In July of 2011, I found myself in command of an operational C-17 squadron — a professional honor and privilege unlikely to be equaled in this lifetime. We were on the front end of a deployment to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, carrying out resupply missions all over the Middle East and Central Asia on a relentless pace.
As the Fourth of July approached, I knew many of my people, especially those on their first deployments, would think about home more than usual. I knew many others would reflect on the larger meaning of what they were doing. Most of all, I knew veterans of the past decade — those who comprised the spine of my squadron’s experience — were tired. Their world-class expertise and work ethic notwithstanding, they were at elevated risk of wearing out, and could use any modest boost of inspiration I could provide.
With those concepts in mind, I sent my squadron the following message. I offer it without further comment, except to say that it was composed without reference to official Air Force talking points, which are a bar to the authenticity required for genuine motivation.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Paraphrasing an ancient philosopher, “liberty is that power we have over ourselves.” You represent a country that has perpetually advanced the idea that every human being has power over himself or herself. Your service is part of a 235-year movement aimed at encouraging and cultivating personal liberty in as many human beings as possible; a movement animated by the belief that a freer world is a more peaceful world, and in turn a place where liberty can multiply. You should be very proud of what you represent on this day.
We don’t have fireworks here in our “paradise lost” …. but when I watch you all perform our mission, it’s a celebration in its own right. It’s better than any fireworks show could ever be, because it’s not a symbolic fantasy or glorified remembrance of some vague struggle. It’s better because it’s real. Your daily life is tough, it’s demanding, it’s gritty … and it takes wit, determination, and skill. You do it every day, you support it with a full heart, and the results are nothing less than a re-shaping of the world we live in. Given power over yourselves, you use it to create liberty for others. That’s an incredible testament to who you are.
I won’t dare talk to you about remembering the sacrifices of others. You live sacrifice, as do your loved ones. I’ll simply remind you of what you already know, and what Thomas Paine told his fellow Patriots 233 years ago: “those who expect to reap the blessings of liberty must undergo the fatigues of supporting it.” The difference between you and most people is that you have internalized this idea, and you’re willing to work tirelessly and take risk to reap the blessings of liberty for yourselves while preserving their availability for your countrymen.
Though we’re busy here and far from home, I hope you’ll find some enjoyment this Independence Day, if only in the sense that you’re living out the ideas that give it meaning.
I applaud you for making a tough mission look easy every day, and I’m proud to be your teammate.