“These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict the more glorious the triumph.” -Thomas Paine, The Crisis, December 1776

For many people, Independence Day is about parades, barbeques and politics. For me, the Fourth of July will always be a tribute to the men and women who deserve our “love and thanks” for their unflinching willingness to sacrifice all for freedom.

The Sept. 11 attacks gave us many examples of such patriots—from the bravery of New York firefighters who rushed into burning and collapsing buildings, to the now-legendary heroism of the forty passengers on United Flight 93, whose bravery and sacrifice still mark the landscape of a Pennsylvania field.

That day also ultimately gave us heroes like Army Ranger Pat Tillman of the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. Tillman gave up a glamorous professional football career and a $3.6 million contract in 2002 to join the Army in the wake of the attacks.

When asked why, Tillman told interviewers: “My great grandfather was at Pearl Harbor, and a lot of my family ...fought in wars, and I really haven’t done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that.”

Tillman would ultimately sacrifice more than just a career, falling to friendly fire while on the hunt for Al Qaeda leaders in the mountains of Afghanistan.

In the battles for freedom that followed Sept. 11, young heroes like Army Capt. David Rozelle emerged. Less than two months after Rozelle and his troops entered Iraq, an anti-tank mine exploded in his path, resulting in the loss of his right foot. Although his body was wounded, his love for his band of brothers and his country kept him focused. After nine difficult months of rehabilitation and the fitting of an artificial leg, Capt. Rozelle was certified as “fit for duty.”

He fought his way back, and eighteen months later became the first officer to lose a limb and return to command on the battlefield in Iraq.

Captain Rozelle is not alone. ABC News reported earlier this year that there have already been 10 soldiers who have lost a limb and chosen to return to the battlefield. Even more have returned to active duty.

These individuals are special souls, but they are not unique. America is not a land carved out by "summer soldiers and sunshine patriots," but rather by the free and the brave. Our nation’s liberty, which we celebrate each Independence Day, is a testimony to those who have heard the call to duty and answered bravely. Americans have always been willing to sacrifice for the just cause of freedom.

Since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, there have been more than 2,500 U.S. fatalities and more than 18,000 Americans wounded. Included in those numbers are brave young men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice in far away lands, from Afghanistan to the Philippines to Guantanamo Bay.

While each life lost in the service of this country is to be mourned, these young men and women are part of a proud tradition of sacrifice that marks the pages of American history: Nearly three million dead or wounded in nine conflicts, spanning the Revolutionary War to the current War on Terror.

These heroes knew their sacrifices were not in vain; they knew that freedom matters.

As President Reagan declared: “In advancing freedom, we Americans carry a special burden—a belief in the dignity of man in the sight of the God who gave birth to this country. This is central to our being. A century-and-a-half ago, Thomas Jefferson told the world, ‘The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs….’ Freedom is America’s core. We must never deny it nor forsake it. Should the day come when we Americans remain silent in the face of armed aggression, then the cause of America, the cause of freedom, will have been lost and the great heart of this country will have been broken.”

Our heart has never been broken. Americans have always answered the call, and because they have, imperialism, fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism have all been defeated; Europe is democratic and at peace; Imperial Japan has been replaced with a Japan that is at peace with its neighbors and is a key strategic ally of the U.S.; Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq are free of Saddam’s brutal Bathist domination; Afghanistan is free of Taliban rule; and the world is becoming a better place.

Too often, it is forgotten that this tradition of sacrifice started with our Founding Fathers. Like the many brave men and women in uniform today, our nation’s founders pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” for the cause of freedom.

Most of our Founders were men of means: wealthy land owners and lawyers—men with much to lose. They knew that by signing the Declaration of Independence, they were, in essence, signing their own death warrants. Before the document was even fully signed, 42,000 British troops were waiting off the coast, ready to bring down the full might, fury, wealth and power of the British Empire on those they viewed as traitors.

The 56 signers of the Declaration were hunted like dogs. Those in British (and loyalist) controlled areas like New York were forced to flee for their lives immediately. The rest went about the work of liberation, serving their country, as their families went into hiding or faced British abuse. Several died from the wounds or the travails of the subsequent war or were jailed and tortured as traitors. Wives, children, families and friends of these great men were killed, imprisoned, harassed, and their personal wealth plundered. Thirty percent of the signers were stripped of all their possessions.

The signers never doubted the high price they would pay for their country’s liberty. John Hancock of Massachusetts, after making his famously large signature, even declared: “There! His Majesty can now read my name without spectacles, and can now double his reward of 500 pounds for my head. That is my defiance.”

Freedom has never been free, but from those brave souls of 1776 to those showing their “defiance” against terror today, Americans have always been willing to pay the necessary price. The freedom we enjoy today has been purchased not only with treasure, but with generations of blood, sweat and tears.

Paine was right: “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.” But the freedom we enjoy is the glorious triumph of our patriots’ work. As we mark the birth of our nation—and the birth of freedom in nations that have never truly known it—let us not forget the love of country and willingness to sacrifice that marked their difficult labors.

We cannot fully appreciate our nation’s birth without remembering those who risked it all to make it happen, and those today who do the same to protect it.

Booker Stallworth is communications director for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Wash.