By Congressman Brad Wenstrup –
We were standing in a room near the U.S. Capitol, after votes one night last week, listening to a U.S. servicemember speak. Standing next to him was the Afghan interpreter who had saved his life. As I listened to him share his story, I couldn’t help but think of the two Iraqi citizens who I served alongside in Iraq. I will never forget them, among many others just like them.
We had served side by side: as I was working as a combat surgeon, they were both working on behalf of the United States as interpreters in our hospital in Iraq. After assisting the U.S. in this way for years, they essentially had put targets on their own backs. One of these gentleman told me about a harrowing visit Al-Qaeda made to his home, threatening his family. They escaped and went into hiding.
With their lives at risk, it was my honor to assist them in seeking asylum here in the U.S. Today, they and their families live in the U.S. as citizens. Their children are happy, healthy, and bilingual. Both men are practicing physicians now – productive citizens and proud Americans. These are individuals who had fought for freedom in their own country and were deeply grateful for the privilege of U.S. citizenship: the right to live and breathe free. The gift of falling asleep at night without fear of attack. The ability to build a better future for their children.
They came to America for the same reason so many seek our shores— for the same reason our founders created this country. When those 56 patriots picked up a quill pen and scratched out their signatures on the parchment document that we are celebrating today, they were signing their own death sentences. All their chips were in. There was no passing the buck. This was on their shoulders. The fate of a fledging nation founded on the idea of government of the people, by the people, for the people hung in the balance.
Fast forward 242 years, we celebrate with a national holiday. We fly our flag with pride. We set off fireworks. Looking back now, it all seems destined to be. At the time though, the outcome of this struggle against the greatest military power in the world was very much uncertain. Indeed, many signers of the Declaration of Independence ended up paying a steep price for their boldness.
But to those 56 early Americans and the many others who staked their lives to the birth of this new nation, the risk was worth it. Just like the interpreters who defied the enemy to assist America, the risk was worth it. And to the many men and women who volunteer to wear the uniform of this nation, the risk is worth it. Although they may give of their lives, their earthly mission complete, the positive impact of their lives will never perish. From the founders fighting in the Revolutionary War to the men and women on the frontline today, their sacrifices live on to serve generations to come. People throughout our country and across the world continue to benefit daily from the peace, prosperity, and democracy their actions helped to create.
As Americans, this is our heritage. Our rights were fought for and our freedoms were won with blood and personal treasure. They are inalienable, but they are not guaranteed. That is why citizenship comes at a price for each one of us as well. It’s not only a privilege, but a responsibility. President Ronald Reagan once said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.” As citizens, we each have a duty to be engaged in our own governance and actively involved in the stewardship of our rights.
There is a story that is often told about Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention. Upon exiting Independence Hall, he was asked by a citizen what kind of government he had given them. Franklin famously replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
That is a perfect summary of the price and privilege of citizenship in this great country. All are chips have to be in. There is no passing the buck. This is on our shoulders. Despite the political turmoil that can sometimes feel overwhelming, we must not lose sight of our ultimate goal: protecting and passing on this great gift of liberty.