I sat in the audience of about 100 veterans and families for the Memorial Day service. Next to me was the brother of a veteran who had died in the Philippines following a typhoon that had swept him overboard in the 1940s. After the flag presentation and recognizing the audience veterans who each raised hands, the poem In Flanders Fields was recited and poppies given to everyone. Finally, the national anthem closed the ceremony and veterans were thanked for their service.
It was charming and sincere if a bit time worn. These were men and women in their 80s and I found myself wondering about the challenge of “service” for the young people of today. Most of us had responded to a draft. We were at war. The threat was national and daily news kept us informed. For myself, it was a doctor draft and the Navy had paid for my last year of medical school with the provision that I would enter service when I finished training.
We have come a long way in the last 50 years, building a volunteer Army and eliminating the draft. Our freedom now means whatever one chooses. The sense of a communal direction is tattered as we see with the refusal of some to wear masks, get vaccinated, observe social distance, isolate voluntarily and simply disregard the need for a community response to defeat the COVID-19 virus. This plague has killed more Americans than all our previous wars abroad combined.
Somehow, in winning the freedom to be “free,” we have lost the necessary sense of unity. Patriots arm themselves to prepare for a war with their neighbors whom they mistakenly see as taking their freedom away by requiring masking, social distancing and closing public places.
But there is a counterweight we see every day. Essential workers, often underappreciated, the first responders, the hospital staff, the teachers, the millions of people who understand the need for a communal response to fight the spread of the virus and follow the science recommendations, are the true patriots of today.
As I listened to the Memorial Day service, it was clear to me that we need another service for our youth, a National Service which would be offered, possibly required just like the draft of the 1940s and 50s and 60s, for youth to spend two years in service working with diverse others in social and technical fields. The climate crisis just screams for a unified approach, an army of engaged citizens. The voluntary Peace Corps or the American Friends Service Committee are administrative examples. The difference required now, I believe, is that this service would be compulsory and a moral antidote for our shattered sense of national unity.
I won’t be here 50 years from now, but hopefully the Memorial service then will be honoring those new patriots who gave up their freedom to save the planet and defeat the plague of the coronavirus.
Dr. Whitis, a retired child psychiatrist, served three years in the U.S. Navy and lives in Altoona with his wife of 68 years.