Bringing Americans together through national service
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“Ask not what your country can do for you: ask what you can do for your country.” — John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address 1961

President Kennedy’s inspirational quote is one of a very few that have stood the test of time. His words have resonated through generations — because they strike a chord to which Americans continue to respond.

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Our citizens understand the importance of service to others. More than 62 million people volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2014 and September 2015. And those who wear our nation’s uniforms are routinely recognized for their service. Ours is a nation whose people want to serve — especially young people for whom the need to support a family and other issues do not interfere as much with their desire to help others. And ours is a nation in which people continue to want to be defined as Americans, not as right or left-wingers, Republicans or Democrats — and that many of the differences among our citizens that make headlines can be overcome by getting to know each other better.

 

It’s time to offer a real answer to young people who wonder what they can do for their country, and to provide them with experiences that will kindle and nourish their patriotic spirit for a lifetime.

It’s time to do more to encourage them to spend time serving their fellow Americans, and to provide greater opportunities to do so.

It’s time to create a comprehensive national service program.

America does not ask its young people to contribute to the common defense by serving in the military after high school graduation. There are a number of reasons for this: the most widely offered being that it compromises the quality of the armed forces by putting people who will perform poorly into combat situations.

As a naval academy graduate, I served in Vietnam with many draftees who fought as valiantly as any “professional” service members, so I am not convinced by this argument.

My shipmates and I forged bonds that still endure, half a century later. All of us embraced one another in an unbroken bond. There are no Republicans or Democrats in combat: only a united team in pursuit of a common goal.

The Defense Department, however, neither needs nor wants the services of every young man and woman in the United States — and some people simply do not have the physical or mental skills to serve successfully in uniform. Military service is only one way, however, for young Americans to serve our nation.

Some can work at repairing our infrastructure. Others can counsel their peers and others to bring peace and understanding to our inner cities. Helping out in health care, conserving our nation’s resources, supporting rescue and rebuilding efforts, caring for the young and the elderly, are all appropriate tasks for young people who would otherwise be attending college, working at entry-level jobs--or not working at all.

Most importantly, national service allows young people from all walks of life to meet each other, and learn their similarities as Americans far outweigh their differences in background. It will take those living amidst crime and addiction, and help them understand that there is a way out from the poverty they see around them. It will take those in areas where employment is scarce, and give them the tools to find the jobs that are available in today’s economy. It will help us rebuild our national character—one life at a time.

Encouraging national service will provide a talented labor pool that will help rebuild our nation at a reasonable cost, and will provide young people with a vocation and a glimpse of what the wider world is like. More importantly, the benefits for our nation would be incalculable.

As our nation becomes more polarized than ever, as our people become more dependent on government to solve their problems, and as the “haves” in our society become more and more separated from the “have nots,” national service will help to keep our American tapestry of many races, national origins, religions, and other heritages from fraying any further.

Participating in a national service program will allow all Americans to understand that the privileges of citizenship in our nation are earned, not given, and will give them a greater share of ownership in our Nation’s future. The 16 million GI’s who saved humanity during World War II received in return the privileges of home ownership and a college education. They earned the right to change America’s future—and they did!

And it will allow this and future generations of Americans to meet the challenge President Kennedy laid down, and give them the opportunity to demonstrate what they, personally, can do for our country.

America is great today. But if we truly want to make it greater, national service is a good place to start.

Anthony J. Principi served as Secretary of Veterans Affairs from 2001 to 2005 and was Chairman of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission.


The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill