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On Fourth of July, celebrate heroes who fight for others

Every Fourth of July, author Sebastian Junger says he thinks about what America means to military servicemen who came as emigrants to the U.S. What motivates them to fight and risk their lives in a country where they might be discriminated against when they’ve returned from duty? Junger considers our ordinary heroes who serve the greater good and not just themselves.

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  • JOHN YANG:

    Finally tonight, a "NewsHour" essay from author Sebastian Junger.

    On this Independence Day, he reflects on American heroes.

  • SEBASTIAN JUNGER, Author:

    Several years ago, I spent much of a deployment with a platoon of combat infantry at a remote outpost called Restrepo.

    It was named after the medic PFC Juan Sebastian Restrepo, who was born in Colombia, emigrated to America as a child, and died fighting at the bottom of a hill in Afghanistan.

    There was no running water at Restrepo, no cooked food, no communication with the outside world, and absolutely no privacy. Mostly, there was just a lot of combat. The platoon was in several hundred firefights that year, and everyone out there was almost killed.

    And yet over and over again, I watched perfectly ordinary people risk their lives to keep others safe. No one was more important than anyone else, and race, religion, and politics had absolutely no relevance at Restrepo. It was most profoundly egalitarian place I have ever been.

    Every Fourth of July, I like to think about men like Private Restrepo and what this country must mean to them. Four percent of our military aren't even U.S. citizens. And yet they emigrate to our shores, put on a uniform and fight and die for us.

    What is it they are fighting for? What is it they are risking death for? For many, of course, it is economic opportunity. But that very economic opportunity is rooted in the idea of a just society where people are judged on their own merits, rather than for the sound of their last name or the color of their skin.

    And that America may exist in its purest form on the front lines of our nation's wars. How sad. How ironic. Soldiers now return to a society that is tearing itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Many people live in racially segregated communities, and rampage shootings seem to happen every week or two.

    To make matters worse, powerful people in this country talk with incredible contempt about, depending on their views, the president, the government, the foreign-born and entire segments of the population.

    I'm sorry to say that some of my fellow Americans would judge PFC Juan Restrepo for his country of origin before they got around to honoring him for his heroism.

    I don't believe that this would be happening if people in power in this country had even a minimal understanding of true public service. I wonder if any of them thought to give up their salary for a year in solidarity with the millions of Americans who lost their jobs during a recession.

    I wonder if any of them are prepared to make a real personal sacrifice for the good of this nation. And yet such acts are found in abundance among the citizens they serve.

    Last year, a lifelong New Yorker named Marty Bauman died at age 85. Mr. Bauman contracted polio while in the Army, attended college on the G.I. Bill, and went on to start a successful business in Manhattan. When his company ran into financial trouble in the 1990s, he secretly gave up his salary, so that he wouldn't have to fire any of his staff. His employees only found out because the company bookkeeper finally told them.

    People like Mr. Bauman are the true heroes of this country. This Fourth of July, think about the people, young and old, rich and poor, citizen and non-citizen, who have made sacrifices for us all.

    Some are in uniform, but many are not. They all deserve our respect, but, more than that, they deserve a country that respects itself. I don't hear that sentiment in the halls of power. I only hear it at the outposts of Afghanistan and on the streets and in the workplaces of this great land.

    Just a few days ago, I was walking by a housing project in New York City and saw someone throw a candy wrapper on the ground. Another person saw him as well.

    "Hey, man," he said, "that's our country."

    That's right. That's our country. If the powerful do not learn this one lesson from the rest of us, they will not remain the powerful for long.

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