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Liberty: Freedom to choose worth fighting for

SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFNEWS) -- Remember second grade when your teacher asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Then she started at the first seat on the far right side of the room. You were in the second row, third seat, desperately trying to imagine what you wanted to be and then making sure you said something that would score "cool" points.

I remember that moment and I remember my response, "Race car driver." That is what I really wanted to be.

The thought of Air Force officer, missile launch control officer (What would Karen, Shane, Lori, et. al., have thought had I said that in second grade? Forget cool, we're talking "dweeber" points.), squadron commander, etc...none of these jobs entered my mind.

Sitting there in Mrs. O'Neal's classroom, I couldn't know what path my life would take. Still, I had the utmost confidence that I could choose anything I wanted to do and as long as I worked hard and persevered, I could do it. Why? Because I had the great blessing of being born in the United States of America, where freedom is protected and honored.

I grew up on a North Carolina farm. Rural life was simple and full of challenges and hope. Our neighbors were like family. I grew up knowing everyone and they knew you. I recall countless examples of dignity and character witnessed growing up around some great Americans.

These people were not perfect, they were not famous, but everyday they worked and took care of their families and neighbors. They talked about taxes, church, baseball, that new tractor they were saving for, and about the size of that bass caught in Mr. Sullivan's pond (I was pretty sure a bass couldn't grow to be as long as Mr. Stephenson's arm).

They were leaders, mentors, and sometimes they stumbled, yet, they lived their lives as an example to us youngsters. They all wanted life for their children to be better than they had it. We all knew it and most of us wanted to have a better life, although the one we had was pretty amazing. Of course, we were too young to realize it at the time. The common thread here is they were free to choose and they would do whatever it took to make sure we all had that right as well.

My dad, his brother and many others all left the safety of home and joined the Army during World War II. They stood up when their family, neighbors and country needed them. They were just regular Americans who knew what was at stake, the very freedom that so many had fought for before and continue to fight for today.

I never heard my father speak of that time until I decided to join the military. Then he talked of commitment, sacrifice, iron-will and the foresight not to take myself too seriously. The day of my dad's funeral, they folded the flag draped over the coffin and handed it to my mother. At that moment, I knew my life would never be the same. I looked around at all the neighbors who were there, to share that moment with my family.
As profoundly sad as we were, it was also a cause for celebration. The celebration of life, my father's life and what he had stood for, the many people present who had been there throughout my life and what each one of them represented. We were all family, a community of ordinary citizens, bound by respect for life and liberty, regardless of race, religion, gender, or who could cook the best apple pie.

I knew, right there, right then, that was why I had chosen to join the military. I wanted to be a part of something much bigger than me. I wanted to give back to all of those people who had been there to help me grow into the adult I had become. I was proud to serve a nation that, in spite of all her imperfections, represents "liberty and justice for all."

Being here, in Iraq, has given me complete conviction that liberty is worth any cost. Many courageous, ordinary Americans have paid the ultimate price to preserve those freedoms we hold so dear and I am honored to be a part of their "community."

Race car driving will have to wait until I retire. That's when I'll enroll in the Richard Petty NASCAR Driving course back in North Carolina. You see, I really was serious that day in Mrs. O'Neal's classroom.