For hundreds, thousands of nights, I never saw the moon. Oh, I’d capture a glimpse of it sometimes, when my blindfold slipped as we were brought from one camp to another or were shepherded around the main prison facility that came to be known as the “Hanoi Hilton.”
I spent 1,953 days there, not as long as some, but as the junior officer to men I still revere as giants. Together, we were locked four to a cell in a 6-foot-by-7-foot room that froze in winter and was a hotbox in summer. I remember most vividly that it was a rancid and dank place that was hidden from the near daily monsoons.
Under circumstances like that, one thinks a great deal about one’s freedom. We would talk about freedom, what it means, the responsibilities it demands of us - all the while nurturing the hope that somehow, someday, we would be free again.
As we approach the anniversary of our independence, we all ought to be thinking about freedom. It’s a time to reflect on the courage it took, 236 years ago this month, to declare independence from the British Crown.
It was a suicide pact. It constituted an act of public treason against the world’s strongest empire, one with the greatest armies and navies on the planet, undefeated in battle.
The representatives to the Continental Congress were not wild-eyed, idealistic youths. They were young, that is true (Thomas Jefferson had just turned 33 years of age) but not, to outward appearances anyway, in any way exceptional. They were well-educated farmers, businessmen, doctors, lawyers, publishers and bankers.
Not one of them was the type of person who logically would be likely to launch a rebellion - but launch it they did, and the result has endured as a beacon of freedom through all the years of history that have followed.
The battle wasn’t easy. The American War of Independence that followed was brutal and bloody. Five of the signers were captured by the British and held in brutal captivity before being tortured and killed as traitors. Others lost their estates. Some lost sons, and the nation itself was torn asunder.
Then, as now, freedom requires sacrifice. The mission of freedom demands a heavy commitment.
It is a mission that requires each of us to engage - to educate ourselves, communicate our views and be willing, always, to put aside our own desires in the interest of the union.
Today, our freedom faces challenges from many quarters. We face massive unemployment and homelessness, with tens of thousands already having lost their homes, more yet behind on their payments and a massive number owing more than their homes are worth.
Among some members of our American community, unemployment is as high as 30 percent, and an uneducated and untrained workforce jeopardizes our standard of living. School dropout rates in some cities exceed 50 percent, while our prison population is the highest per capita in the world.
Our government finds itself deep in debt yet unable to restrain itself from new and wasteful spending.
We are, each and every one of us, the Jeffersons and Franklins and Washingtons of our time.
Whether we lead nations or families, let’s take this Independence Day to reconsider our mission of freedom, and the ways each of us can help fulfill it. We each have a role to play. It’s incumbent upon each of us to discern and pursue it.
Lee Ellis is a retired Air Force colonel, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam and a nationally known leadership expert who is author of “Leading With Honor” (Freedom Star Media, 2012).