I’m American; I’m a lottery winner

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Thomas Herthel
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing staff judge advocate
A few years ago, I had a temporary duty assignment to South Asia. While there, a Bangladeshi colleague told me that I "won the lottery" when I was born an American. 

I found the comment interesting, but never gave it much thought until a year or so ago when my family and I were visiting friends in South Africa. 

Those friends are prominent lawyers in Johannesburg. Nonetheless, they came from modest upbringings, and were born into racial segregation. 

When visiting, we drove from the urban sprawl of Johannesburg and passed dozens of small villages along the dusty, two-lane highway. Our friends live and work in the city, but own a home close to the Botswana border, where they were raised as children. 

On the way, we passed a small village on the horizon a mile or two from the road. One of our friends was raised there, in a single-room home with several brothers and sisters. She explained to my then 10-year-old daughter there was no school in her village. She was forced to walk three miles each way to attend classes in a nearby town. She described receiving one set of new clothes and a single pair of shoes per year carrying, water from the well to her home, and cooking on an outside fire because there was no electricity in her village. Our friend carefully explained to my daughter, as a female, most people thought it was foolish for her to attend school, and she had only three candles worth of reading light each night because any more was wasteful. Nonetheless, our friend endured and succeeded. She is now a South African constitutional court justice. 

She concluded her story by telling my daughter the same words I had heard and somewhat dismissed a few years earlier. She told my daughter, "When you were born an American, you won life's lottery." 

As we returned home, the wealth of America was obvious. If we take a good look around, it's easy to see the many blessings Americans share. We all have electricity and clean water, secure homes, generally safe streets, access to world-class medical care, free public education with school bus service, and an abundance of food, clothing and other "necessities" such as cell phones and MP3 players. Most importantly, we have the right of political self-determination, religious freedom, and an unparalleled opportunity to succeed and allow our children to reach further in life than we ever could. We truly have a lot to be thankful for. America really is the land of freedom and opportunity. 

As members of the Air Force, we are the guardians of that freedom and opportunity. As Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Carrol "Howie" Chandler once said, "Our liberty remains secure because of today's heroes and heroes from the past. Just as our forefathers fought and sacrificed to uphold liberty and the right of self-determination, today we play a key role in protecting freedom at home and around the world." 

Be proud of what you do to defend our nation and our way of life. Remember, when you were born an American, you too won the lottery.