“Perhaps you and I have lived too long with this miracle to properly be appreciative. Freedom is a fragile thing and it’s never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by way of inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. And those in world history who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.” —Ronald Reagan, 1967

While individuals unique in a myriad of ways, the U.S. Armed Forces veterans honored and remembered during Veterans Day ceremonies last week are bound together by a common call to serve a cause larger than themselves in defense of our country and our freedom.

Since the first shots of the American Revolutionary War were fired on April 19, 1775, at Lexington and Concord, Mass., generations of American men and women have been answering our nation’s call to duty, bringing the qualities of courage, pride, determination, selflessness, integrity and dedication to their service, whether at home or abroad.

Across the generations over the past 246 years, more than 1.3 million Americans have died on battlefields at home and abroad, making the ultimate sacrifice to defend our freedoms and way of life. Many millions more served with honor and returned home, many joining veterans service organizations like The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, educating their communities and up-and-coming generations about duty, honor, courage and country.

Recognized annually on Nov. 11, Veterans Day is a federal holiday honoring people who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. First observed in 1919 as Armistice Day in recognition of the anniversary of the armistice that marked the end of the most destructive fighting during World War I, the holiday was renamed Veterans Day in 1954 as a day set aside to honor all American veterans.

Across the North Woods, Wisconsin and the United States, people gathered last week to remember and honor with gratitude those who have served our country. From the soldiers who shivered and starved through the Revolutionary War winter at Valley Forge, Penn., to the “doughboys” in the muddy French trenches of World War I, to the millions of Kilroys circumventing the globe in World War II’s twin theatres of conflict, to the 38th parallel on the Korean peninsula, to the humid jungles of Vietnam, to the Persian Gulf deserts, to, most recently, the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, we gather to remember and honor them all with a debt of gratitude.

Some did not come home alive. Others did not come home whole, either in body or mind.

It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the enormity of their sacrifice, whether visiting the grand Korean War, Vietnam War or World War II memorials in Washington, D.C., or paying respects at the humble hometown memorials scattered across Wisconsin’s piney North Woods. Two words, eight letters — “thank you” — seem inadequate, yet we still gratefully utter them to our veteran family, friends and neighbors in this season of thanksgiving in appreciation for their selfless service and sacrifice.

Ultimately, we as Americans — active duty military, veterans and civilians alike — are called upon every day to the cause of something greater than ourselves, what President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 at Gettysburg, Penn., called that “great task remaining before us” — “increased devotion” to our nation’s core foundational cause “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

As Reagan noted, “Freedom is a fragile thing . . . never more than one generation away from extinction. It must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation.”

Will we — you and I — answer the battle cry?

That is the question of Veterans Day, and every day.