Thanksgiving on the way—time to give thanks. Christmas soon to follow—time to give back. One way the nation can do both is through a revived spirit and program of National Service. 

National Service includes, of course, military service. But it has been and can be again so much more. In the 1930s,  it included the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a vast project by Democratic President, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. It brought young men from all social classes together to build roads and other structures in national parks, improving access and comfort for millions of Americans and other visitors. 

The CCC planted over three billion trees. It constructed trails and shelters. Those who have been fortunate enough to visit national parks can see the results of their handiwork (similar to the bridges and walkways along the Riverwalk in San Antonio, built by the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal). There were, at one time, over three million men, or 5% of the male population, in over 3,000 CCC camps. In its nine year history, notable grads included famous baseball player, Stan Musial, and Chuck Yeager (later to become the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound). The point is, National Service, serving the nation, profited individuals and society as a whole. 

As a society, we could and should restore, best we know how, that spirit of “can do.” But this time, National Service can and should be, of course, open to both men and women. It already (through the military) welcomes all genders. It should and could be touted, recruitment actively extolled and well administered. National Service should be considered in the broadest way possible—individuals giving back (for two years (or more, as they choose) to their country. They will learn skills, acquire work and job experience, develop confidence and maturity.

Their choices should include the Peace Corps and VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America, established in 1965, by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson).  AmeriCorps incorporated VISTA into its purview in 1993 and still is actively at work, extending service to all fifty states and US territories. Its 220 thousand members allow men and women to bring better health and supplemental education to many. They distribute vaccines and food, especially in “food deserts,” and help develop non-profits, often focusing on local economic development. Our lower Rio Grande “Valley” would profit greatly from the presence of more VISTA projects; political representatives should lead the way in attracting VISTA contributions. 

The older, “big brother” organization, the Peace Corps, was established by Democratic President John F. Kennedy in March 1961. Among other functions, it serves to share advice and technology in rural agriculture and economic development, all over the world. During my research in Brazil, I worked with Peace Corps volunteers where I lived in the favelas, such as the infamous Jacarezinho (“Little Alligator”). 

Peace Corps volunteers helped the poor with medical advice, focused on education (English and math classes) and on economic development models and markets for promoting local crafts. The volunteers themselves learned other languages and how to become better leaders under difficult circumstances, in slums and jungles, depending on the country, the assignment. 

“Cast your bread upon the waters”; Peace Corps returnees came back to the US more mature, multi-lingual, confident and skilled. Many I knew here at Pan American University, later, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, became valued professors and administrators. That same positive phenomenon was repeated all over Texas and the United States—a “win-win” for the volunteers, their local communities, and the nation. For the Valley, these new options, in addition to military service, afford our men and women extra opportunities.

National Service: its time has come . . . and gone, and now, comes again. If not now, when? Make it work by requirement, as some nations do? That would be best, fairest, most likely to produce positive results for society. Such a vast program would be a game-changer economically and socially. The countries requiring service today (viz: Norway, Sweden) find it contributes to a sense of equality and of national patriotism. 

In my case, I was patriotic before the Army, but developed a wider, deeper sense of history and pride partly because of my service; I am sure that feeling is shared by many who have served. I was not drafted but volunteered, early, first in the Reserve, then, via ROTC, joined officer’s ranks. Entry either way had its pros and cons. The cons and negative reaction to the draft prevailed. Public opinion was fierce, due to intense pressure from opposition to the Viet Nam war. The draft should not have been eliminated in the first place; rather, it should have been rolled into an expansive vision, including men and women, with other job options. Now, if and when restored, it should equally promote VISTA and Peace Corps. Yet, the process to restore a compulsory system would be so fraught with bureaucratic challenges, and so full of probable divisiveness, it might not be appropriate at this time. 

An increased, expanded National Service could help heal some of our divisions. But, for now, a volunteer service, open to young women and men, seems the “American Way,” and the logical path to proceed. When it comes, it must include greater recruitment enticements and increased promotion of program options: better pay, and, of course, room and board while working, perhaps college tuition guaranteed after the two or four year stretch. Meanwhile, since we allow military recruiters into high schools, why not those for VISTA and Peace Corps? 

Such a promotional effort would be a must; a strong, nation-wide campaign, extolling the value of service—pay, skills, experience, knowledge of one’s own contributions to the greater good, to the entire society—will strengthen our nation. I am reminded of our warm-up exercise in the old high-school classes of “typing”: “Now is the time for all good men–and women–to come to the aid of their country.” 

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Rio Grande Valley-based writer and educator Gary Mounce. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Mounce can be reached by email via: [email protected]

Editor’s Note: Credit for the main image accompanying the above guest column goes to the U.S. Peace Corps.

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