“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
By Frank F. Islam
Those words spoken by President John F. Kennedy nearly six decades ago at his inauguration on January 20, 1961 have inspired generations and millions of Americans to serve their country. I am among them.
President Kennedy has inspired others through his deeds as well as his words. He was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal of Honor for his heroic actions after the sinking of his PT 109 boat during World War II. He served with distinction as U.S. president from 1961- 1963 and before that as the U.S. Senator and Congressman from Massachusetts from 1947–1960. He made an indelible mark on national service with the establishment of the Peace Corps during his presidency to send volunteers to contribute to peace and progress in developing countries around the world.
In summary, JFK lived a life of service and provided platforms for others to join him. That is why it is fitting that the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service in its final report Inspired to Serve, issued in March of this year recommends building upon his contributions.
In the Executive Summary of its report, the Commission proposes that, “By 2031 — the 70th anniversary of President Kennedy’s call for Americans to serve the nation — the Commission envisions that 5 million Americans will begin participating in military, national or public service each year.” Achieving this target would be transformative, “minimizing the need for traditional military recruiting”; producing 1 million federally supported national service opportunities — “a more than tenfold increase from today’s numbers”; and, modernize Government personnel systems “to attract and enable Americans with critical skills to enter public service.”
In its 245-page report, the Commission present 49 robust recommendations and provides 45 pages of implementation guidance for bringing about that transportation. The recommendations include:
- Revitalize civic education and expand service learning.
- Promote cross-service marketing, recruitment and retention.
- Strengthen and expand educational pathways for military service.
- Establish new models for national service
- Reform Federal hiring
Inspired to Serve is a landmark study that was developed based upon two and a half years of extensive research. It provides the road map for future legislative and administrative actions to expand and extend JFK’s service to country call to future generations. It builds upon the present and the past to move the country forward.
This is especially critical in these trying times when political polarization, systemic racism, and the economic and health consequences of Covid-19 has the country virtually impaled. As Senator John F. Kennedy advised a Loyola College alumni group in 1958 before he became President “Let us not despair but act. Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past — let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”
Indeed, it is not time to despair but to prepare. The bad news is that is unrealistic to think or believe that there will be any movement upon the Commission’s recommendations because of immediate priority needs and the chaos of this presidential election year.
The good news is that the report will be there as point of reference and action in 2021. The better news is that so many U.S. citizens have heard JFK’s call to service in 2020 and stepped forward individually and in groups to make the U.S. a better nation.
They include the Covid-19 heroes. The health care professionals and essential worker who did their jobs and the country moving during its lockdown. The JFK Library will be acknowledging the work of those in the frontline with individual stories on its website and by honoring a representative group of all of these heroes at its annual Profile in Courage ceremony next May.
They also include those on the sidelines and those in the streets. The tens of millions of Americans who stayed at home and sheltered in place during the first wave of the pandemic. And, the diversity of those who protested against structural and societal racism.
These brave Americans have enlisted in service to their country. There is much more to be done and the Inspired to Serve report provides the launching pad for doing much more.
Noted historian Robert Dallek titled his brilliant biography of President Kennedy, An Unfinished Life. JFK’s own life was tragically cut short. He lives on, however, through the lives of others who have and will serve this nation by making it a better and fairer place.
JFK’s call has been heard. It is an enduring one. It cannot and will not be silenced as long as there are Americans who are willing to put the interest of others above their own in order to create a more perfect union.