Beyond the Military: Why the US Needs More National Service Options

Marines with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit sprint to an MV-22B Osprey aircraft during a Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel exercise, aboard Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, June 5, 2015.

U. S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Shawn Valosin

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Marines with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit sprint to an MV-22B Osprey aircraft during a Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel exercise, aboard Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, June 5, 2015.

Building a next generation of American foreign policy and national security leaders requires new options for national service.

Back in November in recognition of Veterans Day, I wrote a piece to honor the service and sacrifice of our veterans and those currently serving in our military. The piece talked about the importance of fostering and nurturing a culture of service in our country – “where service becomes the norm rather than the exception.” Let us once again reflect on national service here at home.

With many others, I serve on the Leadership Council of The Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute. This is a bipartisan initiative led by retired General Stanley McChrystal, working to transform how we think about national service. The Franklin Project believes that a year of service should be a common opportunity, civic rite of passage and cultural expectation for young Americans. From the birth of our nation through today, America has always recognized that a commitment to each other and a sense of shared responsibility to our country as citizens is a critical part of our security and well-being as a nation.

Transforming the idea of national service here at home and elevating it as an issue in our personal conversations, political debates and media coverage is going to require a serious concerted effort. The time is ripe for this sort of vision, particularly in light of the upcoming presidential elections. While nothing may be more powerful than an idea whose time has come, the idea needs a campaign behind it with surrogates and visionaries to amplify the idea around the country. Between the barbecues and fireworks of this July 4th holiday, let us think about the sacrifices made for our nation and the sacrifices we as a nation can make today for its future.

National service doesn’t just make an impact on local communities and provide skills and benefits to the individual doing the service, but it also has the potential to get more young people interested in careers in foreign policy and national security. There are a wide array of service programs, some of which develop skills that would be extremely beneficial to the next generation of security and foreign policy leaders. There are many individuals who may be interested in serving their country, but are either not qualified or interested in joining the military. Exposing young people to service programs like FEMA Corps, Global HealthCorps & Peace Corps can expose them to crisis response here at home and working to address various challenges in countries around the globe.

Without private-public partnerships and investment, we will never be able to get to the transformative vision towards which the Franklin Project and its National Service Alliance are working. Americans have a strong desire to serve, but right now there simply aren’t enough full-time opportunities to meet the demand. For example, just one in three Peace Corps applicants are able to serve and hundreds of thousands are turned away from AmeriCorps. Just last week, national service funding has been put at risk on Capitol Hill. The House and Senate are each considering bills that would reduce the budget of the Corporation for National Service, or CNCS, by up to $370 million, a 34 percent reduction over the previous year. These proposed cuts would remove AmeriCorps members from schools and communities, and would eliminate several core programs that serve millions of seniors, at-risk youth, veterans and people with disabilities. These bills would destroy the public-private partnership approach of national service that last year generated $873 million in outside resources to increase community impact and stretch the federal dollar. CNCS funds should not be cut. Investing in national service yields significant return on investment for our nation – not just in the problems it can help us to address – but in terms of economic savings. Every federal dollar invested in national service yields $2.20 in savings to other government programs.  

The Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute recently launched its own corps of ambassadors to serve as powerful voices on national service in local communities around our country. For the United States, at the most basic level, the role of our ambassadors around the globe has been to represent the interests and policies of our country. Similarly, The Franklin Project Ambassadors Program has selected 45 individuals around the country based on their service experience and demonstrated leadership to help advance the Franklin Project vision in local communities across the country – in 35 cities across 25 states. These ambassadors encourage discussion of national service in the 2016 election conversation, increase service year positions in their communities and foster the next generation of national service leaders. These leaders will also be executing a local event in their respective cities over the upcoming year. This month, these ambassadors traveled to the Washington DC area to participate in an intensive 3-day training to prepare them for this mission.

National service has traditionally been a bipartisan issue. Presidents on both sides of the aisle have played a role in advancing service in our country through the creation of new programs and the expansion of existing ones. Let us this July 4th ask all those candidates aspiring the presidency to make a similar public commitment to national service.

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