As our nation moves away from the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and Congress moves closer to requiring women to register for selective serviceI can’t help but think of the 13 soldiers who died on August 26 in Kabul. How they were linked in service to the nation. How they answered the call at such a young age – five of them were only 20 when they died. How they represent a cross-section of America – cities, men and women, different ethnicities, serving side by side on behalf of our great nation.
I can’t help but think about how divided our country has become. We live in individual Americas bubbles – physically and culturally, in person and online. The contrasts between our Americas were highlighted for me recently, during our first family vacation since the pandemic. We were in the Great Basin, on the border of Nevada and Utah, a decidedly rural area, different in every conceivable way from the dense New York suburbs that I call my home. Our motorhome broke down on a washed out gravel road in the middle of a dusty field, and a few good souls came to help us. Through my military service and that of my husband, we instantly forged a connection, a shared humanity, because they helped us out of the gap.
Having been fortunate enough to visit a few national parks on our trip, I remembered the excellent work of the Civilian Conservation Corps. 1930s engineering and the blood, sweat and tears of a representative sample of Americans created the Angel’s Landing Trail in Zion, among many others. What is my generation’s lasting gift to Americans a century from now, I wondered? What will our Angel’s Landings be?
Taking all of these thoughts – our fallen servicemen, our divided country, our aging infrastructure – together, it seems to me that maybe, for so many reasons, it’s time to broaden the conversation of the women signing up for the project – to all 18-25 year olds serving our nation to some extent.
I feel very lucky to be born into a family that values service before oneself. My maternal grandparents both served in World War II and my parents both moved thousands of miles from home to work in the Navajo Nation. These values are, in large part, what drove me to go to West Point and serve in the military.
The irony is that now, over a decade after my military service, living squarely in an unrepresentative slice of America, I realize that my time in uniform has given me far more than I have ever had. never given – and I also realized that national service can be the key to mending the tattered fabric of our national narrative. As our country has become more and more divided, what I appreciate most is that through my service I was able to experience all from America. Like those 13 brave servicemen, I too was side by side with a cross-section of America. I have lived in places very different from where I grew up, be it rural Missouri, the metropolis of Oahu, a German village, or a large base in Iraq. These experiences help me understand, appreciate, respect and love the diverse perspectives of the countless parts of America that exist in our fractured country – and allow me not only to coexist, but to connect and thrive in places. away from where I now call home.
I feel that encouraging more national service or, better yet, making it compulsory, is the most important solution we have to one of the most fundamental challenges we face: fixing the divisions in our country and fundamentally strengthen the fabric that binds all of us together. This fall, as Congress discusses including all women in selective service, let’s take it a step further and start discussing how to include all 18-25 year olds in a national service program.
Service can take many forms, such as joining the military or AmeriCorps, working at a nonprofit, joining a parks system, or teaching at an underserved school. What matters most is not only that the service helps strengthen our country and its citizens, but that it is designed for young Americans to work closely with teammates with significantly different lived experiences, serve in places different from where they come from, do more important work and accomplish difficult feats.
As we work on policy changes to make service mandatory, there are steps we can take now to make service feel mandatory and celebrated. What if recruiters asked about service experience during interviews? What if it was included in college applications? What if there was a way to give diplomas and certifications at the end, who would then help people find future employment? Measures like these can start now to give more credibility to such an important activity.
Imagine a country in which all 18-25 year olds spend a lot of time alongside other Americans who come from very different parts of the country and serve in parts of the country very different from where they grew up. Imagine not only the positive impact this can have on our country’s infrastructure – our 21st Century Angel Landing – but also the impact it will have on every individual. “Other Americas” will no longer feel like foreigners, and we will appreciate the values that unite us all as Americans, which are greater than any political party, demographic, or city big or small in our great country. These experiences will leave an indelible mark on every person who serves, and as a group, it will strengthen our country in ways we sorely need.
Elizabeth Young McNally is Executive Vice President of Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic initiative of Eric and Wendy Schmidt, former partner and global leader of McKinsey Academy, and veteran of service in Iraq in the US military. Liz was also named president of the visiting council of the US Military Academy. A Rhodes and Truman scholar, she began her career as a military police officer in the United States Army. She and her husband John are raising their three school-aged children outside of New York City and taking every opportunity to introduce them to and serve the diversity that makes up our nation.