Performances by founding fathers John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson usually highlight the National Archives' annual Fourth of July reading of the Declaration of Independence. This year, though, injured Army Private First Class Arthur E. Bryan won the crowd's admiration, even though he needed help to complete the reading.
"It's a constant struggle every day. But I feel better every day," Bryan said.
Ten months into his third tour of duty in Iraq, on Oct. 1, 2005, Bryan, of Brooklyn, N.Y., was severely wounded by an improvised explosive device. Two other soldiers were killed in the explosion, and Bryan was not expected to survive. He suffered an immediate stroke, from which he is recovering and receiving rehabilitation for at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
Instead of feeling discouraged by the enormity of the task he faced in preparing for a live reading to a large crowd, Bryan rose to the challenge, practicing often with help from an audio recording of the document and his wife, Sarah.
"He heard [the tape] continuously, and that helped," Sarah Bryan said after the reading. "But today he was nervous, so he wasn't able to read it like he wanted to, unfortunately. But he did good, he did really well."
When Bryan began fumbling following a stoic reading by Marine Lance Cpl. Christopher Hahn and the dramatic recital from Jefferson, Adams and Franklin, the crowd remained still. After a few moments, Steven Ebendo, on stage as Jefferson, came to Bryan's aid, whispering the words of the Declaration into his ear.
"At first I didn't know what was going on, and then I realized what the nature of his injury was, and what the nature of his sacrifice was. I waited a moment and went to assist," Ebendo said as he absorbed the symbolism of the moment: Thomas Jefferson had come to the aid of one of his nation's soldiers.
Bryan welcomed the support.
"He came up there because he had seen that I was having problems reading it," he said. "I really appreciate him."
The crowd of several hundred people, many dressed in red, white and blue, erupted in a standing ovation at the conclusion of the reading.
The National Archives ceremony, titled "July 4: An American Original," lived up to its name, complete with a performance by the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The Corps performed on Constitution Avenue in colonial styles, wearing classic red tailcoats, white wigs and navy blue triangular hats. Those in attendance feverishly waved hand-held fans to the beat of the drums as they braved the heat.
Bryan, though, exhibited the true bravery.