HARRISBURG, N.C. -- Everyone loves a parade, but few can appreciate the vantage point Drag Dzieran enjoyed Saturday in Harrisburg's 4th of July Parade.
The retired Navy SEAL rode with fellow former SEAL Brad Bailey in a restored 1952 M38 military Jeep – but it was a long journey to get there.
As a young man, Dzieran spent two years in a Communist prison in his native Poland. It was the early 1980's, before the Berlin wall fell. The U.S. was still in a Cold War with the then-USSR.
At the age of 24, he came to the U.S. as a political refugee.
"I came to America. I didn't speak English, and I had only bag of clothes with me," he said with a thick accent. He talked about becoming a citizen, then enlisting in the Navy to serve the country that had accepted him so readily.
But he didn't stop there. He became a SEAL – the elite corps of Special Operations sailors, and met the challenge willingly.
"I knew what I was doing. I knew what I wanted to do," he said. "I didn't go there to 'try' to become a Navy SEAL, I went to BECOME a Navy SEAL."
After 20 years, he retired, but is still trying to help. Saturday he highlighted the Navy SEALS fund, a charity run by former SEALs to help injured SEALs and their families. (www.navysealsfund.org)
"There are many SEALs who don't retire from the Navy," said Dzieran. "They leave after 10 years, 8 years .. often due to injury, and they do not have the support normally they would get if they retired from the Navy. So we step in and we fill that gap."
Dzieran explained that a SEAL must serve 20 years before retiring with benefits, like he did. Many don't.
He and Bailey were invited to ride in the restored military jeep serving as the float for SONIC restaurants by its owner, Chuck Buckman.
"It's an honor to have them riding with us today," said Buckman, who shied away from attention and deferred questions to the two veterans standing next to him.
Bailey was similarly humble. He now works as an area supervisor for Buckman in Raleigh.
"We just want to show how we support the military," he said.
Buckman met the two SEALs just moments before the parade, but was in awe of them just the same.
Dzieran, while also humble about his own accomplishments, was bold in his love for his adopted country.
"Everything I have, everything I own.. I owe to America," he said.
He recounted his meager beginnings in the U.S.
"Now I have a wonderful family, and everything I need to live, and most important -- I am free man. I live in the country of free and brave and I'm proud to be part of it."
"I'm just American. Proud."