As a patriotic, red-blooded American, don‚??t you just love the Fourth of July?¬† The hometown parades where children smile and wave their American flags.¬† The smoky, familiar smell of barbecue.¬† The entire family gathered to watch an evening of fireworks.
As a 29-year Air Force veteran and former Prisoner of War in Vietnam for nearly seven years, more than half of that time in solitary confinement, I know that freedom is not free.¬† Next year will mark 40 years since my release from captivity — and celebrating a milestone of America‚??s liberty always helps put life in perspective.
After flying 62 combat missions in the Korean War in my F-86 named after my wife, Shirley‚??s Texas Tornado, I went on to serve two tours of duty in the Vietnam War.
During my 25th combat mission on April 16, 1966, the enemy shot my plane down over North Vietnam.¬† I had been through Army jump school where we made five practice jumps.¬† My shoot-down marked my sixth ‚??jump‚?Ě and I sure didn‚??t want to make it that way.
At 650 knots, when my chute opened my helmet, boots and gloves all flew off.¬† Within 30 seconds of landing, I was captured and spent the next seven years as a Prisoner of War.¬† During those lonely and dark years, the basic freedoms that we as Americans cherish vanished.
Fourth of July and the fun, family-filled celebrations ‚?? failed to exist.¬† Only in my mind would I truly celebrate an American hometown Fourth of July.¬† And did I ever dream.
One of the brightest moments in the ‚??Hanoi Hilton‚?Ě was one particular Christmas when a group of American POWs gathered together for a church service ‚?? marking the first time we had been able to be together in our nearly seven years of captivity.¬† We didn‚??t have a Bible, and we certainly didn‚??t sing very well.¬† But the Lord knew what we were doing‚?¶ giving Him all of the glory.¬† That day I was overwhelmed with thanks and gratitude as we felt – for a brief moment – the blessings of liberty that we were fighting to protect.
During my time in the military, I’ve known great patriots. ¬†These are men and women who have followed a deep conviction to serve their country.¬† Today we have a new generation of warriors ‚?? our all-volunteer forces who are always ready to step up when our country needs them.¬† It isn‚??t nearly often enough that we hear their stories of bravery, honor, sacrifice, valor and courage.
One shining example is Marine Corporal Jason Dunham of Scio, New York.¬† While serving in Iraq, Jason quietly extended his enlistment so that he could remain with his Marines throughout its deployment.¬† Jason was dedicated to his fellow Devil Dogs.¬† In April 2004 while patrolling the streets, Jason and his men came upon a hostile insurgent with a live grenade.¬† Instantly realizing the gravity of the situation, Jason warned his men, hurled his Kevlar helmet and his body on the live grenade to save his fellow Marines from the blast.¬† Jason put up a tough fight to return home to his loved ones.¬† He died a few days later with his parents by his side.¬† Jason‚??s parents accepted the Medal of Honor posthumously for their son‚??s heroism.¬†¬† A Wall Street Journal reporter embedded with the Marines at the time, Michel Phillips, chronicles Jason‚??s story in the must-read book, ‚??Gift of Valor.‚?Ě
These real life stories of bravery and sacrifice are the touchstone of freedom and must be shared with each generation.
If I have one hope for you this Fourth of July ‚?? it is that you seek out tales of service and sacrifice ‚?? and share them with younger generations.¬† Maybe they are your own.¬† Or maybe they are from a book or a movie like ‚??Taking Chance.‚?Ě¬† Sharing the blessings of liberty on the Fourth of July should be as much of a treasured tradition as fireworks and apple pie.
A powerful statement etched on the wall by a fellow POW in Vietnam said it best, ‚??Freedom has a taste to it to those who fight and almost die that the protected will never know.‚?Ě
God bless you and God bless America.