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First Coast Connect

With All Due Respect: National Service

Veteran broadcaster Jay Solomon's "With All Due Respect" commentaries can be heard occasionally on First Coast Connect.
I read an article recently by a professor at the Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business noting that the United States has the greatest number of companies listed on the NASDAQ. In the article, he asked readers to guess which country is second on the list. Is it India? Korea? Singapore? As it turns out, it’s Israel.

He cites research that, per capita, venture capital investments in Israel were two and a half times greater than in the U.S. and thirty times greater than in Europe. In most years since 1995, Israel's economy grew faster than the average for developed economies worldwide, while having among the lowest unemployment in the world. Why is this so? Well, the research credits such Israeli attributes as national pride, strong social networks and an international perspective.

It also lists one unique factor: at the age of 18, every Israeli must spend a couple of years in military service. In that regard, Israel is alone among countries that have centers of technological innovation. Employers there say national service gives young Israelis problem-solving skills, life experience in dealing with a wide range of people and helps them determine what to do with their lives. It also hones leadership skills useful in starting a company, and plugs them into a network of peers that can be invaluable after leaving the military.

Now, I’m not endorsing mandatory military service here (Americans just don’t like much of anything that is compulsory). But I will say that my personal experience suggests there might be something we can take away from the Israeli example of universal service. 

After college, I entered the Army, and it was a game-changer in ways I never anticipated. Up till then, my youth could be described as “basic vanilla”: mostly middle class, white and culturally monolithic. Even at a state university, diversity was marked absent in most classes. The Army changed all that in a day.

A platoon replaced my family. Parental roles were usurped by a Puerto Rican drill sergeant and a black platoon leader from a tough Detroit neighborhood. Thirty-some “siblings” reflected all walks of life. My new degree got me the same opportunities as everyone else: a sheered head, latrine duty, challenging days, short nights, perpetual training, a rifle, and boots requiring endless care. It also afforded me the shared experience of forming a cohesive unit in 8 weeks. 

For three years, Army life meant home was a barracks. These were places where region, race, rank, education, motivation and orientation blended. For two of those years, though, I bunked in Italy – a cultural opportunity that still influences me 50 years later.

I lived in historic surroundings, but learning about other cultures also included sharing jazz albums with buddies as they introduced me to country music. I learned a lot about myself and others, and found life-long friendships. These friends agree: military experience was immensely beneficial. We understand the good fortune of having served in peacetime, but conversations with younger vets of the Vietnam War and current eras support our impression that being part of a group changes how we view the people around us and the world in general.

Mark Twain famously said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness… broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”  

Despite today’s far greater access to travel, and the Internet’s ability to take us almost anywhere in seconds, Twain’s message still resonates because it’s not so much about travel as it is about human relationships. If civilization is to survive, we have to do a far better job of understanding one-another. 

Think about that Israeli military example. The benefits of broadened horizons last a lifetime beyond the two years in uniform; a continuing harvest from sowing a single crop.

This change in perspective doesn’t require a uniform, though, and the U.S. actually already has a national service program. Americorps is celebrating its 20th year of providing opportunities for our young people to make a difference in fields such as public health, education and disaster relief. Meanwhile, Teach for America looks for recent college grads to apply to teach in challenging public schools across the country. 

The demand is huge for these modestly paid and difficult jobs: around 600,000 applications each year for Americorps, and 48,000 for Teach for America. But only 14 percent of those young applicants get the chance to serve. More than half a million are turned away as Congress reduces funding. Despite high unemployment and enthusiastic from every President for the past 20 years, the House of Representatives has tried to eliminate Americorps. 

How has Israel figured this out, and we haven’t? Easing unemployment, providing vital services, better preparing for the future - serving is part of the American character. And that’s public service, not lip service.

With all due respect, I’m Jay Solomon.