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Veterans Day should actually be about serving veterans

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Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Today is Veterans Day, which means schools and offices in many states will close honor people who have served in the Armed Forces. In Washington DC, it's the occasion for a massive concert on the National Mall. Like seemingly every other federal holiday, it's also an excuse for mattress sales.

This is all a huge missed opportunity. Schools and communities shouldn't just shut down to honor veterans' service. They should turn Veterans Day into an opportunity to serve veterans and military families in need. After all, unlike Memorial Day, which honors the war dead, Veterans Day exists to honor all former members of the armed services.

Take Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, or the anniversary of 9/11 as templates. Both are commemorations that have been promoted as opportunities for community service.

There are 22 million veterans in the US — just under 10 percent of the adult population, including 16.5 million who served in wartime and 2.3 million who have fought in post-9/11 wars. Of course, many of these veterans are doing fine. But there are plenty of opportunities to help those who aren't, as well as elderly veterans and the families of troops on active duty.

A 2012 survey of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans found that 1 in 4 reported food insecurity in the past year. The Feeding America network of food banks helped 620,000 households in 2014 with at least one member who has served in the military. Nearly 50,000 veterans are homeless on a given night. About 40 percent of all living veterans are over age 65, and the rate of depression among elderly veterans is twice that in the general population.

That means that service projects don't necessarily have to be veterans-oriented — helping the hungry, the homeless, or the elderly will also help veterans in need. And it's a much better way to honor military sacrifice than a concert or a mattress sale.