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Dan Lee

Dan Lee

For those of us who are veterans, the Fourth of July is a very special day. Not because it is about us -- it isn’t. Rather because it is about our country, and that is why many veterans chose to put our lives on the line by serving in the military.

Our country is not just a geographical entity in which we happen to live. Rather, from its birth in 1776, it is a nation that stands for something. That something is given eloquent expression in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that all people “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Yes, I know that our nation hasn’t always lived up to its ideals. No nation ever does. Yet, the ideals given expression in the founding document of our nation are a beam of hope, an eloquent vision of what we as a people might be. They are ideals which challenge us to be the sort of people we ought to be.

I didn’t have to serve in the military. There were many in my age group who played the deferment game to avoid serving. I could have done the same thing. However, my name isn’t Bill Clinton or Donald Trump. I chose to serve because it was the right thing to do. I take pride in the fact that I chose to put my life on the line at a time when many others put themselves above their country.

Once I made the decision to enlist, I decided to make the most of the experience, both in terms of what I could contribute to our country and in terms of what I could gain from the experience. I applied for officer candidate school both for the Air Force and for the Navy.

I chose to go with the Navy for a variety of reasons, including family tradition. (My maternal grandfather sailed in the Norwegian merchant marine on windjammers; his youngest son -- my uncle -- was a Navy pilot who flew off the aircraft carrier Essex during the Korean War, along with a fellow by the name of Neil Armstrong.)

After I was commissioned on Oct. 9, 1969, I was assigned to naval intelligence. The Navy sent me to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., to study Russian full-time for 47 weeks. They said that it was a language that I needed to know. I did, which is pretty much all that I can tell you about my naval career.

The Fourth of July, of course, isn’t just for veterans. It’s for all Americans, as well as for visitors from other countries joining in the celebration of our nation’s birthday. In short, it is for everyone.

This year, our daughter and son-in-law, who live in Los Angeles, joined us at our cabin in Montana. One of my cousins on my father’s side of the family hosts a family reunion on an island that she and her siblings own (connected to shore by a short causeway).

It is always a fun event, though one that is saddened by the loss of family members. I am now down to just five first-cousins on my father’s side of the family; at one time there were more than two dozen. My father and all the other members of his generation of the family have been gone for several years.

The Fourth of July is a time to celebrate. It is a time for fireworks, with brilliant explosions of color punctuating the nighttime sky. It always has been and always will be. And that is exactly the way it should be.

But above all else, the Fourth of July is a time to remember and reaffirm the ideals on which our nation was founded. That is what is most important of all.

Daniel E. Lee is the Marian Taft Cannon Professor in the Humanities at Augustana College; danlee@augustana.edu.

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