Stan McChrystal: A million young people to empower America (CNN)


Stan McChrystal

Stan McChrystal, a retired U.S. Army general and former commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, is chairman of the leadership council of the Franklin Project on national service at the Aspen Institute and co-founder of McChrystal Group. This is the first in a series, "Big Ideas for a New America," in which the Washington-based think tankNew America spotlights experts' solutions to the nation's greatest challenges. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) Duty. Honor. Country. These words were chiseled in granite above me, printed on the diploma in my hands and engraved on my class ring. I had just completed a four year regimen that had been honed over 174 years to be difficult.

The year was 1976. I had just graduated from West Point. In return for four years of education, I owed the nation at least five years of Army service.

I became a "service member." But like most of my peers, I wasn't really thinking much about service. At age 21, I was more focused on the adventures ahead -- of becoming a good officer and leading soldiers.

After 34 years in the U.S. military, I learned that Armies are built soldier-by-soldier, platoon-by-platoon. Like the bricks in a house, the soldiers in each unit contribute to a great military, just as the citizens of each neighborhood help determine whether the nation stands strong. Nothing is more important than developing in our citizens a sense of responsibility to each other -- and to the nation.

The Franklin Project is an initiative that I chair at the Aspen Institute. Our goal is to have 1 million young Americans each complete a civilian service year by 2023. We envision an American version of national service that is voluntary but socially expected.

Today, as part of this effort, I'm calling for a few cities across the country to step up and lead by becoming Service Year Cities.

What if, upon graduating from high school, every young person in these cities is given an opportunity to complete a service year with other young people? Each city could commit to a plan with an initial goal of having at least 25% of their graduating students from high schools stay in their communities to serve for a year.

Like many Americans, I believe our country would benefit greatly if we were to unite around a commitment to service. Creating model towns and cities of service across America could provide powerful local examples that capture our collective imagination and create ripple effects for more service opportunities.