President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.”
Taking personal responsibility for our nation’s well-being is the essence of good citizenship. The habits of citizenship are not innate — they are learned as lessons throughout life. For the two of us, our sense of citizenship developed at a young age and continued through our 57 years of collective military service.
Although we served in different wars, in different decades and in different branches of the military, we are bound together through the common experience of national service and have come to believe that such a bond between the nation and its citizenry is essential to our country’s future.
For this reason, we believe that every young American should have the chance to do a year or more of service early enough in life to develop such a sense of citizenship — a sense of mutual investment in the idea of America. Of course, not everyone will feel called to join the military or pursue a career in public service. But we can create the opportunity for every young American to choose to complete a year of service.
With that in mind, Gen. McChrystal chairs the Franklin Project, an initiative under the Aspen Institute that aims to make “a year of national service a cultural expectation, common opportunity and civic rite of passage” for young Americans.
To complement that effort, Sen. McCain — together with Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado — last week introduced legislation that would increase opportunities for service by enabling certain federal departments and land management agencies to more effectively partner with 21st Century Conservation Service Corps organizations to recruit young people to carry out their missions.
The mission of the 21CSC is to put hundreds of thousands of young Americans — including returning veterans — to work in the great outdoors. The legislation would increase opportunities for young people to serve in the 21CSC by enabling more federal departments and land management agencies to tap into 21CSC organizations to carry out their missions in a cost-efficient way — without any new federal spending.
21CSC service members in Arizona, Colorado and around the country who work on projects — from trail construction to wildfire prevention and national park restoration — are guaranteeing that we will all be able to enjoy our nation’s most magnificent treasures for years to come. But more fundamentally, those young people are setting an example for future generations on the duties of citizenship and on the importance of committing oneself, in one way or another, to serving a cause greater than one’s own self-interest.
Today’s youth are serving our nation in remarkable ways — overseas in our military and here at home in communities across the country. They are in inner-city schools teaching through AmeriCorps programs such as Teach for America; assisting with hurricane and other natural-disaster relief through FEMA Corps; and working on HIV/AIDS and malaria prevention in Africa through the Peace Corps. But much more needs to be done.
National service is an issue that political leaders on both sides of the aisle — from President Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression to President George W. Bush’s USA Freedom Corps after 9/11 — have embraced and promoted.
The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, signed into law in 2009, called for an increase in service positions through expansion and revitalization of national-service programs. Yet today, the demand for service opportunities continues to exceed the supply of positions. We hope that supporting and creating national-service opportunities in our country to meet that demand will be a part of the national conversation at dinner tables across the country and in the months ahead, as candidates and voters gear up for the 2016 elections.
Nothing binds our nation together in common purpose or can truly transform it like national service, whether rendered in the military or in civilian capacity. At a time when our nation faces great challenges on various fronts — and trust in one another and key institutions is at a historic low — expanding opportunities for young Americans to serve the country together is more important than ever.
For these reasons, the two of us are proud to do all we can to support and help create such opportunities. We are convinced that, if such experiences are made available to young people, they will embrace them for what they are — occasions to elevate the nation while elevating themselves. We now call on both parties in Congress, together with governors, mayors and leaders in civil society, to do their part and see that our young people are given that chance.