A few days ago we celebrated Independence Day here in America. I was on the West Coast for a change, but we celebrate the same way everywhere — holiday, happiness, barbecue, beer, family, fireworks. The whole nine yards. I’ve lived in many places across this country, and we’re pretty consistent about this routine. I’m not complaining; I especially love fireworks, and wait all year for them. But sometimes I do wonder if people ever take the time to stop and think about why we celebrate. To consider what it means to be an American, born with inalienable rights as our forefathers saw fit to establish in the Bill of Rights. Freedom of speech. Freedom of the press. Freedom from religious persecution. Freedom to assemble. Free to do, think, be who we are without fear of repercussion or risk of harm. I know firsthand these are luxuries that aren’t mirrored around the world. As Americans, I think it’s easy for us to navel gaze and forget to look out at the bigger world picture. To really appreciate these freedoms we take for granted, it would help to experience life without them. To understand why, for all our faults — and we do have many — being an American is truly a designation of privilege.
When I lived overseas, I was young. Fresh off the plane, in a country where I did not speak the language everyone else did; where I had to piece together facial expressions, tone, and context to try to understand the conversations around me. Foreign culture with strong religious laws I neither knew nor understood; signs I couldn’t read, both written and spoken with hooded eyes and brusque inflections. Nothing I knew of the world was relatable here, and I felt lost. As both a woman and an American, I did not feel safe, as it was very clear neither status was in my favor in this culture I now had to call home. My years in the Middle East made a great impression on me, and my experiences within that culture played a significant role in who I became in later years. When I made it back to the States, I almost cried with relief when I stepped out of the plane and my feet touched American soil. I was home. I was safe. I no longer felt threatened by my own existence.
And yet. For as much as I am grateful to be an American, I’ve never felt it necessary to protect those freedoms with which I’m blessed. Instead, I leave it to the nameless faces who wear the uniform of the United States military and go into the world to protect our interests. All while I happily live my life at home, unfettered by worries of culture clash and world violence. But now things are different, and my past catches up to my present, as I’m once again impacted by a part of the world that scares me because I don’t understand the culture. Now my mind travels daily to a world where life is a very different reality. A world where strife, discord, and dissent are expressed with violence and fear. A place where conflict is an everyday occurrence. A place where my son has lived for the past six months, wearing the uniform of a United States soldier. To some, he might as well have painted a target on his back.
I want to believe that in all these years, I’ve grown up some, that I’ve become an adult who tries to consider all sides of conflict. But some things still trigger those feelings of loss of power and helplessness for me, and worse, begs the question: How can you let others risk their lives so that you can carry on a normal life? It feels almost shameful, and I feel guilty for passing on the responsibility while reaping all the rewards. I’ve asked myself this question every single day since February, and I still don’t have an answer. All I know is there are a lot of young men I’ve never met, in whom I’ve entrusted the protection of my rights, my liberty, my pursuit of happiness. Young men I’ve never met. And one I have. I owe them my way of life, if not my life itself. Whatever the reason might be for a soldier’s enlistment is irrelevant. A soldier is someone who has done something you are unwilling to do so that you may find peace in your protection. This is a debt I’m simply not brave enough to pay. Thankfully, there are others who are. I finally understand why people thank soldiers for their service.
America the beautiful. Land of the free. Home of the brave.