The Importance of Service

When I graduated from Harvard a dozen years ago, I thought I had a plan for the years ahead–to work in Washington for a year or so, and then return to Massachusetts for law school.

On September 11, 2001, however, my life, like so many others, was inexorably altered. After watching the images of the falling towers, I drove to the nearest recruiting station and joined the United States Army. Neither retaliation nor anger propelled me to sign up. Though the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq had not yet begun, I sensed that people in our country would soon be called upon to do something in response. I asked myself: “If I don’t go, then who will?” I had been the happy beneficiary of almost every advantage a free and prosperous society offered. It seemed only fair, right, and just that I spend time giving something back to the great country that had given me so much.

I did not grow up in a family with a strong tradition of military service.  During my years at Harvard, the Reserve Officer Training Corps was not allowed on campus. Those who wanted to join had to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Guest lectures by military leaders were rare. Reading the names of the fallen on the walls of Memorial Hall provided my only exposure to the military.

When I entered Harvard Law School this fall after eight years in the Army, six in active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, I was immensely pleased to see how much had changed. At once I was welcomed into organizations that support and celebrate our veterans on campus. I was thrilled to see ROTC cadets walking to class in uniform, delighted to hear military leaders like Generals David Petraeus and Martin Dempsey speak to groups on campus. And most importantly, I have felt, from all levels of the Harvard community, a wellspring of respect for those who serve in our armed forces.

We have quite clearly learned a collective lesson from the days during and immediately after the Vietnam War. We have learned to separate the war from the warrior. There remains, as always, a healthy debate throughout our campus about the purpose of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the prudence of applying military force in far-flung contests around the world. Yet the value of dedicating one’s life to service to our country seems unquestioned.

As I stood in your shoes at my commencement a dozen years ago, I never imagined the path I ended up taking. During my time in the service, I saw more, did more, and learned more than I would ever have thought possible.  I forged friendships in the fires of hardship and trial. I was my honor to serve with such a dedicated group of men and women.

That same call to serve has animated my decision to now run for state Senate in the Third Middlesex District of Massachusetts. Having spent time in parts of the world where government doesn’t work, where on the contrary, it is often detrimental to the people it represents, I am so glad to be back in a commonwealth and a country where history suggests – from the civil rights acts to the GI Bill - that government can play a positive role in people’s lives.

I urge you as you finalize your plans for life after graduation to consider serving our country in some manner – through City Year, Teach for America, the Peace Corps, or the U.S. Armed Forces.  I know from my own experience that little matches the fulfillment that comes from serving others and from making a difference in people’s lives.

Joseph Kearns Goodwin ’01, a member of the Harvard Law School class of 2012, is a candidate for state senate in the third Middlesex district of Massachusetts.