Parades, fireworks, and celebrations run wild every year in cities around the United States of America. They follow a tradition when it comes to the most glorious and liberating holiday of the country, Independence Day.
There I was at the steps of the Upper Valley Art League (UVAL), in Mission, Texas with retired Army Sgt. Major Martin “Marty” Engelbrecht reflects on the importance of the holiday.
Engelbrecht, a 74-year-old McAllen resident, who held the highest rank for enlistees, had become interested in pottery and signed up at UVAL 5 years ago right out of retirement.
“Immediately when it comes to the freedoms we have in the US, we are a blessed people, and very fortunate to have the freedoms that we do,” Engelbrecht said. “On the reverse side of that coin, I also feel sad for the inequities that we still have in our society.”
It was typical Valley weather, humid about a ‘brisk’ 85 degrees. He joked about how refreshing the day was as we walked into the annex center for an interview. Engelbrecht served for 21 years in the Army traveling around the world, Korea, Italy, and Germany (at a time before the wall dividing it came down).
As with many of the veterans I spoke with, the holiday’s reflection reminds them of the patriotism and pride that comes with the holiday.
“We are having a good time and we forget about the world’s problems or personal problems,” said 36-year-old retired combat Army veteran Felipe Salas. “It’s very relaxing and safe. It is one of those holidays when everyone is friendly, and I think it’s one of the best holidays.”
Salas, the office manager for the McAllen Vet Center, joined straight out of high school at 18 and deployed at 19. He served his country for seven years with four tours in Iraq. We spoke over the phone discussing the holiday, and compared notes since we share the same age.
Very easily I suddenly thought about how I would not be able to deal with being in the hot and sweaty desert on the other side of the world. Coming from generations of family who also served in the military, some who still currently serve, I suddenly felt smaller.
Of course, Salas, like many of the other veterans I spoke with, reassured me that is not the case, even without me mentioning it to others.
“To me, the Fourth of July does not bring memories of being in the service,” said Rudy Flores, a 70-year-old Air Force veteran, and former American Legion Jesus Martinez Post 93 commander. He was reflecting on a Flag Retirement ceremony canceled recently.
“We have other holidays like Veterans Day and Memorial Day, stuff like that is related to veterans and that’s when veterans get involved in celebrating,” Flores said. He served four years providing support to ground troops during the Vietnam war.
Like most veterans I spoke, with he plans to celebrate with family, barbecue, and fireworks.
“We might go to the island [South Padre Island] to celebrate and watch the fireworks over there, it’s not too far, but with the price of gas we are limited on income,” said Flores. “Just my wife and I, the kids are all grown up and they have their own celebrations with their family now.”
One thing about veterans when discussing the freedoms available to us today, none dismissed our heroes who fought against the British during the American Revolution.
“This is the day that our forefathers all gathered, and they all had an agreement. That they were tired of tyranny, taxes, regulation, and rules that weren’t warranted,” said Oscar Saenz, a 27-year-old who served five years in the Marines.
He sat outside on his patio after work on the phone with me. He plans on spending the day, with family and planning a good old-fashioned barbecue with pulled-pork sliders on the menu, a household favorite.
“My opinion on freedom is the ability to voice your opinion without the fear of facing consequences, to have the freedom of the press and knowing you will not be oppressed by the government for it,” Saenz said.
As we hold uphold the names and events that made our country today, we remember the document drafted by Thomas Jefferson and signed on July 4, 1776. It is the first formal justification in the world that asserts a country’s people the right to choose their government.
With it, we have the most contested truths in the world today. The Preamble of the Declaration of Independence opens with, “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.”
Monumental as the document is, the USA did not fully become recognized until the Treaty of Paris. Signed and ratified by several governments around the world on Sept. 3, 1783. Finally, Great Britain recognized the USA as its own nation.
The misconceptions about the holiday and the soldiers who reflect on it are synonymous. The American Revolution did not stop on July Fourth, the fight continued well until Oct. 17, 1781, when the last of the British Army surrendered to General George Washington.
“We do get stereotyped with certain words, but I think when it comes to our community, veterans do make our lives better,” Saenz said.
The sentiment was clear to me. I interviewed eight veterans, half of which declined to be quoted or mentioned by name. I will honor that, of course.
“People from all over the US gather up and you place your life in their hands. We build that trust, and we will never have it again,” said Saenz. “We would never employ that trust to anyone else in our lives.”
Synonymously, all agreed there would be nothing like the brotherhood witnessed during training and the fight on the battlefield. Thoughts of Independence Day would instantly bring a somber mood about it and similar holidays.
“Not everyone that I served with came home,” said Engelbrecht. “There is an element that if it were not for them, things could be very different.”
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another.
This Fourth of July as thoughts about our forefathers, barbecue, fireworks, and holiday sales come to mind. Be aware of others, and never assume. Be understanding, especially to those who have served, sacrificed, and been lost overseas.
Washington, his soldiers, and congress would soon realize a new nation practicing empathy and goodwill for the future of its citizens.
“With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable,” Washington told his officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York on Dec. 13, 1783, after the Treaty of Paris was signed.
“Having now finished the work assigned to me,” a teary-eyed Washington told Congress ten days after. “I retire from the theater of action and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body under whose orders I have so long acted, I hereby offer my commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”
It was only the beginning, as the Articles of Confederation were ratified in 1781. Later in 1789, the Bill of Rights would become the new foundation of the Constitution and a familiar face.
Washington would become the first President of the USA soon after, and during a time when its citizens were fearful of having a central government with too much power.
Even then, the subject of slavery was already under contention and taxes were being discussed once again. The American Revolution would be over, but the identity of a nation was not yet complete and still is not today.
After spending days reaching out to different veterans, I found myself at the park on Saturday thinking perhaps every day is the Fourth of July. Each veteran was/is different. Different experiences, different lives, and different goals. All of them agreed with the sentiment of being able to express the freedoms afforded to them by the Declaration of Independence, and the sacrifices of those made. Like most of whose names we will never know, many names were left out of this story as well. It would never finish, because this is our story, and it is not yet complete.
It shouldn’t take a holiday to be courteous or to show a fellow citizen appreciation. I am very honored to have the privilege to speak with our veterans.
I leave you with a quote made by a well-known writer who continues to shape the future of this country. His writings became an action for the human rights we enjoy today.
“Our citizenship in the United States is our national character,” said Thomas Paine, the author of the revolutionary title, Common Sense. “Our citizenship in any particular state is only our local distinction. By the latter, we are known at home, by the former to the world. Our great title is AMERICANS.”