One hundred years ago next Sunday, the Allied Powers and Germany signed an armistice that officially ended hostilities on the western front of World War I. The following year, President Woodrow Wilson declared Nov. 11 a national holiday called Armistice Day. He praised all Americans, both those who fought and those who sacrificed at home for the war effort, saying that "we were able to bring the vast resources, material and moral, of a great and free people to the assistance of our associates in Europe who had suffered and sacrificed without limit in the cause for which we fought."
Today, the concept of "sacrifice without limit" seems to be reserved uniquely in praise for veterans, like myself, who rose our right hands as a collective class to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Americans seem to agree on very few things – but we do continue to provide our veterans with plaudits like none other in history.
I personally appreciate any man, woman, or child who thanks me for my service. But on Nov. 11, I don't want a mere thanks. Instead, in the spirit of unlimited sacrifice for our communities, I hope to hear "follow me" at a park cleanup. Or someone shouting "Lead the way!" while planting trees along the sidewalk. Or any number of statements, spoken by my neighbors in Philadelphia, urging one another to make this holiday a day of service. By the time you read this, my daughter may be born into our world, taking her first breath in our country. And it is for her, on this Veterans Day, that I think of the sacrifices we must make to heal our American spirit.
These days, we actively choose to fragment into huddled political "tribes," led by the loudest and most shameless among us who highlight our bitterest natures. We've confused "action" with "reaction," believing that shouting on social media or "watching the news" counts as meaningful engagement. We've allowed ourselves to believe that we're part of something larger than ourselves because of the alerts on our phones or our keystrokes on a laptop. We've forgotten that our society was built by volunteers, strengthening single communities at a time by lending a hand at the synagogue or teaching children how to read.
Being an active citizen requires more than online interaction. It involves, for example, volunteering for a place like Habitat for Humanity, which creates stability through shelter. Or asking "if not me, then who" and joining groups like the Doylestown-based Travis Manion Foundation for a neighborhood cleanup. It necessitates introspection as you determine what local causes matter deeply to you, and then action as you, for instance, pull on a food-stained sweatshirt and jeans you won't miss if they get paint on them and join Rebuilding Together Philadelphia to help fix homes for those who can't physically or financially perform the work themselves.
Together, we must learn to truly "sacrifice without limit," to physically invest our sweat equity into our neighborhoods to create a more balanced and stable society. Think of something that you are passionate about. Maybe it's youth literacy. Or clean streets. Possibly animal welfare. Then simply Google that phrase along with your city. And then open the pages for a few of those organizations. Call them, don't email – strike up that personal connection with your neighbor and ask how you can contribute right now.
And if you're not sure where to start? Ask me or one of the thousands of other veterans in the Philadelphia area. And we'll tell you: Follow me.
Will Woldenberg is a U.S. Army veteran of the Iraq war, a small-business owner, and a leader with Veterans for American Ideals. He lives in Philadelphia. The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.