Note: Combat correspondent Andrew Lubin just returned from Afghanistan where he was embedded with the US Marines. As the Fourth of July nears, he offers his thoughts.
July 4, 2010
By Andrew Lubin
Following the recent immigration debates arising out of Arizona and in Congress made me step back and think. “What makes someone an American?” Is it an accident of birth? Having a special skill? Or is it an attitude?
My grandparents names are listed at Ellis Island. It’s no big deal, so are the names of dozens of thousands of others. They came over amongst those human waves of Europeans in the late 1800’s who were coming to the New World for a chance for a better life.
My maternal grandmother was Mary Inez Ryan, from Ireland’s County Limerick, and we grew up listening to her stories of wailing banshees and the shrieking tree. She married Joseph Mendell, whose father had changed his name from Mendel when he arrived from Germany the generation prior. My dad’s side was also European: Louis Ljubon from Budapest married Aloysia Woelfl from Bavaria Both families settled in northern New Jersey, learned English, struggled through the Depression, and then both my mom and dad joined the Marines in WW2. Afterwards they were part of the first G.I. Bill class at Montclair State Teachers College and worked hard to give us kids a better life and more opportunities.
America has so many other stories…last month at FOB Dwyer I met Tuan Pham, a Vietnamese refugee whose grandfather and father were killed by the Viet Cong. His mother and sister left Vietnam as ‘boat people,’ and eventually got Pham out when he was 16…now he’s Major Tuan Pham, USMC, who enlisted three years after arriving here. While his is certainly a far more interesting family story than mine, it’s remarkably similar in that it started with folks looking for a better life, making their way to America, working hard, giving back, and helping build that which we call “The American Dream”.
And it’s worth noting the many stories of citizenship that started after 9/11: there have been some 55,000 immigrants who became Americans through their service in the Armed Forces. The ranks of the Marine Corps are filled with young men and women with fascinating accents who are “giving back” to their newly adopted country. Some of them “give back” a lot; think back to Sgt Michael Strank, one of the five Marines who raised the flag on Iwo Jima. He was born Mychal Strenk, in Jarabenia, Czechoslovakia, and learned English in the tough steel mill of Franklin Borough, Pa. Sgt Strank was killed on Iwo, three days after that famous photograph was taken. Or Mexican-born Marine Sgt Rafael Peralta, whose last act was to roll onto a grenade in Fallujah, sacrificing himself in order to save the lives of the Marines behind him. Other countries should envy immigrants like these two.
Perhaps they’re the strength of this country, this blend of farmers, tool & die makers, steel workers, and shopkeepers who arrived here with little more than an ill-fitting suit and a fierce determination to “do better.”
That’s the unifying feature that built the United States of America; they learned the language; worked their way into the social structure and politics of their new homeland, worked hard, tried to blend in, and in committing themselves to success, they gave this country a mind-set that anything is possible if one works hard.
Another mind-set was that of leaving the old ways behind. The old ways weren’t working; that’s why people came here in the first place. My Grandpa Lubin would never, ever discuss his hometown, or his life before he came here. “It doesn’t matter,” he’d say “I’m an American now, and being an American is all that counts.”
And unlike the faux-patriotism espoused by so many of today’s politicians, the older generations understood that patriotism was something that was to be practiced, as opposed to lectured from the airwaves. On Monday 8 December 1941, most of the men of Harvard and many other colleges were on the recruiting lines, and by 1945 America had 12 million men under arms. Everyone volunteered; in fact my ex-wife’s father forged his father’s name to the paperwork, and joined the Army a year underage – Lewis Nash participated in the invasion of Italy and ended up fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.
That’s real patriotism. Everyone served, everyone helped out, and everyone pulled together for the common goal of protecting the American way of life that their parents and grandparents offered them.
That’s what makes the recent immigration debate so frustrating. Most of these 12 million illegals hunker down, work hard, and are taking the dirty jobs that most American citizens won’t. Sure many of them don’t speak English now, but then neither did my Grandfather Ljubon or Mychal Strenk when they arrived. America is still a country of opportunities for those who want to work, and given the opportunity, look at how the Strenks and Peralta’s have become an integral part of America’s history.
Maybe that’s it; being an “American” is as much an attitude as an accident of birth. Since people today aren’t digging the Erie Canal, or building the transcontinental railroad; perhaps today’s settlers are instead cutting lawns in New Jersey or working in an Iowa meat-packing plant. But hard work and attitude never hurt anyone, as Grandpa Lubin used to tell me; and as Grandpa’s Strenk, Peralta, and Pham likely told their boys; with attitude and hard work you can accomplish almost anything.
So let’s raise a glass to our 234th birthday – with more hard work and the same attitude, we’ll be celebrating 234 more.
Happy Independence Day.
Many of us have pontificated but we have never really discussed what is an American. Your thoughts, on our nation’s birthday…what exactly is an American and has that definition changed over time?