▶ Watch Video: Gen. Stanley McChrystal on the value of national service

Political divisions are tearing our nation apart. Perhaps not since the last decade before our Civil War have differing perspectives so threatened the very fabric of American society. Many of us have seen similar forces in places like Iraq and Afghanistan produce unspeakable pain and tragedy and know that something must be done. But what?

My military career taught me that young Americans, recruited from every corner of our nation, representing different races, religions, incomes, and accents can be brought together under a single flag, for a common purpose, and do great things. During the Depression they built roads, parks and other things that have contributed to every generation that followed. When World Wars I and II erupted, they united to protect not only America, but the world. They came together as diverse as our society, and built bridges, not just over rivers, but also to fellow citizens.

Their greatest contribution was not any physical structure; it was in shaping themselves into what Tom Brokaw so aptly described as the “Greatest Generation.” I might simply call them good citizens.

We can, and must, do that again, by harnessing the power of letting young Americans serve something bigger than themselves.

We can do it through what is often called national service. It is a simple concept: Young Americans come together for a year or two and work together in efforts as varied as healthcare, education, conservation, the military, or other community projects. For that period of their lives, before they go on to jobs, school, or family life, they work alongside other Young Americans serving fellow citizens and learning about each other – and themselves.

So, how could this work? First, it exists today in the many programs like AmeriCorps, City Year, and Vista, but needs to be expanded. A public/private partnership providing essential funding for stipends and other needs, creating programs and opportunities, and establishing a set of supporting policies – like educational grants and job placement for national service “veterans” – is needed. It costs money and takes effort, but the benefits of producing better citizens who are more connected to each other would be worth any amount.

And the time to get serious is now.

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Story produced by Dustin Stephens and Robert Marston.