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Today is the holiday when we honor the brave men and women who were willing to put their lives at risk for our country, its people and what it stands for.

Veterans protected the freedom we enjoy in the United States. This was spelled out to me once again on a recent visit to Washington, D.C.

It was late September when Ronnie and I took a break near the White House gates for a quick bite to eat. We were scheduled to meet Jimmy and his friend a few blocks away and, as usual, I had taken several wrong turns.

We sat on a bench that was close enough to the front gates to hear the “boos” coming from a large group of war protesters. There was nothing threatening about the men and women gathered; it was simply obvious they disagreed with the president’s current foreign policy.

I noticed a woman walking past the protesters in the same path we were about to take on our way to meet up with Jimmy. She walked by without a glance, wearing a T-shirt that said, “Got freedom? Thank a veteran.”

No one commented on what the shirt said as she passed.

Now that is freedom of expression at its best. Because of our veterans, we enjoy the freedom to express our opinions without having to worry about being locked up in jail.

All the people who disagree with us have that same privilege, and on that sunny autumn day, it was a beautiful thing to see freedom of expression in practice right there in front of the White House.

I hope Ronnie was paying attention.

The rest of my column tells the story of a real war hero in my own extended family, my second cousin, Stuart Upchurch.

The year was 1945 when 17-year- old Stuart Upchurch headed for the small island of Okinawa. He turned 18 during the brutal fighting that took place there from late March through early June.

Often referred to as the “Typhoon of Steel,” the Battle of Okinawa is known for its intense gunfire and for the sheer numbers of Allied ships and armored vehicles that assaulted the island.

The United States suffered more than 72,000 casualties on Okinawa, 12,513 of which were killed or missing.

Around the first of June, PFC Upchurch and CPL Richard Vana came under heavy fire on their way back to their unit. With no foxhole of their own, they jumped into the nearest one and shared the small space with two other Marines.

An explosion rocked a nearby foxhole, and the Marines heard someone calling for help. Despite the constant onslaught of enemy fire, Vana and Upchurch followed the cries up a hill.

The foxhole had taken a direct hit, and inside were “Red” and “Richey,” two cousins from the Boston area. Red had been fatally wounded, and Richey was suffering from a life-threatening wound to his thigh.

Vana and Upchurch faced a barrage of enemy mortars once again as they dragged their friend out of the foxhole and back down the hill. Upchurch carried him to a nearby cave being used as an aid station while Vana provided cover.

Once inside the cave, they began lifesaving first-aid until a corpsman was available, and Richey lived to share his battle story, too.

Stuart’s brother, Raymond, shared the above story with me recently. He has war stories of his own from serving in the Philippines during World War II.

It is imperative that we take time out of our busy lives to listen to all veterans’ battle stories, whether they took place more than 60 years ago or last month. People who were there usually teach the most accurate history lessons.

And don’t forget to say, “Thank You.”

A mother of three boys, Pam Zich has moved eight times in 17 years of marriage to her Marine Corps husband. They have been stationed in various locations, including Okinawa, California, Texas and their current home in Springfield, Va. E-mail her at homefront@stripes.osd.mil or find the Zichs online at www.lifeonthehomefront.com.

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