What I lost and gained one July Fourth

Published 11:28 pm Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Jacob was a boy scout, athlete and a soldier who was killed in action on the front lines of Operation Enduring Freedom. He is the stoic portrait of an American hero, how ironic to have died on the dawn of Independence Day.

I used to think being an American was just being proud of the country you lived in and putting a flag on your house during several holidays. But after a close friend of mine was killed in action two years ago on July 4th, I no longer see the beautiful colors of fireworks as they explode in the sky— I see Jacob Dennis’ face and what he sacrificed for me while serving our country.

“Though a thousand fall at your side, though ten thousand are dying around you, these evils will not touch you,” Jacob’s little brother Sam read out loud the 91st Psalm as he rubbed Jacob’s forehead and died in a German hospital.

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Jacob was the last of the 37 casualties in the 5-2 Stryker Brigade from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. He was assigned to the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Division as the gunner for the 3rd Squad of the battalion’s mortar platoon.

His funeral changed my life and taught me what being an American truly means.

My family pulled into the parking lot of Burnt Hickory Baptist Church and there they stood, 50 Freedom Riders holding American flags at attention. With bandannas and ripped jean vests they still looked solemn and reverent for someone they had never even met. I felt like I could mourn Jacob freely as I needed to as they protected the service with their Harleys. The doors of the church were freely held open like they should have been. We all walked into the vestibule in silence. There were at least 4,500 people at the funeral, 60 policemen for the motorcade, 20 military personnel to officiate the service, and 34 covered dish casseroles stuffed into the Dennis’ cars.

After the service we headed out in the motorcade along with hundreds of other cars. It was a 30-minute drive from the church to the cemetery. For miles the streets were lined with people and signs. They weren’t protestors, but people from town that came to hold signs painted red, white, blue. The signs said that Jacob was a hero and thanked him for serving. Parents and children waved flags and put their hands over their hearts. We passed a Chick-fil-A and watched it’s contents empty onto the side of the highway to pay tribute. People who didn’t even know who was in the hearse got out of their cars and saluted as each of the hundreds of cars rode past in silence.

Freedom is having the ability to protest a funeral for soldiers and it is also the freedom to be completely outraged when people do. America to me is the same warm and fuzzy feeling I get when I see us come together as a nation. When we win Olympic medals and all tweet about #teamUSA or when I watch neighbors hold hands and pray after a deadly tornado in Tuscaloosa. America is the overwhelming feeling I get when I see people pull to the side of the road, jump out of their car and salute a hearse driving past.