In Search of a Common Cause

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

  • 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.

    (2 of 3)

    But we were all Americans, I'd remind both sides. How were we going to get to know each other better, find some common ground? And then--eerily--someone would blurt it out: We need something like the draft. Maybe not military service but public service. At a sunset meeting in the beautiful Inn at Montross, in Virginia, a retired FBI investigator named I.C. Smith said, "Too many people just live our lives in contact with a narrow sliver of people. Now, we can't bring back the draft--the military doesn't want it, and we don't need it. But some form of mandatory national service that throws people from different parts of the country together might help."

    Bob Quinn, an audiovisual expert who'd moved to Virginia from the Northeast, quickly agreed: "I went to a private school where the students did all the cleanup work ourselves, except for the heavy-duty plumbing and electrical work, and it created a real camaraderie. I just went to my 50th high school reunion, and that spirit was still there. And I'll tell you what else, we didn't have very much destructive behavior or graffiti in our school, because we had to clean it up ourselves."

    The other topic that kept coming up on the road was the Affordable Care Act--or Obamacare, if you must--but, oddly, it wasn't long before health care and national service converged in my mind in a completely unexpected way. I spent an evening at a successful recovery program in Richmond, Va., called the McShin Foundation. Most of the people around the table were recovering addicts. A woman named Tammie Noey, a former heroin addict who had done time in jail for a felony, told her story. She started injecting herself when she was 9. She was 47 now, and clean for 21 months, and the only job she could get was as a waitress. But she had a friend who owned a farm and was willing to let her grow vegetables on part of it. She had pre-existing conditions as a result of her years of addiction; there was no way she could get health insurance. "I'm not in a position to have this bill shot down," she said. "If I break my toe and can't push the clutch pedal on the tractor, I'm done."

    I asked if anyone around the table was opposed to Obamacare. "I am," said Terry Kinum, 69, a recovering alcoholic, retired from the Navy, who now works with addicted veterans. "I'm sick and tired of all these welfare and socialist-type Marxist programs we're being inundated with." Others disputed that vehemently, and the situation threatened to get raw.

    But then I had a thought, which had been percolating since my meeting with the veterans: I asked Kinum about the people he had served with. I asked if he trusted them. Well, of course. They had served and sacrificed together. "And you believe they have a right to health care, right?" Kinum started to get up in my face, but I was headed in a different direction: Would he have as much trouble with Obamacare if he knew that the people receiving it had also served, in some way, like his Navy brothers? He nodded his head yes. I asked the addicts in the room about their responsibilities--not just to themselves but also to the communities they had burdened. "I would be happy to pay back with some sort of service," said Chris Phillips, 25, who may face a felony charge because of three DUI violations, "if I thought I could clean the slate and get accepted to Virginia Commonwealth University, despite my record."

    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. 3