What it Means to Serve your Country

Serving my country was an inflection point--it set my life on a new course. A former Marine, I find myself in a constant pursuit of re-attaining the meaningfulness of those four years, chasing the feeling I had when my profession involved working in challenging conditions with teams of great people to solve big problems whose scope exceeded personal gain. Because I was in the military, I'm allowed to self-identify as having served my country; for thousands of diplomats, intelligence professionals, Peace Corps Volunteers, AmeriCorps VISTA members, firefighters, policemen, and others working to improve communities around the nation, it would be awkward to say "I served my country." It shouldn't be.

Service to country isn't linked to combat. Though I served as an infantry officer in time of war, and went to Iraq, I've never been in combat. The same is true for about half the Marines with whom I served--and that was in a combat arms unit. While those who bear the costs of battle carry a heavier burden, the rest of us can still rightly say we've served our country. Serving my country means that I gave up the normal progression of my life--high school, college, work--to do something whose end was civic. The same could be said for the veterans of many other types of national service.

Nor is the recognition of "service to country" a result of deployment abroad in austere conditions. As of 2010, about 40% of the active duty military had never deployed. That statistic is dated--and the Department of Defense has undertaken measures to share the burdens of war more evenly across the Department in recent years--but it is still instructive. Furthermore, as anyone who has deployed will tell you, for every military servicemember living in harsh conditions at a patrol base or outpost, there's one who lives in a large headquarters complete with a Green Bean Coffee and Burger King. Peace Corps Volunteers in Sub-Saharan Africa and City Year members living on small stipends in places like Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit certainly deal with more austerity than troops serving in the states or abroad on large headquarters complexes.

Because the burdens of twelve years of war have been borne by such a small percentage of the country, our appreciation for service has morphed into a reflexive deference toward those in uniform. If you've worn a uniform, people thank you for your service. More importantly, military veterans are open to benefits and hiring incentives in recognition for their service that dwarf those offered to other national servants. While new structures are needed to incentivize and recognize all types of national service, a good first step in this direction would be for us simply to acknowledge that there are a lot of ways to serve one's country.

Describing the Peace Corps, President Kennedy said "If the life will not be easy, it will be rich and satisfying." I feel camaraderie with my fellow Marines because I share with them a knowledge of actively pursuing a virtuous life in austere conditions. I feel a comparable bond--based on the same shared, civic ethic--with my brothers and sisters-in-service who have done their time in institutions like AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, Teach for America, or the State Department. They're serving their country, too--and we should recognize them for it.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute to recognize the power of national service, in conjunction with the National Day of Service and Remembrance on September 11th and the 20th anniversary of the signing of the AmeriCorps legislation on September 20th. The Franklin Project is a policy program at the Aspen Institute working to create a 21st century national service system that challenges all young people to give at least one year of full-time service to their country. To see all the posts in this series, click here. To learn more about the Franklin Project, click here.