The Best a Free Nation Can Produce

Julie Ann Ponzi

April 1, 2004

The honorable death of Pat Tillman and the increasing numbers in the ranks of volunteers and re-enlistments in the military speak volumes to those who would disparage or underestimate the resolve of America’s current generation of patriots. But there are countless stories which convey the same point. Enough cannot be said of these men who sacrifice so much that we might continue to live in the freedom and the glory that are America’s destiny. These are the best of our generation and the best of what a free nation can produce. The whole world should look to their example. Americans of every political stripe should look to them for inspiration and be humbled by their willingness to defend us. Those who mean our nation harm should look to them with caution and fear. These are the young men who are coming after you and you will be held to account for your vicious lack of regard for the nature of humanity.

Here is yet another example of what these valiant young soldiers are sacrificing on our behalf:

Always a patriot, Brian Wood was just a 6th grader when he began defending his country. A voracious reader with wide-ranging interests, he had just finished reading all of Rush Limbaugh’s books when he got into a heated political discussion with a teacher. While Brian’s strong opinions were famous among those who knew him best, most people considered him a rather quiet or withdrawn boy. It is a common and understandable mistake. The quiet student in the back of the room is often taken for being disinterested or unmotivated. This prejudice is frequently reinforced by the facts. But there are special cases—and the best teachers always assume this—where the quiet student in the back of the room knows more than the teacher. This student knows that one learns best by listening more and talking less. His quiet nature is more a product of a thoughtful disposition than a lack of interest. His so-called “betters” are therefore shocked when the quiet student exhibits the tenacity of a pit bull in an argument. A good teacher, however, cannot help but respect such students.

Respect, by the way, was not something upon which Brian placed small value. Indeed, his sister was surprised one year to open up a Christmas present and find inside a piece of paper with the word “respect” meticulously printed upon it. When she looked at her brother with confusion, he explained that he was giving her his respect and that, after all, was his greatest gift.

When Brian was a sophomore in high school, he announced to his mother his decision to follow in the footsteps of his father, three uncles and a grandfather and join the military upon completing high school. Because of his deep interest in reading and, especially, in reading history he also maintained the goal of eventually becoming a high school history teacher. But his quiet skepticism kept him from pursuing that goal right away. You see, he was leery of enrolling in just any college program. His instincts—quite correctly—made him suspicious of most college history professors. Besides, he had another way to defend his country in mind.

True to his word, Brian joined the Army on the delayed entry program, prior to graduating from high school in June of 2001 and, by August, he was off to basic training. Of course, we all know what was to come in the following month. Rather than let that distress him or weaken his resolve, Brian was steeled by 9/11. As his family put it, Brian enlisted “not because he had no other choices, but because he loved his country.” Brian advanced to the rank of sergeant and served as a combat engineer, or sapper. His job, in the words of his father for us civilian types, was “to blow up things and keep things from blowing up.” Specifically, he looked for bombs and land mines and disarmed them. He served in Germany and then spent time in Kosovo and Bosnia after his specialty training. He was notified of his deployment to Iraq with the 1st Infantry Division in January of 2004.

In March of 2004, Brian’s dad got an unexpected and all too brief phone call from Brian. Brian discussed the nature of his work and talked about how important the mission was and how the Iraqi people themselves were not the enemy but, on the whole, were quite appreciative of our efforts. He expressed his frustration that it appeared to him that the American people were not getting the full story—that they were not hearing much about the progress being made. Brian’s dad said he was upbeat in his conversation and excited because he enjoyed himself best when he was putting others before himself. His basic nature was that of service. On April 15, 2004 Brian sent an email to his uncle Mike in which he discussed this in greater detail. I include the full text of this message:

“Hey Mike,

“Sorry about getting this off kinda late, been pretty hectic around here recently. Not quite sure what you’re hearing from the news, I don’t get a whole lot of time to follow it. For the most I feel that the Iraqi people actually appreciate us being here. The attacks that are happening are basically a result of unemployment, and a few terrorists (or whatever you want to call them) paying people off to do the attacks. From what I’ve heard from the locals around my sector they are pretty much just trying to do what they can to improve their quality of life. But when so many people are out of jobs, they will pretty much do anything they can to make ends meet to provide for themselves and their families. There are many issues that need to be resolved as far as rebuilding their country. And though the people want as many issues resolved as quickly as possible, they can’t be resolved that way in an efficient manner. There are already many Iraqi police and ICDC which are basically the guys we are going after, and they use the support of the coalition forces as a cover, so the rest of the people won’t be able to fight back.

“So it may be a long road ahead, but for the large majority of the Iraqi people, they want us here, and they want us to help them rebuild. That always makes me feel good about being here, actually making a difference in these people’s lives and giving them opportunities they’ve never had. It always amazes me how people don’t think we should be here, I don’t think they really understand what life is like here and how these people were treated. But I suppose most people will never understand that.

“Well, it’s great to hear you’re enjoying your new house, I might have to take a trip up there once my time is up. I’ll send ya e-mails when I can.


Less than 24 hours after sending that missive, on Friday morning, April 16, Brian was killed when his humvee pulled over on the side of the road and hit a land mine.

In speaking with his father this week, I was reminded not only of the things Brian had to sacrifice in order to protect liberty but of what America is sacrificing when we lose men like him. His dad noted that Brian’s room at home was a testament to his eclectic and insatiable intellectual pursuits. He had everything from a computer program on the Rosetta stone, to books on Leonardo daVinci, 18th century naval warfare, philosophy, chemistry, physics, philosophy, politics and—of course—his passion, history. What a teacher he might have been! But what a man he was. What an American he was. We must re-double our efforts to produce more like him and, in so doing, let us learn from his example.

Julie Ann Ponzi is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.