As a kid, Donnie Dixon played with toy soldiers. As he got older, "he'd try everything -- wrestling, baseball, basketball, anything," his mother recalled. But after graduating high school, Dixon followed his first, true love. He headed for boot camp as soon as he turned 18.

In 2007, Dixon was three years from retirement and on his second combat tour in Iraq. Insurgents hit his unit. Dixon fell.

"He died doing what he always wanted to do: serve his country," his mother told the Associated Press. But Dixon did more than that. He inspired others to never forget.

Earlier this year, in honor of his service and sacrifice, Easter Seals opened the Staff Sergeant Donnie D. Dixon Center for Military and Veterans Community Services. The executive director of the Dixon Center is Dave Sutherland -- a man who may well transform how this nation treats it veterans for decades to come.

Before retiring, Col. Sutherland worked for the Pentagon's top serving officer -- the special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In that capacity, he traveled the country, spending on average 26 days of the month on the road. He visited more than 300 communities, touching base with more than 30,000 organizations. He saw it all -- from the government-run facilities to local faith-based programs, from employer initiatives to campus-based collegiate offerings. Sutherland earned a Ph.D. in veterans affairs from the grassroots up.

Although he has hung up his uniform, Sutherland remains passionate in his desire to help the nation serve its veterans better.

This generation of veterans can make all the difference in our nation's future. "They are great young people," Sutherland holds, "who will contribute to the community in the future. They just need a little help and transition. Get them started, and I think they'll fly and make a big difference wherever they are."

Sutherland believes that truly important acts of serving those who served won't originate in government. Rather, they will arise from within America's communities. "We realize that there are some things that government just can't do that independent groups in communities can," he says.

That's because, in the aftermath of war and service, what veterans crave above all is to be welcomed back in their communities. To them it is more valuable than any medal, any benefit. Communities can also deliver the most effective, tailored and relevant service. "More than anything else," Sutherland says, "we're looking for community leaders to connect with those who have served."

Sutherland also knows there is goodwill aplenty. According to a white paper that Sutherland co-wrote while serving in the Pentagon, there are more than 400,000 registered websites for donors and organizations supporting our service men and women. "This is more than a pool of do-gooders -- it is a Sea of Goodwill," the paper concludes. "Our nation needs a method to navigate this sea."

The challenge is in connecting those who have served with those who wish to serve them. Many groups simply do not know how to reach veterans and their families, what they need most, or how to best deliver assistance.

Enter the Dixon Center for Military and Veterans. It aims to be a catalyst -- helping teach, coach and mentor volunteers and their organizations on how to connect with veterans and their families. Under Sutherland's leadership, the center has become a clearing house for finding the best local, state and regional solutions -- models for others to emulate, lessons for others to learn, ideas to inspire.

Our nation needs inspired leaders like Sutherland, even after they leave the military. They can lead us to making America a great Veteran Nation.

Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.