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A New Service Ethic
By David S. Broder
Sunday, May 26, 2002; Page B07
On this Memorial Day, the book to be reading is "When I Was a Young Man," by Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska governor and senator. The title comes from "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda," a song that became a Kerrey trademark, not as most think of it, in lighthearted celebration of youth, but in its full, bitter, bloody reflection on war:
"The band played Waltzing Matilda, as we stopped to bury our slain. The Turks buried theirs, and we buried ours. And we started all over again."
Kerrey's book centers on his search to understand how his Uncle John died in the Philippines during World War II and how he himself survived as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam, losing part of his leg and being awarded the Medal of Honor.
In the preface, Kerrey writes: "The patriotic and heroic stories I heard in my youth caused me to believe that my nation was never wrong and that my leaders would never lie to me. When the sand of this foundation blew away, I lost my patriotism. In the second half of my life, I rebuilt this foundation on something sturdier: the observation that Americans at their best can be unimaginably generous and willing to put their lives on the line for the freedom and well-being of others."
The disillusionment Kerrey once felt is shared by many of today's youth, documented most recently in a survey of young people between ages 15 and 25 released by the Partnership for Trust in Government.
One of the few bright spots in that poll is that eight out of 10 of these young adults said they favor expansion of programs where they could give a year of community or national service and earn money for college.
That may not involve putting their lives on the line in the same way Kerrey and his uncle did. But it could bring them a greater sense of the rewards of working for a cause that is greater than themselves.
The good news on this holiday is that more Americans may soon have the opportunity to learn the rewards of service. On several fronts, Congress is moving to fulfill the goal President Bush set forth in his State of the Union address to expand the Peace Corps and its domestic equivalents to many times their current size and make voluntary service a much more common experience.
This effort is genuinely bipartisan. Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Evan Bayh of Indiana are leading the way in the Senate. The co-sponsors of their bill in the House are an even more dissimilar pair, Republican Tom Osborne, the 65-year-old former University of Nebraska football coach, representing a sprawling rural district, and 32-year-old Democrat Harold Ford, an African- American from urban Memphis.
Two weeks ago, McCain and Bayh persuaded the Armed Services Committee to include in the defense authorization bill their plan for short-term enlistments in the military, followed by additional service in the reserves or in a civilian service corps, to be rewarded by up to $18,000 in education funds. The program, endorsed by the Pentagon, is needed; there has been no surge of conventional enlistments since Sept. 11.
Prodded by Osborne and Ford -- and by the president -- Republican Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan and Democratic Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana just filed a consensus bill to expand AmeriCorps, the Senior Corps and other community volunteer programs. The path appears clear for it to pass the House before Independence Day, and the Senate committee headed by Democrat Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts will likely follow suit soon thereafter. Hoekstra had been a harsh critic of AmeriCorps, the domestic Peace Corps. His advocacy symbolizes the growing support for these programs among conservatives as well as liberals.
Meantime, the White House end of the effort, under the enthusiastic management of presidential aide John Bridgeland, is growing apace. Bridgeland says that since Bush's late January announcement of the new voluntary service initiative, the Peace Corps has received 36,000 applications; the retitled USA Freedom Corps, almost as many.
Young Americans -- as well as some of their grandparents -- are responding with enthusiasm.
Bridgeland is fond of quoting founding father Benjamin Rush, who explained in 1773 how service to country could build bonds with both the future and the past. "Patriotism," Rush wrote, "is as much a virtue as justice, and is as necessary for the support of societies as natural affection is for the support of families. . . . It comprehends not only the love of our neighbors, but of millions of our fellow creatures, not only of the present, but of future generations."
Volunteer service is, indeed, the sturdy foundation on which, as Kerrey says, real patriotism can be built.
David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post.
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