In 1954, Hollywood knew what day mattered most to most veterans.

"White Christmas" became a blockbuster, but not because of its catchy tunes, girls with glam and crooners with charm. It wasn't the marquee names, either.

Sure, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye were big draws. But the emotional core of the movie was Dean Jagger. The superb character actor played a retired general running an inn in Vermont. The struggling enterprise is saved from bankruptcy when Crosby and Kaye -- with help from their old Army buddies -- organize a big show to honor their former commander.

In 1954, Jagger's dog-faced soldier-general embodied what World War II and Korean War vets felt about their past and hoped for their future. In battle, they had been determined to serve honorably, get the job done and get home. Now back at home, the GIs and their families wanted nothing more than to be welcomed back into their communities.

In many ways, the film reflects the elements most necessary in serving those that served. They are summed up as the three "Cs":

» "Contact" -- reaching out to veterans, finding them and identifying their needs;

» "Comradeship" -- building peer-to-peer support and mentoring into assistance programs, and

» "Community" -- serving veterans and their families where they live and work, and building sustainable programs around them.

It's as important now to focus on how this nation treats its veterans as it was when Crosby first warbled "I'll Be Home for Christmas." The truth is every generation is the greatest generation. But communities need to adapt to the needs of each generation of veterans.

America today is home to more than 22 million veterans. Their service has spanned the globe, from Bastogne to Baghdad. And many of them are hurting.

More than 487,000 were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan alone. It is estimated that up 30 percent of veterans live with post-traumatic stress disorder. On average, 18 veterans commit suicide every day. That's more deaths than the military suffers on today's battlefields. This generation of veterans accounts for one-fifth of the nation's homeless population. Homelessness for female veterans is particularly high. Surveys suggest 27 percent of those returning from war abuse alcohol.

On the other hand, it is wrong to think of veterans and their families as victims. They are also our future. They represent some of the very best of America's human capital.

More than 800,000 military veterans are now attending U.S. colleges. Others have become outstanding entrepreneurs. Sixteen were just elected to Congress. This talent pool will also produce future Nobel Prize winners, statesmen community leaders and teachers.

How we serve this generation of veterans will make a big difference in the kind of nation we become in the decades ahead. And it's a task only we can do.

As Col. David Sutherland, the former special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for veterans issues, put it so well, "We come home to our families, our neighbors and our communities. We don't come home to big government organizations. ... This can't be orchestrated out of Washington, D.C. It has to be a community-based approach that recognizes there are some things that governments can't do that independent organizations working together locally can."

Want to give a truly great gift this Christmas? How about making a personal commitment to serve those who served. Talk about it with your neighbors and friends. Decide how you want to help -- joining, supporting or starting a program. Remember the three Cs. Help make this a "White Christmas" for the Dean Jaggers near you.

Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation