From that spring morning in 1775 when the sounds of musket fire could be heard in the distance, and the first smoke of conflict could be seen rising above the ramparts of Breed’s Hill, Americans have stepped forward in service to their country. They have imparted substance to the pride we feel when we say that we are Americans.

For more than two centuries, our veterans have willingly and selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to protect this homeland and the enduring principles for which it stands. We honor them on Veterans Day.

As a veteran, I had the honor and pride of serving with a group of very special men who were Swift Boat officers in Vietnam. I call them special because of one sentinel fact: They were volunteers, every one of them.

As did the men from Lexington and Concord, they left behind comfort and safety and came forward in response to the call of country and the definition they earned as sons of this country. By volunteering to serve in the front line of an active battle zone, each man had effectively written a blank check made payable to this country for “any amount — up to and including my life.”

I am proud to be called a veteran, and my pride is embellished by ribbons and medals that hang on my wall. But there is a memory that calls me up short and commands that I step back, be humble, and pay quiet homage to our profoundly true heroes — America’s most treasured veterans.

Several years ago, I went to the American cemetery in Normandy. It is a beautiful, expansive, awe-inspiring landscape of seemingly endless rows of white crosses. It is a place where every American should go.

There, I found the grave of a young man whose name was the closest to mine that I could find in the directory of graves. I carried a red rose to his grave, and as I knelt next to his headstone, I paused, read his name and remembered his date of birth from the registry. Then, during that pause, a flood of realization overwhelmed me.

At that moment, I realized some measure of the deep and very human price he had paid in service to his country. The price was his life, his young life, the final and richest sum he could ever pay. The price he paid meant that he would never know the elation of getting behind the wheel of his first, shiny new car and sensing that indelible new car smell. He would never know the anxiety of waiting for an answer when he asked a pretty girl to marry him. He would never feel the euphoric pride of bouncing his baby upon his knee. He would never mow the grass on his lawn and cool his sweaty thirst with a cold beer. He would never carve the turkey on his family’s table at Thanksgiving. For him, there would never again be a Christmas morning.

I realized these things because I did the simple computation and realized that, when he was shot to pieces on the sands of Omaha Beach, he was a boy, a 17-year-old boy.

As a veteran who served my country, I am proud to have done so. However, I returned to enjoy, in full measure, the prosperity and comfort of what I fought for. This Veterans Day, I have to think of the thousands upon thousands of American flags that are gently waving in soft breezes above countless graves of young Americans at Arlington, the Ardennes, Normandy, Flanders and distant, scattered islands across the South Pacific, the eternal resting places of those who laid their last full measure of loyalty upon the altar of American freedom. It is to them I must humbly bow my head on this day.

All of America can all sleep well tonight, because we will be covered by a secure blanket woven out of honor, duty and service that they made for us. Let us salute those who established that the enduring strength and beauty of America has been defined by commitment, loyalty and, most importantly, sacrifice.

Those who died for America are a vast sea of young faces from every corner of our land, faces that never came home, faces that will never grow old. It is my fervent hope that we pause and understand the sacrifice that defined what it means to be an American hero, and may we reflect upon what we owe each one of them on their day: Veterans Day.

Don Tortorice is a former attorney and professor at the Law School of the College of William and Mary. He is also a retired U.S. Navy lieutenant who served in Vietnam from 1966-67.

(11) comments

Peyton Cook

My family ancestors on both sides have served in most of our conflicts beginning in the Revolution up through the present day. I served from 1951 to 1974. I actively participated in Vietnam. I am proud of the service of all the men and women, some 42 million, who selflessly. put themselves in harms way to protect the Constitution which includes free speech. While I disagree with some of the comments, you have the right to express them. I do agree that Vietnam was badly conducted, mainly by LBJ and McNamara, our Armed Forces prevailed over the North Vietnam military forces. The US Congress ceased military aid to the South in 1974, which led to North Vietnam overrunning the South in 1975.

Mark Hayes

The obvious trite can be expected. The surviving families and friends who lost loved ones may have disagreed with the Vietnam conflict, but they certainly do not deserve having the memory of those that did die, or those that came home disabled, read disparaging comments. Those medals, those ribbons/devices, that Flag, is all that remains of their memory, why desecrate that memory by comments unrelated to the topic, reciting researched history that holds no value or is relevant to the column, it is about honoring Veterans and their families.

Mark Hayes

Well, the column went from acknowledging Veterans Day, honoring those that serve and those that continue to serve, including their families sacrifices , to a condemnation for performing their duty as ordered by our government, I found it pretty distasteful, but then that's just me. If they did not want to serve, then they could have refused to participate.

John H Hamblen

The Men who served in Vietnam are what make our country great. No matter what the politicians did, they served when called on. My family has served in every war since the French and Indian wars to make this the country we are. Every man that serves deserves respect and our everlasting thanks. Freedom is not Free.

Mark Hayes

Well stated.

ken leary

Right, just ask the Chileans, Congolese, Iraqis, Vietnamese, Granadians, Mexicans, Koreans, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, El Salvadorians, Panamanians, Iranians, Libyans, Indonesians, Japanese, Chinese, Yemenis, Hondurans, Argentinians, and any other group of people the United States attempted to destroyed what they think about your "freedom is not free" nonsense. You can separate the man from the destruction, but you can't separate the destruction from the purpose. Our purpose since WW2 has been to protect oligarchs interest and for that they are very willing to sacrifice a few of your family. They will give you a medal and a flag, have a holiday for you, erect monuments and tout the glory of your sacrifice, and your best thinking is that you should murder whomever the "politicians" direct you to murder and you are blameless because you, what, did your duty? Three million Vietnamese died. Fifty thousand plus USA citizens died. My friend is dying now from CLL due to agent orange. How many Vietnamese have died due to our use of chemical warfare? What was accomplished? Who benefitted? The men who served in Vietnam with me had no thoughts about American "greatness." They just wanted to survive and go home. Most of them couldn't find Vietnam on a map.

I don't want your respect or thanks. I'd prefer you asked the Vietnamese for forgiveness.

ken leary

To accept your polemic is to disregard any critical thought and to dwell in emotional jingoism. You do realize that the American colonial era men and women's fight was for the exact same purpose as the Vietnamese men and women's fight. Both were patriots trying to free themselves from imperialist colonialism. The USA's role in these two events can't be compared. One you are combatting an oppressor, the other you are the oppressor. You can be proud of that if you are able. You should have just stuck with WW2. That was the last honorable conflict this country waged.

Jim Tomashoff

I think this country waged an honorable fight in Korea and in the first war against Iraq. Had more of the State Department's China experts survived McCarthyism, they might have been able to convince Lyndon Johnson that over a thousand years of conflict between Vietnam and China made it likely that long-term military and political solidarity between the two was unlikely. But having watched the havoc that the "who lost China" debate had caused, Johnson was not willing to be the President who "lost Vietnam."

ken leary

Have you seen the Nayirah testimony that precipitated your "honorable" war in Iraq? All lies. Explain what the justification was for the 1st Iraq war. Or the 2nd for that matter. You also think it was "honorable" to carpet bomb, to the point where nothing was left standing in all of North Korea, including their dams, to achieve the USA objective. If, as Kent seems to desire, the North and South once again do battle, would you condone the Koreans contributing to the resolution? It would only be fair.

Peyton Cook

As I recall, it was the North Korea which attacked the South. The thin US forces held the perimeter around Pusan until reinforcements could aid them. The Inchon landing facilitated the repel of the North Korean forces and pushed then back into the north. There was no “carpet bombing”. I don’t understand your second to last sentence.

Peyton Cook

I agree with you. Korea has been one of the conflicts supported by the UN. The second was the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait. As I said above the Vietnam conflict was badly handled by LBJ and McNamara.

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