My first childhood memories are learning to ride a bike on an American Compound in Taif, Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s.  My father, a US Air Force officer, was stationed there as a helicopter instructor pilot to the Royal Saudi Air Force.  Growing up in this environment instilled a sense of American patriotism, as well as a deep respect and curiosity for foreign culture, countries, and people.  It may seem strange, but returning to the United States to start kindergarten was a culture shock for me.  Riding in the car with my mother driving and not getting stopped at checkpoints every few miles was a weird concept for me upon my return to America.  However, it didn’t take long for me to adapt and normalize to the American way of life, yet my curiosity and respect for foreign cultures remained ever-present.

Jedidiah Stewart on the steps of Mayans Ruins.

My formative years were spent primarily on the east coast surrounded by American history, the military, and politics.  I absorbed what I could, asked questions, and developed a great love for my home country and a respect for all the others.  I developed my own outlook on the world.  My next opportunity to immerse myself in a new culture and country came in high school when I did a month-long exchange program in Germany.  It was an opportunity to live with an exchange partner in his country and home and allow him the same opportunity in mine.  With such a diverse history between the United States and Germany, I gained a greater respect for history, resilience, and basic human commonalities.  

Having been exposed to “different” at an early age, my hunger and desire to learn about the rest of the world have never ceased.  Thus it made sense for me to follow in my father’s footsteps and seek an opportunity that would allow me to explore the world while serving my country.  At 17, I enlisted in the Idaho Army National Guard.  This was the next step in my personal journey of learning about the world and its diverse population.  My service in the military provided both “mandatory” opportunities to see new destinations, as well as the needed funds to pursue destinations of my own choosing.

A common tread I have found in all my travels, both personal and with the military, is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs[1].  From my experience, this surpasses culture, language, geographic location, politics, religion, economics; EVERYTHING.  With everything equal, and all differences stripped away, every Human has the five basic needs: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.  No matter what circumstances we are in; war, poverty, or riches, my experiences have confirmed just this. 

My belief in this was reconfirmed this summer as I participated in a military exercise in Guatemala called Beyond the Horizon 2019[2]. Guatemala is the most populated country in Central America, with half of its population being under the age of 19. It’s ethnically diverse with a large portion of its population being of indigenous Mayan descent. It is a country that was divided by civil war for a large part of the 20th century[3].

At a time when US relations with our southern neighbors were not ideal, we (US soldiers and the Guatemalan military and local population) were able to transcend differences in politics and beliefs and return to basic human needs.  As a member of the military, I am encouraged to be a citizen but remain separate from connecting my opinion or political belief to any affiliation with my belonging to the military.  Officially stated as:

“It is DoD policy to encourage members of the Armed Forces (hereafter referred to as “members”) (including members on active duty, members of the Reserve Components not on active duty, members of the National Guard even when in a non-Federal status, and retired members) to carry out the obligations of citizenship. In keeping with the traditional concept that members on active duty should not engage in partisan political activity, and that members not on active duty should avoid inferences that their political activities imply or appear to imply official sponsorship, approval, or endorsement” [4]

Beyond the Horizon is “an annual exercise designed to build partner nation capacity for civil and military response to major disasters and the relationships built and sustained through this exercise demonstrate the ability of the US, and our regional partners, to access and execute disaster relief activities throughout Central America.”[5] The majority of this exercise was conducted in Huehuetenango, in the mountains to the northwest of the capital, Guatemala City.  The US soldiers were housed on a Guatemalan military base.  We lived and interacted with the soldiers and locals on a daily bases.

The Guatemalan soldiers were gracious and welcoming from the beginning.  They were extremely anxious to provide a comfortable facility for US soldiers.  As the Aviation Liaison Officer, I had the privilege of working with the Guatemala Command Team to help coordinate air transportation and medical evacuation during the exercise.  I was impressed with the professionalism and gratitude expressed by the Guatemalan military and was blown away by their sense of pride in their country. 

The official opening ceremony was an opportunity for the Guatemalans to welcome and thank the Americans for our contribution. The ceremony was conducted in both Spanish and English. The speeches given by the Guatemalan leadership and the US ambassador reflected on the gratitude for the US/Guatemala relations and the resiliency of their nation. For me, the most impressive part of the ceremony was the singing of the Guatemalan National Anthem. Each Guatemalan proudly stood and sang every word of each verse of Himno Nacional de Guatemala[6]. Though I did not understand the words they were singing, I could feel the love and pride they were expressing. Following their national anthem, the US soldiers proudly stood and sang the words to The Star-Spangled Banner. It was powerful to feel the combined sense of patriotism and pride from the individual nations uniting together for humanity.

On a few occasions, I was able to leave the confines of the base and enter into the local community.  This was the biggest personal learning opportunity for me.  Each individual I had the pleasure of interacting with seemed genuinely happy.  The language was a barrier if an interpreter was not present, but the locals were eager to practice their English or help me learn basic Spanish.  Seeing how they lived, what their communities and daily life is like really put things into perspective.  Guatemala is not a wealthy nation.  There is great poverty in the majority of the nation and economic disparity, especially amongst the indigenous people.  Away from the industrious capital city, a typical home in a local village consisted of mud or cinder brick construction.  The life within the walls of these humble homes provided the five basic needs of every human.  Coming from America with my idea of consumerism, I was truly awakened to see how happy one could be with so little.  By my standards, these Guatemalan’s had nothing, yet they had everything. 

In a world where it’s easier to define ourselves by our differences; what we have, what religion we practice, what country we are from, how we align politically; I am always humbled to be reminded that when we strip it all away, as humans, we have so much in common.  I’m glad my time in Guatemala reminded me of things I’d forgotten.


Jedidiah Stewart

Jedidiah has traveled to numerous destinations on his own and through his service in the military.  His favorite part of traveling is connecting with locals and experiencing the world through their perspective. He lives in Boise, Idaho.

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