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” 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” 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.”

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.”  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.”

God bless you and God bless America.