus on developing it," he said. The organization has now branched out both domestically and internationally.
"As we look to replicate the TR model in coalition countries around the world, a new global veteran service organization emerges. It's a first for the global veteran community," McNulty added.