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As you end a fine Memorial Day weekend, may I remind all of us that our freedom isn’t free. Generations of Americans died on battlefields and asea to preserve the amazing freedom we have in America.
I just finished a week-long hiking trip in North Georgia on the Appalachian Trail (AT). From time to time, I have this wanderlust that leads me to sleep on the ground (in a tent), trudge up and down mountains, and be awakened daily by bird’s singing.
As I walk, I think and I pray. I learned on this trip to listen to God. That’s part of the equation I often forget. It’s not about me talking. It’s often more about listening.
One thing I like about the AT is the juxtaposition of walking alone for hours, then camping with a group of strangers who quickly become friends. The AT is a both social and solitude experience.
I met many folks as I walked north. There were three that stood out. I walked off and on with them for parts of three days. Their names were Luther, Garson, and Nate.
Garson and Nate were former Special Forces soldiers who had served in Africa together. They were still carrying their Army packs. When I discovered they’d served in Chad, we had a good foundation to build conversations on. DeDe and I spent a month in Chad and it is an unforgettable country in the dead heart of Africa.
By the way, Luther was Nate’s dog. He was my favorite hiker I met on the trail. I’ve encountered obnoxious hikers before, but never a bad dog. Luther, carrying his own pack, was constantly by Nate’s side.
The second time I encountered the trio, I worked up to courage to ask, “Y’all weren’t far from the Niger border where our American soldiers were ambushed by ISIS?”
Garson and Nate looked at each other. “We went through every level of training with one of the guys killed. He was a great guy.”
We walked along in silence for a half-mile. When we stopped for a water break, I asked, “What was his name?”
“Dustin Wright. He was from Statesboro, Georgia. Not only was he a nice guy, but an excellent soldier. He was killed going back to rescue a comrade.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Nate stared across the Blue Ridge skyline. “I want to do something in his memory so people won’t forget.”
“I won’t forget his name. Dustin Wright. I’m writing it on my heart,” I said.
We split up and continued our treks.
I caught up with them atop Tray Mountain on Saturday. It being Memorial Day weekend, the trail was packed with hikers of every size and (out of) shape.
Garson and Nate were setting up camp on the mountain. I was heading on northward and figured our paths wouldn’t cross again. “With this being Memorial Day weekend, would you guys be offended if I offered a prayer for soldiers like Dustin who’ve paid the ultimate price?”
“That’d be nice.”
I prayed a simple prayer thanking God for our freedom and asked blessings on Dustin’s family. I prayed that we’d all live with gratitude for the freedom bought by the blood of Americans buried all over the world and in the sea.
Each of the vets said a quiet amen. They had a look in their eyes I cannot describe but will never forget. Nate said, “Thanks for that, Man.”
I shook their hands. “I believe it was appropriate.”
“It was,” Garson said.
As I plodded down the trail, I don’t believe I’d ever been more proud to be an American. A free American.
I was walking a trail that stretches 2000 miles from Georgia to Maine. Anyone can walk it for free. You need no permits (except in the Smoky Mountains National Park). You’ll not be stopped and hassled at any checkpoints for passports, bribes, paperwork, or fees by soldiers, officials, or a state police force.
I recalled another spot on the AT I saw in about 1996. It’s at the foot of Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies. At the edge of the parking lot, a sign states, “Freedom of Speech Spot.” It explains that anyone has the right to stop there and give a speech, sermon, or an “I’m mad as hell and ain’t gonna take it no more” diatribe.
I don’t remember the short speech I gave, but I did wax eloquent about some governmental subject that was stuck in my craw. Then I hefted my pack and continued up the trail. Glad to live in a country where you can go where you want and say what you think.
Much of the world lives in totalitarian states that allow neither.
We have this freedom in America due to soldiers like Dustin Wright who died in the desert fighting to keep freedom-killing groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al Queda from coming to our shores.
May they never be forgotten.