Yes, there are challenges that come with being a military family. They range from small inconveniences to life-altering occurrences that no family wants to face. Inestimable costs include missed birthdays and holidays, worrying about your loved one’s safety, and the stress upon relationships. However, the real cost I worry about is the cost to our entire nation if the majority of our citizens aren’t thinking about serving some greater purpose larger than their own personal wellbeing. We need a groundswell of encouragement from all facets of society to reinforce our interconnectedness and how vital each and every one of us is to each other. I’m grateful that as my kids see their father and other men and women like him volunteering to serve their country, they are endowed with a sense of their responsibility and not just their rights as members of our community. Even though this military life presents challenges and frustration, it also bequeaths us with a sense of life beyond ourselves and grants us the privilege of being amongst those who voluntarily choose to serve their fellow citizens and their country. Every visit to a ship, every homecoming event, every change of command is a teachable civics lesson for our children, and they will be better people for it.
As military families we are in a special position to encourage others to donate their time, energy, and spirit to make this country a better place to live for ourselves and our future generations. While our military members are most noted for protecting our rights and freedoms, their service also demands from us the responsibility of making this country a land where freedom engenders a sense of duty to do what one can to strengthen our communities and truly live out the American Dream with the democratic principles of commitment and service. I hope that, as a result of the increased attention paid to our service members, others in the community are asking themselves how they might serve their country in their own way. The current administration has brought service to the forefront and as a student in public administration, I’m very glad to hear references about shared consciousness and civic responsibility. The president has said, “Loving your country shouldn’t just mean watching fireworks on the 4th of July. Loving your country must mean accepting your responsibility to do your part to change it. If you do, your life will be richer; our country will be stronger.” Now is a great time for this renewed discussion on public service and what it means to have an engaged citizenry.
Our military members volunteer out of a sense of duty, responsibility, and civic pride, among many other things. We need to foster a culture that encourages public service and volunteerism because American democracy’s success is dependent upon the level of participation and support from her nation’s citizens. Active, engaged citizens contribute to a healthy democracy. These are the ideals of patriotism that we should strive for and the ones that would encourage society to value that sense of shared purpose. Volunteerism and public service of any kind, with their accompanying values of responsibility, duty, honor, and empathy is perhaps the most effective approach to developing a national asset of engaged, knowledgeable citizens. Ultimately, society is progressed when its members develop and value devotion to caring for and feeling a responsibility towards the wellbeing of others in their communities – a “patriotism of benevolence,” according to some scholars.
In truth, civic engagement and volunteerism is what sustains this country and allows us to see past our differences to our commonalities as human beings. When he made a case for a civic humanist interpretation of the obligations of public servants in our country, academic David Hart wrote that his argument was obviously idealistic. But, and I strongly agree, this country and our democratic government began with a commitment to several ideals – the ideal of superior moral character in its citizens, and idealist belief in the core values of public service, social and civic responsibility, the public interest, and self-sacrifice.
Interestingly enough, the last presidential election was replete with appeals for civic engagement and a recommitment to exactly these old-school, perhaps even passé, American values of duty and personal sacrifice for the public interest. This renewed interest in a shared consciousness, in the idea that there is such a thing as a public interest and a public service ethic, is very encouraging to myself as a veteran and military spouse. Heck, as a parent who wants my children to grow up and know and care about their neighbors. It is exactly this renewed interest in a national dialogue about civic engagement and the perceptions of the roles and responsibilities – and not just the “rights” – of our nation’s citizens that is the first step in reclaiming the truest sense of the meaning of patriotism. It is also, incidentally, the best support we can give our service members and their families.