Independence Day 2020: Do we still have what it takes?

Independence Day 2020: Do we still have what it takes?
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Many Americans, at home and abroad, celebrate the Fourth of July with backyard barbecues, fireworks and, perhaps, a fleeting thought about the long road toward independence our founders began as they declared the “thirteen United States of America” free from colonial rule.

In 1776, as in every era of our history, the American story has been one of facing and overcoming adversity. Then, as now, imperfect leaders impelled a diverse people toward impossible goals. Against long odds, America has prevailed — so far.

The question we should ask on July 4, 2020, is whether we still are ready, willing and able to meet the challenges along the road that generations of Americans — including current generations — paved with their blood, sweat and tears. Today, we face challenges unlike any I’ve experienced in my lifetime: cries for racial justice, an economic recession resulting from rampant disease, domestic political polarization, and a global wave of nationalism threatening to sever our ties with our allies and to weaken our defenses against our adversaries. Can we overcome these challenges, or will the fissures among Americans and nations continue to grow?


The bad news is that any one of the challenges we face today, without serious efforts to overcome them, possesses the power to tear our nation apart. The good news is that none of these challenges is more serious than others that Americans have defeated in the past.

On this Independence Day, we should resolve to fix these problems — to declare our independence from the cancers currently eating at America’s soul.

My “go-to” approach to any seemingly impossible task has always been to fall back on my military experience. In my 35-year Air Force career, I was honored to serve with thousands of men and women who understood sacrifice, teamwork, discipline, and respect for each other and our nation. Whenever I have despaired about problems that appeared hopeless, I remembered how generations of these honorable people moved heaven and earth to successfully overcome equally difficult obstacles — and so I ask myself today: What would our troops do?

Here are a few answers.

I spent a lot of my career serving in foreign posts; among my proudest moments was saluting our flag being raised in another country. On military bases overseas, the Fourth of July takes on a special significance; it’s an occasion when military communities gather proudly to celebrate being Americans. In lands whose people routinely enjoy sushi, bratwurst or kimchi, our little enclaves savor the burgers, hotdogs and beer that remind us of home.  


Nowhere on earth was I prouder to be an American than when I wasn’t in America. That might sound absurd, but being an American in a foreign land means that being an American transcends all other distinctions. Race, religion and political ideology all take a backseat to the common bond Americans share when they’re surrounded by non-Americans. That feeling also is inherent in the wearing of a U.S. military uniform. The uniform, by law, transcends political ideology; it gives its wearers a common purpose, ethos and pride. I’m not suggesting that we send all Americans abroad or put them in uniforms as ways to bridge the gaps among us. I do suggest, however, that on Independence Day 2020, we should reflect on the fact that there are more and stronger things that unite than divide us. Simply thank your veteran friends for being living examples of that fact.

Despite the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal,” neither our founders, some of whom owned slaves, nor succeeding generations of Americans actually meant it. Racial inequity has been an enduring stain — an “original sin” — on our society since our nation’s birth. The military is no exception. However, the military also has been a unique American institution capable of social change. It shouldn’t have taken as long as it did to realize that in the high-stakes business of national security — some of which is won or lost on the battlefield — skin color doesn’t matter. Nevertheless, much remains to be done to fully eliminate racial inequity from our military’s ranks. In this particular American struggle, the professionalism with which the military typically approaches such problems is an example worth emulating.

As we erect walls intended to keep Americans in and non-Americans out, we must always remember that, more than walls, our friends remain our best defense against those who want to do us harm. In most major conflicts the United States has fought, including the American Revolution, our allies fought beside us. And in peace, keeping our friends close has been essential to America’s deterrence and strength. My Air Force father and immigrant mother were my constant and most powerful examples of these truths. As our leaders focus on “America First,” we Americans must resist an “America Alone.”  

So, a global thought for Independence Day 2020: Rather than independence, the times in which we live demand our rededication to the American ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy — and to our dependence on our friends who share those ideals. Celebration of these ideals, arm-in-arm with our friends, will help us gather the strength we will need to overcome the many domestic and global challenges we face today.

Perhaps the most significant of these challenges is COVID-19, a virus that has brought our world to its knees. As Americans draw ideological battle lines between those who view wearing masks as necessary sacrifices for the greater good and those who view it as an affront to liberty, my thoughts turn again to the military — in fact, to one particular soldier whose life has been my definition of “service before self.”  That soldier’s name was William J. Crawford.

Mr. Crawford was my squadron’s janitor at the Air Force Academy in the late 1970s.  The few of us who paid any attention to him at all knew him simply as “Bill.” An elderly man, he spent his days cleaning the common areas of our dormitory — sweeping halls, cleaning toilets and showers. One day, one of my squadron mates struck up a conversation with him. My friend had recently read a book about World War II, and their chat wandered into Bill’s Army service during that war. As Bill’s story began to sound familiar and he said his last name was “Crawford,” my friend asked if he was the Bill Crawford who had been awarded the Medal of Honor.

Mr. Crawford said yes.

Master Sergeant William J. Crawford was awarded the Medal of Honor — posthumously — for his heroism in Italy in 1943. He was awarded the medal posthumously because, following his single-handed destruction of three Nazi machine-gun emplacements, he was captured, held as a German POW, and presumed dead.

Following the war and his return to the United States, he made the Army his career. After his retirement, he became a janitor at the Air Force Academy.

Bill Crawford’s life is an American story of service, sacrifice, heroism, and humility.  Just as he was content to clean up after us, we cadets were content to learn our leadership lessons from the Academy’s faculty. After we discovered and became part of his story, we realized those lessons can also be learned — perhaps even more powerfully — from men like Bill.

I offer Bill Crawford’s story in closing because he represented to us all that is good about America. Bill — a man who actually was deprived of his liberty — would not argue that wearing a mask is its moral equivalent. Bill — a man who earned the highest military honors our nation can bestow — humbly set aside those honors to serve his fellow Americans in whatever way he could. The question for us is whether we can or will do the same.

Sergeant Crawford’s story ended well. As he continued to mentor succeeding classes of future Air Force officers, one of those classes seized an opportunity to right a wrong he suffered decades earlier. In 1984, at an Air Force Academy graduation, President Ronald Reagan finally awarded him the Medal of Honor that had been presented posthumously to his father.

Will this episode in American history also end well? Only time will tell. What I do know is that on Independence Day 2020, I will remember the examples of the men and women with whom I have served. They served with honor, courage, and humility — qualities our nation needs today. Join me in embracing their lessons and applying them to the many important tasks that lie ahead.

Steven J. Lepper is a retired Air Force major general. He served from 2010 to 2014 as Deputy Judge Advocate General of the Air Force. He was also Deputy Legal Counsel to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior “crisis communicator” for the Department of the Air Force.