Rep. Brad Wenstrup
Rep. Brad Wenstrup
By Congressman Brad Wenstrup
R-Cincinnati

Decades have passed. Now, Private First Class James Francis Ryan, played by Matt Damon, is feeble and his hair is gray. It has been many years since the Normandy invasion, when a dying Captain John H. Miller, played by Tom Hanks, charged Private Ryan with: “Earn this…earn it!”

Now, standing before the white cross marking Captain Miller’s grave, Ryan speaks haltingly, his voice heavy with emotion: “Every day, I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I’ve tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.”

As the scene closes, Ryan salutes, and the camera pans out on a sea of white crosses. Behind him stands his family – his wife, children and grandchildren. The film closes as it began, with an American flag waving in the breeze.

This closing scene from one of my favorite movies, “Saving Private Ryan,” has stuck with me throughout my career as a doctor, Army Reserve officer and elected official. It speaks to the debt of gratitude we all owe to the generations who went before and secured for us a future broadly defined by freedom, opportunity, and stability. This weighty debt imparts to each American citizen a responsibility, a sacred obligation: “Earn this.”

For some of us, that includes repaying their service and sacrifice with our own service in the U.S. Armed Forces. For most of us, though, we “earn this” like Private Ryan did in the decades after he laid aside his uniform – with lives well lived, in honor of those who gave their lives for ours.

What does that look like? I believe earning the sacrifice of our military men and women means living lives worthy of being bought at such a price – not just on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July but in all the small, daily decisions that compound to comprise a lifetime.

It means working hard, with dignity, at whatever honest work is in front of us. It means living with integrity and treating others with respect.

As Albert Schweitzer said in one of my favorite quotes, “It is not enough merely to exist. It's not enough to say, 'I'm earning enough to support my family. I do my work well. I'm a good father, husband, churchgoer.' That's all very well. But you must do something more. Even if it's a little thing, do something for those who need help, something for which you get no pay but the privilege of doing it. For remember, you don't live in a world all your own. Your brothers are here, too.”

Lives well lived are devoted to and defined by their service to others – worrying less about what everyone else is doing and more about doing our part to make our families, communities and country stronger and better.

“Earning this” also means taking our freedoms seriously, including educating ourselves on them, advocating for them in the marketplace of ideas, and exercising them at the voting booth and beyond.

It means seeking to “mend our every flaw,” as we sing in "America the Beautiful," constantly working toward becoming a more perfect union. It means honoring our flag and those who fight for it. This can be as simple as pausing for a moment when our loved ones are gathered around the table or we’re sitting in the pew at church and being grateful for every ounce of freedom that we enjoy. It means when we tuck our children in bed and feel safe, secure, and unafraid, that we pause to remember the men and women far away on the frontlines who are the reason why.

Living here in the United States, we are far removed from the kind of conflict portrayed in the film, “Saving Private Ryan.”

It can be easy to forget that there are nations around the world where citizens cannot exercise their God-given rights without fear for their lives. Voting is symbolic or nonexistent. Dissent is not openly discussed. Providing for your family can cost you your life. What a privilege to live in this great nation where we can speak freely, vote without fear, carve out our own destinies and live our lives according to our deeply held beliefs.

Let’s never forget those who gave their lives so that this would be our reality. Let us each commit to living so that at the end of the day we can say to those who have gone before and given their all:

We have tried to live our lives the best we could. We hope that it was enough.

We hope we have earned what you all have done for us.