A couple of months ago, my stepson, Anthony, began his second year at the United States Military Academy at West Point. A few days before he left, Anthony shared something with me that has haunted my thoughts,
“I’m willing to die for my country.”
This wasn’t the first time Anthony had said that. The first time was when he was in high school; he said it again while at military prep school. But now that Anthony is officially part of the military, now that he could be called up to serve in some war overseas, his words were suddenly very real.
Years ago, when I was a student at East Carolina University, my fraternity brothers and I would often drive to the coast on the weekends. We’d grab some beers, pick up our girlfriends, and spend a leisurely day at the beach. During the drive, we’d pass by the Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in Havelock, North Carolina. You could always hear the roar of fighter jets and C-130s taking off and landing. There was a huge sign at the entrance of the base: “Please Excuse the Noise. It’s the Sound of Freedom.”
I remember having goose pimples when I first read those words, “Please Excuse the Noise. It’s the Sound of Freedom,” but I didn’t think much about the thousands of soldiers who drilled there every day, who practiced at the firing range, who maintained the weaponry of war that kept college kids like me safe at night.
Now, I didn’t have too many shining academic moments during my time in college; I barely graduated with a 2.0 GPA. But one day, during a discussion about public service in my political science class, I suddenly thought about that big sign outside the Marine Corps base. I raised my hand and said: “Professor Scala, for years, we had a draft. When you could lose somebody you love, it seemed people cared a lot more about their country. No one forgot about our wars because chances were a brother or son, or uncle was fighting there. But now we have a professional army. There’s no more draft. And people just don’t seem to care. It’s someone else’s job to protect the country.”
Professor Scala looked at me with a funny expression. Until then, he had written me off as the kid who sat in the back row struggling to stay awake. “Mr. Spaulding,” he said. “That might be the smartest thing I’ve heard a college student say in my thirty years of teaching.”
That, unfortunately, would remain my one and only moment of brilliance at East Carolina University, but I began thinking about it a lot after my stepson enrolled at West Point. We’ve fought several wars since I spoke up in class that day. Thousands of our men and women in uniform have died protecting our freedom. But the rest of us continued to wake up in the morning, go to work, eat at restaurants, and watch football on ESPN. If we, or even our loved ones, weren’t forced to go, then it wasn’t something we had to think about much.
You don’t need to turn on cable news to see that our country is divided. Last year I took some friends to visit the U.S. Capitol, and we met with a congressperson I know and respect profoundly. He told us, dead serious, that the rival political party was “Satan.” Is that really what we’ve come to? It’s the kind of flippant thing people say when they don’t have any skin in the game, when we take the freedoms we enjoy in this country for granted. But when you drive by an army base, you don’t see blue uniforms and red uniforms. You don’t see Democrat regiments and Republican regiments. No one cares who you voted for—only that you can shoot straight, follow orders, and lay down your life for the soldier behind you.
I am immensely proud of my stepson for choosing a life of service in a time when it’s so easy not to. Anthony is incredibly smart. He’s in love with a wonderful girl named Jessica. He could settle down, start a family, and make a lot of money. But Anthony chose a path that so few of us do. He chose to give back, protect, and serve his country.
For a long time, I was worried that Anthony had made the wrong choice. Just turn on the news, and you see pundits screaming at each other. Or log onto social media, and you see people screaming at each other. In the back of my mind, I had a terrible, nagging thought: Is our country worth dying for?
As it turned out, I got my answer. Earlier this summer, our GYLA staff and I had taken a small group of high school students to build homes for the poor in Tijuana, Mexico, with the nonprofit Homes of Hope. My family has been doing this for so long that it’s in our DNA. One of the students was a sixteen-year-old girl named McKenna Ranson. She was shyer than the others, but her quiet diligence struck me. Last week, I received an e-mail from one of the leaders at Homes of Hope. As I read the words, I burst out crying. After McKenna got home from our trip to Mexico, she spent the rest of her summer recruiting twenty-five more students to return to Tijuana to build another home and raised all the money and support by herself.
Reading about McKenna made me fall in love with my country all over again. She made me realize that when you turn off all the noise, you’ll find young people like McKenna who are quietly changing lives. You’ll find young people like my stepson, Anthony, who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend the freedoms we have long taken for granted. If you allow yourself to see it, there is so much good bringing us together. The best among us don’t care about your race, religion, sexual orientation, or for whom you voted. All they care about is whether or not you are ready to roll up your sleeves and help build a stronger, kinder, and more tolerant country.
And that’s something worth dying for.