They are America's heroes.

To the men and women of the United States Armed Forces, the "nation owes a debt of gratitude," proclaimed retired Army Lt. General Terry Scott as stood he before the Erath County Courthouse and the county's war memorial Thursday.

Scott is a distinguished veteran whose career in the United States Army spanned more than three decades, outlived five combat tours and earned five commendations of valor, including two Purple Hearts.

Today, Scott serves as the chairman of the Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission, an appointment made in 2004 by President George W. Bush.

On Thursday, he served as the ceremony's guest speaker. He urged veterans to turn to the local Veterans Service Organization for assistance and also also called on the community to stand behind those whose sacrifices left them disabled.

Whether they are retired military personnel whose required service began with the draft, those who later joined the ranks voluntarily or the warriors of freedom serving today, they were given a hometown salute as an assembled crowd united for the annual Veterans Day program just before 11 a.m.

A sea of community members proudly wearing red, white and blue, enveloped many of Erath County's veterans who had gathered for the program, hosted by local American Legion Turnbow Higgs Post 240. 

Among those in attendance was retired Major Art Dearing, who spoke with the Empire-Tribune about the great differences seen in the military he joined in the 1970s and the armed forces of today.

Dearing said during the early 1970s and the Vietnam War, when the draft was still in place, "everybody knew somebody" who was enlisted, every family was connected to the military and each had a loved one engaged in battle. But he said awareness today is less common, typically centered around military bases, and military families are fewer and farther between.

Dearing said awareness is not the only thing that has changed since he joined the Air Force Reserves fresh out of high school. He said a great contrast can be seen in Americans' view of military personnel. Embattled veterans who returned from Vietnam were greeted with a barrage of dissent and even spat upon by their fellow Americans, but Dearing said today, things are "much better" as those same veterans are looked upon as heroes and publicly praised for their service.

Another veteran in attendance, John Fitzgerald, 25, put a much younger face on the American veteran and spoke of the brotherhood found only among soldiers. He said it is a union with one common goal, protecting freedom.

"I would lay down my life (for my fellow soldiers) any day," Fitzgerald said, adding that his sense of brotherhood was accompanied by a sense of guilt following a medical discharge. "That is why I wear my (military issued) medical bracelet - for my brothers and friends who died overseas."

With his health once again strong, Fitzgerald said he is set for another deployment in February.

"I see it as a duty and privilege," Fitzgerald said. "Freedom isn't free. But it is worth fighting and dying for." 

Fitzgerald also said his call to duty was fueled by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I took the opportunity to stand up for our country and defend the United States." Fitzgerald said. "Nobody is going to take away our freedoms."