Although I was raised in politics and possess a legal background, for years I did not consider myself patriotic. And although I serve in the U.S. Army, the patriotic urge did not overwhelm me. Many would call being a soldier in a volunteer army patriotic enough; but it is a job I love and somehow the ring of that doesn't equate to being a true patriot. Yes, I possess an unyielding love for our institution of government and marvel at what many have called our republic, The Great Experiment; but the patriotic itch still escaped me. What it took for me to find patriotism was a war thousands of miles from home -- Iraq.
What I found in Iraq were people cherishing the things I had taken for granted: a farmer rejoicing that his village was liberated and he could now drive his produce to market; the little boys and girls giggling during school recess yet eager and anxious to return to the classroom to absorb knowledge; and medical personnel thankful for the opportunity to set up a clinic so they could care for the ill and less fortunate.
Just about every Iraqi I spoke with asked me about America and what it was like. When I told them about magnificent things in the U.S., they always turned the conversation. They were fascinated and awestruck by the mere ability to freely travel and enjoy such places. In the Diyala province, I met a teenage soccer phenomenon who entertained us with his skills every time we visited his home. During a few discussions, I learned that his teammates had been gathered up and executed. All he wanted was an opportunity to freely play the game he loved without the treat of death lingering nearby. Needless to say, I returned home a changed person.
As a political science major, I always loved what our forefathers created; but as a citizen, I never fully appreciated the freedoms that I am allowed from living in this country. The things I experienced in Iraq helped me become a patriot -- someone who loves and cherishes their country not only because of what it stands for, but for what it allows me and others to do.
It has been a year since my return from Iraq, but I still look afar to remember what I have at home and why I love this country. Amazing things have happened in other regions of the world this past month: Iranians protested what they found to be unjust and Iraqis rejoiced at the idea of being able to stand up, defend and call their country a sovereign nation. These are principles that were once unfathomable to our colonial ancestors over 230 years ago; and today, living without these principles is unfathomable to many U.S. citizens.
So on July 4th, I am going to stop by a park and watch people walking, talking and freely enjoying the beauty around them. And although I cannot sing, I will be humming an appropriate song, "Let freedom ring!"
Andy Ryan is a FOX News Channel employee and currently serves in the Army Reserves.