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Call to Action: A Warrior's Perspective

March 17, 2015 9 minute Read by David Smith

Last month, the Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative hosted a Summit exploring how we can better serve our post-9/11 veterans and military families. During the Summit, President Bush announced the release of Serving Our Post-9/11 Veterans, a comprehensive report on veteran-serving non-profit organizations that identifies practices that best support successful veteran transitions. The Summit included panel discussions on the topic with business and non-profit leaders and veterans, including David Smith.

Smith joined the Marine Corps in 2003 and served as an Infantry Rifleman and Team Leader with Alpha Company “Raiders” of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.  He was deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. During his service, his unit was engaged in some of the heaviest fighting of the war to date including the battle of An Najaf in August 2004.  He was honorably discharged in 2007, but upon his return home experienced severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

By taking charge of his own transition, and with the right support, Smith demonstrates what a successful veteran transition can look like.  In May 2013, Smith graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in political science. He serves now as a peer mentor for the Wounded Warrior Project and has devoted himself to helping other veterans with the readjustment process because of his own experience and in honor of those who did not survive. He participated in the 2012 Warrior 100K bike ride with President Bush.

Since graduation, Dave has interned at the New York Stock Exchange, served on a disaster response team in the Philippines with Team Rubicon, and completed an 11-month Christian mission trip to 11 countries in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe. 

He writes this week for the Bush Institute blog on his experience and explains how veterans can best take charge of their own transitions.


Veterans play a critical role in the feedback loop for the people and organizations who are working hard to provide us with a successful transition. None of us signed up expecting rewards or handouts; however, many of the programs available can greatly improve the transition experience for veterans and their families. It is our responsibility to make use of the programs which will help us succeed and then to provide feedback on the effectiveness of those programs. That way, both funders and organizations know how to better meet needs.

Effectiveness of Non-Profit Organizations

According to the report released at the Summit, Funders need to know what works so they can drive better care for returning veterans and their families.”

As the intended recipients of the services provided, we are the ones who must voice our satisfaction or dissatisfaction with these programs. Now, what I mean by that is that many of these programs are funded by well-intending donors who wish to support veterans’ organizations. Our honest feedback helps them to determine what works or what does not, and which programs to fund or not to fund.

Some of these organizations do an incredible amount of good for the veteran population and have our best interests in mind. However, a few organizations undoubtedly see veterans as a way to make an easy dollar by exploiting the general population’s well-intended giving. Our feedback will help to answer these questions for researchers and funders. 

Civilian-Military Divide

All of us signed up voluntarily to serve, and we did so without expecting much in return. We served because we love our country and wish to protect the freedoms, liberties, and way of life which America has offered us.

As a former commanding officer once told me, “From the inside looking out, you’ll never be able to explain it, and from the outside looking in, they’ll never be able to understand it.” While this statement is accurate, it is not the best case scenario. We should all be doing our absolute best to inform and educate one another.

Rather than widening the gap between those who have served in the military and those who have not, we should be fostering an environment of understanding by sharing our experiences. According to the research, Eighty-four percent of post-9/11 veterans say that the American public has little awareness of the challenges facing those who wear or have worn a uniform; similarly, 71 percent of Americans say they don’t understand the problems faced by those who have served since 9/11.”

I strongly believe that the American public wants to know how they can better help transitioning veterans. I also believe that the sharing of our knowledge and experiences is the best way to create a foundation of understanding that’s deeper than just what’s seen in movies or read about in the newspaper. It’s our job to help bridge this divide; are you up for it?

No One-Size Fits All

As veterans, we are all individuals, despite what your drill instructor once told you. We all have had very unique experiences, we all process information differently, and we all face different situations upon transition.

Not every veteran transitioning is a 23-yearold single male. Some have families. Some have serious injuries. Some unexpectedly found themselves in combat. Others joined specifically to go to combat and yet never fired a single round downrange.

From personal experience, even being in the same building at the same time and taking the same gunfire will draw different reactions from each person. So upon transition, it is important for you to really get to know yourself and to seek the care, education, and professional development that you need.

 Some veterans will struggle to find work. Some will use their GI Bill. Some will face depression, anger, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, financial hardship, or any other plethora of circumstances. Some will start businesses. Some will become community leaders. All will face some great opportunities and some great setbacks.

Remember, it is not the circumstances that define you, but rather what you do about it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking the professional counseling that will make your life better. Proper mentorship will also make you a better person and will give you the perspective and insight that can put you on the fast track to successful transition.

Remember that just because you have taken off the uniform it does not mean that you have to stop serving. There are numerous organizations available to help you regain that sense of purpose, camaraderie, and accomplishment.

Likewise, the organizations which provide veteran support services must understand that we are not a single monolithic group. Rather, we are a complex group of dynamic individuals with a wide variety of skill sets and experiences.

Programs that work for one veteran may not work for another. In order to be a truly effective veteran service organization you must know what you offer and what you do not offer. In the words of the report, It’s a people business; understanding the diversity of the veteran population and its range of needs leads to better support, allowing organizations to customize the delivery of their services to their veterans.”

For many of us, just coming up and saying, “I need help with this, please” takes a massive amount of courage. Therefore, it is immensely helpful if the response is, “sorry, we don’t do that here but I can direct you to a great organization who does offer that type of service.” That’s better than simply, “sorry, we don’t do that here.”

The Bush Institute report refers to this as a “no wrong door” policy. It is something that I believe can help save lives.

In This Together

By making proper use of the resources that you need as an individual, you can avoid much of the hardship, pain, and stress that is commonly found in transition from military to civilian life. You must make an effort to understand yourself, your plans, and your goals.

Educate yourself on the resources and services available and make use of them. Help to mentor other veterans through the transition process. Provide feedback. Share your story and experiences with your community so that we can overcome the civilian-military divide. Volunteer often. Take responsibility for your transition, and never stop serving. Remember, we are all in this together.  


David  Smith
David Smith

Corporal David J. Smith joined the Marine Corps in 2003 and served as an Infantry Rifleman and Team Leader with Alpha Company “Raiders” of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.  He was deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  During his service, his unit was engaged in some of the heaviest fighting of the war to date including the battle of An Najaf in August 2004.  Smith was honorably discharged in 2007, but upon his return to the States experienced severe symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress.

One event, in particular, hurt him the most.  During an intense gunfight one night while trapped on the roof of a burning building, Smith caught movement and muzzle flashes out of the corner of his eye coming from a nearby alleyway below his position.  He didn’t have his night-vision mounted because his team had been clearing through the building.  Acting on instinct, Smith shot into that group of targets moving toward their position. It turned out to be a group of Marines and Smith wounded one of them.  That warrior was sent home and had part of his foot amputated.  Smith lost contact with him for many years and he didn’t know how well he was doing.  It was the single most painful, regrettable moment of his life.  Knowing that he had injured one of his own, “It haunted me for years.”

Afterwards, Smith says, “I had a very hard time admitting that something was wrong.  Instead of taking responsibility for my transition like I should have and asking for help, I tried to ignore it all because it was painful and embarrassing and I didn’t want to appear weak.  Ultimately, I found myself staring down the barrel of a shotgun.  That’s when I realized I just couldn’t fix the problems on my own and I needed help.”

Smith participated in his first event with the Bush Center in 2012, riding in the W100k just a month after he had contemplated suicide.  At that time, he remembers feeling like his heart was going to explode every day from all the emotions he was finally feeling again.  It was really nice to be biking and laughing among other warriors.  Since then, Smith works towards providing transition assistance for fellow veterans and eliminating the stigma of post-traumatic stress.  In February 2015, Smith participated on a panel discussion with President Bush and three other veterans about transition in hopes it helps someone else avoid the same big mistake he almost made. “Seek the help you need and you’ll respect yourself for it.”

Today, Smith is a great example of Post-Traumatic Growth.  He has re-focused himself, overcame obstacles, and is living a rich, fulfilling life.  After graduating from UC Berkeley, Smith interned on the New York Stock Exchange, delivered disaster response with Team Rubicon in the Philippines, and traveled to almost 30 countries doing missionary and humanitarian projects.  He finished those projects in December 2014 and moved to Norway, where he lives with his wife and works as the Chief Marketing Officer for Dogu AS, a software start-up company, while running a veteran transition resource blog on the side.

“Day-to-day life is amazing,” says Smith. “I don't struggle with depression and anxiety, I'm not afraid to fall in love or show my emotions, and I work hard to be a great man every single day. I refuse to let past failures or experiences shape the way that I view the world. I’ve never been happier, healthier, or more at peace than I am today.”

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