On July 4, 1776, 56 men gathered to sign the Declaration of Independence.
That allowed Americans to enjoy the freedoms they still have today.
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By signing that piece of paper, the men pledged their lives, fortunes and honor. Some wound up losing their homes, fortunes, possessions and lives. Some even had family members lose their lives.
“Freedom does have a cost, and they paid that cost,” Gary Dyer, a local pastor and Vietnam War veteran, said during the opening ceremonies of the Freetown Freedom Festival on Friday night.
“They signed and they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor,” he said. “They weren’t just a bunch of rabble-rousers. There were men of fortune. They had wealth. They had honor. They had prestige.”
Over the years, there have been other men and also women who have stepped up to ensure the country maintains the freedoms established long ago.
That honor is still needed today, Dyer said.
“We need men and women that will stand up, and what you say, you do,” he said. “I preach that in church because the good Lord has spoken to me and told me things I need to do.”
Dyer is among those who have stepped up to defend the country, having served in the Vietnam War.
“My dad fought in World War II. I was in Vietnam. I have two sons that gladly joined and went to Iraq,” Dyer said. “We’re not warmongers, but I believe in somebody standing up for this country. Somebody’s got to go.”
After 10 “miserable, long” years trying to get over Vietnam, Dyer said he was drawn to the Lord.
“When the Lord came into my life, it was like getting hit by a lightning bolt, but it didn’t hurt,” he said.
In 2004, he said the Lord spoke to him and told him he was going back to Vietnam. Along with having his machinery and ammunition, he had another valuable thing: A Bible.
He held that Bible up during the opening ceremonies.
“I’m very vocal and passionate about America. I always said I would go again, but I hope not,” Dyer said, smiling. “I would fight for this country. In a way, I’m still fighting for it because I joined God’s army now. I’m fighting in prayer for this country, and God is listening to the prayers of the men and women that will cry out.”
While serving in Vietnam, Dyer said he once told a chaplain there was no way God could be in that hellhole. He firmly believed God was only over in America.
Dyer said there was one point when Americans got overrun, and he was scared and didn’t think he would live to see his parents again.
“In the middle of that mess, in the middle of that destruction, like those signers of the Declaration of Independence, I had already pledged my life and my honor to defend this country,” Dyer said. “I cried out before the North Vietnamese got to me, I said, ‘God, I don’t want to die in this hellhole.’ And guess who showed up? The one I said was in America was there all the time.”
Dyer said God is waiting on our cry, and he was able to do something in Vietnam that caused him to leave from terror and give him strength.
Dyer heard the cry of a wounded man and ran across the battlefield where nobody wanted to go. Both of them got out of there alive.
“I stand before you today because God heard our cry, and I’m sure that he heard the cry of these men as they signed their lives and everything away,” he said. “I want to thank God for these men that started that way back on July 4, 1776.”
Every year on the Fourth of July, before his family and friends gather for a meal, Dyer said he shares the story about those 56 men.
“I want to thank you veterans who are here because you’re part of that,” Dyer said. “You were willing to go. You were willing to stand for that. … I thank God for you today. If it wasn’t for you, where would this country be?”
Among those gathered for the opening ceremonies were veterans wearing hats displaying their branch of service and some also wearing a military or patriotic shirt.
That included Vietnam War Army veterans Gilbert Ray Carpenter, George Rietman, Jack Griffin and Lenard Burdine, who all live in Freetown or the surrounding area.
As the Long Family Singers sang the anthems of each of the five military branches, veterans stood and were presented a card.
The Vietnam veterans agreed that was much better treatment than what they received when they returned from the war, as many people protested it and didn’t show appreciation to those who served.
Carpenter said for years, he didn’t wear a Vietnam veteran hat in public.
“We didn’t get nothing when we came home. They spit on us,” he said. “It’s a completely different world 50 years ago than what it is today. … It has really changed over the years.”
Carpenter, who grew up in Surprise and has called Freetown home for 50 years, said he it’s great to see the Freetown Freedom Festival salute veterans.
“I’ve always come to every one they’ve had for 50 years,” he said. “To me, it’s special. The respect they have now than what they did then (after the war) is completely different.”
Rietman appreciated the salute, too.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “When I heard they were doing that, I said, ‘I’ve got to be there.’”
Burdine said it’s great to see younger people acknowledging former and current military members, too.
Griffin said Freetown’s veterans tribute meant a lot to him.
“My dad served in World War II. I had two uncles in Korea. I’ve got some nephews that went to Iraq,” he said. “I love this country. I don’t know if I would (serve) again, but I think I would. If my country told me to do it, I would do it.”