Freedom isn't free

By Staff
The Fourth of July is the most American of holidays, celebrating the day when we first declared our freedom.
When the founding fathers signed their names to the Declaration of Independence, each knew that the country would have to fight for its freedom and to defend liberty. At the end of the Declaration, the last sentence said, "We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." These men understood better than most the saying "freedom isn't free."
Many of our fellow Alabamians know first hand about standing up for freedom, and putting their lives on the line. Our neighbors, friends, and family members who serve in the Alabama National Guard have been deployed overseas, some multiple times, at great hardship to their families and to themselves.
This Independence Day sees one Alabama National Guard unit still deployed in Iraq, the 1207th Quartermaster Detachment for water distribution, from the aptly named town of Goodwater. Just about every Alabama County has a Guard armory and locally based unit, and the demands on these companies for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have touched every corner of the state.
In this decade of upheaval and threats, Alabama has done its duty when the country has called. Alabama has sent more of its sons and daughters per capita than any other state besides Texas. The more than 13,500 members of the Alabama Air and National Guard have seen big changes to the traditional role of the Guard. When disaster strikes, we rely on the soldiers of the Guard to bring in supplies, provide security, and participate in rescue operations. Now we readily think of Guard members serving in Iraq or Afghanistan as we would helping hurricane victims on our gulf coast.
The overseas deployments have been so numerous it has worn out Alabama's equipment. Last year, state Guard officials reported that they had a little more than half of the equipment needed for overseas and domestic missions. The situation has gotten better over the last year as the federal government has begun replacing the generators, Humvees, and heavy trucks worn out in deployments. But like the rest of the military, the Guard will be short some equipment because of the toll deployments have taken.
What should concern us the most is the effect deployments have on the soldiers themselves. Guard members are the true "citizen-soldiers," who live in our communities, and are students, police officers, carpenters, and pharmacists. When they deploy, they upend their lives, leaving behind family and careers. Our prayers and support must go out to them and their loved ones.
There have been well-documented gaps in health care for these returning men and women, especially in rural states like Alabama where VA hospitals are often very far away from veterans' homes. In 2006, the Defense Department said the jobless rate for veterans was 6.9 percent, while the national rate was under 5 percent. For younger veterans it was worse, with 15.6 percent of the 20 to 24 year olds unemployed. We can and must do better for people who serve.
Hopefully the tide is turning, with Congress recently passing an increase in education benefits. The Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 is a new GI Bill that helps veterans, active duty as well as Reserve and Guard members, who have deployed for a combined 36 months since September 11, 2001.
The plan will pay tuition and fees at any college up to amounts charged by the most expensive public colleges in our state (Alabama and Auburn), with stipends for full-time students increasing from $1100 a month to an average of $1900. This is similar to the G.I. Bill that thousands of WWII vets took advantage of to go to college. The current generation of soldiers deserves no less.
So this Independence Day as we enjoy some barbeque and light fireworks to celebrate our nation's birth, let us remember those protecting our country. We should never forget that "freedom isn't free," and we can all support making sure that those who pay the price are supported and honored.
Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County. His column appears each Wednesday.

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