I don't think there is anything more distinguished than being called an American. I would like to share my own personal story of what the American flag means to me, an immigrant son.

On July 2, 1958, as a 10-year-old boy, in the company of my mother and my brother, I sailed into the New York harbor as an Italian immigrant.

Aboard the ship the USS Independence, we sailed past the Statue of Liberty, and as I gazed upon the country I would now call home, the wave of a huge American flag caught me eye - and my heart, I might add.

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As the flag fluttered in the wind's breeze, even as a 10-year-old boy, I was struck by its majesty and glory. In one of the defining moments of my life, I could almost hear the flag beckoning me, welcoming me to American soil.

In that moment my love affair with America and her flag began. For 55 years, I have cherished my adopted country and her glorious flag, and I will continue to do so until I draw may last breath.

At the age of 15, I became an American citizen, and Old Glory became a constant companion in my new American journey.

While serving in the United States Merchant Marine as a young man of 18, I had the honor and privilege of raising the American flag in many foreign ports around the world.

As a United States Marine in Vietnam in 1969, I was willing to fight and die, if need be, in defense of America and the ideals and freedoms represented in her flag.

In 1971, while on a visit to my family home in Italy, I had another defining moment in my life involving Old Glory.

This moment, I am sad to recollect, was a heartbreaking one. The dreaded phone call came. My Uncle Domenic, who was serving his 34th month of combat duty in Vietnam, was killed in action.

A few days later, a U.S. colonel and major from the Army garrison in Vincenza, Italy, would come to our small village in Italy, to the home in which Uncle Domenic and I were born, to present the American flag to my grandmother, Emilietta, in honor of her son's ultimate sacrifice for America.

I will never forget the pain and sadness in my grandmother's face as she accepted the flag. Most of the village came to attend the somber ceremony to pay tribute to my uncle.

In the midst of her grief in losing her youngest son in battle in a land far from her home, my grandmother was determined to go to America to see her son be buried in the country he loved so much and for which he was willing to give his life.

My cousin and I accompanied my grandmother as we flew from Rome to Augusta, Ga., in that fateful year of 1971 to witness my uncle's funeral will full military honors.

Yet again, our American flag provided comfort and inspiration in all of her majestic glory as she gently draped the coffin of my dearest uncle. He slipped into eternity and into our hearts to be forever remembered for his courage and his devotion to a country and her flag that he embraced as his own.

You see, my fellow Americans, freedom is not free, and our glorious flag, like you and I, has many different stories to tell.

For my Uncle Domenic and me and for millions more like us through the ages, the American flag is far more than a symbol. It exemplifies in its colors the core of who and what we are as a nation of people. As the flag flutters in the wind, it represents the freedoms we cherish, it embodies the tireless spirit of the American people to rise and to fall and to rise again in the face of any enemy.

As it beckons in the wind, it is a magnificent reminder that we live in the greatest nation ever put on the face of the Earth.

This column originated as a speech Marco Smigliani delivered at a Flag Day observance in Egg Harbor Township on June 14.

Citizen Columnist Marco Smigliani, 65, has been a resident of Egg Harbor Township for 11 years. He is a decorated combat veteran of Vietnam who spends his retirement as a veterans advocate.

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