For the second time during his presidency, Barack Obama traveled to Dover Air Force Base to salute the remains of U.S. troops. This time, the remains were those of the 30 troops killed when their helicopter was shot down recently in Afghanistan. The president's words, as they always are at such times, were solemn and full of praise, underscoring the sacrifices and selflessness of the dead warriors and the pain their loved ones suffer.
These ceremonies are impressive for their dignity, but they always leave me feeling empty — even a little angry. While the sacrifices and selflessness and pain of the dead and their loved ones are lauded, no mention is made of what the rest of us owe these Americans who volunteer to protect us.
What do we sacrifice for our fallen troops and their families?
I take this issue personally. To critics, let me point out that in 1966, as the Vietnam War raged, I gave up deferment as a college student to volunteer for the U.S. Marine Corps. The nation had the military draft at that time. I volunteered because I believed I had a duty to serve the nation. I owed the United States.
I believe that our great freedoms, which are the envy of most other nations, are not free at all. They were, and are, earned for us to enjoy. If we are to keep these freedoms — name those important to you — we must work hard to protect and nurture them.
I am not calling for reinstatement of the draft. I am, however, calling for the implementation of mandatory national service. This may never happen, but it is a debate the nation should have. Every able-bodied, mentally fit American citizen should be required to serve the nation in some capacity. I leave the logistics to the experts.
Here is one idea: More than a million young adults begin attending four-year colleges each year. As a condition of admission to a public college or to receive federal funds to attend a private college, students could be required to serve their country for up to two years, in civilian national service programs such as AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps or homeland security efforts such as guarding nuclear plants or in the military. Some would choose the military, especially if they were to receive more GI Bill-type college aid as a reward for more dangerous duty.
I know medical professionals, lawyers, building contractors and journalists who financed their educations with federal loans, scholarships and fellowships. As a condition of receiving these funds, they could be required to perform two years of national service. Doctors could, for example, serve in veterans hospitals or agree to treat a specific number of veterans in their private offices at no cost. This service would be a boon to VA hospitals with long waiting lists.
Given the high number of brain traumas resulting from our current wars, thousands of troops need and will need critical care. Psychologists and psychiatrists and social workers can serve for two years.
Like health care professionals, lawyers who receive federal funds could serve for two years in many capacities. Each day, the VA attempts to deal with thousands of troop benefit claims. Lawyers who are doing their two-year national service could help streamline an otherwise dysfunctional process.
Journalists can serve. We tend to be patient researchers, keen observers and writers of clear prose. Countless federal agencies could use our talents for two years.
Again, all able-bodied, mentally fit citizens could and should serve. We should earn the right to enjoy our great freedoms and amenities that others have died for and will continue to die for.
Inevitably, our president will return to Dover Air Force Base to salute more flag-draped cases containing the remains of our fallen warriors. The president again will praise the sacrifices, the selflessness and the courageous service of our dead.
And again, the president will not call on all Americans to honor our warriors by sacrificing and serving. As a people, we should be ashamed.