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When I turned 18, my stepfather drove me to Hyde Park to apply for my draft card. When it came, I looked at it and asked him why I was 4-A unlike all my friends who were 1-A. He explained that I was the sole surviving son of a veteran killed in action and therefore was fit for service but couldn’t be drafted. I burst into tears and hid my draft card from my friends, who all bore theirs proudly. A few years later when I was in college and all my friends were drawing lots to see who’d be sent to Viet Nam, I was jubilant and waved my draft card at everyone.
I never thought I’d say this, but America needs a compulsory national service for young men and women. Everyone should have the experience of having to work for someone else, report on time, and do as they’re told without comment. They’d be paid as if they had a regular job, say $32,000 for their year of service. A young person could choose time and service sector and serve after high school or college but would be required to complete their service before turning 28.
They could work in healthcare, housing, infrastructure maintenance, the national parks, the military, or intern in scientific research, law, or medicine. Everyone would have to work.
National service would vest young people in their country. It would propel them into new neighborhoods. It would foster friendships and skills that our wealth and race-stratified society might never afford them. It would also imbue in them a sense of mission and self-worth that parental and teacher praise can never do, Self-esteem is just that. It comes from within. It’s not awarded.
Our collective national resources are at serious risk from lack of national investment. I can’t think of a better way to address the issue than to invest in young people and give them the opportunity to make a difference. Maturity is a function not only of age, but also of learning and experience. It’s often said that the two combined become wisdom, while our current narcissistic culture of wealth and celebrity only erodes our cohesion and national purpose.
Life doesn’t always afford us choice. Some among us have enjoyed a wealth of choices. Others have not. Working side by side with strangers to build a better country while being paid a living wage to do so can bring focus and purpose to our lives.
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