Freedom is not free: Remembering our soldiers' sacrifices this Veterans Day

(BPT) - When U.S. Navy Lt. John McGrath took off on his 178th mission over North Vietnam at the age of 27, he had no idea it would end his life as a free man for more than six years. His plane was struck by anti-aircraft fire, tearing the wing and forcing him to eject from the aircraft. With a fractured back and dislocated knee, Lt. McGrath was captured and taken to "New Guy Village," a war camp in Hanoi, Vietnam, where he became a Prisoner of War (POW).

Lt. McGrath was handcuffed behind bars, isolated, tortured and interrogated for more than a half decade. Back in the United States during the Vietnam War, when a soldier went missing, an American could buy a bracelet with their name on it to show solidarity and support. Nearly 5 million Americans wore POW/MIA bracelets to support Lt. McGrath, and the 600 other imprisoned soldiers as they anxiously waited for the war to end.

The veteran's journey is one that few civilians understand, despite the nearly 22 million Americans who share it. Veterans Day, Nov. 11, is a time to remember and recognize veterans who have served throughout our nation's history. It's also a time to do our part to understand their sacrifice.

Historically, Veterans Day began as Armistice Day to commemorate the end of the First World War. Now, since November 1919, we celebrate each year to honor all veterans who have protected our freedom. We can begin to repay their sacrifice by advocating for military personnel who gave some, or all, to defend our country and our rights as citizens.

The American Legion Auxiliary (ALA) is one of the nation's most prominent supporters of veterans. The nonpartisan organization, founded in 1919, is committed to advocating for veterans' issues, mentoring America's youth and promoting patriotism. It was founded to advance the mission of The American Legion, incorporated by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic veterans service organization.

The ALA believes it is each citizen's civic responsibility to support the veteran community. In 2015, ALA members donated 5 million hours of community service to the nation's veterans. Members support those who served in the Armed Forces in many ways including education scholarships, aiding shelters for homeless veterans and working with local VA hospitals to support service members.

On Veterans Day, the ALA encourages Americans to take the time to thank individuals in the Armed Forces, engage with the military and veteran community in a meaningful way to recognize their sacrifices throughout history, and take a moment to understand the experiences of soldiers like Lt. McGrath.

Recalling his homecoming in March 1973, Lt. McGrath said, "I returned to San Diego where I was greeted by my wife and two sons. The years of waiting for this moment were suddenly forgotten, and I realized how great it was to be alive, to be wanted and loved and, most of all, to be American."

For more than six years prior to his coming home, Doreen Long, then a teenager, had worn a POW/MIA bracelet bearing Lt. McGrath's name. When she rediscovered the bracelet in a jewelry box decades later, she set out to determine the fate of the honorable soldier. Long got in touch with the ALA and expressed her desire to meet Lt. McGrath and thank him for his service.

Long's dream became a reality at the ALA National Convention in 2014 when Lt. McGrath surprised her on stage. For Long, it was the opportunity to meet a true American Hero. For Lt. McGrath, it was an affirmation of the nation's gratitude for his service.

For more information about how you can support the veteran community, visit www.alaforveterans.org.


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