Why every young American should serve their country

November 2017

As I was digging through some old files the other day, I came across a 20-inch by 10-inch black and white photo of my 1965 graduating class from the Army’s clerk-typist school in Fort Polk, Louisiana.


There I was, young and physically fit, with my temporary corporal stripes, standing with the most diverse group of people with whom I have ever been associated. I had just spent ten weeks living and working with white racists, blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Evangelists, atheists, college graduates, high school drop-outs, westerners, easterners, southerners, northerners, city kids, farmers and at least one gay guy, I think, (no one was out in 1965.).

There was some friction, and a few problems (that part of Louisiana was still segregated and you couldn’t go off post with one of the black kids), but on the whole we made it work. We learned how to talk about everyday things, avoiding politics and religion. When those subjects did come up, we were careful not to be provocative, knowing we lived in very close quarters. On those few occasions when things did get out of hand, some of us older guys (I was 23) would step in and shut the conversation down.

I learned a lot about people whose lives were very different from mine. And I learned to be reasonably comfortable with people whose political opinions and social values were anathema to me.

Ending the draft has taken away this unique melting pot. No longer do we get herded into military service in our late teens or early twenties and thrown together with people whom we might otherwise never even meet.

It seems to me that this is a major blow to our ability to work together as a country whose motto is “Out of many, one.” (E pluribus unum.)

I am not plugging for a return to the draft. Women were not called, and it was too easy to dodge it (ask Presidents Clinton, Obama and Trump). I think we should have universal service, for everyone.

Every man, woman or transgendered person should give one year of their life to their country. They could serve in the military, the Peace Corps, or Vista. Or they could take jobs helping others – anything from nursing home work to pre-school day care.

There is no reason the program couldn’t include disabled or developmentally challenged people. They could use the chance to work, and we could all gain from working with them.

In addition to room, board and some minimal pay (my Army pay was $78 a month in 1965), everyone who completes a year should get a credit for one year at a state college or community college.

I came across something else when I was digging through those old files. It was President Kennedy’s famous quote, “Do not ask what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” All of us can afford to give one year of our lives to our country.

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