Before taking the podium, Al Wattay, a retired U.S. Navy commander, gazed at the American flag and surveyed the assembled crowd.
Hundreds were gathered Monday in front of the Veterans Memorial at Shelter Cove Community Park to honor the service of more than 19,000 veterans living in Beaufort County, as well those "who wrote a blank check payable to the USA for an amount up to and including" their lives, Wattay said.
Members of every armed services branch were in attendance, some in uniform and many wearing hats and insignias of their military detachment.
"Out of blood and sweat we learned of purpose, sacrifice, tolerance, bravery and discipline," Wattay, a Vietnam War veteran, said during Monday's ceremony. "These are solid foundations upon which a great nation is built. In our continuing quest for an honorable world peace, we must cultivate these virtues."
Never miss a local story.
The event was sponsored by the Hilton Head Island Military Veterans Coalition and hosted by American Legion Post 185.
U.S. Naval Academy history professor Mary DeCredico gave the keynote speech, thanking veterans young and old.
Though she has never served, DeCredico's family has a long history of military service. Her great-grandfather lied about his age in 1917 to enlist in the Army at 17 years old. Her father, who died in January at age 93, was severely wounded by "a massive hit of shrapnel" during the Battle of the Bulge.
But it is her work with the nation's new generation of defenders that makes Veterans Day especially poignant.
"I am especially fortunate -- blessed really -- because I have the honor to teach and interact with the next generation of heroes," DeCredico said. "The experience has not been without heartache. I've lost too many young men and women on Sept. 11 in the Pentagon, in Iraq and in Afghanistan. But ... I can assure you all on this Veterans Day, our next generation of defenders will do honor to all of you and all those who have gone before us."
Wattay worries not enough Americans truly appreciate and understand the importance of Veterans Day and the men and women who set aside their civilian pursuits to "defend the freedom of mankind and preserve our precious American heritage with their minds, their hearts as well as their bodies."
People such as Hilton Head Island resident Joseph Jones, 90, who landed on Utah Beach at age 19 as a ground radio operator for fighter aircraft homing stations with the 9th Air Force, 405th Fighter Group.
Jones was awarded France's Legion of Honor in June. Established two centuries ago by Napoleon Bonaparte, it's awarded to any American who fought in France to liberate that country from Nazi occupation in World War II. Thousands have been awarded to U.S. soldiers and sailors, most in the past decade, as the Greatest Generation reaches their late 80s and 90s.
"I just thank God that I was able to serve and I thank God that he allowed me to come home," Jones said Monday.
Hilton Head Island Veterans Day ceremony (2:05)
The Veterans Day Memorial ceremony on Hilton Head Island, Nov. 11, 2013.
Beaufort Veterans Day ceremony (2:02)
Scenes from the Beaufort Veterans Day Ceremony, held Monday at the Beaufort National Cemetery. Jay Karr
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.