National Service

Recognizing the sacrifice of Veterans, celebrating the work of civilian service members

November 10, 2014  • Robert L. Gordon III

There is a well-known picture in my family of my father, my brother and me – all in our military and cadet uniforms – laughing on our sofa at my parents' home in Colorado Springs. Indeed, my father and I served a total of 53 years in the Army, and my brother spent six years serving as an Air Force Officer.  My sister married an Army engineer captain who eventually went on to become a senior Foreign Service Officer in the State Department. My mother and wife, both military spouses, were instrumental to strengthening our familial and military communities as we deployed and moved to scores of military installations at home and abroad.

Our experience underscores the commitment my family made to serve our country across two generations, and now we watch proudly as our children carry the legacy in national civilian service. One of my sons, three nieces and one nephew have all served in national civilian service organizations, City Year and Teach for America, which are part of the AmeriCorps network. We value their service in high poverty schools and challenged communities to make a measurable and meaningful difference. My son served in an elementary school in Boston, while years later one of my nieces found herself in service for two years as a teacher in an underserved school in Atlanta.

Moreover, our family's experience represents a new transformational service continuum, with Veterans and military family members transitioning out of military service to bring their talents, commitment, and sense of duty to the national civilian service sector to tackle some of the nation's most pressing problems.

A case in point is the story of Navy Commander Sidney Ellington, retired.  Commander Ellington spent 21 years in the Navy as a surface warfare officer and Navy SEAL.  Upon retirement, and after a brief stint as a defense contractor, he used the GI bill to return to his beloved University of Oklahoma to pursue a doctorate. It was during this time that he met a young 21-year old scholar who was committed to teach in an underserved community as a corps member in Teach For America. TFA is a national service organization that inspires college graduates and professionals from different backgrounds to teach for two years in some of the most challenging public schools across the country.  Upon learning about Teach for America, Commander Ellington was inspired to pursue a new path; he applied to TFA and became a corps member, teaching in an alternative charter high school in New Orleans. Today Dr. Ellington serves as TFA's Director of Veterans Initiatives working to increase the rolls of Veterans and military spouses in the TFA corps.

This example underscores the powerful elixir that is military and civilian service – a cocktail of trust, commitment, respect, collaboration and perseverance that achieves positive social impact and restores civility and civic good. The Franklin Project on National Service, of which I am a member and which is part of the National Service Alliance (that includes the National Conference on Citizenship, ServiceNation and Voices for National Service), is leading the charge to promote the expansion of this service continuum, which will not only help bridge the civilian-military divide, but also foster a more healthy, productive, caring and robust civil society. Indeed, national service provides a place for our military and civilian communities to stand side by side to amass reservoirs of trust, accrue social capital, and renew the optimism and civic mindedness that has made this country great.

A sense of sharing, belonging, contributing, and sacrificing are hallmarks that America’s newest generation of Veterans and their families know only too well after 13 years of war.  These same hallmarks anchor the experience of national civilian service participants in their quest to strengthen the human and social capital of our communities. It is therefore not a surprise to see the convergence of these two service communities so vital to restoring the trust, opportunity, and wonder that is the American idea.

On this Veterans Day let us recognize, honor, and affirm the sacrifice of our Veterans and their families, but let us also encourage, support and celebrate those who continue their service alongside our civilian service members to make a positive change in our underserved communities across America.