Retired general McChrystal trying to change 'cultural expectation' of service year

Last modified: 4/1/2015 1:16:35 PM
As the commander of American troops in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal devised a military strategy that included embedding themselves with locals.

The strategy, coined counter-insurgency, aimed to address root causes of violence that undermined the political structure in the region.

Now, the retired four-star general is looking at the root causes making it difficult for young people in America to serve their country. His efforts with the nonpartisan Franklin Project at The Aspen Institute brought him yesterday to Concord, where he touted the idea of a “service year” for all American young people.

“We’re trying to change the cultural expectation here,” McChrystal told a packed lecture hall at the Warren B. Rudman Center for Justice, Leadership & Public Policy at the UNH School of Law. “This is not an easy thing to do, but I think it’s so fundamental it has to be done.”

The ambitious plan envisions a full-time service year as an expectation and civic rite of passage for all Americans. These efforts, if implemented, would build on work done by existing nonprofits and government agencies that provide what McChrystal called a transformative experience. This national service obligation could be completed by joining the military or completing a full-time civilian service year that would include a modest living allowance.

“His proposal I think is really exciting and a profound challenge to the nation to step up our commitment to prepare young people for a lifetime of service,” said Jordan Budd, interim dean of UNH Law.

Some elements of the idea are already in place, as programs like Teach for America, AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps offer the service year option. In 2011, AmeriCorps received 580,000 applications for 80,000 positions, and McChrystal cited studies that show millenials are increasingly inclined to serve. A service year project would build on these programs and look at ways for organizations to become certified service year projects that would increase interest and allow for grant money. A uniform measure or definition for “service year” would be put in place.

“We are the advocacy group to help organize the constellation of things into a single coherent plan to get more people to service America,” McChrystal said.

In theory, a year of full-time service would connect young people to something bigger than themselves, he said. This would teach young people that the idea of citizenship requires more from each of them than is currently expected, he said. This would send the next generation forward with a common purpose. The service year would be a cultural expectation, not a requirement, for people between 18 and 28 years old.

There are major questions that still need answers, including who would pay for the service year, and how to ensure students who opt for a service year after college could stay competitive in the job market afterward.

At the hub of the project is the “Service Year exchange,” the online marketplace that brings together all stakeholders, a group that includes young people seeking service positions, organizations seeking service members and people looking to support these efforts.

New Hampshire residents have an opportunity to leverage their first-in-the-nation post to get this issue on the national stage, he said.

“The national political debate, if it doesn’t start here, it focuses here,” McChrystal said in an interview afterward. “I think we’re far enough out from the presidential election that we could have a very rich exchange between now and 2016.”

Yesterday’s talk didn’t stray far from service years. Though he fielded a question about money in politics, McChrystal wasn’t asked to weigh in on the Islamic State or on conflict in the Middle East.

“That’s fine if people ask. If people are curious then it shows they’re thinking,” he said afterward. “What I don’t want to do as I advocate for this, I don’t want to distract or dilute from whatever effectiveness I have by being all over the place.”

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter@iainwilsoncm.)

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