I watched the Twin Towers collapse on a tiny television in my English classroom at The Park School in Baltimore County. I was 17. I called military recruiters that week.
Like so many Americans, that day triggered a lifetime of pursuing service for the common good. I felt that shared desire to serve in my high school classroom and have continued to feel that same pull to service on Sept. 11th ever since.
In response to my outreach to military recruiters, my parents persuaded me to anchor my pursuit of service in education. Determined to understand the roots of the attacks, I went to college to study Arabic and Middle East history.
On Sept. 11, 2006, I was in Syria, teaching English to Iraqi refugees. From Damascus, I saw how poorly the war was being managed in Baghdad. I could also see that if we got it wrong in Iraq, the violence would spill over into Syria and elsewhere. That experience led me to join the U.S. Army when I returned home.
By Sept. 11, 2010, I was in Afghanistan, serving in the Army Rangers on the first of my four combat deployments there. We tracked and captured leaders of al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other terror groups.
My military service, especially in Afghanistan, showed me what is possible when Americans from different walks of life join together in service to tackle shared problems. Our different experiences, when fused, yielded better ideas. It was our job to run toward problems — a value shared by Army Rangers as well as alums of civilian national service programs like Habitat for Humanity, Teach for America and Public Allies.
On Sept. 11, 2011, some of my fellow Rangers and I participated in an on-field ceremony before the Baltimore Ravens routed the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season opener in Baltimore. For a few brief hours, the sense of shared purpose in the stadium felt like the national unity in the months following the 9/11 attacks. One of my Rangers requested to reenlist right then and there in the stadium.
Flash forward to Sept. 11, 2018. I was running for Congress in my home state of Maryland. While we built a coalition that extended from a Bernie Sanders chapter to a member of President George W. Bush’s cabinet, the campaign trail in 2018 offered a front row seat to the deep divides that are tearing apart our civic fabric. It was a glimpse into the dystopian future our country might face if we don’t invest in solutions that unite us.
This year on Sept. 11th, I’m serving as the CEO of Service Year Alliance, a nonprofit whose mission is to give every young American the opportunity of national service — whether that’s in the Marine Corps, Peace Corps, California Conservation Corps or any other service year organization.
If the past 18 years have taught me anything, it’s that national service — whether military, civilian or public — not only allows us to address some of our biggest shared challenges at home and abroad, but also represents one of the last, best hopes to inoculate our country against the divisions threatening our future.
That’s why I am excited about Serve America Together — a campaign to make national service part of growing up in America. We need to focus on our common values and what we can do better, together. Making opportunities to serve available to all young Americans will create the connective tissue the nation needs.
As the Democratic presidential candidates prepare for the next debate Thursday night, I urge them to consider how they can bring to life the feelings of connectedness I’ve experienced on 9/11 over the years. I encourage them to accept the Serve America Together presidential challenge and release their plans to expand national service — an idea that will unite our country in service and bridge deep divides.
I’m hopeful that by Sept. 11, 2021 — 20 years after my initial call to serve — the next president will be well on the way to making national service an opportunity for all, and Americans will once again feel inspired to serve alongside millions of their fellow citizens.