This year’s Independence Day feels different than in years past. Certainly, it’s different than last year when everything was still on COVID lockdown and the holiday passed with little fanfare.
Recently, a friend asked what the 4th of July means to me. Objectively, it’s impossible in 2021 to view it outside the lens of the current struggles of our society. Specifically, as a veteran of the Afghan War, I can’t separate this weekend from the recent news of our departure from the country, at least symbolically, with the closure of Bagram and the implications of what that means for both the past and the future.
I traveled to Tampa this week, both work-related and not. Amidst the news of the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, I made three deliberate stops. I visited the SOCOM Memorial to say hello to some friends, their names etched in stone including the date their lives ended in Afghanistan. I spent a day with a wounded Ranger buddy still fighting to gain back his own independence from injuries sustained from an IED in Afghanistan. Last but not least, I had breakfast with a friend and Gold Star widow of an old roommate, killed in Afghanistan in 2010.
Like the events on 9/11/2001, the tragedies that predated those three stops in Tampa will be forever etched in stone on my mind and heart. I don’t know what the future holds for Afghanistan, but regardless, the past and present left me with enough to chew on as I made my rounds.
Here’s what the 4th of July means to me . . . in 2021:
The 4th of July is a reminder I’ve been blessed to wake up every day of my life in a country with some very unique freedoms. I served with the best Americans in some of the best units that have ever shown up for a fight on a battlefield. I’ve met some of the finest families, who entrusted me to lead their sons and daughters. For those things, I’ll be forever grateful.
3+ years of time spent in Afghanistan over 13 deployments leaves me with some lasting memories and lessons. Most importantly, if Gold Stars, memorials, wounded warriors, VA hospitals, and looming retrogrades should remind us of anything it should be that foreign policy carries tangible implications and lasting impacts on real people. We have an obligation to respect the past and to care for those who returned home. This includes those in one piece, without a limb, or in a flag-covered coffin, and their widows, and orphans. (And might I add, honoring the promised SIVs to those Afghans who risked it all to serve alongside our service members in harm’s way). These are no-fail tasks. We should make policy decisions built to endure beyond 2-4 year election cycles and fiscal year budgets. Our nation must ensure we make wise choices in the future.
It is easy nowadays to sit back and undermine, downplay, or even cancel the blood, sweat, and tears of others without lifting anything but a literal finger on a keyboard. Amidst domestic unrest and storm clouds abroad, it’s easy to fall into that trap, but not today.
Today, on the 4th of July, I want to celebrate being placed in some of the worst settings with some of the best people. I’ve watched patriotic Americans do some extraordinary things on behalf of their country – just like Americans did 245 years ago when they summoned the courage to put their names in ink on the Declaration of Independence.
Every day, when we wake up in a country with 50 stars and 13 stripes, we’re blessed with an OPPORTUNITY to make the world around us better or worse. We have the FREEDOM to CHOOSE to build others up rather than tear others down. We have that daily BLESSING because on July 4th, 1776, and 2021, we’ve had people willing to man the ramparts and do whatever our nation would ask us to do. They do it, not for a monarchy, a family, a bloodline, or a party, but for an idea. That’s something we should CELEBRATE.
So while you’re unmasking, flipping dogs, and spending time with family and friends, raise a glass for those who have gone before us. Toast those who were willing to pledge their entire lives, to the Declaration of Independence and are presently on a service contract. Reagan, in his inaugural address as Governor of CA in 1967 said, “Freedom is a fragile thing and it’s never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by way of inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation.” WE THE PEOPLE have that awesome responsibility and privilege if we want to keep freedom alive.
I know the difference in our federal holidays, but for some, every day is Memorial Day. On this 4th of July, I’m reminded that it’s not just a day to remember, but also a day to exercise thanksgiving. I’ve been blessed to serve alongside people of all stripes from all corners of this great country. To deny its greatness is to deny the entire American experiment, even with its imperfections. We will strive to continue to form a more perfect union, as we stand on the shoulders of giants.
Instead, today, with the closeout of combat operations this weekend in Afghanistan, I raise a glass to solemnly toast our fallen and remember those who have sacrificed – mind, body, family, and youth. I give thanks for the opportunity to know them and still carry their mantle. It’s what the preservation of our freedoms requires. To state “freedom isn’t free” would be both rhetorical and obvious. Recently, a wise man said, “We know their story, we will tell their story, and in each of our own ways we will finish their story.” This is exactly what they would want us to do.
Mike Kelvington grew up in Akron, Ohio. He is an Infantry Officer in the U.S. Army with experience in special operations, counterterrorism, and counterinsurgency operations with over a dozen deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, including with the 75th Ranger Regiment. He’s been awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Valor and two Purple Hearts for wounds sustained in combat. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, a Downing Scholar, and holds Master’s degrees from Princeton, Liberty, and Regent Universities. The views expressed on this website are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.