For as long as I can remember I have been a patriot. I was raised as an "Air Force brat" for the first 16 years of my life moving from state to state and base to base while my father, a patriot himself, proudly served his country as an aircraft mechanic. He was barely seventeen-years old when he enlisted and was sent to Korea on a troop ship to begin what would become a 20+ year career. Many times during those years my mother was left home alone to raise four kids Stateside while Dad got sent to one remote duty location after another but never once - not even while reading letters written in my Dad's shaky script while sitting out a raid in a bomb shelter at Danang Air Force Base in Vietnam - did my Mom ever say that she wanted my father to get out of the military. Never once did she complain about the nomadic life that we lived or the lousy pay that Dad got; never once did she curse the Air Force or the government that sent my father into a senseless war and left her home alone to worry and wait. She could have but she didn't; instead she supported my father in every way possible. She was a patriot, too.
Having two patriots for parents and growing up on Air Force bases and in military communities it's no wonder that I became a patriot also. At 1800 hours every evening traffic would stop all over the base while "Taps" was played and the flag was lowered; every Fourth of July there were fireworks and celebrations for our country's independence; at the base theater the "Star-Spangled Banner" was played and everyone stood before every movie started; and every year there would be an Air Show with all manner of planes on display as well as spectacular aerial shows by the Air Force Thunderbirds. I was proud to be a part of the military and I was proud of my father for his part in it; proud enough, in fact, that I followed in his footsteps and joined the Air Force myself arriving in boot camp just three short days after my high school graduation - only seventeen-years old just like my father before me.
Even though I have been away from military life for a long time, to this day I still choke up at the playing of our National Anthem - whether it be at a ballgame or other sporting event, a memorial service, a concert, or even the end of a broadcast day on radio or TV. When attending a parade I get the same feeling and can't talk around the lump in my throat while watching the Honor Guard march by. I have even been known to shed a tear while watching fireworks displays on the 4th of July - please don't ask me to speak to you during the finale because I can't! I am proud to be an American and that pride has never faltered even though I don't agree with the direction things in this country are currently heading.
It has become standard operating procedure to insult our Government and those insults come not only from the "common people" but from those politicians we have elected to represent us. The very men and women that we have voted into office to speak for us in Congress or the Senate cannot seem to show a united front and that causes everyone else to be at odds with each other. While politicians jockey for position and undercut each other in their quest for the Presidential prize or to align themselves with the "popular side of the room", they send out a mixed message to the rest of the world; a message that does not show solidarity to those who watch and wait to destroy the country that many patriots like my father have fought for and died for these past 231 years. I know, though, that in spite of the arguing and disagreements the solidarity that we seem to be so sorely lacking does exist as I've seen it in action.
On September 11, 2001 I watched in horror with the rest of the Nation while the Twin Towers in New York City were taken down by foreign terrorist actions. I stood in shock in front of my television set while the news media told of an additional attack upon the Pentagon and of a plane that went down in a remote field in Pennsylvania rather than into its intended target because its heroic passengers and crew chose to fight back against their hijackers. I cried as reports of the deaths of the brave men and women who rushed into those towers to save others were reported and I cried even more as the horrific death toll rose higher and higher. I was shocked and appalled and dismayed that such destruction could be visited upon one man by another.
However when the smoke cleared and the country came together in a surge of National pride and brotherhood I was more than proud to be an American. I didn't have to run out and buy an American flag to hang out as I already owned one but I was happy - no ... thrilled - to see so many other flags now flying from cars, from houses, from office buildings, from every possible place. The words "let freedom ring" never sounded sweeter because they were spoken by people who truly meant them and who treasured that freedom and the men and women who fought and died for it as much as I did. The world had temporarily tipped on its axis but America was standing strong and proud and nothing or no one was going to knock us down.
The memories of those dark days following 9/11 define what America truly means to me. We are a Nation whose people have the Freedom of Speech; the freedom to question and criticize our government, the freedom to ask "why?" and expect an honest answer, the freedom to enter into intelligent debate without fear of governmental reprisal, and the freedom to say "I disagree with you but I respect your different opinion as you should respect mine". We are a Nation that seems to be at odds with not only ourselves but with the rest of the world, however we are also a Nation who will pull together and defend our country like a mother bear defends her cubs if the situation warrants it. We are "free to be" and that's what America means to me.
Staff Sgt & Mrs. Kendall B. Orlomoski & family
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona 1965
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona 1965
Note: This post was originally written as an entry for an essay contest on "What America Means to Me".