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What it means to be an American this Fourth of July

It’s time once again when we pause, step back and assess who we are, what we have and how we got it. Upon some reflection, the answer seems clear-- we are Americans. We have freedom. We have it because we fought and died for it.

In a speech at Hickam Air Force Base in 1984, President Ronald Reagan, praising the bravery and valor of the American fighting man, quoted an Admiral who had asked the question, “Where do we find such men?” Then President Reagan continued on, “We find them where we have always found them when we need them… on the main streets and the farms of America.”

Today, the Fourth of July is often associated with fireworks, barbeques and family get-togethers. It’s also a time to reflect on what it means to be an American and the sacrifices made by those to secure the freedoms we have today. Fortunately for us, during America’s darkest hours, God has consistently blessed us with ordinary people who do extraordinary things, including making the ultimate sacrifice to secure and maintain our freedom.

While July 4, 1776 officially marks the day that we declared our independence from British rule, our independence and yes, our very freedom, was far from secure. 

In fact, the infant republic was hanging on by a thread for several years thereafter. With our troops starving and freezing to death, it really wasn’t until the Battle of Cowpens that things began to turn for the Americans. 

At the Battle of Cowpens, rugged backwoods settlers, including many Scots-Irish, who had come to America seeking freedom, teamed up with General Daniel Morgan’s Continental regulars. The Americans turned the tide and defeated the British at Cowpens on January 17, 1781. Thus began the long retreat for British forces which culminated in Cornwallis’ surrender at the Battle of Yorktown later that year. The last British troops finally left America in 1783 and our freedom was finally secure, at least for a while.

With the White House smoldering and other federal buildings, such as the Treasury Department in ashes, the young Republic was challenged once again in the War of 1812. Over 286,000 young men answered America’s call to duty in the War of 1812. Their finest hour came serving under General Andrew Jackson, who defeated the British while outnumbered nearly 3 to 1, at the Battle of New Orleans.

Perhaps the young nation’s greatest challenge came in 1861 in the Civil War, which tore the country apart. Well over 600,000 men died, while another 400,000 plus were wounded. America was blessed to have extraordinary leadership at this time who understood the need to hold America together, no matter the cost.

Over the years, America has also been blessed to have men and women who understood the need to ensure that America’s freedoms and liberties are enjoyed by all of our citizens.

In the 20th century, the republic was once again challenged in conflicts including World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Literally millions of young Americans, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country and to preserve freedom, answered their nations’ call. Hundreds of thousands of young Americans made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom in the 20th century.

With each military conflict, there have been remarkable stories of ordinary young Americans “rising to the occasion” in demonstrating heroic acts and selfless service. For example, who can forget the men who served under General Jimmy Doolittle in Doolittle’s Raid on Tokyo?

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America needed a morale boost. Doolittle’s men took off in their B-25s from the USS Hornet, knowing that they did not have enough fuel to return. 

And how about the heroics of the boys of Pointe du Hoc? Here at an imposing cliff-top location at Normandy between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, the Germans had what seemed like an impenetrable location, with 155 MM guns pointing down on the Americans at the top of the cliff. The young American Rangers were given the task of taking out the German position at Pointe du Hoc on D-Day. Over one half of the American force at Pointe du Hoc was either killed or wounded climbing the seemingly impossible cliff, but in the end the mission was accomplished and an entire continent was saved.

As we entered the 21st century, America was presented with a new challenge to its freedoms and very way of life—the rise of Islamic terrorism. We saw the heroics of America’s first responders on 9/11 and once again, too, we saw literally thousands and thousands of young Americans volunteer to serve their country and be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to preserve and maintain our freedoms.  

President Reagan was right, young Americans have always answered the call of their country and any and all challenges. From the ill-clothed, half frozen militia men at Valley Forge, to the brave Marines on the sands of Iwo Jima, to our military heroes in Iraq and Afghanistan. The verdict is in-- freedom is more important than life itself. 

Today, let us remember what we have, how we got it, and what it means to be an American.

Van D. Hipp, Jr. is Chairman of American Defense International, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm specializing in government affairs, business development and public relations. He is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Army and currently serves on Board of Directors of the American Conservative Union and The National Capitol Board of The Salvation Army. Follow him on Twitter @VanHipp.