The Fourth of July is an all-American holiday – a day when communities across the country come together to wave the Red, White and Blue, and commemorate our nation’s independence with parades, fireworks and good barbecue. Every Kansas family celebrates in their own special way, but we are all united in our cause for celebration: the many blessings we enjoy as Americans and the sacrifices made in the name of our freedom.
While Independence Day traditionally honors the struggle for independence from Great Britain during the American Revolution, it is impossible to overlook the service of the current generation in our Armed Forces who continue to bravely defend freedom, liberty and the American Dream.
It has been almost 10 years since I first met Katrina Gier Lewison, then a captain in the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division. She grew up in Hutchinson, Kan., graduated from West Point, and served in Iraq as a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot. Capt. Lewison’s letters home to her parents during her deployment had been published regularly by the Hutchinson News, and I took great interest in reading about the service of her battalion in the Mosul area of Iraq as they helped villagers, repaired local schools, ran engineering projects, and built a clinic.
I had the opportunity to travel to Iraq in August 2003, and told my traveling companion – General David Petraeus – that I would like to meet Capt. Lewison. Little did I know she was riding in the cockpit of our helicopter and I was shocked when she responded to me herself over the headset. During our mid-flight conversation, I learned that she had been injured just a few weeks prior by shrapnel from a grenade thrown at a Humvee she was traveling in. At that moment, Gen. Petreaus revealed to Capt. Lewison that she was to be awarded the Purple Heart for her injuries. After our helicopter landed, I had the honor of presenting the Purple Heart pin to this brave Kansan during an impromptu service that left tears in the eyes of many in attendance – including my own.
Many Kansans, like Lewison, choose military service because of their passionate faith in our nation. But you don’t have to sign up for one of the Armed Forces to serve our country. Hubert H. Humphrey, the 38th Vice President of the United States, once said, “What we need are critical lovers of America – patriots who express their faith in their country by working to improve it.”
The fact is, one individual or organization can change the course of someone’s life. Regardless of where you live, how much you earn, or how far you went in school, you can volunteer. Whether it’s visiting the sick and disabled, feeding the hungry, mentoring children or supporting your community, you can make a difference.
There are opportunities to serve our nation on the home front throughout Kansas. Here are just a few suggestions: volunteer at an after school program; serve as a Scoutmaster with your local Boy Scout of Girl Scout troop; work with your local 4-H chapter; adopt a “Little” through the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization; coach a youth sports team; or serve your church congregation. The youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow, so we need to help them develop into individuals capable of dreaming big and pursuing those dreams.
As Kansans, we have witnessed first-hand the devastation caused by natural disasters like tornadoes, and many Kansans have been on the receiving end of their fellow Americans’ generosity. Another way to serve our country is by donating time, goods or money to those who have lost everything due to a natural disaster. A great resource is the American Red Cross; local chapters gather volunteers and funds to help those in need. Your support can help give your fellow citizens the courage to persevere in spite of enormous challenges. Visit redcross.org to learn more about opportunities to serve.
As we celebrate the 237th Birthday of our great nation, we should be mindful that with freedom comes responsibility. Great sacrifices have been made by many, including Katrina Gier Lewison, so we can live in freedom. We must continue to work to uphold the ideals of the Declaration of Independence – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and work to make certain the United States of America remains the land of opportunity. As Americans, we are called upon to better our communities and nation through patriotic service, and I hope you are compelled to answer that call