In Search of a Common Cause

In a bitter and divided era, national service can help us regain our lost consensus

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Andrew Hinderaker for TIME

Veteran Larry Nosker (right) speaks with Joe Klein on his annual road trip at Richard's Coffee Shop and Military Museum in Mooresville, N.C., on Friday, June 1, 2012. Joe met with Larry and several other veterans.

Richard's coffee shop and military museum in Mooresville, N.C., is a down-home place where veterans from all our modern wars gather most days to talk and feel comfortable in ways they only can among their fellow warriors. At the very beginning of my third annual U.S. road trip, on June 1, I had coffee with a bunch of them, assembled by Iraq veterans John Gallina and Dale Beatty, the founders of Purple Heart Homes, which builds houses for disabled veterans. That conversation set the tone for much of what has followed on my journey in ways that I couldn't have anticipated.

Most of those who spoke with me were Vietnam veterans, and they were not thrilled with the way the country was going. When I asked them how they'd rate Barack Obama as Commander in Chief, they started to laugh, which I thought was unfair and disrespectful. But it turned out they didn't have much use for Mitt Romney either. When I asked them who the last President they liked was, it was unanimous: George H.W. Bush. "He's the last one who really served," said Larry Nosker, a retired truck driver and Air Force veteran. "Air National Guard reserve don't count."

It turned out that these vets, like many I've met, simply didn't trust anyone who hadn't been through boot camp--and so their pool of acceptable leaders was diminishing dramatically and their sense of alienation was increasing just as fast. Practically everyone--women simply didn't make it onto their radar screen--had served in World War II. A lot of people had served in Vietnam. Fewer than 1% had served in Iraq and Afghanistan--and while they believed the new veterans might include some potential leaders, there still weren't nearly enough grownups to run a country. I asked if there was anything we as a nation could do about that. "Bring back the draft!" said Ray Pennipede, a former New York City police officer and member of the 1st Air Cavalry in Vietnam, without hesitation. There was applause. "There isn't an 18-year-old boy who doesn't need to get his butt kicked," added Nosker, "by someone in a position of complete authority."

This theme kept coming up in meeting after meeting during my first five days on the road, though usually in less vivid fashion. I traveled through North Carolina and Virginia, both in areas of deep blue and crimson red, and it was clear neither side trusted the other very much. For the conservatives, the country had changed beyond their imagining; not just civil rights but gay rights (a contentious referendum recently banned gay marriage in North Carolina), and new ethnic groups that seemed foreign--the South Asians who all of a sudden seemed to run half the convenience stores, the Latinos who didn't seem to want to speak English. Why, even the President of the United States was something strange, neither black nor white. For liberals, it was all about intolerance. You couldn't have a half-decent conversation with these Tea Party people, they said. "My mouth is bloody," a woman from Smith Mountain Lake, Va., told me, "from biting my tongue all the time."

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