Young Americans will serve -- if we ask

This is the Jan. 26 press release in its entirety: "The Department of Defense announced today the death of a Marine who was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. Lance Cpl. Jeremy M. Kane, 22, of Towson, Md., died Jan. 23 while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 4th Marine Division, Marine Forces Reserve, based out of Camp Pendleton, Calif."

It turns out that Cpl. Kane was only briefly "of Towson, Md." He was apparently a student at the university there for a time after his graduation from a high school in New Jersey. His family told reporters last week that Mr. Kane had joined the Marine reserves while a student at Rutgers University and that he did so because he had been deeply affected by the 9/11 attacks, which occurred when he was 13.

The Marines who came to her door told his mother that a suicide bomber had killed her son, and the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the attack was in apparent retaliation for the seizure of tons of opium and weapons by Cpl. Kane's unit.

Attention must be paid: We are still in the midst of war -- deep into a war -- and Americans still die, even as the president back-ends Afghanistan in his State of the Union address. Men and women who volunteer for military service continue to be the ones who make the biggest sacrifices as the United States continues the war on terrorism. We continue to abide this system, sending into combat only those who volunteer, because it's so much easier than the alternative -- a draft that at some point would engage every American in service to the country.

During the Bush years, it became clear that the U.S. military had been stretched to meet ambitious objectives, and the consequences -- the multiple tours, the post-traumatic stress, the rate of military suicides and family upheaval -- should have troubled every American.

Of course, politicians, and particularly presidents, don't want to hear about a draft -- the more Americans in the military, the more American families have to say about the politicians' use of the military -- and many Americans who grew up during Vietnam, and who now have children and grandchildren, have a deep-seated aversion to a draft.

The result is a generally unacknowledged divide between those who serve and those who have other things to do. Bush, Obama -- it doesn't really matter who's in the White House; we have a system that does not demand equal sacrifice from all Americans for a war that could go on for several more years, and we have a citizenry that does not really see itself invested in the decisions or the outcomes regarding that war.

We could close that divide with two years of national public service -- civic, military or foreign -- for every American once he or she reaches the age of 18, with deferment optional until the age of 21, when service becomes mandatory.

I don't believe this is as tough a sell as one might think.

Young Americans, in particular, want to feel useful, and they want experiences that will open their eyes to the world. I believe they want to be asked to step up for their country -- and they wouldn't mind getting some help with their student loans, as President Obama has proposed, in return for public service.

A former colleague of mine from The Sun, Fred Hill, recently suggested a new realm of service that could be developed to put young Americans to work for their country and others -- a "disaster relief" corps that would provide help for beleaguered people in any corner of the world.

"The Haiti earthquake offers an ideal pretext to add an Eleventh Division to the U.S. Army and create a special force dedicated to natural disaster relief," Mr. Hill, a one-time foreign correspondent who lives in Maine, wrote in the Bangor Daily News.

While U.S. response to the Haiti tragedy has been swift and impressive -- including the deployment of the USNS Comfort out of Baltimore -- a specially trained "disaster relief" corps, Mr. Hill argues, would have logistical advantages over what we presently offer. And there's something else that could come of a "disaster relief" corps, beyond the immediate -- something bound to benefit future generations:

"The existence of such a force and its respected professional capabilities could go a long way to reversing the unfortunate, and largely undeserved, image of the United States military as the main instrument of American foreign policy."

There's so much we can do, and so many, I truly believe, willing to do it.