A National Service Podcast

Host Ken Harbaugh sits down with policy makers, military leaders, academics, and changemakers for inspiring conversations about national service and what it will take to move our country forward.

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Episode 5: The Military as a Model for Building Trust

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The military is one of the most widely trusted institutions in the United States. Can that deep well of trust be replicated in other forms of national service? What else can the military teach us about service? Ken talks to Service Year Alliance board chair and retired General Stanley McChrystal and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to find out.

The alumni testimonial features Ryan Britch, government affairs associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and a veteran of the US military, AmeriCorps, and the Peace Corps.


Ken Harbaugh: Are you interested in doing national service? Visit ServiceYear.org/podcast to start searching for thousands of paid, full-time opportunities to spend a year transforming your life through national service. ServiceYear.org/podcast

Welcome to Rebuilding America, produced in partnership with New Politics. We’re here to talk about national service: what is it, why do we need it, and can it rebuild America? Today: military service.

Americans trust the military and they trust veterans. In fact, according to a 2018 Pew Research study, 80% of Americans surveyed had confidence in the military. That number was higher than confidence in scientists, religious leaders, business leaders, and far more than elected officials.

Is that trust something that can be replicated in national service more broadly? What else can national service learn or borrow from the military?

Today, I’m talking with retired General Stanley McChrystal and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to get some insight. We’ll also hear an alumni testimonial from Ryan Britch, a veteran of the US military, AmeriCorps, and the Peace Corps.

First, Secretary Leon Panetta - a lifelong public servant in many different roles. He was a US Congressman, Chief of Staff to President Clinton, director of the CIA, and the Secretary of Defense under President Obama. He’s now the Chairman of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, dedicated to bringing young people into public service.

Sec. Leon Panetta: The Panetta Institute was something my wife Sylvia and I founded when I came back after serving as Chief of Staff to Bill Clinton and we got back and I think both of us noticed among young people that there was less of an interest in public service. They were looking at careers in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, and that concerned us. So we decided to establish an Institute whose mission would be to try to inspire young people to lives of public service, because we believe it's really important in our democracy for all citizens to recognize that they have a duty to country and to be willing to serve our country. And so we established the Institute, it has a number of programs trying to inspire service. But the most important thing we do with all of our programs is to try to get young people to understand that they really do have a duty to give back to our democracy. And that's why we stress the importance of national service because we think national service really does give all young people the opportunity, not only to serve this country, but in return to experience what it means to work together with others on a common mission that benefits our country.

KH: That idea of duty to country is calling that you answered very early on. What drove you to join the Army? And how did that experience, as short as it was, a couple of years as an intel officer, inform your decades of later service?

LP: Well, when I'm asked what convinced me to get involved with public service, really there were three influences in my life. One was my immigrant parents who came here like millions of others with very little money, very little language ability, and very few skills, but came to this country and obviously enjoyed the opportunity that this country provided. And my parents used to always say because of that, that it was important to give something back to this country. Secondly, it was my time in the Army. I went through ROTC. This was during the Vietnam era and I served two years after I got out of law school on active duty. And what that really provided me was an experience where I was part of a group of individuals from across this country, of different races, different creeds, different beliefs, but were all serving in the military and working on a common mission together. That sense of discipline, that sense of teamwork, that sense of really striving to achieve something together taught me a lot about the importance of service. And I guess the last influence I had was a young president who said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

KH: In a recent op-ed, you wrote, "Once again, the full measure of America's resolve is being tested, but we need only look to our past to see our way through to the future. From armed conflicts and terror attacks, to economic collapses and social unrest, the American tradition of defying the odds through collective sacrifice and service is as old as the country itself." Why did you include sacrifice in that prescription?

LP: Sacrifice is a term that has really gone out of style in this country. You hear very few politicians talk about the importance of sacrifice. It's almost like you don't want to upset people by telling them that they have to sacrifice. The reality is that in World War II, the Greatest Generation was about young men and women who decided to go to war and take a chance on the ultimate sacrifice, which was giving their life. And we've been through wars where young people have been courageous enough to do that. But in recent times it is the men and women in uniform who, on a voluntary basis, have been willing to join the military and yes, put their lives on the line in order to fight for this country. But there are a lot of other people that have not been willing to do that. And what we have to understand is that if we're going to protect our democracy for the future, it's going to take work and yes, it's going to take sacrifice, but that means that all of us have to be part of that effort. All of us need to join hands in making sure that yes, we're going to have to sacrifice, but we're going to sacrifice because we want to protect that American dream for the future. And that's a message that I think needs to be said over and over again. And frankly, that's why national service is important, because we have to say to young people, "you could be part of an experience. Yes, it's going to demand discipline. Yes, it's going to demand sacrifice. But more importantly, it is an expression of duty to country. And when you do that, you'll feel better about yourself and very frankly, you'll feel better about your country."

KH: Today there are few institutions of American government that still retain a deep well of trust among the American people. But the American military has maintained that. Throughout social upheaval, throughout many of the crises of confidence in government that we're experiencing now. I have to believe that a large part of the reason is due to what you just described and that attribution of the qualities of combined struggle and sacrifice that so describes military service. When I think about the most important project that national service can take on in the coming years, it's restoring that sense of trust in government, in each other, and I'd love for you to speak to that and how shared struggle and sacrifice can help build trust.

LP: I was taught by my parents to obviously believe in the American dream and the dream of having a better life in this country, but they also taught me that dreams are just dreams unless you're willing to work hard and to sacrifice and to take risks and to have the courage to fight for your dreams. I think that it is that ability to understand that we really do have a responsibility to be part of a nation that depends on people working and caring for one another. It was de Tocqueville when he came to this country who was really trying to describe what was important about this nation. And he went throughout this country into the far West, and when he wrote about it, he wrote something I've never forgotten, which is that there was a quality in the American people that he did not see in Europe, but was present here in America, which was the quality of caring for one another, caring for the community, wanting the best for everyone. And it is that sense of caring that I think goes to the heart and soul of why all of us have a duty really, to work with others, to try to make sure that all people have a better life. I really believe that there is a lot to be gained by national service. One is obviously just the patriotic spirit of doing something for your country and serving your community. But secondly, it also gives young people a chance through a GI Bill to be able to pay for their education, rather than having to borrow money to the hilt in order to get a decent education. It's also about learning a job and learning a skill. It's also about, frankly, savings because there are 3000 mayors in this country and business leaders who have said this is important because it serves a purpose and actually saves money by virtue of having young people do this. And lastly, it is about understanding one another. If there's anything that we recognize in this whole issue of racial inequality, it's that there's a failure to really understand and appreciate each other for who we are. And the one thing I saw in the army is that again, regardless of race or color or creed, these people knew how to watch each other's back. They knew that they had to fight together. They knew that they had to be a team. That is an important element of national service and one that is needed today more than ever.

KH: That was Secretary Leon Panetta, on public service and sacrifice. That last point he talked about, the importance of understanding one another and how service can help, is something Ryan Britch experienced first-hand. Now a government affairs associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Ryan is a true believer in national service.

Ryan Britch: I was looking for an adventure and I wanted some college money. I grew up pretty poor, on food stamps, and nobody had a college fund for me so I thought I'd give Uncle Sam a shot. So I joined the Vermont Army National Guard, deployed to Afghanistan just a couple months after graduating high school. I think I had my 19th birthday there. It was a pretty rough and kinetic year I think. We were in firefights pretty much once a week or so. I lost some very close friends of mine. Coming home I just felt really, I guess, not myself. I tried going to college. I was really struggling with my GPA. I couldn't sleep. I wasn't making friends. And my junior year of college, I decided on a whim to do an internship with YouthBuild. And so it's an AmeriCorps program, alternative secondary education program, takes students who have had minor run-ins with the law, high school dropouts, and they give them, pretty much just take half their time, spend it on the basic reading, writing and math skills needed for the high school diploma. And then the other half of the time on construction sites. So they are working towards a construction certificate. And being able to mentor these students on construction sites, in the classroom, and on volunteer service projects, I got to build really positive relationships with the students and I saw a lot of similarities in them to me. I think a lot of them had bad childhoods and had post-traumatic stress. So I could see similarities between myself coming home from Afghanistan and these students. And it was pretty soon after starting with YouthBuild that I started sleeping, my stress disappeared and I brought my GPA up to a 4.0. And so it was never really intentional, but I think I discovered the positive impacts of having a sense of purpose and meaning, I guess.

So after my experience with YouthBuild, I graduated college and I wanted to continue serving. Like I got that itch for service. I feel like once you do national service, you always kind of have that itch with you. So I ended up signing up for the Peace Corps and so I spent two and a half years in Swaziland mentoring young men and working on HIV prevention and education programs in rural communities. I was actually really surprised when I joined the Peace Corps and I was put in my community. Honestly, it felt like I was an army infantry man again, doing counterinsurgency operations, except the local population was friendly and I wasn't carrying a weapon. It's all about winning hearts and minds. And that was the COIN strategy in Afghanistan in 2010. Checking with your local counterparts, seeing what they need to make their community thrive, whether it's agriculture, education, health. So I saw a lot of similarities between my time in Afghanistan and my Peace Corps service, and then with YouthBuild. It's all about building relationships with people. And that's something that I feel that we miss in our modern world. We're always constantly on our phones, we're answering emails. I don't feel like we spend a lot of time building relationships with each other, and that's something that I've always looked for, and I've experienced that consistently through my path through national service. Initially whether it was the army or the Peace Corps, I think I was looking for an adventure, but ended up discovering the power of having a sense of purpose and a sense of meaning.

KH: After the break, General Stanley McChrystal talks about the civilian-military divide and the importance of having skin in the game when it comes to the well-being of our country.

But first, let’s learn about New Politics, the sponsor of this podcast. Listen to founder and Executive Director Emily Cherniack tell us about the work New Politics does to lift up servant leaders into elected office.

Emily Cherniack: New Politics, which is an organization that I founded and now run, we are a nonpartisan organization that aims to revitalize American democracy by recruiting, developing, and electing servant leaders who put community and country first.

We help these outstanding leaders who have served in the military, or national service programs like AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps, run for office because we believe leaders who have dedicated their lives to serving our country are the kinds of proven leaders we need in politics.

We think that leadership should transcend "party". So we'll talk to, and consider, supporting anyone who has served and embodies those servant leadership values.

I would say to anyone who feels disillusioned and hopeless about our politics to not lose hope, because there are a wave of leaders coming up through the pipeline who have what it takes to change our politics. These are amazing servant leaders from across the country who are stepping up and answering the call to serve again, and as candidates and campaign staffers and volunteers. Leaders like James Talarico who is a Teach For America alum, and in Texas was the youngest state rep to be elected and he has already done some big wins with bipartisan efforts on education reform.

Or you look at David Crowley who is a Public Allies alum and Milwaukee state rep who, after scoring big wins for his community, is already positioned to even make more meaningful change as the first African American elected to the County Executive in the history of Milwaukee. They embody what it means to put the country first and they are sort of the hope and the inspiration that I feel when I think about the future of our politics for America.

KH: If you’re thinking about getting involved in politics, visit newpolitics.org to learn more about taking the next step in your service career.

General Stanley McChrystal is the Former Commander of US and International Forces in Afghanistan and the former leader of the Joint Special Operations Command and now the board chair of Service Year Alliance. I asked him about the power of serving, in his case, primarily through the armed services, and whether something is lost when such a narrow slice of Americans serves in that way.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal: I think it is. On a couple of levels. First I'd throw out a statistic I read years ago that during the Vietnam War, more than a hundred sons and daughters of serving flag officers, general officers and admirals in the military were killed in combat. Not a single son or daughter of a serving Senator or Congressman was killed during the war. I never checked it but I think it's largely true. That's one thing: you don't have people with the same amount of skin in the game making part, the civilian half of the yin and yang of that kind of policy, and that's dangerous. The second is: if the military serves and starts to pat itself on the back, and this is sensitive to say because it almost seems unfair. People walk by you in the airport and they go, "Thanks for your service, you're a hero," and all this sort of thing. It's nice, but you can start to think, "Hey, I'm serving, I'm doing the hard things and other people aren't." The danger there is you start to get this sense of self-righteousness that we are more right than other people are and that's a dangerous mindset to get in the military. Look at many of the third world countries that have had tough relationships between military and civilian government and that kind of a mindset is something you never want. And then the last part is because service is such an expanding experience for everyone, whether it's military or civilian, the commitment to this larger cause, which is your community or your nation, fellow citizens. It gives you a different perspective on life, your own importance, what we are put on this earth for. And if young people aren't given that experience, then where are they going to get that idea? I mean, they can read a book, they can watch a movie, but if you go through your education process, go straight into a job, and then it's all about the progress of your career or making money or whatever, you don't ever have that idea that really what we exist for is to do something a bit more selfless and do it with this group of people who may not be exactly like us. And I think having that experience is sacred for a society. We go back to history of societies in the eras when they are winning their independence, or they are developing their nation or their forging something, you tend to have great participation. And that gives a set of values to an entire generation, takes quite a while for that to reduce. But when you don't have it, it does reduce. We had the Depression, a shared experience, we had World War II where so many Americans served in uniform or then went out and served in supporting industries. Everybody contributed, that everybody left that experience thinking, "Well, you know, I did my part, it was hard but I feel good about that." Now we've had a long time when a pretty narrow part of America can look back and say, "I feel good about that, I served in the Peace Corps, I did City Year, I did AmeriCorps." It's a tiny percentage and I think that's not a healthy situation. I think we've got to expand that experience, so people get their vistas widened when they're young enough for it to impact the rest of their lives.

KH: So how do we create that cultural expectation without winding up in this same place we are often with military vets where we've falsely valorized their service and put them on a pedestal. Are there more concrete things we can do? Not the empty symbolic gestures, like giving up your seat on a plane and things like that. But are there things that institutions can do to create that cultural preference for service for young people?

SM: That is a very nuanced but important point and the answer is yes. I think the first thing is we need to look at admission to universities. We need to look at hiring practices in companies. Data shows that someone who has done a kind of service is a better employee. They're more mature, they've developed responsibility, they bring experiences that they didn't have before. If people with the power to hire people, whether it's for the government or for big corporations or small ones, would simply say, "We value that service experience, therefore, anyone who has that service experience, we're going to put them in another pile." Now they're not guaranteed to be hired, it doesn't mean you automatically get a job and it doesn't mean someone who didn't doesn't.

But it should mean, “okay, those people who served that is an advantage” and it should be an advantage. And we should go out of our way to signal that to people. Because when someone goes to do a year of service, they shouldn't think, “well, I'm just taking a year of my life and I'm throwing it away”. They should think that I am developing my personal skills and confidence, but I'm also resume building in a way. I am building something that is going to help me progress the rest of my career. That means that parents and people will be much more supportive of it. One of the things we find right now is a young person is going up and they're going to go off to college, let's say, and they want to go do a year or something like this and the parents go, "Well, you got in this prestigious university, I think you just ought to go now, I don't think you should take the chance to take a year off for ..." And in reality, what we want parents to do is say, "No, that would be good for you." And then you go to college, they've got plenty of time. But we've got to get society valuing this to the point where they say, if someone isn't planning to do service, then you have that dinner table conversation that says, "Hey, Sally, why aren't you considering a year of service?" And that kind of influence really has an effect on people, not just from parents, but if the lunch table at school, you got 10 kids sitting at the lunch table and eight of them are going to go to serve. And they look at the other two and said, "What are you guys going to do?" Then you start to get this idea that, "Wow, I don't want to be odd person out." And that's a good thing. I think we could get America to the point where, as you correctly say, "Not everybody's a hero." If you’re a good citizen, that's a pretty big deal.

KH: I want to go back to your observation about the responsibilities of citizenship. That it's a coin with two sides, we talk about the rights a whole lot we don't often invoke the responsibilities. I'll share a story about my first day of Con Law, Constitutional Law class at Yale, where the professor wrote up on the board, US Constitution, Rights and Responsibilities and I thought, "Well, this will be interesting". And we spent the entire semester talking about the rights enshrined in the constitution. And on the last day perhaps somewhat unfairly, I raised my hand and said, "When are we going to talk about the responsibilities?" There was a little bit of a panicked blank expression. But it's, I think, representative of a broader attitude when it comes to the expectations of citizenship, what are those responsibilities and, specific to national service, what other character traits does that year of national service aim to imbue citizens with?

SM: That is a great point. I think that when we think of responsibilities as a citizen, that this should be a constant conversation in America, because it will wax and wane a little bit. Clearly there are responsibilities that run to the basics: paying your taxes, obeying laws. I would also argue that voting is a responsibility. Personally, I don't think it should be optional. I think you ought to have to weigh in and do things like that. Then there's things like when the nation needs you to go to war, you ought to go. When the nation needs you to stand up for other things, you ought to do those. Those are pretty straightforward, those are civic duties that are often enshrined in laws and things like that. Then there's a wider responsibility and this gets to the idea of what responsibility do I have for another citizen who may have made bad life choices, or may have not had opportunities, or may have just been unlucky. And then you say, "Well, I worked hard and he didn't," or "I worked hard and I got mine and so mine is mine and his is his problem." This is where I think we need to have a wider discussion in America. It gets to the heart of some of the things we've done in our society in terms of starting with public schools, but then also ideas like social security, because that's a transfer system to take care of people in our country, fellow citizens who need that. And so I think that wider responsibility is something that we ought to talk very openly about. Right now, we kind of talk about taxes separately and then we say, "Well, what's that tax money going for?" And we very rarely say “what we're really is taking a bunch of money from some of us and giving it to some other of us”. Why are we doing that? Because we think it's the right thing to do. We think it's necessary. And I think it's important that we as a nation need to have this as a more direct conversation right now, it gets to the idea of reparations for descendants of former slaves. It gets to people who haven't had the opportunities that others have, the income inequality that we see that I think haunts our nation. I think this is a very important conversation to have. I think that the national service pulls us in that direction, it pulls people closer to those problems. It pulls people closer into the idea, "Hey, we are a nation and a nation is made up of citizens who've agreed to certain things. One of which we believe is taking care of each other." And the degree to which we were willing to go that direction is really important. But I don't think we've had that conversation very directly or philosophically. We have it sort of indirectly sometimes. The national service movement right now, fortunately, has got this burst of energy because the COVID-19 crisis put it front and center. A number of things give us an opportunity... Senator Coons has got a bill moving forward that would increase the government component of this. And of course the bigger part is from private philanthropy and whatnot. But can give it the idea that we can pick up and get some momentum, because we've had national service for 60 years, but it's always been too small to reach critical mass, too small to make the kind of difference socially that I believe it needs in the country.

KH: The language you use to describe this movement is really evocative of the nation-building efforts that have been so necessary in other countries in the last several decades. You were central to one of those efforts in Afghanistan. I'm wondering if you perceive any parallels in that all important mission to rebuild trust as the foundation of any social progress, to help restore trust not just in government but in each other. I'm wondering if you've given that thought.

SM: I've given a lot of thought to that. Nation-building sort of got a bad name in Iraq and Afghanistan because it's hard. People say "We don't want to get involved in nation-building, that's their problem. We're going to go and drop some bombs and kill some people and then we're going to leave and they have to build the nation." I sort of shake my head, and say, "The whole point of this is to create a stable nation and a partner for the world community.” The number of people we kill is not a metric of any kind of success, it's an irrelevant metric. Whether we can create some stability- think about the Second World War we had this massive war, but then we did counter-insurgency after the war. We did it by the Marshall Plan in Europe and then the government that was put in place in Japan. Those were all long-term patient programs designed to rebuild societies so that they would be viable. When I see now, when we talk about “nation-building in other places is hard, we shouldn't do it”, I disagree with that. But then I look at home and I go, "Let's not also fall prey to the idea we don't have to nation-build at home." When I saw some of the responses to the Black Lives Matters protests, which were pretty diverse groups of people out there, I saw pictures of very militarized security forces, police in some cases, military and whatnot. And it evoked the idea of almost a militaristic control of the population. And what worries me is we could forget what our point is. Our point is not to suppress the population, our point is not to crush protests. Our point is to build a better society. What we need is not to take our eye off the ball and the ball has got to be making a better society that better supports our people. More opportunities, more equality, healthier. And that's not a pie in the sky Pollyanna idea. That's not a do-gooder saying let's do good. If you want to compete in this world today, if you want to compete economically and ultimately, if you want to compete militarily, you have got to have a vibrant, strong society. Right now, less than 30% of young Americans in the entire United States, qualify to enlist in the US military. Now, let me let that sink in because you go, "Now wait a minute, the military is, you get in trouble with the law, you get hauled before the judge." And he goes, "Okay, six months in jail or enlist in the Marines." That ain't true anymore. Now, 70% of young people don't meet the standards to enlist, either physically or drug use or criminally, and so we have got to use this 30% to fill the military, but also those are the same people being competed for by big corporations and whatnot. And so if we create a society in which a significant part of our populace is not competitive in the world, doesn't have the skills, doesn't have the background, doesn't have anything for us to be competitive, we can't compete. And that means economically, that also means at war if it came to that. So we need to be just really honest about, nothing in this world is free and if we are not thinking about building the strength of the nation in many ways, sometimes just through the education of young people, then we are going to pay this huge price.

KH: I think it's obvious to most people who are paying attention to what is happening in the country today, that the next few years are going to require some pretty significant sacrifice if we are indeed to rebuild that trust and each other, and our institutions that a stable, vibrant, healthy democracy requires. You have written a lot about sacrifice, especially as it pertains to teams and sharing in sacrifice as part of a team pursuing a mission. How important is that?

SM: I think it's important on two levels, I think on the first point, if you're going to get anything done of size and scale, you're going to have to be part of a team to do that. Almost never in history does a single person change the course of history. They may influence teams to do it, but ultimately it's a group of people that do that. So as you become part of a team, it means you compromise because never does everybody in the team want to go exactly the same direction and do it the same way. If you do, then you've created such a non-diverse entity that it's homogeneous and therefore you're not getting a very wide perspective, then you're probably not going to do very well. So I think the first thing is you've got to have a diverse, you've got to bring together a team that's willing to compromise to get things done. And so, as we talk about trying to build teams, it takes this extraordinary level of commitment over time to cause real change. And it's hard to maintain that, but it is the essential part of solving big problems. I think that's going to be the challenge for us in the years ahead, you talked about, we are going to have to rebuild many things in America, starting with trust. And that means it can't be a weekend offsite with a few Congresspeople saying, "Yeah, we agree we're going to get along." It's going to be demonstrated behaviors by leaders, then demonstrated and consistent commitment by American citizens to keep pressure on those leaders and hold them accountable to the outcomes that we think are important. We're going to have to put our eyes on a distant point and America's going to have to move in that direction. And it's probably going to be as hard as it's been in the last two generations, because ever since World War II, we've been in such an advantaged position, that although things were dangerous, the Cold War and obviously nuclear war, but we very rarely been tested about whether we are going to survive as a republic. And I would argue that at a certain point, if we abandon our values, if we lose our place in the world, the trust other nations have in us, our economic vibrancy, then the survival of the Republic is not a given. People say, "That can't happen." I say, "Well, it happens, it happens to every other nation in history." So why do we think it won't happen to us? And why do we think we don't have to get very serious, roll up our sleeves and take it on?

KH: Next week on Rebuilding America, we’re talking about the media. Can national service help rebuild trust in journalism? We’ll talk to one man who thinks the answer is yes - Steve Waldman, founder and president of Report for America. This groundbreaking program places emerging journalists in local newsrooms across the country. Steve joins me next week to talk about the mission of Report for America and why journalism is a public service.

Subscribe to Rebuilding America to get all ten episodes in your podcast feed as they come out every week. And don’t forget to rate and review - it really helps other listeners find the show.

Want to get paid, gain skills, and make a difference in your community? A service year may be just what you’re looking for. Apply today at ServiceYear.org/podcast.

Rebuilding America is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, made in partnership with New Politics. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Rebuilding America, a podcast about national service.

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