Fourteen years ago this month, I spent Thanksgiving at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
A rocket-propelled grenade had torn through the cockpit of my Black Hawk helicopter two weeks prior, costing me both my legs, partial use of my right arm and nearly my life, too. I’d only survived thanks to the unbelievable heroism of my crew, so from the moment I woke up in the hospital, my conception of gratitude was forever changed.
I was grateful to breathe. To cry. To have my husband by my side and my life still ahead of me. I spent that Thanksgiving in more pain than I thought possible ― but I was also more thankful than I’d ever been.
It was then and there that I vowed to myself to find new ways to serve this country ― no longer from the cockpit, maybe, but through other avenues that would allow me to give back to the nation I loved so deeply.
“The important thing isn’t how you serve. It’s that you’re willing to serve in the first place.”
Don’t get me wrong: To this day, I’d give anything to be back in the military, flying just one more mission with the crew I was lucky enough to be a part of. But service in this country isn’t limited to just picking up a rifle to defend our democracy. American service also means picking up a soup spoon to feed the less fortunate, a piece of chalk to teach low-income kids or a hammer to rebuild a home destroyed by a wildfire.
The important thing isn’t how you serve. It’s that you’re willing to serve in the first place.
That’s why this fall I’m reintroducing my 21st Century American Service Act, legislation that would ensure every young American who wants to serve their country has the ability to do so, regardless of their tax bracket or background.
The truth is, right now, a lot of Americans want to make a difference. But they never get the chance they deserve to change the world.
Today, the acceptance rates for some AmeriCorps programs are close to those of certain Ivy League schools, with droves of people turned away every year. It’s not because the work isn’t there to be done ― but because the resources aren’t there to bring on as many folks as they need.
But just imagine what this country would look like if all those service-minded Americans who want to donate their time to improving rundown classrooms or giving food to the hungry were given the chance to do so.
That’s the goal of my legislation.
Everyone who applies to one of these national service programs would be given the opportunity to serve for a year, and those who complete that year would also earn benefits to help pay for college tuition or to pay down student debt.
It would help every young American who wants an education get one ― and hand anyone who wants to serve the ability to do so, making national service more inclusive by both expanding the number of opportunities available and doubling the annual living stipend for participants. All with the hope of breaking down the barriers to entry that for far too long have kept far too many lower-income folks from becoming public servants.
After all, just as we need a strong military to protect our nation, we need civilian volunteers to make sure the country those troops are defending is well-maintained and rebuilt ― that its families are healthy and educated, housed and fed.
“Think about all the good that could be done if Americans were encouraged to give back.”
There’s hard data that backs up why this policy would be good for our country (studies have shown that every dollar we invest in national service generates almost $4 in returns to society). But to me, the reason we need this legislation is more qualitative than quantitative.
From my months flying combat missions in Iraq to my weekends volunteering at the local food pantry, I know firsthand the feelings of commonality, camaraderie and shared sacrifice that arise among those serving a cause greater than themselves.
That sense of unity may be just what this nation needs to heal from the bitter, fear-stoked era we’re living through, when it seems like some in power are more interested in tearing us apart than bringing us together.
Over the next few days, countless Americans will volunteer their time and energy, plating slices of turkey and doling out helpings of gravy to those in need. But think about all the good that could be done if Americans were encouraged to give back not only this week but the other 51 weeks of the year, too.
Giving back to a union that has its faults, sure. But it’s a union whose people ― whose service members in every sense of the word ― strive to make it more perfect with every combat mission overseas as well as every hour in the soup kitchen.
Tammy Duckworth is a former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, an Iraq War veteran, a Purple Heart recipient and a former assistant secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. She was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016 after representing Illinois’s 8th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives for two terms.