Patrick Ryan, a Kingston native and graduate of United States Military Academy at West Point, is running for the 19th Congressional District.
As a young Army officer in Iraq, I saw the best of our country in the 20 soldiers I led. Before each mission, we would gather in a circle for our patrol brief. Every time I looked around that circle, comprised of soldiers of different races, religions, genders and party affiliations, I had full confidence we would come together to accomplish our mission. We had each other’s backs, despite differences that might divide us, because we knew that’s what it would take to protect and serve the country we love.
On this Veterans Day, I reflect on what’s transpired in our country since I returned home. We’re increasingly divided; frustrated with our leaders’ inability to get anything done. Too many families and small businesses are struggling to keep their heads above water, yet our leaders in Washington aren’t coming together to help them. Eighty percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job, and 69 percent feel that elected officials serve special interests over their constituents.
I know we’re better than this. After WWII, when more than 70 percent of Congress had served in the military, we achieved landmark progress on civil rights, enacted Medicare and landed on the moon. We’ve proven that when we remember what it is to serve our country, we can unite to overcome insurmountable obstacles.
But today, the number of veterans in Congress is steadily declining: Only 18 percent of members have served in the military. In 1981, that number was at 64 percent. What if more of our emerging leaders had a record of serving their country over themselves? How would that change the way our leadership operates?
I propose a national program to provide free higher education or job training to anyone who spends at least two years serving — teaching low-income students, filling a much-needed nursing job in a rural hospital or serving in the military. This achieves three aims: First, it helps address the critical issues of college affordability and increasing alternative pathways to good jobs. Second, it teaches young people what it means to serve their community and country, and inspires them on a path to continued public service. Finally, it creates a generation of leaders who, should they run for office, will carry the values of service with them to Washington.
A national service program is not a new idea and enjoys wide support. A 2017 Harvard Kennedy School survey of Americans age 18-29 found that 64 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of Democrats support legislation that would create a national service program for young people.
Restoring faith in our government starts with bringing a spirit of selfless service back to Congress.
We’re at an inflection point in our country’s political history. We are deeply divided and seemingly unable to find common ground around the values we share as Americans. But as I saw when huddled with my fellow soldiers in Iraq, and as we’ve seen countless times in our country’s history, answering the call to serve unites us.