When my mother shook me awake, to not only let me know it was time for school, but to announce that Jimmy Carter had just been elected President of the United States, even at 15 years of age, I knew this was not good news for America. It wasn’t that I was waiting breathlessly for Gerald Ford — who was? But what captured my 15 year old emerging political and patriotic heart during the Republican primary was Ronald Reagan.
There are giants among men in all of our lives, ones who seem to rise above others and touch the heavens. Mortal though they may be, they still transcend the times and history and gain an immortality. For me, Ronald Reagan forever will stand taller than the rest of us.
I was only 17 when I enlisted in the Air Force and after training was shipped to a tour in West Germany. What a different world it was back in 1979 and 1980. There was a cartoon that ran in US News & World Report, of two soldiers dressed in rags, trying to push an 18th century cannon up a hill in the dead of winter. One observer asked another “is that a movie set for Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow?” And the other observer says, “no, it is NATO on maneuvers.” The truth was not far off. There were military families on food stamps, 5 men to 2 men dorms, mechanics working on trucks outside in the dead of winter due to lack of enclosed garages. Vietnam had just ended a few years before, Americans were being held hostage in Tehran, the Soviets seemed to be on the march and morale was low in society at large and in the military in particular.
Then the world changed, and oh so dramatically. On November 4th, 1980 a new man rode in on a white horse, my hero of a few years before was now President. It might sound like an exaggeration, but the mood within the ranks of the military changed with the speed of light. We knew that America had been saved. I can’t list all that was to change. We all know the story that unfolded over the next 8 years and how this man forever changed the world. For us in the military, it might be selfish to say that we loved Reagan when in the first days of his presidency he instituted a significant pay raise for all the men and woman in uniform. But it was more than a pay raise — a message was being sent. That money was put into not just planes, tanks, and ships, but also in military housing, base facilities, and yes, even garages for our mechanics. Above all else, what Ronald Reagan brought to all of us in uniform was a strong esprit de corps that had waned in the preceding years. He made us all proud to be Americans again and for one 18 year old, who in voting for the very first time was able to punch the ticket for Ronald Reagan, he became a larger than life hero. He became our generation’s George Washington.
On the 100th celebration of his birth, we all celebrate a great man, a great President and an example of what the times can bring out in this great country and the great people of America. We can reach back and touch the examples of greatness and leadership and when we think the times are dark and that there won’t be another Washington, Lincoln or Reagan, one appears. Happy Birthday and thank you President Reagan!