AS a young African-American growing up in an urban neighborhood, I chose a career in the military because it offered me a way to meet my obligation to my country and to compete on what I perceived to be a level playing field. My story is not unusual; thousands of urban youth, many from troubled homes, have found a "home in the Army," the Navy, the Coast Guard, the Air Force, or the Marines.
Today, that avenue out of the ghetto and into a better life is closing. With the end of the cold war, the military is reducing its forces. And yet the despair in America's inner cities, emphasized by the conflagration in South-Central Los Angeles, indicates that the education and training provided by the military are more needed now than ever.
Recently, in a blue-collar neighborhood in Boston, I saw an old pickup truck with this bumper sticker: "Veterans. First in War. Last in Peace." Many veterans who had hoped to spend their working life in the military are being discharged, and some are bitter. They feel their country does not need them. But they are wrong. We need them in peace even more than we needed them in war. We need their skills, their experience, and their commitment in the same urban areas from which many of them came.
The civilian world may not realize how many job skills and how much teaching and mentoring experience young veterans have. The military includes journalists, photographers, foreign-language specialists, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, medical technicians, personnel managers, draftsmen, and social service experts on child care and drug, alcohol, and family counseling. Many officers and enlisted personnel already work with urban youth, either on the job or as volunteers. Military personnel are used to taking responsibility for youth in barracks and training their juniors in courtesy, personal hygiene, and how to make moral and career choices.
The idea of using military personnel to help deal with the urban crisis is under discussion in many places. In June, former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger proposed retaining some of the 500,000 military personnel who would otherwise be discharged into the civilian economy to "use the skills they have acquired to help provide job training and encouragement for those who need it most." Last month, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia made a similar suggestion, citing the
success of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (administered by Army officers) as a precedent. The question does not seem to be "if" this should be accomplished, but "how." What is lacking is a specific plan, a pilot program that would be both affordable and replicable.
At Boston University, I am developing just such a pilot project, which will link two of our most valuable resources: urban youth and military veterans. While they are involved in this project, young military veterans will live in an inner-city residential program with youth ranging from 13 to 18. Both boys and girls will attend for a minimum of two years. Most will be homeless kids with little connection to their families.
THE program will be multicultural and multiracial, reflecting the diversity of our urban population. The youth will attend local schools by day and will receive tutoring and participate in recreational and educational programs in the evenings and on weekends. Local businesses and the city government will provide the youth with summer jobs.
Vocational training will be an important aspect of this program, but youth who are capable of doing advanced academic work will be encouraged to prepare for college and will be eligible for scholarships to the new Boston University Academy (a new preparatory school for gifted and talented children). After they leave the program, the youth will continue to receive guidance in finding and keeping jobs and/or continuing their education. The veteran-mentors will also be encouraged to attend local colleges an d universities so that their urban service will become a stepping stone to their own career aspirations.
Although the pilot program will be small, this concept can be widely replicated in other cities, with businesses, local colleges and universities, or other nonprofit agencies and foundations as hosts. Much of the funding is already available through existing public school systems, the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, the Family Support Act, and state foster care budgets.
The military has already invested considerable time and money in educating our veterans. Through this program, the urban youth who need it most will be the beneficiaries of this investment - the first Americans to collect a peace dividend after nearly a half century of cold war. And then I hope to see a better bumper sticker on that truck - or even on a newer truck parked in the same driveway: "Veterans. First in War. And First in Peace."