TheBalladNormally, a cemetery is the last place I want to go. However, I do have a lot of friends in cemeteries, some of them because of wars. Asked to present the keynote address on Veterans Day in Central Iowa, I was introduced and took the stage to look out over the veterans cemetery and several hundred good, honest Americans gathered to honor both the dead and the living who had—or were—serving the nation in uniform.

My background: I am a freelance writer/journalist who retired after serving 29 years in the military (both active and reserve). I was in the U.S. Navy for four years (journalist) and the U.S. Army for the remainder of my service, including 13 years in U.S. Army Special Forces (the Green Berets).

To my surprise as I approached the podium, Barry Sadler’s Ballad of The Green Berets began playing on loudspeakers throughout the cemetery. The Ballad is virtually the signature of the Vietnam War and the birth of Army Special Forces. John Wayne and all that.

I’m a tough guy—I was also a cop for 14 years—but tears came to my eyes as I stood there, frozen in wonder and gratitude at one of the most heartfelt receptions I had ever received. But it wasn’t over yet. Out of the north came the thunder of approaching jet fighters. Three F-15s flew over low in formation, rendering their salute to fallen comrades. It was an overwhelming scene: the Ballad and now the aircraft; all the good people with their children; the old vets from World War II, Vietnam, and younger ones from the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars, some of them in uniform.

The Ballad ended. The jet wagged their wings and became specks against the horizon. For what seemed an eternity, I remained completely silent at the podium. So did the audience. I doubt there was a dry eye in the cemetery. I finally found my tongue.

“God bless America!” I cried. “May it always be free and the home of the brave!”

The cemetery erupted in cheering. There still is a real America out here.

The worse thing about getting old is that you outlive all your friends. It can happen that you outlive so many from your own era that it becomes difficult to find anyone who remembers it with you. . . Some memories are best left buried, some questions unanswered. . .

An aging Vietnam vet returns to modern-day Vietnam to find answers in Charles W. Sasser’s The Return. Now available on Kindle at Amazon.com and Nook at  BarnesandNoble.com.