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Celebrating America's freedom

By Henry Lamb
web posted July 3, 2006

Carl "Buddy" Reddeck, Jr. was a big kid at 14. His six-foot, 195-pound frame looked to be at least 17 to the Marine recruiter who signed him up in Greensboro, North Carolina. Robert Glenn was 15 when he became a Marine in Orlando, Florida. These two youngsters became friends in the 21 st Regiment of the 3 rd Marine Division. No one knew that neither of them was old enough to be in the landing craft heading for the beach at Ansan Bay, Guam, on July 21, 1944. Their orders: take the hill and engage the enemy.

Carl and Robert reached the top of the hill. Carl died that day; Robert was wounded - twice, but finally made it home. He retired a few years ago, as postmaster at Okeechobee, Florida, where he now lives.

We would never know about these two youngsters who served their country, were it not for a little-known organization called Veterans of Underage Military Service. Founded in 1991 by Allen Stover, who also joined the Marines when he was only 14, this organization has identified more than 2500 veterans who enlisted well before the legal age for enlistment.

We would not know about Willie Ruff, who before he was three, was singing at the local grocery store for candy. He lived in Sheffield, Alabama, at a time when black children had little hope of a prosperous future. He joined the Army at 14. He re-enlisted in the Air Force at 16. Willie has been honored with an honorary doctor's degree by six universities. He was the guest of President Johnson on Air Force One; has lectured on jazz music around the world in seven languages, and has been professor of music at Yale University for more than 30 years.

Nearly all of these young people who joined the military service early were high-school dropouts. Yet their stories reveal a quality of character that inspires celebration. Willie earned an "equivalency diploma" while at Lockbourne Air Force Base near Columbus, Ohio. He lived through segregation before, and during his military service. What is it about these kids that drove them to succeed, despite circumstances that are often identified as the reason people wind up in jail?

"It's the uniform," says Ray Jackson, editor of three volumes of stories about America's Youngest Warriors. Ray, too, dropped out of school at 16 to join the Marines. He, too, returned to school to earn a Ph. D. and a career as a physicist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ray, and his wife, Susan, have collected, edited, and published nearly 600 stories about these young warriors who enlisted in the military to serve their country.

It's not the uniform, of course, it's what the uniform means: freedom.

It was the hope of freedom that inspired a band of rag-tag farmers to don the uniform in George Washington's army, and gave meaning to the Declaration of Independence. It was the defense of freedom that required Carl and Robert to climb the hill at Ansan Bay. It is the promise of freedom that challenges every American to secure its blessings for future generations.

As difficult as it must have been for Willie to live in the segregated South, in a family that survived on their mother's $5 per week earned as a maid, it was his freedom that allowed him to find the education he needed to achieve a spectacular career. Around the world, the American military uniform represents freedom. Whether it's the Army liberating France, or the Navy bringing relief to tsunami victims in Indonesia, or the Coast Guard lifting Katrina victims from housetops in New Orleans, the U.S. military means freedom.

Not all, if any, of the youngsters who join the military understand the responsibilities of freedom when they enlist. But by the time they leave the military, they have a better understanding than most people, of both the responsibilities of freedom, and the opportunities it provides. These young warriors never take freedom for granted.

Their lives, and their sacrifice, should inspire every American. Not everyone can don the uniform and take up arms. But everyone can defend and advance freedom in some way, and everyone has the responsibility to do whatever his talent and circumstance will permit. As we celebrate Independence Day, we must remember that our fireworks and barbeques are possible only because Carl, Robert, Willie, and millions of others like them, met their responsibility to freedom. We can do no less for our posterity.

Henry Lamb is the executive vice president of the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO), and chairman of Sovereignty International.

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