In 2009, while in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a video crew and I interviewed vets who had just returned from a deployment to Iraq. We asked several of them and their families what America stood for and what values they felt they fought for. Amidst much discussion about current issues confronting their community, country and families, four values emerged.
The values they felt they fought for were Freedom, Fairness, Courage and Doing the Right Thing. Whether feeling that they were defending these principles in our own country, or enabling other countries to have these same choices, the vets and their families that I spoke to were proud, not only of their collective sacrifices, but also that their service to country represented something even greater: sustaining our country's character and values.
I had almost forgotten about my values interviews with these vets. Life sometimes gets in the way of remembering significant experiences. And often these events get diminished by the daily din of the 24/7 news cycle that largely emphasizes negatives instead of encouraging us to strive to be our higher selves. On some days, I feel as though news media and their stories promote discouragement instead of encouragement.
But on occasion, an article emerges that awakens the higher senses, pushing us to remember that we're all in this together. In between planting and entertaining, I read such an article this past Memorial Day weekend.
In an Op-Ed published by The Philadelphia Inquirer, Manion Borek, whose brother Travis was killed on September 21, 2010, in the mountains of Afghanistan, asks us to act more in-tune with the character that our vets demonstrate in serving America.
"To best honor our fallen, keep their values alive....
For those of us for whom Memorial Day takes on special meaning, we do not seek your pity, but we do seek your help. Help us to honor our loved ones by bringing their model of character to your own lives. Act with courage, integrity, leadership and service. Be good to your family and generous to your community. Be kind and forgiving. Be patient and joyful. Aim for more than OK.
I often think back to the five words my brother Travis spoke before his second deployment to Iraq, from which he would not return. When asked why he would volunteer to go back, he simply stated, ''If not me, then who?'' This was less a response to a simple question, and more the ethos that Travis -- and all service members -- live by every day of their lives. This Memorial Day, I ask you to live it with us in your own life."
I feel that many Americans have compromised on the values our vets represent in the interest of just living their lives. In the process, in all segments of America, we have settled for the OK. We have seen a coarsening of our culture, a huge decrease in civility. Nonetheless, we have resolved -- albeit regrettably -- that it is OK. As such, we have disappointed our vets, especially those who gave their lives for the values our country represents. They kept up their end. Have we kept up ours?
Looking down from their heavenly perch, what would those vets have to say about the daily rumbles of the America their sacrifices were meant to protect?
What would they say about the current malaise of anger and confrontation on America's college campuses?
What would they say about the current predicament of income inequality, fueled in-part by corporations that have keen minds but myopic hearts?
What would they say about the pressure to compete and perform that is emblematic of America's education system without equal pressure to have good conscience and character?
What would they say about the inequality of the American justice system, especially the inequitable access to bail for the disadvantaged, many of whom may have been frivolously or falsely incarcerated?
What would they say about the continuing hopelessness in many urban and rural communities and the cultural, education and law enforcement systems that often seem tied up in dysfunctional knots?
What would they say when they learn that road rage is an ever-increasing, almost epidemic angst of daily American life?
What would they say about the rough and tumble of current-day American politics?
What true American values are being promoted in the daily droll of American life? Certainly not the values represented by the vets who served. Many may have lost their lives but they did not lose their way. They didn't just settle for OK. They chose to represent and live America's highest ideals.
It's up to each of us to answer the call to action that our vets represent: to act with courage; to give with selflessness; to take care of and have respect and regard for each other; to do the right thing; to demand as much from our leaders.
America is a great country, representing wonderful principles. We Americans are either its strongest asset or its weakest link. Whether we make the effort to keep our vets' values alive is up to each of us!
Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us. Project Love is a school-based character-development program of Values-in-Action Foundation. To see information about Project Love school programming, go to www.projectlove.org