Honoring National Service in War and Peace

This past week I attended my son's graduation from college. As parents, my wife and I are proud of his achievements, but also anxious for his future, though maybe in a different way than most parents. While the concerns of many parents will be the prospects of their child obtaining work (maybe to pay off a college debt), ours has a job, albeit one that is non-traditional. He will enter the Peace Corps this summer, with an assignment to teach mathematics in Namibia. So our nervousness deals more with his ability to adjust overseas (though we know he will do well), the potential of hardship, and how much we will miss him.

The dean of the school he graduated from at the end of the ceremony gave appropriate and well-deserved recognition to military personnel. He asked them to stand and thanked them for their service, and we applauded. This is done often in public settings, and has taken on special significance since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of the women and men who stood were in their 20s and 30s, and, as such, were not just the veterans of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts who we acknowledged in the past. Due to personal and family sacrifice, and risk of physical and psychological harm, military service has no parallel in our society. I appreciate those who commit themselves to advancing our country's commitment to international peace and security.

Having said that, there are many ways of serving our country. Military service is but one option. To only recognize military service, we can send the message -- often directed to young people -- that those who contribute their time energy, skills and possibly risk their personal welfare in other ways, are not deserving of acknowledgment. In our communities, service oriented careers include working as police officers and firefighters. And of course, teachers, particularly those who work with disadvantaged youth, are engaged in important service. These can be challenging assignments where teachers must not only do their best with limited support, but also must be concerned for their own well-being as well as that of the students they are charged with. At the community level, many, who might pursue more lucrative and comfortable careers, commit themselves to serving the greater good.

National commitments to service include AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. AmeriCorps was established in 1993 by President Bill Clinton and consists of the National Civilian Community Corps, which engages in local development projects; Volunteers In Service To America, commonly referred to as VISTA and originally established in 1965 as an anti-poverty program; and the State and National program, which supports through grants service projects in local communities. More than 75,000 Americans, some as young as 18, participate in AmeriCorps every year. Service duration varies between 10 months and one year. (With the increasing attention on gap year experiences after high school, AmeriCorps could be an ideal option.) One of my son's friends will be engaged in youth empowerment work in Tennessee starting in the fall. For many members the pledge they take includes "I will get things done for America -- to make our people safer, smarter, and healthier. I will bring Americans together to strengthen our communities." As such, the service emphasis couldn't be clearer.

And of course, there is the Peace Corps. Like AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps is not just for college graduates, permitting those as young as 18 to apply. The commitment is generally for 24 months, plus several months of training. Peace Corps enlistees, referred to as "volunteers," have been deployed in over 140 countries. More than 220,000 volunteers have participated since 1961 when President John F. Kennedy established the program. Volunteers are engaged in agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, health, and youth development projects. The legislation establishing the Peace Corps states the purpose of the program is to permit those "qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower and to help promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served and a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people." I can't think of a time in history when this was more needed.

There are many ways of serving our country. Military service is one way. The dean at my son's graduation was correct to honor military women and men. But he might have added a second salute to those who serve our country in many other ways that advance important social and economic change in the U.S. and abroad.