A Plan to Rebuild the American Ethic of Service

On this day 68 years ago, thousands of young Americans stormed the beaches of northern France to begin the final assault on Hitler's war machine. My own grandfather had recently returned with a hole in his thigh from an explosive round that blew out the windscreen of his B-17 bomber.

He came home wounded, but not broken. He and millions of other battle-hardened soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines returned to rebuild America after the trauma of WWII and the Great Depression. They brought back with them leadership skills learned in wartime, and the ability to solve problems under the toughest conditions imaginable. Most of all, they carried the idea that Americans serving together can achieve anything.

With the current force drawdown, more than one million service members will re-enter civilian life over the next five years. How will we reabsorb that many new bodies into an economy still struggling? Some see this as a problem -- things are tough all around. For the first time since the Great Depression, the current cohort of college seniors has known nothing but economic decline through four years of higher education. Competition for jobs is fierce.

We can turn these challenges into opportunities. Let's start by expanding AmeriCorps. By giving veterans a chance to continue serving, we send the message that they are assets, not liabilities. And by encouraging civilians to serve alongside those who have worn a uniform, we can begin to build rebuild the ethic of service that so defined our grandparent's generation.

The America that today's veterans return to may seem very different from the one my grandfather encountered. But the fundamentals have not changed. When we come together, we can overcome any obstacle. Young Americans in particular are looking for ways to give back to their country. In the past two years, more than one million applications were received for just 165,000 AmeriCorps positions. This year, the number of applicants is on track to grow even more.

Despite the growing demand, opportunities to serve at home have stagnated. AmeriCorps has actually lost positions over the last four years, even though every dollar spent generates nearly two additional dollars in benefits for the communities served. National service is a good bet for the money. It gives Americans a cost-effective way to respond to natural catastrophes, to bridge the achievement gap among at-risk youth, and to address a host of other pressing social challenges. Most importantly, national service allows Americans from all backgrounds to serve side-by-side.

They call my grandfather's generation "The Greatest." But I have seen what the bravest of my generation have endured in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there is greatness among them too. Millions of their peers, who have never worn a uniform, are desperate for ways to serve as well. They still believe in America, in the power of communities working together to solve problems. Dramatically expanding AmeriCorps will allow this generation to answer that call.

We may not be charging machine gun nests, but we have our own beaches to storm. Our schools are failing, our infrastructure is crumbling, and our collective sense of civic responsibility is fading. By tapping into the potential of our returning veterans, and providing Americans of all backgrounds a chance to serve together at home, we can rebuild the American ethic of service. Give us the chance, and we will become the New Greatest Generation.