In the Arena

The Next Greatest Generation

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Brent Humphreys for TIME

High school friends who served in Iraq together, Gallina, left, and Beatty started Purple Heart Homes, an organization that builds houses for disabled veterans; like many veterans, they have found that helping others can be an important part of the healing process.

In a way, I’ve been working on this week’s cover story–which sadly resides behind the Time paywall–for the past five years, as I’ve embedded with our troops downrange. Watching them in the field, I’ve noticed that they’ve had to learn some new and unusual skills–skills that are extremely well-suited for public service.

We hear a lot about the troops who come home suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; we hear about the suicides and domestic violence. We hear about the unemployment and homelessness. All of which is sad and true But there’s another side to the story…

(PHOTOS: Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan Bring Their Leadership Skills Home)

Take John Gallina and Dale Beatty, for example. They were best friends in the the North Carolina national guard–and they nearly died together when their humvee was blown up by an anti-tank mine. Dale lost both his legs; John suffered a traumatic brain injury. When the local homebuilders association offered to build Dale a home, both John and Dale helped out–and found real satisfaction in the work. They decided to start building homes for other handicapped veterans–and Purple Heart Homes was born.

I spent the past few months traveling around the country, finding veterans who are using the skills they learned in Iraq and Afghanistan for the betterment of their communities. Any given rifle company Captain had to be, in effect, the mayor of a town in Iraq or Afghanistan–and had to develop political skills like the ability to deal with local shuras [councils of elders], the ability to find out from the local population what sort of construction projects they favored, the ability to put people to work on those projects with a minimum of fuss…as well as the ability to make important decisions under incredible pressure.

(VIDEO: Heroic Images: TIME Meets the New Greatest Generation)

Some of them are Rhodes Scholars and graduates of elite universities.Former Army Captain Wes Moore, a phi beta kappa graduate of Johns Hopkins went back to his home town of Baltimore, and their started a mentoring program for first-time offenders between the ages of 8 and 12 in Baltimore. Some, like Marine Sergeants Jake Wood and William McNulty, have taken their ability to keep a cool head in chaotic circumstances and used it to creat Team Rubicon, which provides medical logistics in the midst of disasters like the Haiti earthquake and the Joplin, Mo., tornado. Former Marine Captain Brian Stann–an ultimate fighting middleweight contender–runs an employment agency for veterans called Hire Heroes. The Center for New American Security, one of the most creative national security think tanks in Washington, is mostly staffed by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

Some are running for office; others eventually will–and they will bring to public life the pragmatism, intellectual rigor and decision-making ability they learned overseas. They represent a minority of the veterans coming home, but they are already a significant force–General David Petraeus believes they’ll become the “the next great generation of American leaders.”

They certainly bring home a history of service and sacrifice that most Baby Boomers have not had, and a sense of pride and accomplishment that our Vietnam veterans never experienced. No matter what you think about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, their service and the leadership qualities they bring home may be the best news to come out of the past 10 years of conflict. They are some of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met.

MORE: Making the Sale: How to Deal with Unemployment Among Veterans