Perfecting a More Perfect Union

07/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My father was a 100 percent disabled veteran of World War II. He left home a healthy man in the prime of life and returned seriously disabled by a broken back during a training accident. My earliest memories are of him going to the Bowman-Gray Hospital at Wake Forest University for multiple surgeries, spending weeks at home in bed in a full-body plaster cast, his back and leg braces and crutches, and the hand-controls that let him drive without using the gas or brake pedals. Like many of his generation - and like many of the men and women I see now at Walter Reed Army Medical Center - there was never a word of bitterness over what he lost, only pride in his country and a bond with others who served in defense of democracy.

Robert Hutchins, former Dean of the Yale Law School and Chancellor of the University of Chicago, said "The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment."

I believe that living in a democracy is a privilege, not a right, and each citizen has a duty to do his or her part to ensure the privilege isn't lost to future generations. That was a lesson I learned from my father at an early age. I joined the Air Force a few months after he died and served for 25 years, in part because of his example.

Volunteers for military service aren't apathetic or indifferent about democracy. They pledge to support and defend the Constitution, and many make the ultimate sacrifice; I saw proof every morning when I drove by the white stone markers aligned in rows at Arlington National Cemetery on my way to work. We owe them a duty to do more than just passively surrender to the challenges we face; we have an obligation to participate in working towards solutions.

It says something when we cast nearly as many votes to select the next American Idol as we do to select the next American president, when more can name the "Plus Eight" that belong to Jon and Kate than the eight members of the Supreme Court remaining when Justice John Paul Stevens (Navy veteran) retires, and when Tiger Woods wrecking his marriage and his SUV is the lead story on the national news. Too many of us are too absorbed with the superficial world of celebrities and the schadenfreude of their calamitous lives.

The most basic duty of citizenship is participation, something Americans do less than citizens of most other countries. Almost all eligible voters in Australia - about 95 percent - cast ballots in national elections; typically a little more than half of eligible voters in the U.S. do the same. That's a sad fact. There is no excuse for being uninformed on issues and there is no excuse for not voting. In my view, you forfeit the right to pontificate if you're too lazy to participate.

I'm involved in the Coffee Party, a group that promotes civil discussion about issues and greater public participation in the political process. I don't believe any political party or any group along the ideological spectrum has a monopoly on good ideas, and I believe we should be able to discuss issues and ideas without hurling insults and threats. We seem to lose sight of the fact that we're all in this together.

We have the power and the ability to prove Hutchins wrong and to advance the ideal the Founding Fathers envisioned - continuing to perfect the union, doing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and passing these privileges along to those that follow - if we just have the will.