Gratitude and Patriotism

By Eric Ahn

July 4th is a day of celebration—a day to celebrate America’s independence with the time-honored traditions of grilling, slicing up watermelons, and bringing the whole family together for a dusk fireworks show. I have fond childhood memories of those Fourth of July activities. To me, it’s not just an excuse to kick back and relax, but a time to reflect on why I chose to serve my country.

blog_ea2_300.jpgAs you may have guessed from the classic 80s’ picture of my family, I am a first-generation American. My parents moved to Baltimore, Maryland from South Korea in 1976. Perhaps they chose to make this state their home because of its slogan: “if you’re looking for a merry land, go to Maryland!” That and the fact that America gladly welcomed immigrants to make a positive impact in its economy and society – the port city of Baltimore being one of them.

I lived a pretty normal, suburban life. But as any first-generation child will understand, my parents set extremely high expectations. Always striving to live up to their standards, I was an excellent student and participated in the full gambit of sports and extracurricular activities. 

But as I graduated from college, I felt like I was missing something. I had put all my efforts into being the perfect student and learning as much as possible about the world, but what was it for? Growing up, my parents had always impressed upon me the importance of one’s place in history and the need to serve one’s country. Here I was, a first generation immigrant and a first generation college graduate, but what was my place in history and how was I serving? 

ea1.jpgSo when I enlisted in the Marine Corps as an Infantry Rifleman in 2005, my parents were a bit taken aback—it’s not the typical path a Johns Hopkins graduate takes. My professors thought I was insane. The news from the Iraq War was getting worse and to them, no sane person with my background would join the military; why not go into a think tank instead? 

But I knew what I wanted—history was taking place and I could either write about it from the comfort of an office and go home to a nice bed, or I could serve my country like countless before me during a time of war. My grandfather (in the Korean War) and father (in the Vietnam War) had served their country; now it was time to prove myself, both to the parents who sacrificed everything for me and to the country that welcomed us with open arms. 

During my nine years of active duty, I deployed to multiple countries around the globe, serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany, and Macedonia. I remember when I deployed to the Middle East and had my first taste of a combat zone; how young I was, the fear I felt. All I and my fellow Marines thought about was survival. Fortunately, I had a great mentor who left me with words I will never forget: serving is not simply about surviving, it’s about helping other people live. 

From that moment on, I carried my mentor’s mantra with me. Over the course of my multiple deployments, my Marines and I would see local communities, devastated by years of war and violence, with no tangible hope in front of them, since they too were just trying to survive. We would do everything we could to help these people, including collecting cash donations to give back to the community and asking our friends and families back home to send pencils, dictionaries, and balls that we could hand out to the local kids.

My father and I watched the start of the Iraq War on TV. As we watched Americans enter city after city, he reminisced about the lasting images of being a little boy in war-torn South Korea in the 1950’s. His fondest memories were of American GIs giving him toothpaste and Hershey’s chocolate bars. Despite the devastation and reconstruction around him, those single moments of compassion by an American soldier gave him tangible hope that his future was going to be OK. That his home would be OK. With all of the surrounding conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, my own hope was that one day, these Iraqi and Afghan civilians would also remember America in a positive light because of our small deeds of service.

This Independence Day, I’m reminded of that commitment to service. America is a nation of many values—freedom, democracy, equality, and unity, to name a few. I chose to serve as a tribute to these values.

Although I’m no longer on active duty, I continue to serve my country. It’s why I work with transitioning service members from the military to professional careers at FourBlock, and why I advocate for refugees through Vets for American Ideals. 

As the son of immigrants who worked tirelessly to get to America, I was taught never to take this country for granted. Gratitude and patriotism are a part of my heritage. 

On this July 4th, as you celebrate our independence with fireworks, family, and summer fun, I encourage you to also reflect on our American values, and how you can serve to fulfill them.

Eric Ahn is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who, over the course of nine years of service, deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany, and Macedonia in various roles. He is currently the Director of Marketing and Communications at FourBlock, a nonprofit that supports veterans to achieve careers at top U.S. companies.