Written by Jeff Fulgham
Photography by Colin Czerwinski
s the 757 began its descent I looked intently out of the window to see American soil for the first time in months. Our flight home was far removed from the rough flights into and out of Iraq in a C130. This is because many airfields in Iraq require pilots to make what is known as a combat landing. These landings are deliberate maneuvers intended to avoid possible surface to air missiles. As many soldiers can attest however, some are more similar to a controlled crash than a landing. Now my one-year tour in Iraq was over and we were only 20 minutes from touching down on U.S. soil. And for the first time in one year my conscience said to me, “Ok Jeff, you can relax and let your guard down, you’re home.”
It was this homecoming morning when I stared at the lights below in the early morning twilight that for the first time in my life I understood what Ronald Reagan envisioned when he spoke of a shining city on a hill. This understanding didn’t come to me overnight, however. It came only after nine years of military service, including operations around the world and studies at the American Military University. I’ve since often wondered what most attributed to Reagan’s understanding of this concept and at what age he realized it.
Throughout the flight home I had replayed in my mind several of the enemy engagements my platoon had experienced. I had completed 211 combat patrols as lead vehicle commander with the 101st Airborne Division’s Task Force Trailblazer. Our mission was hunting hidden roadside bombs known as IED’s on the supply routes with the objective of protecting U.S convoys from being ambushed. It was a dangerous, but vital mission that came with a price. My battalion lost two men who were killed in action and approximately twenty were wounded in action, including myself when my vehicle was destroyed and burned during an attack on our patrol near the al-Qaida stronghold of Baiji City. This casualty count does not include the many soldiers, both American and Iraqi, from other units killed or wounded in our area of operations during the tour.
I soon learned that combat has a way of forcing every man to contemplate his individual mortality. After each enemy engagement, for example, there was always that first opportunity, whenever it arrived, for a sacred and private moment on my knees to thank God I was still alive. Another thing combat forced me to reflect upon was the freedom we’re blessed with in the United States. On this theme of freedom, one particular mission we conducted will always stand out clearly in my mind. Because the mission was classified, we had assumed it was another routine patrol, until we moved out. We then learned that ballot boxes for the upcoming 2006 elections were being secretly moved to polling places to arrive early and our platoon would lead the convoy as the route reconnaissance element. With two Appache helicopters providing air support to our left and right we led the convoy through our area of operations from Tikrit to Samara. It was oddly quiet in the lead vehicle that day and for obvious reasons. Our platoon had been chosen to spearhead the seeds of democracy in Iraq, literally. I will forever remember this mission when casting my ballot at the polls. In the end we met our objective that day with only a few deterrents and the mission was a success.
People around the globe understand what sets the United States apart from other countries and why it’s sometimes referred to as the shining city on a hill. I’ll never fail to remember the captive attention and deep fascination in the eyes of my Iraqi interpreter when we discussed America’s democratic process. It was his dream to help establish a democracy in Iraq that would cultivate openness and justice as our government does. I pray that he’s still alive and will one day see his dream a reality. Although there are now many promising countries that guarantee basic rights and freedoms to their citizens, it is America that was the first, and still is, the standard measure for freedom and liberty around the world. The five freedoms found in the first amendment of our constitution exemplify the liberties that distinguish our democratic republic from other governments. And our justice system sets the standards of equality for all nations to emulate.
Our freedom is a blessing, but it also makes us a target by those who do not value equality as we do and would like to impose their tyrannical will upon others. As a result of this reality we cannot omit the story of the fight for independence from this lesson on freedom. Freedom and the fight to sustain it cannot be separated. They are forever linked. If not for Memorial Day to recognize those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the fight for freedom, there would be no Fourth of July to celebrate our independence.
During the upcoming holiday let’s remember that our enduring fight for independence, which established the greatest country on earth originated with the following courageous declaration to a tyrant; “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
May God bless our nation and its leaders with the courage to uphold this declaration.