THE BLOG
04/18/2011 06:50 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2011

Survival of the American Dream: Beyond the Iraq War, Collapse of Lehman Brothers and Housing Crisis

Over the past few years, the American Dream has become a nightmare for families who have lost their homes. These foreclosed dreams have certainly impacted the aspirations of affected children -- many of whom hope to go to college.

I lived through a home foreclosure 15 years ago, when I was still in high school, waiting on an appointment letter to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Like many Americans, my parents used a form of an adjustable rate mortgage to finance the purchase of the home. Neither of my parents were financial experts -- neither were college graduates. Their hope was that they would refinance their mortgage when their incomes supported better financing terms. That never happened.

Ten years after buying the home, my parents finally gave up. They simply could not afford the dream any longer. Furthermore, the stress of their deteriorating finances contributed to the destruction of their marriage. My mother lost her job and lacked a support network. My stepdad took custody of my sisters as my mom and I waited it out in the home. In the final month, we lived without electricity and survived mostly on canned goods while I awaited an appointment letter from West Point. In the closing days, we had no running water. I finally left the home after an argument with my mother relating to our living conditions. As a young adult, I felt that I had to break out on my own, or I'd fail to achieve my dreams.

That was 15 years ago.

After leaving my childhood home, I stayed with a friend to finish out my senior year of high school. His family treated me as one of their own and included me in their holiday gatherings while I was in college. My mother would not have a place of her own for almost three years, and at one point spent time in a women's shelter. My sisters were raised by my stepdad for the next several years and moved wherever his construction job took him. And I eventually received an appointment letter and graduated from West Point four years later. The degree offered a pathway to achieving the American Dream.

After graduating from West Point, I was commissioned as an infantry officer, completed Ranger School and later served a tour in Iraq. After returning from Iraq, I decided to exit the service after becoming disillusioned with the war. My unit had just returned in the fall of 2003 and was ordered to return for a second tour. I came to view our mission in Iraq as a 'dumb war'.

After leaving the Army, I attended business school, where I later accepted an internship with one of the top investment banks on Wall Street -- Lehman Brothers.

In the summer of 2007, following my internship at Lehman Brothers, I received a full-time offer to return to the firm to work in equity capital markets. I accepted the offer, primarily due to the school debt I incurred to attend grad school. I saw no other way to meet my budget, so I took the big sign-on bonus. Unfortunately, the capital markets shut down within a month of my arrival and I was out of a job not long after the holiday season.

Making it to a Wall Street job did not add much value to my life aside from the money. Rather, I found myself disillusioned during my brief time on the Street.

There are distinctly different values on Wall Street than what I found in the military. The goal of every banker is to execute transactions such that they get the biggest bonus possible at the year's end. It is all about the money -- no one pretends otherwise. If that means issuing irresponsible loans or other securities by putting "lipstick on a pig," then so be it.

That is the profit motive at work -- incentives for destructive lending behavior. Unfortunately, many Americans have their dreams tied to these sorts of securities -- home and education loans. So when the job market dried up and the housing bubble burst, it left many Americans unable to achieve their dreams and with significant debts to pay. My guess is that the events of the past few years around home foreclosures will linger for decades as America's affected youth seek out their dreams.

Over the years, the foreclosing of my home came to mind whenever I faced difficult challenges. In Iraq, when we had no air conditioning in the summer heat, I reflected back to the dark nights in my room when we had no power. But losing my job after the fall of Lehman forced me to reassess my goals.

I decided to take a trip back to Orlando to visit my old home, after a month of searching for a new job. My mom and sister, too young to remember a family life under that roof, joined me in visiting our old house.

When we arrived at our old block, we noticed that the house was abandoned -- the lawn and driveway were overwhelmed with autumn leaves of seasons past. The fence was torn down in multiple locations -- a result of several hurricanes and no repair.

We decided to venture into the backyard, where we found several potted plants that had been ours. Our curiosity won over and we checked the windows to see what was inside -- not much. We then proceeded to venture around the exterior of the home, looking in windows. After finding an unlocked window, my sister dared to climb through a narrow opening inside. She then let us in the house.

Once inside, we explored our old home, each of us reflecting privately and sharing discoveries openly. When we made it to the garage, we were amazed by what we found.

Much of the stuff we left 15 years ago was still in the garage. It was like we stepped into a time machine. My mother found an old year book. I found some of my old bedroom furniture. My sister, who was six years old when she last lived in the house, found something amazing -- a memory.

It was a ruler on which my sister had written her name. It was a simple thing, but the object linked my sister to that home and memories came back. At that moment, I believe she recognized that our family shared love in that home.

Then -- over a decade after -- we shared a moment of reconciliation.

In the two years since I explored my old house, another family has moved in. The damage from years of neglect has been repaired. The home now serves the foundation of another family's American Dream. In that home, someday a child will begin to form dreams of their future and hopefully seek to go to college.

The survival of the American Dream is contingent upon preserving opportunities for those affected by home foreclosure to pursue higher education. To renew America's greatness, we must get beyond the wars that have sapped our prosperity and resolve the issues on Wall Street that caused the housing crisis. In the meantime, we need to continue to provide America's youth reason to believe in their future.

I feel very fortunate because I had already secured a pathway to college before my family lost our home. My sister did not. She is a role model for me today because she endured adversity at a younger age and has achieved more than I did at the same age. She moved around the country frequently during her childhood, but our parents were able to cooperate, albeit separately, in supporting her educational pursuit. I think she has achieved so much because she never lost hope in achieving her American Dream -- an opportunity afforded through college.

My sister, who found a memory of our life in that old home, was president of her sorority and graduates from Rollins College in Florida next month.

My family couldn't be prouder.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ryan McDermott.

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