Courtesy of Mark aka The Fontman

Service on the battlefield and elsewhere
By Cokie and Steve Roberts
Jewish World Review
July 4, 2005

In the celebration of American independence this weekend, along with the parades, fireworks and hot dogs, come patriotic pride and prayers of thanksgiving. When we count our blessings as a country, we think first of the women and men in the military, willing to put themselves in harm's way to defend the rest of us. And we also think of all of the other Americans giving of themselves in some way in order to improve the community, in the remarkable tradition of service that characterizes this country.

For decades, members of Congress have introduced legislation designed to promote that service - allowing time spent in an organization like the Peace Corps to substitute for time in the military, or rewarding community service with college tuition stipends in the way the G.I. Bill does for the armed services. But national service bills never succeeded until military recruitment problems forced a more creative approach to enticing men and women into uniform.

Last month, the Army expanded a pilot program introduced across the military services a couple of years ago that offers flexibility for those signing up for a stint with Uncle Sam. After basic training, an active tour of duty can be as short as 15 months (as opposed to the Army's average of three years) followed by two years in the Reserves or National Guard, and then the rest of the standard 8-year obligation can be carried out in a national service program like the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps.

So far, hardly anyone has chosen the National Call to Service enlistment option. That's partly because it's only been tried in some parts of the country; partly because the cash bonuses and educational benefits aren't as generous as those for 2-year active duty (although there is a student loan repayment of up to $18,000); and partly because not many people know about it. And, of course, with soldiers getting killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's not easy to convince people to volunteer no matter what the inducement.

Still, it's a start. The camel's nose is now under the tent, giving recognition to national service. Despite the opposition of some Republicans to government involvement in volunteer work, President Bush decided to embrace the concept after Sept. 11, when so many citizens were yearning for a way to serve their country.

The president established the USA Freedom Corps, housed in the White House and dedicated to increasing funding for and participation in federal programs like the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. The new program was created in an attempt to answer the question asked by so many after the 2001 terrorist attacks: "What can we do to in case this ever happens again?" In the new Citizen Corps medical, firefighting and police service, volunteers are trained to respond to natural disasters as well as to terrorism.

(To promote and honor volunteerism, as part of Freedom Corps the White House also established a Commission on Service and Civic Participation. Cokie is a member of that commission.)

Republicans on Capitol Hill initially balked at granting more federal money for AmeriCorps, a program conceived by President Clinton offering a modest stipend and some assistance with college costs in return for work with nonprofits engaged in teaching and mentoring, cleaning parks and streams, and building housing.

Opponents of the program, scoffing at the notion of paid volunteers, had no desire to support it just because the man in the White House asking for funding was now a Republican.

But a few choice conversations with the first lady changed congressional minds, and last year AmeriCorps received more funding and enrolled more participants than ever before in its 10-year history. That's good news not only for the nonprofit groups receiving the time and talents of AmeriCorps volunteers - it's good news for the whole society. A long-term study of former participants in the program released late last year reveals that they are more likely than a comparison group of like-minded people to be engaged in civic pursuits, and to enter careers in public service, including full-time military service.

And now, at the behest of Congress, the military is offering the opportunity to do it the other way around - to serve a short active duty, learning skills that will be useful for a longer career in community service. It's an official recognition of the value to the country that service provides. However small a step toward national service that represents, it's welcome. And it's another blessing to count on the Fourth of July.