I believe America is great because of her people. The first time I witnessed the strength of the American Spirit I was only 20 years old….
The winter of 1981 brought the much heralded release of 52 Americans held hostage for 444 days in Iran. After a 14 hour flight, they would first set foot on American soil at the US Military Academy at West Point. I was a young cadet and privileged to be part of this amazing event.
“Freedom One” touched the tarmac at 3PM Eastern Time. The first hostages disembarked the aircraft, walked unsteadily down the mobile stairs and collapsed in tears on the ground! Others followed, throwing their bodies to the ground, kissing the concrete and praying. The small contingent of cadets chosen to greet the hostages stood frozen in amazement. Our Generals, battle-tested veterans with uniforms lined in combat ribbons, stood wet-eyed at the sight. Women wept. The band was too choked-up to play. It was, for all the perfect ceremonial planning that went into this day, a mess … and it was a great day to be an American.
The road from the airfield to the gates of West Point had been lined with thousands of yellow “Welcome Home” ribbons. Once inside the gates, the former hostages would finally see their families. No media was allowed. The next day they would attend a parade in their honor, standing on the same parade field passed over by Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, Eisenhower, Patton and MacArthur while two thousand of America’s brightest young men and women dressed in shiniest soldier attire would salute their courage. Afterward, they would dine with the Corps of Cadets.
The Mess Hall provided the perfect patriotic and historical background for the event. Flags representing 200 years of military history hung overhead in each of the four chambers of the cavernous hall. The renowned Glee Club was positioned in the loft above the entry door to provide patriotic dinner music a cappella. Stained glass windows depicting military and religious heroes and heroines were specially illuminated for effect. The former hostages were wide-eyed, their heads twisting and tilting in awe as they entered the great hall and took seats among the cadets.
A few minutes into the meal, the Glee Club began the soft strains of “God Bless America.” As if summoned, the 52 freed Americans began rising from their seats and singing along. The inspired Corps then rose and joined in. Even the waiters stood stoically singing by their serving carts. When the song ended, the cadets broke into thunderous applause! With each clap I felt myself standing straighter and taller, my head high above my shoulders. My heart fluttered in my chest and a tingle ran up my back as I embraced the wonder of the moment — that beautiful, spontaneous, heartfelt genuine patriotic moment.
“Yes,” I thought, “God does bless America…….”
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