I was born a month before Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy.
As a child of the 1960s, I was bombarded with Kennedy lore, Kennedy quotations, Kennedy film clips. Like many people, the one I remember most is from his inauguration.
“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” JFK said.
In the 1960s, young men didn’t have to ask, their country told them. Draft notices came, and young men went — to Vietnam or to Canada.
In the decades before Vietnam, my dad volunteered for the Army twice and served in the Occupation Forces in Japan after World War II, and then in combat in Korea. He told us of his sergeant at Fort Indiantown Gap asking for volunteers to drive a truck, and being given a wheelbarrow (a “hand-truck”) when he raised his hand. He told us about volunteering for a recon unit, only to spend the next months being dropped off nearly every night in the Japanese countryside with a partner, a canteen, a map and a compass and being told to find his way back to the base by daylight. He told us about volunteering as permanent cadre stateside, and six months later being sent to Korea.
“Never volunteer for anything,” he told us.
Never volunteer, he said, but if you’re called, go. It’s your duty. I remember in the early 1970s, my brother talking about sitting with his 18-year-old friends when he was 17, waiting for their draft lottery numbers to come up. He turned 18 three months after the draft ended and the United States switched to an all-volunteer armed forces.
We were all glad it ended when it did, but now, as an adult with more than half my life behind me, I wonder: What if ending the draft wasn’t the right thing to do?
What if ending the draft was good for the military, good for the individuals who didn’t get called to die in a jungle in Southeast Asia, but bad for the country?
The military is perfectly happy with an all-volunteer force, but what has it done for the volunteers and what has it done for America?
What if the shared experience of young men ages 18-24, knowing they might be drafted and making a decision to serve or not to serve, did more to inform their sense of duty to their families, their fellow man and their country, than the individual choices to serve or not to serve do today?
At the end of the draft, about 1 percent of all Americans were serving in the military — not a huge number. But today, it is even smaller. The number of Americans currently serving is just one half of one percent. In Americorps (the name for the civilian government volunteers that do everything from write grant proposals to muck out flood-damaged homes to fight wildfires) the number is even smaller. Just 2 out of every 10,000 Americans are part of Americorps, also known as the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Maybe it’s time that the U.S. return to a draft, not just for men ages 18-24, but for everyone at the age of 18 — no deferments, no excuses. The difference being, that this draft would serve not to fill the ranks of just the military, but the ranks of National Service and community organizations that are sorely lacking in volunteers.
Rewind to 2005.
In 2005, just over 28 percent of Americans volunteered in some organized way. In 2018, the last figures available, that had dropped to 25 percent. A three percent loss may not seem like a huge number, but that’s six times the number of people who serve in the military, and 150 times the number who serve in Americorps.
I never volunteered for the military, but I did volunteer to serve for two years as a Volunteer In Service To America (VISTA), a sort-of domestic Peace Corps created by President Lyndon Johnson as a way to live up to Kennedy’s expectation that we ask what we can do for our country.
My wife also served as a VISTA for two years. Our son served in the National Civilian Community Corps, another part of Americorps. Both VISTA and NCCC are paid volunteer programs, the difference being that VISTAs do mostly administrative work while NCCC members do mostly grunt work like building houses, and doing disaster relief. Some teams serve fighting wildfires.
In addition to VISTA, I have been a volunteer firefighter, special deputy sheriff, and search and rescue officer. I have worked as an emergency medical technician and a paramedic. I have felt the heartbreak of being with families who just lost everything to fire and people who waited anxiously for word that their lost loved one has been found alive. I’ve helped remove domestic abusers from the home, and told mothers their child is dead.
On the more cheerful side, I have felt the joy of having a grant application approved that would help my community. I have seen people recover after their heart stopped, and watched people cry in happiness when their family members are reunited with them.
I have also felt pride when disabled veterans teared up and shook my hand because my dad forgot his own admonishment not to volunteer, and spent his retirement years helping them get their pensions and the medals they earned in service.
I have also seen how people react when they ask how much you’re being paid to help people, and you tell them nothing.
“You’re crazy,” many say.
They don’t understand why anyone would go out of their way to help someone if unless they get something out of it.
“They don’t seem to see the personal value to it,” one longtime volunteer firefighter told me. “You feel good. You’ve done something for your neighbor. I hope we’re not getting away from that as a country.”
He blamed part of it on social media and the ease with which someone can click a button to express sympathy, and then feel like they’ve helped.
“You see this on Facebook where somebody’s house burned, and people say they’re real sorry for that and then they think it’s over,” he said. “ ‘Prayers for that family,’ or something, then they’re done.”
Another agreed. He, like many others who still volunteer today, grew up in a firehouse.
“I get a self worth out of helping people, and maybe that’s from seeing people I looked up to do it,” he said.
But the number of volunteers in all community organizations seems to be dwindling, at least in this area. Some civic clubs that used to have huge memberships — the Odd Fellows, the Jaycees — no longer exist in Letcher County. The Jaycees now have a membership of only 32,000 in the entire nation, less than one person in every 10,000. The Rotary Club, a service organization made up mostly of business people who gather weekly, has spent 30 years trying to eradicate polio worldwide and sponsors educational exchanges between countries, but it has been experiencing membership decline for 20 years, according to several sources, but recent figures were not available.
Maybe a draft that would place young people in service roles — the military, Americorps, a new police corps, fire corps, rescue corps and others — would spark a sense of duty in the country, and when these young people complete their service, they would want to continue volunteering in other organizations such as Rotary, Lions Club, Kiwanis, and others.
Maybe a draft isn’t the answer, but if it’s not it could at least spark a discussion about what we can do for our country.