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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Speech: "Freedom: America's Greatest Strength"

Copyright © 2007 by Ralph Couey

It is an honor and a privilege to stand before you today. In recent years, we have all seen the negativity and outright hatred directed at our fair republic and perhaps, just perhaps we have felt a little lonely. Today, my spirit is buoyed, as I’m sure yours is, to discover that we are most emphatically NOT alone. Here, we have chosen to stand together; to stand together in our love of this great country; to stand together in our appreciation for the singular gifts of freedom; and to stand together in our unqualified support for those brave souls who have freely chosen to stand guard on the wall between tyranny and liberty.

The fact that we have the right to gather here and speak our minds and hearts is a positive affirmation that here in this land, the heartbeat of democracy beats and beats strongly.

The experiences that have shaped my life have been many and varied. As a child, I traveled extensively throughout this country. Through those journeys, I gained a deep appreciation not only for the awesome physical beauty of this land, but in the tremendous strength of will and character in her people. Later on in life, I spent ten years in uniform with the United States Navy. In that decade of service, my feet touched the soil of some 22 foreign countries. Unlike some others, I didn’t spend that time at the beaches or hotels. I spent the time walking the back roads and barrios of those far-flung places, talking to people and learning first-hand of their lives and their challenges. Through those experiences, I gained a new appreciation for America. For I have seen what happens in places where the people have no voice in government; where the politics of exclusion protected the powerful and victimized the weak.

Everywhere I went, I was always asked the same question: “What is it like to live in America?” I tried very hard to be realistic. It’s not as if I wasn’t proud of my country, but I felt it important that people understand the sometimes harsh realities of life, even in America. I talked about the problems that we had faced in the past and continue to face daily. I spoke of how expensive life in this country is and how hard it was for some of us to make ends meet. I also talked about the inherent opportunities that exist; that anyone with an idea, the desire to dream, and the willingness to work hard could succeed. But regardless of the bleakness of my portrayal, the reaction was universally the same: “I dream of someday living in America.”

On a particularly brutal hot day in Berbera, Somalia, I encountered an older man on the dusty streets. He asked me to take his picture; after which he charged me five bucks. Capitalism is truly a universal language! He then asked me about America. I told him the same story I had related to others, and he told me that he also dreamed about some day going to America. Slightly perplexed, I asked him why, after hearing all my bad news he still wanted to go. He replied:

“Here in my country, I was born ordinary; I have lived ordinary; I will die ordinary.
In America, all things are possible.
In America, an ordinary man can become a great man.
In America, I could never be ordinary.”

Such is the magic of this great nation.

Comedian Yakov Smirnov, an émigré from the former Soviet Union, came here with his parents carrying only a small suitcase of possessions and a very large dream. His experience mirrors the success of many who have come here and achieved. He notes often that in the middle of the word “American” are two other words: “I Can.” It is this determination that marks us as Americans; it is this unbreakable faith in ourselves and our courage to risk that truly sets us apart from the rest of humanity.

We are the leaders in information technology because two guys decided to build computers and create software in their garages, businesses which became Apple and Microsoft. We are the leaders in aviation because two bicycle shop owners looked up into the skies over Dayton, Ohio and asked, “Why not?” We are the unchallenged leaders in food production and bushels per acre yield because our brilliant hard-working farmers don’t know the meaning of the word “quit.” Nobody tops us in the quality and quantity of our manufactured goods because to our stalwart and principled blue-collar workforce, pride in craftsmanship is job number one. We enjoy the broadest freedoms and the greatest access to opportunity of any country that has ever existed on this planet, because in a nation of laws where government is of the people, by the people, and for the people, We the People will accept nothing less.

We are a nation of immigrants. Even those we call Native Americans actually descend from people who crossed the ancient land bridge from Asia over 12,000 years ago. The one characteristic that is common among all who came here, no matter from what other place, no matter at what point in time, is that they all had dreams and they wanted desperately for those dreams to come true. People came to America because they dared to Dream! Despite desperate flights from oppressive governments, failed economies, and fractured, polarized societies; despite long perilous journeys across broad oceans, over steep mountains, down wild rivers, and through trackless deserts, they chose to come here. Why? Because they understood that it was here that those dreams could become real.

Unfortunately, what some of us don’t understand, and what is increasingly ignored in schools and colleges, is that there ARE opportunities in America! What has been lost is the truth that opportunity does NOT come looking for you. If you want to achieve; if you have a dream to fulfill; if you have a goal to reach, you have to GO GET IT!

If we spend our day lounging on the couch with General Hospital and Judge Judy, unwilling to forgo the monthly ration of booze, bongs, and blow, we will accomplish NOTHING! But if we go forth from our homes, seek out those opportunities and make the most of them, we can succeed. Ronald Reagan once said,

“We have every right to dream heroic dreams.
Those who say that we are in a time when there are no heroes just don’t know where to look. You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates.
Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us, and then the world beyond. Their patriotism is quiet, but deep. Their values sustain our national life.”

We must face life with courage, we must make the necessary sacrifices, and we must accept the occasional failure as a learning experience and not as the end of the world. If we do these things, then we will find life in this country a wonderfully fulfilling and joyful experience. The one thing, the only real thing that holds us back is in that epiphanal moment when we look in the mirror and say to that face we see there, “YOU are my biggest problem. YOU I can fix.”

The American system guarantees the opportunity. Success is up to us. I am not a wealthy person, but I know many who are. And there’s not a one of them that works less than 60 hours per week. There’s not a one of them that doesn’t have at least three major failure in their past. What has made them successful is their willingness to get up off the floor and make one more try. Our history is chock-full of stories of people who started out with nothing and achieved greatness. These are the examples and inspirations we should turn to when we feel our own will begin to sag. These are the examples we should point out to our children. For it is that pioneering spirit; that never-say-die attitude; that absolute fearlessness in the face of challenge and adversity that truly makes us a great people. We are Americans! We do not surrender! We do not surrender to failure! We do not surrender to adversity! And we will NEVER surrender to fear!

These are difficult and perilous times, times that require from the citizens of this country great strength, commitment, and courage. These are times when we need to understand the lessons of history and to remember the prescient words of Theodore Roosevelt:

“It is far better to dare mighty things,
than to take rank with those timid spirits
who know neither victory nor defeat.”

And let us not forget the stirring call to our destiny by President Kennedy:

“Let every nation know whether it wishes us well or ill,
that we shall pay any price,
bear any burden,
meet any hardship,
support any friend,
and oppose any foe
in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

This is who and what we are! We do not fight for oil! We do not fight for conquest! We do not fight for power! But we WILL fight for freedom! We will fight for justice! And we will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves!

President Reagan understood what Americans are capable of:

“I believe we, the Americans of today, are ready to act worthy of ourselves,
ready to do what must be done to ensure happiness and liberty
for ourselves, our children, and our children’s children.
And as we renew ourselves here in our own land,
we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world.
We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope
for those who do not now have freedom.

As for the enemies of freedom, they will be reminded
that peace is the highest aspiration of the American people.
We will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it,
but we will never surrender for it – now or ever.”

America is not only a place. It is a set of ideas. It is a culture steeped in freedom and justice. It is a nation of people who courageously risked all they had in order to come here. It is a place where people of a thousand different heritages and backgrounds can live peacefully with one another. It is a nation slow to anger, but swift and sure in actions. It is a land where dreams still come true for those with the desire and the discipline to pursue them. Once again, I turn to the words of the Great Communicator:

“We’re entering our third century now,
but its wrong to judge our nation by its years.
The calendar can’t measure America
because we were meant to be an endless experiment in freedom
with no limit to our reaches, no boundaries to what we can do,
no end point to our hopes.

The United States Constitution is the impassioned and inspired vehicle
by which we travel through history.
It grew out of the most fundamental inspiration of our existence:
that we are here to serve Him by living free –
that living free releases in us the noblest of impulses and the best of our abilities.
That we would use these gifts for good and generous purposes
and would secure them not just for ourselves, and for our children, but for all mankind.

Why is the Constitution of the United States so exceptional?

Well, the difference is so small that it almost escapes you –
but it’s so great it tells you the whole story in just three words:
We the People.”

Today I stand with you in courage. Today, I pray with you in hope. Today I live with you in freedom. Today, we all say with pride: “WE ARE AMERICANS.”
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