Hooked on America

SELFRIDGE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mich. -- By the Bicentennial, I was hooked.

I think the part I liked best was that business about all men being created equal. Later, I discovered that Mr. Lincoln's language was had become a bit dated and it was really that all people are created equal, but the sentiment - the ideal - remained the same. The fact is, when I was a boy, I fell hard for all the clichés we say about America. About the land of freedom. About one man, one vote. Freedom. The Bill of Rights. Democracy.

And that bit about every one being created equal under God. I believed that as a kid. And sometimes, at least in this case, the things you learn first are the things you learn best.

So now, almost 40 years later, though sometimes I have to acknowledge that they can be harder to see, I still believe in those American ideals. Freedom. Equality. And the like. I wish I thought about these things every day when I put on my uniform. I don't, to be honest. But some days, the good days - and there are lots of good days - I look down and see the words "U.S. Air Force" stitched in blue thread right over my heart on a camouflage shirt.

I was a Cub Scout in 1976 and, in honor of the 200th anniversary of the start of our great nation, we got to wear special Bicentennial neckerchiefs with our uniforms that year. They were mostly white, with a stripe of red and a stripe of blue along the edges. Three Minutemen, playing fife and drum, were on the back. I was 9 years old, I had a uniform and I knew a bunch of flag etiquette trivia. I internalized all those lessons taught about America, about the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.

And now?

And now, other than my age, not much has changed.

Something about the American ideal... I'll be darned if it doesn't just light my fire.

I was thinking about all these things the other day when I was standing at attention, listening to the citation to accompany the Meritorious Service Medal being read as my friend Master Sgt. Terry Atwell was being retired after more than 34 years of combined service in the Navy and the Michigan Air National Guard. I looked around the room. To my left, a civilian co-worker and Air Force veteran, originally from Mississippi. To my right, an Air National Guard staff sergeant who, most days, works as a public school teacher in Detroit. Across the room, the finance officer. Just in front of me, the wing commander. Chiefs, tech sergeants and captains.

Different people from different places. All of them, either today or at one time or another, had those words stitched on camouflage fabric over their heart. How did we all get here? Here's a little secret: the best part of the Air Force isn't the airplanes. It is the people you meet. People from all over. With all kinds of backgrounds and ideals and dreams. But, all created equal. Mr. Lincoln said so. And I still believe him to be true.

For some in the room, they joined up because they wanted a paycheck. Some wanted an education. Some just wanted a chance. But most of them, somewhere deep down inside, they have some of that 9-year-old Cub Scout from 1976 inside of them, too. And what they wanted was... they wanted those words to be stitched in blue ink on camouflage fabric right over their heart. I know Atwell does. And the Air Force civilian to my left. And the staff sergeant to my right. Chiefs, tech. sergeants and captains. The whole lot of 'em.

America. And that's enough.