Sen. Joni Ernst: We cherish freedom but often forget its cost

As Published In: The Washington Examiner

It was 1989, the summer after my freshman year at Iowa State University, and I was on a plane to the Soviet Union. Through Iowa State, I was fortunate enough to participate in an agriculture exchange in what is now Ukraine. I didn’t really know what I was in for, and I sure didn’t anticipate that my time there would change the trajectory of my life.

When I landed, I had a preconceived notion that I’d see similar settings and lifestyles as those that I had known back home. After all, the Soviet Union was another “superpower” at the time.

I quickly found out I was wrong.

There was no running water, no telephone, no refrigerator, and no car. But, more striking than anything else, it was a fundamentally different society: one where freedom and liberty did not exist. In the evening, when the community members came together, we didn’t talk about agricultural practices like I had anticipated. Instead, we talked about what it was like to be free and what it was like to be an American. The individuals I met, worked, and lived with in Ukraine were eager to learn about freedom and democracy.

We were definitely not in Red Oak, Iowa, anymore.

My time in the Soviet Union put it all in perspective for me. It taught me in no uncertain terms that the tremendous freedoms and opportunities that we have as Americans can never be taken for granted. In a different world, the sacred things we enjoy here in the United States, our liberties and our freedom, could easily be taken away.

When I returned to Iowa, I felt a calling to defend our country, our values, and our freedoms. That fall, I joined the Army ROTC program, and my life truly was never the same.

From 2003 to 2004, I served as a company commander deployed overseas for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Years after, I had the honor of serving as battalion commander of the largest battalion in the Iowa Army National Guard. After more than 23 years of service, I retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Guard.

My story is not unique. It’s the story of countless Iowans and Americans — males and females, young and old. These heroes have answered the call to duty and put themselves in harm’s way in order to protect our freedoms — freedoms that have never been free, freedoms that brave Americans have fought for year after year, freedoms that have cost lives and left grieving parents, spouses, children, and friends.

We cherish these freedoms but often forget the price paid for them.

During Military Appreciation Month, we not only honor those who have chosen to serve our country in this way, but we recognize our military families who sacrifice so much and faithfully support our men and women in uniform. They keep things running during long deployments, help during their transition back to civilian life, and long after.

During this month, we pause to honor the men and women who wear our nation’s uniform today, those who have worn it in the past, and all those who have sacrificed their lives.

Everyone who assumes the call to serve their country will never be the same. Serving in the military provided me some of the best years, experiences, and memories of my life. I had always been a proud American, but after my trip to Ukraine, it made me understand how truly exceptional our country really is.

Let this month serve as a stark reminder of the daily sacrifices made by our service members, military families, and veterans. You have my support and my deepest gratitude today and every day. May God look over our warfighters, our veterans, and their loved ones.