Nothing says, ‘Welcome to Summer’ like a 4th of July BBQ. Most years, my thoughts about the 4th of July range from where we are watching the fireworks to what we are eating to what sales I can take advantage of.
God bless America, right?
I’m not knocking these things; we are blessed to have the freedom to enjoy them. But I am guilty of these things being the first thing I think of when July 4th rolls around.
Eventually, I get around to remembering that it’s a day we celebrate the fight for America’s freedom. My thoughts might wander back to the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence. I might sigh a quick prayer of thanks for living in the U.S.
But really, that doesn’t go far enough. Yes, our forefathers paid an enormous price for the life we enjoy – but they aren’t the only ones. In fact, people today are still paying.
A while back, I wrote about a project my class was doing this year as part of our school’s service-learning pilot. To keep it simple, my class was going to interview veterans and create a book telling their stories; the proceeds from the book would be donated to the Wounded Warrior Project. I could explain all the ways that this project would fulfill our learning objectives in English 11, but that’s not really my point. We’ll get to that.
Trying to find veterans who were willing to participate ended up being much more challenging than I thought. We needed 25 vets to interview, and I could not get any solid commitments. Finally, as we were getting close to the end of the year, I feared this project might be a bust. However, my adviser and I decided that we were just going to put a date on the calendar for the interviews, get the word out, and see what happened.
As we were planning, the event morphed and took on a life of its own. Instead of just being an informal get-together where the students would interview the veterans, we decided to make it a tribute program for the service-members, honoring them for their service and sacrifice.
Instead of just having a sterile room to meet in on a random Thursday night, we turned it into a celebration of heroes.
We decorated the room in red, white and blue. The students personally served hot hoer d’overs to the veterans, treating them like our honored guests. We had special music sung by our school’s music group. Another group of students created a tribute video. Other students volunteered to read personal letters and poems, expressing their gratitude. In fact, one international student from Korea read a special letter, in her beautiful broken English, from the perspective of someone who had personally benefited from American soldiers fighting for her country’s freedom. Another group of girls spent their weekends making gifts and favors as well as patriotic-themed desserts (thank you, Pinterest).
All of this was in addition to the interview time, which was the main part of the night. I have to admit…I was nervous about how this was going to come off. The day-of, we confirmed that we had our target number of vets – spanning from WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Desert Storm and those who served since 9/11 in Iraq and Afghanistan. We did a lot of prep in class – interview skills, historical background reviews, proper etiquette for interacting with veterans; we did as much as we could before the actual event to be ready, but at showtime, you just never know.
When it came time for these 16 and 17-year-old kids to step it up and have an adult conversation with a stranger – and actually lead the interview – all very mature tasks – I was praying nobody would embarrass themselves (or me).
Well, before my eyes, I saw my students – the mature, the shy, the silly, the knuckle-heads – transform into mature young men and women before my eyes; that night definitely ranks as one of my proudest teaching moments. Every student, I mean, every single student was fully engaged, fully present, fully participating. The room was alive with the lively yet warm interaction between the veterans and the students. The energy was palpable, and the buzz humming in the room was absolutely electric. Our kids were leaning in, making eye contact, laughing, smiling, looking interested – and not pretending, by the way – and, so were the veterans.
Even when we had to call time, the excited chatter between students and veterans continued on through dessert and lingered through the rest of the evening.
Suddenly, the cliches we hear – ‘fighting for freedom,’ ‘heroic sacrifices,’ ‘being in harm’s way’ – were all personified by these men (incidentally, we had only men come that night). These are men that we likely pass by every day – in the grocery store, at the gas station, in restaurants – yet we do not realize the greatness that just side-swiped us. Heroes. Ones who answered the call to preserve our freedom.
And in doing so, they were never the same again.
I think that was the revelation that became so profound to me. Our service-members sign up for a cause they believe in. They are willing to risk their lives to protect the freedoms we enjoy – everything we are able to enjoy which we would not be enjoying were it not for them. The ones who survive and make it home are the lucky ones. And we think, “They are alive. They made it. Now they can return to their families, their jobs, their lives.”
However, that is not the case for so, so many of them. Their experiences have changed them. Forever. Even after their tours are over.
Many times, they are not the same people they were before they left. Everyone on the homefront is going on with his American existence, but the service-members are different. They have been deeply affected, deeply changed by all they have encountered. We don’t realize that their sacrifice for our freedom is often a life-long sacrifice. They don’t just get to go back to ‘life-as-usual.’
True, some eventually will get there, but not without a lot of work on their part. Others have physical wounds and limitations that they deal with. Every. Single. Day. Still many have others internal scars that those observing on the outside would never see: PTSD. Depression. Anxiety. Damaged relationships and marriages. Flashbacks. Guilt. Survivor guilt. And some never assimilate.
A veteran is no longer the same person he was before he served. That person is gone, and now he is trying to adjust back into his old life as new person. Trying to find a new normal.
One of the comments I heard the most from the veterans after our event was how healing this night was for them. To feel honored. To feel respected. To have their stories heard in a positive light. Especially the Vietnam vets, who were vilified – not celebrated – for their sacrifices for freedom and loyalty to our country.
One veteran said that, for 20 years, he never spoke about his experiences in Vietnam. Never told anyone. Felt ashamed. Was called a baby-killer.
He had been keeping those stories inside for 20 years. This was the first time he shared them openly.
To be honored and accepted…to be able to share without being condemned…to be treated like ‘kings’ (their words)…it did something to their hearts. Some of my contacts told me that, months later, they are still talking about it.
At one point in the night, I stood against the back wall and soaked it in. I knew I was witnessing a life-changing moment – in my student’s education, in the hearts of these brave men. In me, too.
So here’s my point: your 4th of July BBQ (and mine) didn’t just cost your expenses for the food, your expenditure of energy, hours of your day in preparation. That’s what it cost YOU. But it cost someone else a heck of a lot more for you to be able to enjoy that BBQ. And everything else American.
By all means, enjoy the BBQ. Watch the fireworks. Shop the sales. But please don’t do it without taking a moment to say a prayer of thanks for those who paid a high price so we can do all of those American things that we love. A prayer for those who are still paying a price even today: former service-members who still struggle on a daily basis and present service-members who are in danger right now fighting for our freedom.
Even better – thank one of them. Personally. Get involved. Make a donation. Teach gratitude to your kids from a young age; let them know that their good lives cost someone else a lot. Go to parades. Send care packages. Do something. We owe them for everything we as Americans love and enjoy.
Their sacrifices must never be forgotten.
[Photo Credit: Wikimedia]