I was in flight from my suburban bubble and was seeking the worldliness and maturity only a boarding school education could give me. Eager to make a strong impression as a new 10th grader at Lawrenceville, I signed up for the club fair to promote my club about Veterans, the one aspect of my identity I’d never leave behind. As I sat in my blue chair, looking up at students walking by, someone said, “Look, it’s the Young Conservatives Club.” A group of my classmates laughed. My face grew hot. I was shocked; I had always been patriotic, but I had not meant to be political. I looked down at my blank sign up sheet, defeated.
Early on, my patriotism was uncomplicated and took the form of an interest in Veterans. It started one day when I saw a soldier kneeling on the sidewalk with his toddler. Tugging my mom behind me, I walked up to him and said, “Thank you for your service.” He grinned at me and his smile sparked an enduring passion.
I became an Honor Flight guardian for a Veteran at age thirteen, the youngest one ever. Aware of my age and inexperience, I was nervous for my first flight. But then I met Pasquale, the first of several Veterans I would shepherd through an honor flight to DC. Looking up from his wheelchair, Pasquale opened his heart to me. I learned he had been a recent immigrant when he was drafted for Vietnam, and I was in awe of his sense of duty to his new country. His story ratified the pure love I felt for my country. Then I learned how he was treated after the war. Spit on, ridiculed, he became ashamed of his service and sacrifice. Pasquale’s stories complicated my own feelings and beliefs. I felt embarrassed about how we treated Vietnam Veterans, embarrassed I hadn’t known. Through this encounter, I learned to be more curious, to better understand our history, to question my own beliefs.
On July 4th, 2022 my sense of identity as a patriotic person was not only challenged, it was truly threatened. As my mom and I watched the Highland Park Parade, the ground shook like a jackhammer. I looked up. Fireworks? I thought. Suddenly the crowd split into jagged groups bolting in different directions. We all ran as Robert E. Crimo shot over 70 rounds into the crowd. Once we were safe and the fallout became clear, I was overcome with fear, shame, and anger. How could I continue to serve a country that would allow this to happen? I felt lost.
Just five days after the shooting I was scheduled for more Honor Flight training, and for the first time ever, I was dreading it. But that morning, in a training video, I watched the strangers in airports cheer, showing their love for the Veterans whose faces beamed with gratitude. My heart swelled again with pride. The ultimate goodness embedded in this event reaffirmed my patriotism, even if it was now more complicated and even sometimes politicized. As Pasquale showed me, even loyal Veterans experience moments of doubt.
Senior year, when I returned to my hometown for school, I was no longer in flight. I wasn’t flying away to try to get smarter or more sophisticated. In fact, through my renewed commitment to Veterans, I felt grounded in a newfound confidence. This time, my Veterans club got off the ground—maybe because I know a little more than I did before. Maybe because my ideals were challenged, and I had to accept that love and service aren’t always easy. I learned to accept that honoring oneself, honoring one’s country, has always been complicated, probably since the first 4th of July. I hope I never again hear gunshots at a parade but I’m going to keep serving others, and I’m going to keep looking up.