Memorial Day seemed to have a little more meaning to me this year than it has in the past. For the first time, all the cookouts, warm weather and swimming are not what this holiday revolved around.
A few weeks ago, tragedy rocked my hometown of Mount Sterling. Dustin Gross, a 19-year-old member of the U.S. Army, was killed in Afghanistan. And though it’s not something completely unexpected in a situation like this, it brought my town together in a way I had never seen before.
As I drove down my streets, I was overtaken by the abundance of American flags and photos of Dustin. The funeral procession to the cemetery for this fallen soldier was eight miles long. All of this hit home really hard for me and my family in particular.
Just a week before the death of Dustin, I found out my cousin was joining the U.S. Air Force and would be sent to basic training in mid-June. I’m not the largest supporter of the wars going on right now and, like most Americans, I typically use the holiday weekend as an excuse to sleep in, cookout and get a tan.
But when my cousin told me he would be leaving next month, I found myself becoming more aware of what was happening overseas. Nuclear missiles in Iran, Muslim radicals in Iraq and terrorists bombing everywhere in sight in Afghanistan are all over the news.
When I heard about Dustin and my cousin, I gained an appreciation for what those in the armed forces actually do for us. It awoke some sense of patriotism I never knew I had. The stress that lays on someone so young has to be overwhelming. This man was two years younger than me and made a bigger impact than I could ever hope to make.
While preparations for the funeral were being made, it was running through the rumor mill of my town that Westboro Baptist Church would be protesting the service. Though I do not agree with the method they choose to protest the war, it is their right as U.S. citizens to do so.
Freedom of speech is just one of many things that our soldiers are fighting for.
They fight for us to speak what is on our minds and protest, like Westboro Baptist Church, without persecution. They fight for us to pray, or not to pray, to whatever religious idol we believe. They fight for me to be able to write and publish my opinions and thoughts every week.
So when my cousin leaves this month, I will no longer take the things our armed forces do for granted. I will keep in contact with him whenever I can. And, most importantly, I will remember that every single word I have published is because people, like my cousin and Dustin, are fighting for my right to be myself and speak my mind.
I guess it’s true what they say: you never really know how you will react to something until you experience it firsthand. For the first time, I’m supporting a member of my family joining the armed forces. And to my cousin: you’re a brave fellow and I’m proud of you.