From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America


My breath caught in my throat. As we approached the highway overpass, hundreds of flags fluttered in the breeze, larger ones rippling from wooden dowels, the smaller versions fastened into the weave of the chain-link fencing. Living overseas, this was our family’s first visit back to America after the terrorist attacks of September 11th and we were nervous, uncertain of exactly what to expect and how we would feel. This was our generation’s Pearl Harbor and the first time most of the people I knew had experienced anything like it.

Like the rest of the world, we had witnessed all of the horrible events on television from London, and as a reporter, my husband Bob had headed for Pakistan to report the story just hours after the planes hit the towers. Here we were, months later, back on our native soil, and I was overwhelmed at the magnificent sight that greeted us minutes after leaving the airport. Tears filled my eyes.

My deep love for my country and everything those flags represented hit me like a punch to the gut. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks I had felt so proud to be an American, even as I grieved. Here was my first, in-person display back home of how our country had knitted itself together to stand tall after such a personal and devastating loss.

The flags on the overpass were more than just symbols to me; they represented the essence of America in all its many facets: proud, undaunted, united and defiantly free. They might try to hurt us, to bring us to our knees, but we will always rise again, ready to uphold the freedoms our founding fathers fought for at the birth of our nation.

Bob would go on to cover the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the next five years, embedding with the military, losing journalist friends, and finally being critically wounded by a roadside bomb while reporting from Iraq. Bob began his recovery in the military hospital with the love and strength of family and friends. That experience — getting to know the many brave military men and women who saved his life, and their families — showed us a side of America that we hadn’t known. It’s a side of America that is well represented in this new collection of stories from Chicken Soup for the Soul, with dozens of fascinating and inspiring stories about active duty service members, their families, and veterans.

America is a vast and magnificent patchwork quilt of people, landscapes, experiences and beliefs, from sea to shining sea. And being an American means different things to each of us. That’s the reason the stories in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America are such a wonderful representation of our country’s inner and outer beauty. They are written by people from all walks of life and from every corner of our nation.

Author Amy Newmark has compiled 101 jewel-like examples of what makes America great. The book is a reminder that a country isn’t just made up of ideals, but of people. And these stories are a cross-section of voices from the folks who make, and have made, this country the greatest nation on earth, exploring some of our hardest times as a country, some of our proudest memories, and the everyday moments of American life.

There is David Hull’s touching story, “American Boots,” about the black work boots his great-grandfather bought when he first emigrated from Germany. David keeps them by his door to remind himself to keep moving forward “one little step at time,” the words his great-grandfather used to describe the way that he “made it” in America.

Some of the stories made me cry, especially the ones that involved a simple human kindness. Elizabeth Atwater’s piece about the soldier’s wife and newborn son who were stuck on a shutdown highway, unable to meet him at the airport for his short furlough, was one I’ll never forget. A truck driver managed to convince a traffic-helicopter crew to land by the side of the highway and airlift the mother and baby to the airport in time, a great example of American ingenuity and compassion.

Enjoying our freedoms in America is a little bit like breathing. We don’t regularly think about our right to speak our minds, to gather, to believe in a religion and to choose our own leaders. Most of us take these things for granted. But without them, we would not be the great country that we are today.

So it’s inevitable when you talk about America that there would be a number of stories that deal with military families, legacy of service and reminders of the incredible Americans who wear the uniform every single day. I often think about the fact that my husband Bob is alive today, back to us as a father, husband and broadcast journalist due to the amazing actions and unflinching bravery of the soldiers and medics in his battalion. When the roadside bomb exploded near his tank, they did not hesitate to put someone else’s life before their own. It was one of the many reasons our family chose to take our story and give back, starting a charity that would help veterans on the home front receive every opportunity that Bob had to heal.

It never ceases to move me when I think about the willingness of our service members to volunteer to go to areas of conflict and war so that the rest of us can make that choice. When they serve their country, they serve us as well. Many of the stories laced throughout the book are stirring reminders that the freedom we hold so dear in this country is not free.

One of the sadder legacies of war was our inability to understand the plight and needs of so many Vietnam veterans when they transitioned back to the home front. Renae MacLachlan’s stirring account of watching a General salute a down-on-his-luck Vietnam-era Medal of Honor recipient made me think about what it really means to be a hero.

Catherine Ancewicz’s story about witnessing an “Honor Flight,” a wonderful program that flies World War II, Korean War and Vietnam veterans to Washington, D.C. to see the monuments, touched me because it was an unexpected moment in a reunion trip that ended up having the greatest meaning for her and her girlfriend.

There are many ways to serve your country and they don’t all involve wearing a uniform. I loved Susan Mathis’s story about jury duty. She describes what most of us do when we get our summons — we grumble and talk about getting out of it. But Susan ends up serving, and to her surprise, she takes pride in being part of our country’s judicial system and in serving her community. There is a lesson for all of us in that!

I loved the entire first chapter about the “red, white, and blue.” Returning to America after September 11th, the sight of so many American flags reminded me how important our symbol of national pride is. Teacher Linda O’Connell’s story about how she had her middle school students write their feelings on red and white strips of paper on September 11th, to create their own large American flag on the cafeteria bulletin board, shows the power of the flag for expressing our patriotism.

Pride and patriotism in our country is a little bit like a pilot light in a stove. It’s always on, ever ready, but sometimes it needs a spark to make it catch and flare. This book is the match that will help you reignite your own passion for our nation. The people you meet in these pages, and the tales they tell, will remind you of your own stories about what our nation means to you, and why we are the most fortunate people in the world — Americans.

~Lee Woodruff

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