Under a foreign sky

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jarad A. Denton
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
More than a year had passed since I returned from my deployment to Africa, the memories and experiences still fresh in my mind.

Africa - to me, will always be a transformational land. Not in the sense that the continent itself is in a constant state of change, but in the fact that I will always associate Africa as the place that changed me, forever.

Whenever I talk about my deployment to Africa, I tell people that in this diverse and harsh land I unequivocally found America. I rediscovered my patriotism and love for the United States.

It happened, quite unexpectedly, during a trip into Ethiopia - where I was tasked to cover a bridge dedication. It was a two-day car ride from the surprisingly modernized city of Addis Ababa to the small village of Negele Borena, which was little more than a shanty town. I expected to see starving children lining the road as my driver and translator drove me to our destination. What I found was something entirely different.

Instead of a people seemingly devoid of hope, I saw an industrious nation working tirelessly to create a stable infrastructure based on agriculture. The people I spoke to were hungry, but not in the physical sense. They had an overwhelming desire to achieve something greater with their lives, and they modeled their dedication on what they saw as the American achievement.

To many of them, the United States represented a shining jewel in the world. It was a place where any dream could be achieved, through a combination of hard work and passion. America was more than just a place - it was a land of high ideals transformed into tangible accomplishments.

This realization humbled me profoundly. Here I was in a land where people struggled to obtain the most basic of needs - food, water and shelter; but, what they truly wanted was the opportunity to choose and control their future. They wanted what I took for granted, and that shamed me.

Shame is a powerful motivational tool. My shame made me see how truly fortunate I was to be born in a country where personal freedoms and individual achievement were celebrated, rather than condemned. The United States is truly a foreign concept to many nations and cultures. We carry the torch of individualism with us wherever we go. It is through our personal achievements that we strive to make the collective nation greater.

This individualism is a new concept to older cultures, like those found in Africa. They stem from a tribal mindset, focused on collective improvement. Unless all are to succeed, no one is successful. To a degree, that is true in America - but we recognize for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts, those parts must be singularly exceptional.

It is the exceptional drive of Americans that I fell in love with during my deployment to Africa. While I was there I could look back at our nation from an outside perspective. I could see while we are truly extraordinary in many facets, we lack in others.

Africa, having its roots in tribalism, has very strong local communities - even in their most westernized areas. America does not have that foundation to fall back on. Our local communities, as a whole, do not have the same familial strength as those found in Africa - with one major exception.

The U.S. military is effectively its own self-contained community. We share so much on so many levels with one another, it is hard to find another group that is so dedicated to taking care of its members on both a personal and organizational scale.

My time in Africa taught me there is no place I would rather be, and no country I would rather serve than the United States. Of course we have our problems, what nation doesn't? But, at the end of the day, we are left with the high ideals and principles this nation was founded on. We are left with a responsibility to ourselves and the world to continue acting as an example to aspire toward.

But as Americans, all we are really left with is what we choose to be.