With Congress and the White House mired in a stalemate over a possible government shutdown, the newest, if temporary, federal agency launched on Thursday—the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service.
In speeches and a panel discussion in the Hall of the States in Washington, more than 100 volunteerism advocates gathered to embark on a nationwide “conversation about national service” required by Congress last September after a debate over women in combat and youth registration under the decades-old Selective Service System.
“We were a start-up agency with no money, no employees and no place to meet,” said its chairman, former Rep. Joseph Heck, R-Nev., a physician and brigadier general in the Army Reserve. But an Army lieutenant colonel found leased Defense Department space in the Crystal City neighborhood of Arlington, Va., to house what has grown to nine full-time staff and 11 commission members appointed by leaders of both chambers of Congress as well as leaders of the Armed Services committees.
“The immediate concern was the Selective Service System,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who championed the project with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “As DoD moved to open all jobs to women, it raised significant issues. We wanted inclusion and acceptable standards for 17-24-year-olds. They’ve worked well for 50 years, but we need to look again at the standards,” Reed added, noting that some modern defense jobs that require such skills cyber technology or languages “might not require the same standards used in 1941 for the Army and the Air Corps.”
Seeking advice from the public, Congress “is looking at the utility of the draft” and might consider “a narrower one” for specific functions and to “foster not just military service but national service,” Reed said. Evoking his societal bonding experience serving in the 1960s, Reed said, “There is something we’ve lost in professionalizing our military—the social fabric has fragmented and eroded.” He encouraged more young Americans to volunteer for such agencies as VISTA and City Year/Americorps to gain “a sense of satisfaction of serving” rather than being “an idle bystander.”
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who chairs the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, noted that mandatory Selective Service registration ended in 1975, but was renewed by Congress under President Carter in 1980 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Coffman cited questions about its constitutionality. “We will look at our mobilization capacity and see at what point we would consider conscription,” he said, adding that the current eight-year period in which military enlistees can be recalled has provided “an incredible reservoir of qualified individuals we can call on.”
But as many as 75 percent of young people today, he added, would be ineligible for the military under current standards that can deny admission to candidates who are overweight, lacking a high school diploma, demonstrated to be emotionally unfit or have problems with the law, drugs or alcohol.
The life-altering values of civilian volunteerism were the focus of the panel discussion led by Mark Gearan, commission vice chair and past director of the Peace Corps. He called the audience of agency, nonprofit and think tank alumni a “Mount Rushmore of Service,” and praised the millennial generation’s commitment to service, which, he said, has a “transformative impact.” The other vice chair is Debra Wada, former assistant Army secretary for manpower and reserve affairs.
The commission, which also launched a website and social media presence on Thursday, will in the next six months visit all regions of the country, beginning February in Harrisburg, Pa. “We hope to ignite a national conservation that in the next two years leads to a series of recommendations,” Heck said.