RED, WHITE AND BLUE
“Mrs. Woodruff, what girl is ever going to go home with me from a bar?” He looked up at me with a lopsided grin that said he was partially joking but also dead serious. His voice was devoid of self pity.
I glanced at his thick reddish blonde hair, wide smile, his incredibly muscled shoulders and then my eyes strayed to his legs, or where his legs should have been. Darren was a private in the US Army, who’d been hit by a car bomb in Fallujah. He is a 24 year-old double amputee.
In these wild oats years, when he should have been kicking up his heels in every honky tonk bar in his native Tennessee, Darren had spent more than a year in a VA Hospital recovering from the physical and emotional injuries of war. Like so many veterans, real recovery is an ongoing journey. This is what life looks like, interrupted, but undeterred.
He’d been in middle school when Bin Laden and his band of terrorists slammed into the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon. It had made an impression as a boy. And when he was old enough, he told me, he’d signed up because he was an American and it was the right thing to do. Darren wanted some action. He wanted to defend his country from terrorists. He had assessed the danger, but the bad thing always happens to someone else.
There is never any “why me” from guys like Darren, no palpable self-pity. “This isn’t a disability,” one marine I met said to me, dancing in his wheel chair and popping a wheelie – “this is just a different way to get around.”
The people I’ve met don’t see themselves as heroes. They were just doing their job, they’ll tell you. And their job was protecting us. Just ask the Navy Seals who took out Bin Laden or the medic who was able to put two tourniquets on his guys before he attended to his own blown off leg. This job is not for the faint of heart. And that job benefits you whether you feel it or not. Someone has to protect the castle. Someone has to pull the night watchman’s shift.
This Fourth of July, I hope you have a chance to gather with family and friends. And as you celebrate by a lake or an ocean, overlook the purple mountain’s majesty or the rolling plains, someone like Darren, someone young and proud and very brave, is on a foreign base or in a military vehicle in the desert, wearing far too much gear for a place so hot. They are there because their country asked them to go and they stood up and raised their hands.
This is about the fact that no matter what complaints we have about our country, no matter what we’d like to change or improve, every single one of us should take pride in being American. The same kind of resonant pride that bloomed after September 11th. Sure, there is corruption and abuse of power; there are pork barrel politics, racism and extremism. But we are a complex nation. We fought for the right to be independent, and we founded a nation on the principal that all were welcome, free from persecution and tyranny and we’ve done the best we could with the times we had. As a country we are continually a work in progress. We are a perfectly imperfect vast land of disparate, differing folks braided together. We are fallible, but ever hopeful, ever striving.
This July 4th, take a moment in between the BBQ or the fireworks to think about what it means to be personally free, and how that freedom has a cost. More than 360,000 of our veterans have returned home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with some kind of a brain injury alone. That doesn’t count the amputees or the fallen. Behind each one of these statistics are individuals and families whose lives are forever changed, irretrievably different because of their service.
And when our countrymen come home wounded, different or broken—it’s up to the rest of us, the people like you and me who didn’t make a sacrifice, to take care of them.
That’s just simply what people of a great nation do.