A trio of retired military leaders joined a former Department of Homeland Security official on Monday to highlight the importance of K-12 civics education as a national security issue.

Retired Navy Adm. William McRaven called on Americans to know both their rights and their duties as citizens, including the basics such as voting, communicating with elected representatives, and peacefully protesting when disagreements arise.

“Understanding these fundamentals has got begin in K through 12,” said McRaven, a former leader of the U.S. Special Operations Command and a past chancellor of the University of Texas System, during an online event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Suzanne Spaulding, a CSIS senior adviser and former undersecretary for the Department of Homeland Security, raised the issue of a federal funding imbalance between civics and history education as compared to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects.

A recent article, co-authored by Spaulding, showed a $578 million investment in STEM education by the Department of Education compared to the less than $5 million spent last fiscal year by the department for American history and civics education.

“The statistics that concern me the most,” said Spaulding, “are really around the declining trust in and appreciation for democracy.” She referenced a recent survey that showed only 39 percent of young adults, age 29 and younger, called living in a democracy “absolutely important.”

“For those of us who have had the opportunity to live in, serve in and observe other forms of government, (the United States) is unmatched,” said retired U.S. Army Gen. Carter Ham, of the nation’s democracy. “Many Americans, not having had that experience, don’t really realize what the alternatives are.”

Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson joined Ham, McRaven and Spaulding for the conversation. All four participants had a parent in the military and spoke about the role of those examples in shaping their individual civic consciousness.

Learning civic responsibility “starts at the local level,” said McRaven, whose father was a pilot during World War II and whose mother taught elementary school. Pointing to the role of elementary, middle and high schools in the process, McRaven said increased civic education will “make our national security much stronger.”

Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Tom Cole, R-Okla., introduced the Educating for Democracy Act earlier this year. The legislation proposes $600 million in grants to states for American civics and history.