It's time for America to invest in a national strategic reserve of talent
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Just a few weeks ago it appeared that civilian medical facilities were on a trajectory to be overwhelmed with very sick patients. Leaders in government cried out for the military to mobilize medical professionals, Army field hospitals, and Navy hospital ships. It is a tribute to our military that it is held in such high regard by the nation it proudly serves. This also revealed a stark fact: many of the military reservists and retirees to be recalled are currently practicing in civilian hospitals.

A recent Army Times article illustrates the challenges of a voluntary, targeted recall of soldiers with critical needs. “In an email sent March 25, the Army asked former soldiers from a range of medical backgrounds whether they would voluntarily rejoin the force if their skills were needed to assist with the coronavirus pandemic response.” This call for volunteers, which went to over 800,000 former service members, focused on critical medical personnel with targeted skills that are directly transferable between civilian and military sectors with little need for retraining. In that sense, former military medical professionals are, or at least should be, among those most ready to be recalled and deployed. But it isn’t that easy.

The Army Times article reports, “Of the roughly 27,000 people who responded to the Army’s call for volunteers during the coronavirus pandemic, less than 6,000 came from medical backgrounds that the service needed. After being vetted for certifications by Army human resources specialists, and told what coming back to serve could entail, that number has fallen into the hundreds.” The article notes that some of those volunteers are already serving in their local communities where their skills are similarly in high demand. “It’s a little bit more involved than even we initially planned,” said Maj. Gen. Joseph Calloway, who leads Army Human Resources Command. We cannot solve the capacity problem by pulling doctors and nurses out of the private sector to deploy them in the military sector. We need a better way.

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In the midst of this pandemic over 26 million Americans are unemployed. The range of skills and talent represented in this staggering number represents a force in waiting that could be mobilized for the public good. For instance, national service could provide a way to meet the needs of the nation using our most valuable resource, the American people. The director for the Center for Disease Control indicated that creating an aggressive, national-scale contact tracing force will be labor intensive. Trained national service members could work with state and local public health departments to meet the significant need for contact tracing, testing support, call center staffing, and health education to help prevent resurgences of COVID-19 and reopen the economy. They also could address mounting social and economic impacts by providing virtual instruction and tutoring to students to prevent learning loss; helping isolated seniors; supporting food banks and meal delivery; and other assignments. Government agencies at all levels are on the frontlines of pandemic response and need qualified employees to carry out their normal missions while also meeting the surging demands for health and other services resulting from COVID-19.

The final report, Inspired to Serve, of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, on which I have the privilege to serve, has 164 recommendations that would reinvigorate a culture of service in our country. Our recommendations address the realities of a dangerous world in which our nation must be prepared to respond to both anticipated and unforeseen crises. The coronavirus pandemic is such a crisis. Our proposals would promote all forms of service and would provide an opportunity for every American to pursue a personal service experience. We envision that by 2031, 5 million Americans will enter into service every year. This investment in service by and for the American people could become a national strategic reserve of talent that could be called upon in times of crisis. Are there Americans among the 26 million currently unemployed who would be willing to step up when our nation is in crisis? You better believe it.

Steve Barney was appointed by late Sen. John S. McCain as a Commissioner on the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. He is the former General Counsel of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and a retired Navy judge advocate.