Raynaud places third in essay contest

Pictured in back, from left, Waterloo VFW Commander Les Niemann, Illinois State VFW Commander and Waterloo VFW member Matthew “Fritz” Micheleic and Voice of Democracy chairperson Laurie Sparwasser listen as high school junior Kayleigh Raynaud of Millstadt reads her speech Monday night to VFW members. (Kermit Constantine photo)

High school junior Kayleigh Raynaud of Millstadt placed third out of 5,700 state essay entries during this year’s annual VFW competition.

The awards banquet was held Feb. 8 in Springfield.

The winning Illinois essay writer advances to the national level in Washington, D.C., receiving an all-expense-paid trip and the chance to win a $30,000 scholarship.

Below is Raynaud’s winning essay:

Fasten your seatbelt of hope, raise your tray table of individualism, and bring your seat of patriotism to its full and upright position.  We are about to embark on a journey to a place where many brave men and women have gone before, to a place called optimism – optimism in America and in America’s future.  This journey begins on the tarmac of discouragement, hopelessness and yes, even pessimism; because a quick look at the difficulties facing America has eaten away at much of our confidence.  Many Americans no longer believe that their nation is on the right course. The question is:  Do I believe that America can be better tomorrow than she is today?  I hear the engines roar to life in the words of Dietrich Bonheoffer, a resistance fighter during World War II, who said, “The essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present but it is a source of inspiration.…it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself, and not abandon it to his enemy.”

Jostling in my seat as we thunder down the runway, I find optimism in the future of America because we are a nation where individuals hold their heads high.  Attend any public event and watch as veterans snap to attention and salute while civilians energetically sing the words of our national anthem.  Sit down and have a chat with my eighty-seven year old grandfather who remembers few current events, but proudly, enthusiastically recalls every detail of his military service in World War II. Then ask yourself the following questions: What country has liberated more oppressed people?  What nation comes to the aid of those devastated by disaster?  Whose citizens have given more of the precious lives of their sons and daughters to defend the weak and protect the helpless?  The answer:  America.  As the wheels retract, I hear the young airman sitting beside me humming the strains of, “Off we go into the wild, blue yonder, climbing high into the sun…”  I can’t help but smile and find myself holding my head a little higher.

Outside the window the sun begins to break through the clouds as I see optimism in the fact that individuals in America have the liberty to claim a brighter future for themselves; by claiming it for themselves, they claim it for all of America.  This is the special nature of America; when one American rises, all Americans rise. How many entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs started businesses to make a living for themselves only to find their offer of goods and services helped countless others?  How many soldiers like Army Staff Sergeant Ty Carter, a Medal of Honor recipient, joined the military for the opportunities it afforded them, only to find that they would commit themselves to elevate the needs of their team and their nation above their own?  Ronald Reagan once said, “The greatness of America doesn’t begin in Washington, it begins with each of you.  Each of you is an individual worthy of respect, unique and important to the success of America.  And only by trusting you, giving you opportunities to climb high and reach for the stars, can we preserve the golden dream of America as the champion of peace and freedom.” I see clear skies ahead and appreciate the fact that I can roll up my sleeves, get to work, and claim a better tomorrow for America.

In the midst of my growing enthusiasm, I am reminded by a fidgety fellow traveler that we are all vulnerable to restlessness during turbulent times, but that optimism requires the individual not to abandon the future of this country to any enemy. We must be ready and willing to defend against all enemies whether foreign or domestic, a person or pessimism, an army or apathy.  Defense against the enemy demands individual action like that exhibited by Marine Sergeant Craig Pulsey, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, who in the wake of the Newtown shootings stood guard at a local school because in his words, he would not let the children of his neighborhood “live in fear” and he was willing to “stand between them and danger”.  He stood guard for those children because he would not abandon them to their enemy.  Now, my fellow passengers, we must follow his example to stand and defend against all that endangers optimism in the future of America.

Why am I optimistic about our nation’s future?  I am optimistic about our nation’s future because you and I can hold our heads high, because you and I have the freedom to claim a brighter future for ourselves, and because you and I will not abandon this future to our enemies.  As the plane touches down, there is an impact as I realize that this journey has been made by generations of men and women before me.  Men and women who have been willing to lay down their lives to give us this flight plan.  How can one not be inspired for the future of this nation?  I hear the Captain speaking, “Welcome to Optimism. On behalf of the flight crew, I’d like to thank you for flying VFW Air.  Please wait until we come to a full and complete stop before leaving your seat, things might have shifted in your overhead bin.”

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