Ask What You Can Do For Your Country


Fifty-five years ago, I remember seeing veterans of four foreign wars march and ride in the annual Porterville Veterans’ Day parade. Nearly all were male, but in my memory, they represented the community and its demographics. Women did not often march then, though they were integral and participatory in the veterans’ community and as years past, many women became involved with marching color guards, including my wife.

Part of The American Titan

Country towns in America in 1960 felt they had participated in victory and from it assumed pride and hope. Though we were small places, we felt organically part of an American titan. Naively, I suppose we did not understand the cracks in the titan's foundation that would become evident over the decades that followed.  

For my ilk: rural, Appalachian and immigrant stock, working and middle class, there was general optimism. Except for the Bomb, we were hopeful. We had the habits developed through family and school, which would motivate us through a productive life. The draft had remained since WWII, and many of us expected in due course future military service.

Vietnam Changed Things

But that changed. The change was stark for my hometown of Porterville, California. While many had been lost in earlier 20th Century wars, the losses from Vietnam were overwhelming. In 1965 – while in high school – I could not fathom that too many friends of mine would die in just a few years on faraway Vietnam battlefields.

Because of these many deaths, Porterville was known as a town that suffered most.

During Vietnam, there were those who served early and too often died, and there were those of us using college deferments who served later and were more likely to live.  

The Great Break of American Culture

This was the great break of American culture in the later 20th century. Heroic honor was not easily bestowed on those serving in Vietnam by the larger nation.

It is interesting that we have voted for the office of President on three Americans who drew combat pay in Vietnam. Two were Democrats and one Republican. None won in the Electoral College, and none have served as our chief executive. The idea of service has suffered from the experience of Vietnam. That war represented injury and death, a legacy of forgotten veterans wracked by drugs and homelessness, and, perhaps most defining, a bitter and profound loss in our withdrawal despite Americans’ heroism on bloody battlefields.

All-Volunteer Military Service

Based on bitter experiences and the organizational issues relating to a conscription-based military, an all-volunteer force was considered in the 1960s. At the beginning of 1973, the draft was ended. Since that time, service members have been volunteers recruited into service. It has not been a full step though, because males 18 through 25 continue to register with the Selective Service System.

National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service

While the performance of the all-volunteer service has met the need in numerous post-Vietnam conflicts, we now see an increasing interest in some form of mandatory national service. This interest is being considered by a National Commission on Military, National and Public Service. The commission was formed in September 2017 and began its work in January 2018.

Its primary purposes include:

  • Considering the need for a military selective service process 

  • Means by which to foster a greater attitude and ethos of service among United States youth

  • The feasibility and advisability of modifying the military selective service process to obtain individuals with skills

  • To achieve skills such as languages, cyber, and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

  • A consideration of civic education

The Interim Report chronicles the variety of opinions heard by the Commission. They include observations about the reduced eligibility of America's youth for military service. For example, under current standards, 71% of Americans ages 17 through 24 do not meet the qualifications for military service.

The Interim Report also outlines avenues for service for all Americans. Beyond the military, these include the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, YouthBuild, City Year and Teach for America. The commission has concluded that far too few Americans know these avenues of service exist.

Improving America's Participation in the National Service

Americans are finding greater promise in mandatory national youth service. This conclusion is supported by recent online surveys on 

For January 17, 2019, the question was asked "Should the U.S. implement a mandatory universal service program?” The ayes tabulated 57% with the noes weighing in at 43%.

A week later, Smerconish asked a more generic "Should public service be required of young Americans?"  In this instance, the ayes weighed in at an impressive 71% with noes at only 29%.

Though is not a scientific poll, the survey results demonstrate by significant margins a willingness among the public to require public service for young Americans. Support does appear to be building. A Gallup Poll in November 2017 surveyed the proposal and found 49% favored it, while 45% were against it. Interestingly, 57% of Americans 30 and younger were opposed.

We Are Now Divided as Americans

It is a common observation in 2019 that we are divided as Americans. Bridging this divide is viewed by many as a national need, with military and national service having structural benefit

Military and national service provide an opportunity for the country to meld and buffer tribal, partisan, and regional identities. It focuses on a joint mission rather than what separates us. Service is also an opportunity for a large segment of Americans to share in an enterprise and to be successful together with the endeavor on behalf of America and their fellow citizens.

Consistent with this theme, it is essential to recommend to the National Commission that a form of service be establish for our youth. It may be military or another national endeavor including conservation, health care, and literacy. 

Recommendation for Continued National Youth Screening

My advice is not to require youth of a certain age to serve for a year as is being considered, but to perform a continuing national screening. All youth would be expected to attend and participate in a shorter "boot camp" style activity.

Youth from across the country would gather. They would be male and female, urban and rural and of all races and ethnic group, wealthy, middle class, and poor - no exceptions. Reasons for ineligibility must be significantly reduced and when needed constructive paths to civic redemption defined.

It could take from weeks to months and would provide an opportunity to check their health, screen their status, and assess their ambitions and support them with their life planning. At this gathering, opportunities for military and national service could be presented and encouraged. Enlistees, if they decide, could enroll in these programs and achieve marketable training followed by service or specific support for future training and education.

In case of a national crisis, what might be ordinarily voluntary may become mandatory to serve a paramount national purpose.

Expanding Opportunities for Americans

The youth should not be the only segment having service expectations. Opportunities for Americans during their careers and after retirement should be developed to establish comprehensive voluntary national service. From personal experience with the Civil Air Patrol, I know these voluntary programs can provide purpose and direction.

The Civil Air Patrol, Air Force Auxiliary

I became earnestly involved in 1997 with the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), and it provided me with opportunity for a mid-life renewal. The organization which is Congressionally chartered as both a non-profit corporation and a civilian military auxiliary uses voluntary service to advance a cadet program, aerospace education, and various emergency service and disaster relief activities.

With around 60,000 members nationally and units in each state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and other locations worldwide, the extent of service is inspiring. It emphasizes national, state, and local service that is built on a professional development program, accountability, and assets provided through Congress and the United States Air Force. The CAP uses around 560 single-engine, piston aircraft to fly cadets and teachers, perform search and rescue, and accomplish documentary photography among other missions.

CAP Programs Save Lives

Because of the voluntary service of the crews – including the pilots – these activities are reducing cost, freeing military aircraft for national defense. The results are manifest. 

In 2017, 110 lives were saved through search and rescue efforts involving the aircraft, direction finding teams, and the highly beneficial CAP National Cell Phone Forensics and National Radar Analysis teams.  

CAP volunteers conduct 90% of the inland search and rescue in the U.S. as tasked by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center. These search and rescue activities are closely coordinated, often involving local sheriff departments, state emergency management agencies, the CAP national operations center at Maxwell AFB, and the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall AFB. Through the system, accountable and motivated volunteers act on behalf of the United States to save lives.

An American Continuum of Service

I am most familiar with the Civil Air Patrol, but other entities support voluntary service. The concept is that national, state, and local service can be a continuum from early involvement in youth as military members, firefighters, emergency health care workers and teachers through American life to service with nationally coordinated organizations such as the Civil Air Patrol.

One of my greatest life lessons is that this service will inspire us and make our country a much better and generally more cohesive and supportive place for all Americans. It can bring us together and inspire us at the same time.


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