In 1960, President John F. Kennedy challenged us to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” He issued this historic call to service at a time when our nation was torn apart by the threat of communism abroad and the fear of its presence at home, not to mention the fight for civil rights that tested our fundamental values. Five decades later, we fear forces of terror abroad and worry it will infiltrate our communities, while the debate over the immigration status of millions of people living in the United States divides our nation. President Kennedy’s challenge is as relevant now as it was then.
As a freshman member of Congress, I often get asked about public service, mostly by people who question, “Why would you want to do this?” Congress is gridlocked, it has historically low approval ratings, and everybody seems to hate Washington. For me, my interest in Congress comes not from a background in politics but from the Marine Corps: It was during my time as a Marine in the Iraq War that I truly learned the value of public service—and the consequences of having the wrong people in Washington making important decisions.
Every day in Iraq, even in the middle of a war I disagreed with, my work had an impact on the lives of others—the lives of the amazing fellow Americans I was honored to lead, and of the Iraqis we tried to save. To be fair, I didn’t join the Marines expecting to go to war; I decided to join right after college graduation, just before September 11th. My inspiration came in part from a college mentor, the late Reverend Professor Peter Gomes, who lived a life of service and always encouraged his students to “make a life and not just a living.”
From left to right Defense One Executive Editor Kevin Baron, Congressman Seth Moulton, D-Mass., Gen. (Ret.) Stan McCrystal, and Hon. Michèle Flournoy discuss national service at a Monday event.
In truth, I imagined that when I finished my four years in the Marines I would have “checked the box” of public service and never have to do it again. Instead, when I got off active duty, I desperately missed it. I missed that sense of purpose I had in my life every day.
You can find that sense of purpose in many places beyond our military as well, and I’ve been struck by how much we military veterans have in common with veterans of other national service programs like CityYear, the Peace Corps, and Teach for America.
The service mindset strengthens our nation because those who have served their country will continue to seek other forms of service. National service veterans vote at higher rates, become more involved in our communities, and we even do better in business. As the fires blazed in the West this past summer, members of the Washington State Vets Corps who once put their lives at risk in foreign wars stepped up as volunteer firefighters.
And when we serve, we also tend to put hateful politics aside. In my platoon in Iraq, I had Marines from all over America: Massachusetts and Texas, Alabama and Vermont, a gated community outside Park City and a housing development in Brooklyn. We came together with remarkably different backgrounds—different religious beliefs, different political beliefs. Yet at the end of the day, we set aside those differences to do what’s best for our country.
That is exactly what President Kennedy called upon all Americans to do in 1960, a time when we were as divided a nation as we are today. Giving more Americans, young and old alike, the opportunity to serve through increased investment in AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, and in our veterans would make us a stronger nation. It would help us see beyond our hateful, partisan political bickering to focus on what’s best for our country. It would teach young Americans to think beyond themselves, and it’s a lesson Congress could learn as well.
In the face of danger, it is easy to feel isolated and small. Serving teaches you how to be far bigger than you could ever be on your own. I am proud to have served my country in the Marines, and I’m proud to serve it in Congress. Let’s show the world—our friends and enemies alike—that we are committed to our country and committed to service. I hope you’ll join me.