Commentary: We can all find ways to serve our country

By Gunnery Sgt.Pauline Franklin

Editor’s note: The following column was written by Gunnery Sgt. Pauline Franklin, who is stationed in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, with the 2nd Marine Division (Forward).

I miss so many things about my home in Jacksonville, N.C. I miss tucking my children into bed each night with a kiss. I miss the warmth of their hugs as I squeeze them tight and tell them how much I love them each day.

I miss the peace of coming home to my husband at the end of a long day at work and the comfort of my hand in his as we walk down the street on an evening stroll, waving to neighbors as we pass by. I miss decorating my home for the holidays and baking in the kitchen, the smell filling my home with the scent of homemade bread or cookies.

I miss visiting my parents in Clovis and my husband’s family in Big Spring, Texas, when we can make it home for the holidays to share precious moments together.

I am a Marine serving a year-long deployment in Helmand province, Afghanistan; but I am just one of many service members who will miss the holidays with loved ones back home. For many Marines here, this is their third, fourth or fifth deployment — others have deployed even more. We chose to join the military to answer a calling to serve our fellow Americans or to make a difference in the world despite the sacrifices required to do so.

Being so far from home this holiday season, I look to the United States and all that is happening across the country, and I am saddened, not because times are difficult, but because our nation is too great to suffer so. Americans have a strength born from overcoming adversity and creating opportunity where there was none before, and I believe the challenges we face today are no different — if we can come together to serve each other.

Many people are outraged at the economic condition of the nation, and groups are embroiled in the blame game that seems to be dividing America on so many levels. But rather than trying to find someone to blame — whether it is Wall Street, the government or the wealthy — I believe it is time to focus on the more important issue of working our way out of the challenges we are facing.

I’m sure we can all agree the Fiscal Year 2011 annual deficit of $1.3 trillion and the accumulated federal debt of $15 trillion is far too great, and we should continue to hold our elected officials accountable to find solutions. In the interim, however, I believe there are serious problems impacting communities across the nation that we can influence by working together.

The most difficult problem for me, as a mother, is the condition of child hunger in the United States. It is difficult to imagine a nation as prosperous as America even has a hunger problem — that is something you see on television in third-world countries. As a parent, I can only imagine the fear and distress of those parents struggling to feed their own children.

The National Center for Education Statistics’ annual Common Core of Data for the 2009-2010 school year states 46 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. This helps when school is in session, but what about weekends, days when there is no school, and summer vacation?

Indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service states 14.5 percent (17.2 million) of U.S. households had a “limited or uncertain ability” to acquire nutritionally adequate and safe food at some time during 2010. The majority of these households met this challenge by eating less varied diets and turning to federal food programs or community food pantries where available. However, 6.4 million of these households in 2010 did not have enough money or other resources at times to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways — that is, without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing, or other coping strategies — forcing them to go without food at times.

Adequate food is a fundamental necessity, but it is difficult to provide without the money to purchase it, which points to another challenge afflicting America: unemployment and poverty.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ November 2011 publication “The Employment Situation,” released Dec. 2, put the unemployment rate at 8.6 percent (more than 13 million people) in November 2011, of which 5.7 million have been unemployed 27 weeks or more (accounting for 43 percent of the unemployed). What’s more, the unemployment rate has averaged 9.3 percent for the last three years.

Losing a job can force a family into hard times, sometimes transforming a family that once supported local programs into a family that must now ask for help to get by. The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC), the source of official poverty estimates, states the official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent (46.2 million people) — the third consecutive annual increase in the poverty rate — and the poverty rate for children under age 18 in 2010 was 22 percent.

I’m sure we can all agree these are not the only problems facing America. Like many problems our nation faces, these may seem insurmountable, but we can each do something small to help our neighbors get back on track or to serve our communities to benefit us all.

First, I would encourage everyone to buy American products when possible. Buying products made in America allows American businesses to prosper and promotes job growth, building domestic commerce and putting people to work so they can take care of their families.

I also encourage people to support local programs, either through donations or by volunteering their time. For those who have the money to spare, even small amounts of money add up and can really help local organizations, whether they are buying necessities to hand out or trying to pay the electric bill to keep the doors open. If you don’t have the money, find an organization to donate your time. Many organizations need volunteers to support their efforts. There may also be a need in your community for which there is no organization yet — you could start a program in your community. It doesn’t have to be big. For example, you could organize a winter coat drive to collect unwanted coats, like the ones your children have outgrown but are still in good condition.

If supporting outreach programs doesn’t interest you, find something you are passionate about and get involved to improve your community. If you believe in improving education for our children, volunteer your support at a school that needs help — there are even lots of things you can do from home — or run for a position on the school board. If politics is your passion, run for local elected positions or look for appointed positions where your experience and expertise can benefit others. Perhaps working with troubled youth inspires you, or teaching others to read, or teaching someone a new skill or trade. My point is to encourage everyone to find something you care about and work to make a difference there.

We also have to remember that working together is not a seasonal activity, and the challenges we face are not seasonal. Working together is a year-round commitment.

As a Marine in Helmand province, I have seen our Marines and sailors do amazing things to rid the area of insurgents and enable Afghan forces to assume responsibility of security, but we are successful because we work together as a team. Likewise, American history is filled with examples of people coming together to overcome challenges and strengthen our nation. So this holiday season, instead of pointing fingers and engaging in activities that divide America, perhaps we can begin anew to focus that energy to overcome our challenges through teamwork and dedication.

Helen Keller, a woman born in 1880 who went blind and deaf at 19 months old, overcame great adversity to become a well-known writer and scholar, receiving numerous awards from national and international organizations. She once said, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”

What can you do?