07/03/2012 08:21 pm ET Updated Sep 02, 2012

The Ensign's Meaning to Me

While reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and taking your hat off during the National Anthem are a few of the ways we honor our nation's colors, there lives a man in Richlands, North Carolina who chooses to honor the flag differently. He's a double leg amputee, always wearing a Vietnam Veteran cap about our town, who operates a motorized wheelchair adorned with both American and POW/MIA flags. While I have never spoken to this veteran, one thing he has taught me is to honor sacrifice more.

On a sunny day in May, I drove past him near Town Hall as he saluted our nation's flag. I noticed he saluted out of uniform and wondered why. Perhaps for reasons other than respect for Old Glory. Having earned the Purple Heart in Afghanistan in 2010, I sometimes resent the Marine Corps for sending me on that mission. This fleeting resentment has grown weaker as I continue healing from my wounds, but for the remainder of my drive home, I pondered how someone who had lost so much more than me could still render a military salute. How someone with such permanent ailments could be so forgiving of his country left me with a lasting impression.

To rid myself of enmity, I often think back to moments that fill me with pride. My tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan are of exceptional meaning to me, and the losses I have seen and incurred changed me for the better over the years.

I know a woman named Ms. Veronica Ortiz-Rivera, who lost her husband, Marine Staff Sergeant Javier Ortiz-Rivera, while he served with my unit in Afghanistan in 2010. Shell casings folded into a four by eight ensign represent his honorable career. For families of the fallen or passed, a folded flag symbolizes the selfless service of their loved ones. To me, the red represents the blood they were willing to shed in its defense.

Veronica was left to parent three children after her husband's death. She has been a pinnacle of strength for her family and serves as an ongoing inspiration to other Gold Star widows and widowers. When I asked her what the flag means to her, she remarked how she will never look at it the same way. "I remember a flag draped box... the American flag now represents bloodshed, the lives lost and the heartache freedom has cost me."

Being an American means I am part of the greatest nation on earth. The pride I feel for having fought for our nation is immeasurable. But with that comes the heartache that Veronica and I share, for our contributions to our nation are marked with the many anniversaries of lives lost, so I fly my flag in honor of men like Staff Sergeant Ortiz-Rivera and the Richlands stranger. Both have taught me the honor of service and self-sacrifice.

On this 236th anniversary of our nation, I stand inspired by the veterans of our country for who my flag will fly half-mast today. It's often simple to walk past the flag and think nothing of it, but for the fathers, nieces, sons and daughters who have deployed forward to leave their mark on our country's history. This year alone, 157 service members have made the last full measure of devotion in Afghanistan. Another 154 have taken their lives on active-duty. All of their memories will live on today as the rest of America celebrates the ideals for which they served and sacrificed.

This unnamed veteran from Richlands will be my personal inspiration. He will be on my mind as I celebrate Independence Day this year with my friends and family. Because of him I will spend time honoring those lost, both known and unknown to me. On this Fourth of July, because of veterans like him who gave some and others who gave all, I will be a new person. I will be someone who appreciates more of the sacrifice from those that came before.

Thomas J. Brennan is a Sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps. He served both in Iraq and Afghanistan with the First Battalion Eighth Marines. Now, 27 and still on Active Duty, he is stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Brennan is a spokesperson for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).