Americans treasure our independence. We celebrate it in poetry by Walt Whitman, philosophical treatises by Ralph Waldo Emerson and even our national anthem, which rightly calls this the "home of the free." And this Wednesday, we'll celebrate Independence Day.
No one does more to guarantee that we can enjoy that freedom than our nation's veterans. Starting with the Revolutionary War, they have fought to secure our independence from foreign aggression and ensure that Americans everywhere live freely.
Yet all too often, the cost of that service is a loss of independence for our veterans.
Members of our military who are injured can lose the ability to get around easily or work in physically demanding jobs. Those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders may find it hard to live alone. And too many can't find the jobs they need to maintain their financial independence when they return to civilian life.
These days, that's a lot of people.
There are more than 22.2 million veterans in the United States today, three-fourths of whom served during at least one wartime period, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Of those, 5.9 million served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan.
Although some veterans need serious assistance for major medical and financial problems, others just need a helping hand during a tough time.
Consider an Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who lives in Fort Hood, Texas, with his service dog, who found himself in financial trouble in 2011 after the death of his mother.
He'd tried a number of different short-term loans, but found the interest rates were too prohibitive. Like many members of our military, he was tempted to use payday lenders but concerned about predatory lending fees that can be as high as $95 for a $500 two-week advance.
Instead, he went to the Pentagon Federal Credit Union Foundation (PenFed Foundation), a nonprofit that I head, which supports military personnel and their families through financial counseling, home ownership aid and emergency assistance loans. He qualified for an Asset Recovery Kit (ARK) loan, with a fee of only $1 for every $100 borrowed, with no interest, until his next paycheck.
He told us the loan helped him get back on his feet, but, just as importantly, it made him feel that someone was watching out for him.
The PenFed Foundation is proud of the work we do helping veterans through programs like ARK, but our veterans also need the help of their community.
As a country, we need to work together to find ways to help our veterans in their hours of need. It's not necessarily just financial assistance. It might be help getting to a doctor's appointment or child care during a hospital stay. Or it might be a friendly face for a veteran who is struggling with depression or PTSD.
Some of this help can come from nonprofits. Some of it can come from churches or other religious groups. By necessity, much of it will have to come from our federal, state and local governments.
But there is also a role for every American. Reach out to the veterans in your life. Support nonprofits and charities that work with veterans. And vote for politicians who keep our veterans' programs funded and running smoothly.
This Fourth of July, while we honor our freedom, let's all make sure veterans can keep their independence.
Christopher J. Flynn is president and CEO of the PenFed Foundation, a nationally recognized nonprofit organization working to meet the unmet needs of military personnel and their families. The Pentagon Federal Credit Union covers all labor expenses for the foundation so every dollar donated goes directly to supporting its programs.