Americans are celebrating the nation’s independence from Great Britain 238 years ago this weekend with fireworks, beer, barbecues, baseball and family reunions. But for some, July 4 is a solemn day to reflect on what it means to be free and who paid the price for our freedom.
For Chris Hahn, a 30-year-old Iraq war veteran, the meaning of life and freedom changed forever on Jan. 30, 2006, the day he had a brief encounter with death when the 7-ton truck he had been riding as a gunner during a night operation hit the soft shoulder of a ravine and rolled. The whole scenario still gives him nightmares — pitch darkness, fear of death as he was ejected from the vehicle, and excruciating pain in his left foot and ankle. A medic gave him four shots of morphine and repaired his mangled foot and ankle.
Hahn soon found himself at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., which would become his home for seven months. At first he believed that he’d go home on both legs, but infection settled in and surgeons amputated the injured leg below the knee.
The recent news in Iraq made me think of Hahn. On Nov. 9 at the Veterans’ Breakfast at Colonial Presbyterian Church at 95th Street and Wornall Road, I heard him recite his poem “My Sacrifice,” before nearly 500 listeners.
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I stand upon one leg/ the flag flying in plain view...
as my hand renders a salute.
The many who had fallen...are the unsung heroes...
I’m not worthy to be called a hero
for the price I had to pay.
Though missing a limb,
My life is still intact
I am still free because of the Fallen...
Coming home, I Googled Hahn and learned that he’s a loving father and husband, an employee and a night student working toward his master’s degree in project management. What was even more remarkable was the fact that he was using his long and painful experience to help other injured soldiers through the Wounded Warrior Project.
How does he feel about his service in Iraq that cost him so much, when that country seems in turmoil again, I wondered.
Through the coordinator of the Veterans’ Breakfast, I contacted him for an interview. Though it was our first meeting, Hahn made me feel at ease with his all-American smile and a firm handshake.
“The people of Iraq were very grateful for us,” he recalled. “It means much to me that we were there when their basic rights were threatened. Like all tyrants, Saddam Hussein used fear to control his people, and I’m glad we gave the people of Iraq hope — the hope that we’ll deliver peace. Though we didn’t achieve that goal, I don’t regret my service in Iraq. I served my country!”
Our conversation shifted to his personal life, to his recovery and his ambition.
“I was very fortunate,” he said. “My family has been very supportive throughout my recovery. And my wife helped me so much! Rachael came from a military family — her father was a Marine and her brother, also a Marine, is in the service today — so she has the basic understanding of a soldier’s life. Without her, probably I’d not have come this far. I did have a difficult time when I dwelled on what I’ve lost, but she helped me see that I had a lot to live for.
“Also, the representative from Wounded Warrior Project who visited me regularly was very helpful; he convinced me that I wasn’t alone in this ordeal. He talked about an Iraqi veteran who had been so badly injured that the medics thought he was dead and paid no attention. At the last moment, he showed some signs of life so they rescued him. After two years of treatment and rehab work, he only regained basic mobility but his mental ability is quite limited. It was a lesson for me. Had I not gone through what I have, I probably wouldn’t count my blessings the way I do today.”
Hahn added that he hosts a golf tournament every year to raise funds for the Wounded Warrior Project.
He proposed to Rachael in front of the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 30, 2007 — the first anniversary of the day he almost died.
What’s his ultimate goal?
In a subdued voice, he said, “I want to be the father my boys look up to … the father they’d come to for help when they go through difficult times.”
Was I imagining that his eyes were filling?
Retired musician and freelance columnist Therese Park has written three novels about Korea’s modern history.