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A year of service for all:  The key to rebuilding the fabric of our nation

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As our nation moves on from the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and Congress moves closer to requiring women to register for Selective Service, I can’t stop thinking about the 13 service members who died on Aug. 26 in Kabul. How they were bound by service to nation. How they answered the call at such a young age — five of them were just 20 years old when they died. How they represent a cross-section of America — towns and cities, men and women, different ethnicities, serving shoulder to shoulder on behalf of our great nation. 

I also can’t stop thinking of how divided our country has become. We live in bubbles of individual Americas — physically and culturally, in person and online. The contrasts between our Americas was put into stark relief for me recently, on our first family vacation since the pandemic. We were in the Great Basin on the Nevada/Utah border, a decidedly rural area different in every way imaginable from the dense New York City suburb I call home. Our RV broke down on a washed out gravel road in the middle of a dusty field, and a few kind souls came to help. Thanks to my and my husband’s military service, we instantly forged a connection, a shared humanity, as they helped us out of the ditch.

Having had the chance to visit a few National Parks on our trip, I was reminded of the great work of the Civilian Conservation Corps. 1930s engineering, and the blood, sweat and tears of a cross-section of Americans, created the Angel’s Landing trail at Zion, among so many others. What is my generation’s lasting gift to Americans a century from now, I wondered?  What will our Angel’s Landings be? 

Taking all these thoughts — our deceased service members, our divided country, our aging infrastructure — together it strikes me that perhaps, for so many reasons,  it is time to broaden the conversation from women registering for the draft — to all 18-25 year olds serving our nation in some capacity.  

I feel very fortunate to have been born into a family that prized service over self. My maternal grandparents both served during World War II, and my parents both moved thousands of miles from their homes to work on the Navajo Nation. Those values are, in large part, what propelled me to attend West Point and serve in the Army.  

The irony is that now, a decade plus past my military service, living squarely in a not-very-representative slice of America, I realize that my time in uniform has given me far more than I ever gave it — and I’ve also realized that national service may be the key to repairing the tattered fabric of our national narrative.  As our country has become more divided, what I appreciate most is that, through my service, I came to experience all of America. Like those 13 brave servicemen and women, I too stood shoulder to shoulder with a cross-section of America. I lived in places very different from where I grew up, be it rural Missouri, metropolitan Oahu, a German village, or a large base in Iraq. Those experiences help me understand, appreciate, respect, and come to love the diverse perspectives of the countless parts of America that exist in our fractured country — and enable me to not just co-exist, but connect and thrive in places far from where I now call home.

It hits me that either encouraging more national service or, better yet, mandating it, is the most important solution we have to one of the most fundamental challenges we face: repairing the divisions in our country, and fundamentally strengthening the fabric that binds all of us together. This fall, as Congress discusses including all women in the Selective Service — let’s go a step further, and begin to discuss how to include all 18-25 year olds in a national service program.

Service can take many forms, such as joining the military or AmeriCorps, working at a non-profit, joining a Parks system, or teaching in an underserved school. What matters most is not just that the service helps strengthen our country and its citizens, but that it is designed so that young Americans work closely with teammates with meaningfully different lived experiences, serve in locations different from where they came, do work that is larger than self, and accomplish difficult feats.

While we work through policy changes to make service mandatory, there are steps we can take now to make service feel obligatory and celebrated. What if recruiters asked about service experience in interviews? What if it is included in college applications? What if there was a way in which to give credentials and certifications upon completion, that then helped people with future employment? Steps like these can begin now to give further credibility to such an important activity.

Imagine a country in which all 18-25 year olds spend a meaningful amount of time alongside other Americans who come from vastly different parts of the country than they do, and serve in parts of the country very different from where they grew up. Imagine not just the positive impact this can have on our country’s infrastructure — our 21st Century Angel’s Landings — but also the impact it will have on each individual. The “other Americas” will no longer feel foreign, and we will appreciate the values that bring us all together as Americans, that are greater than any political party, demographic group, or town large or small in our great land. Those experiences will leave an indelible mark on each person who serves, and as a group it will strengthen our country in the ways we badly need. 

Elizabeth Young McNally is Executive Vice President of Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic initiative of Eric and Wendy Schmidt, a former Partner and Global Leader of McKinsey Academy, and a veteran of service in Iraq in the US Army. Liz also served as a Presidential Appointee on the US Military Academy Board of Visitors. A Rhodes and Truman Scholar, she began her career as a Military Police officer in the US Army. She and her husband John are raising their three school aged children outside New York City, and take every chance possible to have them experience and serve the diversity that makes up our nation.

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