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CHODOSH & PORTER: Putting our veterans back to work

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On May 14, 2007, Staff Sgt. Kenny Butler was conducting a mounted combat patrol in his Humvee. With no warning, a projectile struck his vehicle with such velocity that it passed through the armored Humvee door, Staff Sgt. Butler's upper torso and out the vehicle's other side. Now medically discharged from active duty after the loss of his arm, Staff Sgt. Butler is earning his degree at Norwich Academy in Vermont. Although no longer in uniform, he longs to continue serving his country. That shouldn't be a dream.

Experience highlights the need for greater U.S. diplomatic, technical and multidisciplinary capacity for pre- and post-conflict sustainable development. Improving the human condition through diplomacy and development around the world (smart power) is critical to the sustainability of our national interests and values. Yet, our development capacity is currently insufficient to realize the objective. Recruiting and training a corps of civilian experts to meet these needs requires experience as well as education and training.

The tools of development are not available within the exclusive domain of any one government department - or even one sector of society - any more than are the tools of diplomacy and defense. Forging these tools to deliver credible influence worldwide, as part of a comprehensive strategy to sustain the growth of America's prosperity and to enhance our security, requires an investment in education and in Americans with a proven desire to serve. Too often, we have turned to our military to provide this service.

How do we rapidly shift this growing burden from the Department of Defense to the agencies whose competencies are better suited to this purpose without sacrificing the necessary hands-on experience needed in complex, multicultural environments? And where is the pool of experienced personnel willing to accept this challenge? Unfortunately, there is no educational program for civilian professionals intended to prepare them for this type of practical application. But there could be.

Every year, thousands of uniformed service members end their service. Whether these individuals separate after completing a single tour or retire after a career, they represent an investment of time, training and experience as well as a proven willingness to serve. Many of these patriots would happily continue service if given the chance and the right circumstances for educational and professional growth.

This growing pool of veterans can either be seen as an impending unemployment liability or as an untapped pool of experience and talent. Our country needs a structured program that can provide a continuum of service for our veterans while simultaneously satisfying the nation's requirements for talented and experienced personnel across the spectrum of public service. Whether the institutional mechanism for this is a "Civilian Response Corps" (currently struggling under the State Department's coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization), or something yet to be identified, veterans' experience and training in an interagency environment will be critical elements of success.

To meet these challenges, the creation of a distributed, national service academy initially seeded with veterans would be a smart step. This cannot be constrained by a single campus. Rather, we must develop a replicable curriculum tailored by colleges and universities across America to match a wide spectrum of service. This national network would initially focus on extending the service life of our veterans, thereby providing the seed corn for smart power abroad. Veterans and others enrolled in such programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels would receive the same quality education and degree as every other student, sharing and building upon their experience in solving problems of national interest abroad. Civil engineers would learn how to build roads and water-treatment plants, educators to build schools and train teachers, economists to develop models for local growth, urban planners to revive fragile communities, health care professionals to develop clinics, lawyers to build responsive legal institutions - all in the most challenging, sometimes hostile, environments.

The University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences are designing such a solution to this problem by establishing a National Service Academy pilot program to provide graduates with the education and training to meet the needs of such service operations. The National Service Academy curriculum will integrate government agencies and academic disciplines in the areas of development and diplomacy to provide an opportunity to serve while growing personally and professionally.

When Staff Sgt. Kenny Butler learned of the distributed National Service Academy concept, he wrote: "I like the idea because I still feel the need to serve and I'm pretty sure a majority of wounded veterans feel the same way."

This is exactly the kind of innovation we need to sustain smart power abroad. For too long, we have viewed our role as a stakeholder in the international community and global marketplace as separate problems with discrete solutions. It is time we begin to take a more systemic approach to restoring America's competitiveness, self-confidence, and credible influence. By investing in a tailored educational program to support national service, and by providing our veterans an opportunity to grow professionally while applying their experience, we can build upon American values to sustain our prosperity and security for generations to come.

Hiram Chodosh is dean of S.J. Quinney Law School at the University of Utah. Wayne Porter is a captain in the U.S. Navy. Capt. Porter's views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.