On the Fourth of July, the nation will celebrate its 234th birthday. For most of us, the coming weekend will be filled with family gatherings, festivals and fireworks. While we enjoy our freedoms here in the states, U.S. military members around the world are patrolling deserts, flying in darkness, navigating the high seas and risking their lives in far-off places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The following commentary is an attempt to put that aspect of America's independence into perspective and offer an expression of gratitude for all that American warfighters have done and continue to do.
To the warfighter:
You may be taking cover in some abandoned building in Iraq or the occupant of a tent in the mountains of Afghanistan. Because you are there and not here, you may be oblivious to the Fourth of July celebrations that will take place in the states.
Parades, barbecues and baseball games will dominate the day - one in which people celebrate the nation's birth and simultaneously exercise their freedoms.
For the time being, your freedom has been put on hold. You're on watch, on patrol or in the midst of a dangerous mission. You have been pushed to the far reaches of your physical and mental capacities. More than once, you've questioned your place and purpose.
That's OK. It's part of your evolution as a Soldier.
Our nation's finest raise their hands to join the military for many reasons: to provide for their families, get money for college, gain financial security or get job training, to name a few.
Serving one's country, however, should be the principal reason to don a uniform. Simply put, the country and the freedoms it has earned provide the liberties to fulfill all that we desire.
Protecting those freedoms requires military fighting men and women to submit to more than a casual idea of service. Fighting and winning wars absolutely demands your heart, something far greater than what may be required of a nine to five.
Maybe you considered it when you marched 10 miles up the side of a mountain only to walk into an ambush and subsequent firefight that lasted three days.
Perhaps you pondered it when you and your unit brought food to starving villagers.
Or you came to grips with it when you held your battle buddy as he muttered his last words.
However horrific or gratifying, episodes like those may help to clarify your purpose. It becomes clear that all that talk about freedom isn't just talk. It's real. You've seen lives and places without it, and it's disconcerting. You're grateful that you are an American.
Such experiences also bring to light how we achieved our freedom. Who was it that sacrificed so much to get us where we are' And where do I fit in that equation'
Your service is intertwined with the growth and success of this nation. To understand it, you'll have to summon the suffering of George Washington's ragtag, frostbitten Army at Valley Forge and how it survived the winter of 1777-78.
How black Soldiers risked their lives during World War II despite being treated as second-class citizens at home.
How during the Vietnam War a wounded Sgt. 1st Class Robert L. Howard crawled under enemy fire to aid his wounded platoon leader then took over as commander and repulsed an attack.
Why did they fight' Where did they get the power and inspiration to stand valiantly against the odds'
You could dismiss the notion that they did it for any kind of material gain. No amount of money could ever be enough to pay for the mountain of deeds they performed or the risk to life and limb they incurred. No, there was something bigger at stake than their personal lives.
We like to think the United States is the greatest country on earth. Maybe it is, but that's not to say that it is perfect. No country is, however, it is one full of potential, one constantly evolving to become a more perfect union, worth fighting for, worth dying for.
These are ideas you have to carry with you into battle. You have to embrace it, live it and breathe it. Let it be your inspiration and your mantra to endure, your reason to serve.
Your sacrifice, your unselfish ambition to hoist the ideas of freedom above your own personal desires makes a day of parades, barbecues and baseball possible.
You'll eventually arrive at this truth, if you haven't already.
Sadly, some never will. They'll celebrate the Fourth and never give a second thought to you or your battle buddies. They'll be oblivious to the purpose of the celebration in the first place.
That's OK. You've allowed them the freedom to exercise ignorance.
You won't forget, however, nor will others. You'll carry the precious experiences of battle with you for the rest of your life. Your efforts will become a conglomeration of those who came before you, part of the single most important force in the perpetuation of American ideals and the most important element in American prosperity.
That's cause to tuck in your underbelly, expand your chest and walk with reverence.
You have earned the right to say, "Happy Birthday, America."