9/11 led me to Afghanista­n, Syria and na­tional ser­vice

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Jesse Colvin

I watched the Twin Tow­ers col­lapse on a tiny tele­vi­sion in my English class­room at The Park School in Bal­ti­more County. I was 17. I called mil­i­tary re­cruiters that week.

Like so many Amer­i­cans, that day trig­gered a lifetime of pur­su­ing ser­vice for the com­mon good. I felt that shared de­sire to serve in my high school class­room and have con­tin­ued to feel that same pull to ser­vice on Sept. 11th ever since.

In re­sponse to my out­reach to mil­i­tary re­cruiters, my par­ents per­suaded me to an­chor my pur­suit of ser­vice in ed­u­ca­tion. De­ter­mined to un­der­stand the roots of the at­tacks, I went to col­lege to study Ara­bic and Mid­dle East his­tory.

On Sept. 11, 2006, I was in Syria, teach­ing English to Iraqi refugees. From Da­m­as­cus, I saw how poorly the war was be­ing man­aged in Bagh­dad. I could also see that if we got it wrong in Iraq, the vi­o­lence would spill over into Syria and else­where. That ex­pe­ri­ence led me to join the U.S. Army when I re­turned home.

By Sept. 11, 2010, I was in Afghanista­n, serv­ing in the Army Rangers on the first of my four com­bat de­ploy­ments there. We tracked and cap­tured lead­ers of al-Qaeda, the Tal­iban and other ter­ror groups.

My mil­i­tary ser­vice, es­pe­cially in Afghanista­n, showed me what is pos­si­ble when Amer­i­cans from dif­fer­ent walks of life join to­gether in ser­vice to tackle shared prob­lems. Our dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences, when fused, yielded bet­ter ideas. It was our job to run to­ward prob­lems — a value shared by Army Rangers as well as alums of civil­ian na­tional ser­vice pro­grams like Habi­tat for Hu­man­ity, Teach for Amer­ica and Pub­lic Al­lies.

On Sept. 11, 2011, some of my fellow Rangers and I par­tic­i­pated in an on-field cer­e­mony be­fore the Bal­ti­more Ravens routed the Pittsburgh Steelers in the sea­son opener in Bal­ti­more. For a few brief hours, the sense of shared pur­pose in the sta­dium felt like the na­tional unity in the months fol­low­ing the 9/11 at­tacks. One of my Rangers re­quested to reen­list right then and there in the sta­dium.

Flash for­ward to Sept. 11, 2018. I was run­ning for Congress in my home state of Mary­land. While we built a coali­tion that ex­tended from a Bernie San­ders chap­ter to a mem­ber of Pres­i­dent George W. Bush’s cabi­net, the cam­paign trail in 2018 of­fered a front row seat to the deep di­vides that are tear­ing apart our civic fab­ric. It was a glimpse into the dystopian fu­ture our coun­try might face if we don’t in­vest in so­lu­tions that unite us.

This year on Sept. 11th, I’m serv­ing as the CEO of Ser­vice Year Al­liance, a non­profit whose mis­sion is to give ev­ery young Amer­i­can the op­por­tu­nity of na­tional ser­vice — whether that’s in the Marine Corps, Peace Corps, Cal­i­for­nia Con­ser­va­tion Corps or any other ser­vice year or­ga­ni­za­tion.

If the past 18 years have taught me any­thing, it’s that na­tional ser­vice — whether mil­i­tary, civil­ian or pub­lic — not only al­lows us to ad­dress some of our big­gest shared chal­lenges at home and abroad, but also rep­re­sents one of the last, best hopes to in­oc­u­late our coun­try against the di­vi­sions threat­en­ing our fu­ture.

That’s why I am ex­cited about Serve Amer­ica To­gether — a cam­paign to make na­tional ser­vice part of grow­ing up in Amer­ica. We need to fo­cus on our com­mon val­ues and what we can do bet­ter, to­gether. Mak­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to serve avail­able to all young Amer­i­cans will cre­ate the con­nec­tive tis­sue the nation needs.

As the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates pre­pare for the next de­bate Thurs­day night, I urge them to con­sider how they can bring to life the feel­ings of con­nect­ed­ness I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced on 9/11 over the years. I en­cour­age them to ac­cept the Serve Amer­ica To­gether pres­i­den­tial chal­lenge and re­lease their plans to ex­pand na­tional ser­vice — an idea that will unite our coun­try in ser­vice and bridge deep di­vides.

I’m hope­ful that by Sept. 11, 2021 — 20 years af­ter my ini­tial call to serve — the next pres­i­dent will be well on the way to mak­ing na­tional ser­vice an op­por­tu­nity for all, and Amer­i­cans will once again feel in­spired to serve along­side mil­lions of their fellow cit­i­zens.

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