“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.”—Aristotle
As I boarded the airliner to leave Kuwait, I closed my eyes. While my body and soul were exhausted from the time in Syria, my mind was still accelerating at the speed of light. My visions flashed to the sensations experienced in the last, seemingly endless days.
The dark orange sun rose above the desert. Brown water with a foul smell ran from the faucets. An odor of sewer and decay had surrounded me in a land where the people clearly did not want me and yet cursed me as I left. The sounds of artillery, the smell of hot munitions, and the sight of killing are still present, although logic tells me I am sitting in a cushioned airline seat preparing to taxi on a tarmac.
I recall the expectations of how I thought my deployment would transpire and then having those expectations knocked out of me swiftly and unforgivingly, as if I had been hit in the gut by a heavyweight boxer. Nothing there was as I imagined. Not in the beginning. Not in the duration. Not in the end.
When I arrive in America, I deplane and I watched as passengers pass drinking fountains that hold clean, cool water. I hear a child shaking ice in a cup. Oh—ice! And I enjoy facilities with sanitary sewer and clean water to wash my hands.
Once outside, I look up and stand in awe of a clear sky that is blue. I had often pictured it in my mind at the end of my shifts as my mind strolled through memories awaiting sleep that often never came. Yet, the blue above me was more vivid than I ever remembered. I stand for a moment and simply breathe, aware of the absence of the stench of filth and death.
The number of soldiers who leave American soil and never return is not lost on me. I had just won the best lottery in the world: I came home to America.
While the experiences in the Middle East are still with me, I no longer instinctively brake and redirect the car when I see something in the roadway, fearing a body or IED. I can hold my loved ones in my arms. My grocery store has shelves full of fresh meats, fruits, and vegetables that I can purchase 24 hours a day. My odds of going between two places without experiencing sniper fire improved exponentially. I can worship at the place of my choosing in a way that is meaningful to me.
I see children playing and remember the children in those far away lands who would never know excess or understand the lack of appreciation our children have for so much around them.
I see neighbors walking their dogs on sidewalks and then playing with them in the dog park. I instantly remember the stray dog at the outpost who had four puppies, one of which immediately approached me and laid on my combat boots. An instant companion. A lifesaver. I recall how two fellow soldiers and myself worked with an international agency to rescue the dogs as hostilities began to ignite. My faith in mankind was renewed when an Iraqi drove over three hours in an imminent war zone to rescue the dogs, only to have all of them pass away before making it to safety.
Why do I love America? Because I have seen some of the worst humanity has to offer, and it is clear how good Americans have it.
America is the best place on Earth. We have been blessed with so much, although many people protest that this massive excess envied by the rest of the world is not enough. It has been and still is the land of opportunity; opportunities that have been provided by the blood, sweat, and tears of courageous people, many of whom are buried on foreign soil.
There is no other land like America. I am reminded of a quote from D.H. Lawrence: “Do not allow to slip away from you freedoms the people who came before you won with such hard knocks.”
Let us continue to work together to build a great future instead of destroying the past and the present.