This is part of a continuing series by FOX News of unique perspectives on what it is to be an American.
If you ask Charles Ward how serving in the Vietnam War changed his thoughts on what it means to be an American, he'll tell you that there's no place he'd rather live than the U.S.A.
But Ward didn't always feel that way.
In 1968, crippled by fear when he heard he'd been called up for military service, Ward tried to dodge the draft by any means, including deliberately failing draft tests.
“I was just a teenager at the time and I was afraid, I felt that we didn’t need to be over there and so I tried not to go,” Ward said. “A lot of the guys were doing it back then. They would try to cheat or go to this guy or that guy who had a connection of some sort.”
His troubles were compounded by the fact that Ward was already fighting a war of his own in his hometown of Jackson, Miss.
A hotbed of racial tensions, Jackson in the late '60s was still reeling from the Civil Rights movement, and Ward, an African-American, had played an active role.
Having survived tensions and violence on the home front, Ward found himself afraid of dying in a foreign struggle.
“When I was drafted in 1968 — you have to understand this — when I was drafted, me and the other guys were forced into something we didn’t choose. Whether we love our country or not, that’s still the reality.”
Eventually, Ward began to change his mind about going into active duty. “One day, I just went off by myself to really think about it," he says. "I prayed silently for about an hour and just listened to what God told me, and I knew I had to go.”
So, at the age of 19, Ward left America for the first time to serve in the U.S. Army, first as an infantry soldier and later as a welder with an engineering unit in South Vietnam.
“That time was really hard on a lot of us," he recalls. "Some of us couldn’t get over the things we saw and so, even if they came back alive, drugs and smoking slowly killed them back here. But when I moved back home, I began to see how blessed I was to be an American and be living in a place where I could be free of so many of the problems that plague people around the world.”
The war opened Ward’s eyes not only to pain and devastation, but also to the brotherhood among soldiers of all backgrounds that, having grown up in segregated Mississippi, he had not believed was possible.
In 1963, Ward participated in protests for equal rights between races led by NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers. It was a dangerous endeavor, but one Ward knew he had to undertake.
“I grew up in the world of Jim Crow, of whites on one side and blacks on the other, of segregated doctors and fountains and counters,” he recalled. “We demonstrated, but my father had to hold back because he had a wife and a family and he had to be careful.”
Ward would learn just how important it was to be careful in 1963 when Evers was gunned down in his driveway by Ku Klux Klan member Byron de la Beckwith, just hours after John F. Kennedy gave an historic speech on civil rights.
Two years later, when riots erupted in Jackson, dogs were turned loose on the young protesters.
But only three years after that, in 1968, Ward found himself sleeping in bunks next to white men in Vietnam and experiencing camaraderie with them that he would not have thought possible in Jackson.
“I remember in the middle of our camp, we had a cloth makeshift water tank, and it had one cup that we all drank out of,” Ward said. “It was a big difference to go from segregated fountains to drinking out of the same cup.
"But at the same time, it wasn’t as big of a deal as you would think it would be. When we were together, we were together as one.”
When his duty was finished, Ward moved back to Mississippi, where he worked for General Motors and a communications firm, raising five children in the mix. As the years passed and his life improved, he began to appreciate more and more who he was.
“Here in this country, I might not be a millionaire, but I have a house and a family that God has given me. I don’t have a whole lot, but I am so happy and I make do with what I have here. I am blessed to be an American.”
But Ward also knows the price of freedom, and he keeps the soldiers now serving their country in his thoughts and prayers.
“I support those troops and I pray for them and encourage them,” he said. “I take the time to tell them that I am a veteran as well, and that I know it takes real courage to do what they do.
"I may not agree with the Iraq War, but they can’t play politics when they are over there trying to protect and survive.”
Ward says serving in Vietnam made his blood run “red, white and blue,” and that protecting America is something he will appreciate forever.
“This is my country, the place where I raised my family and made my life," he says. "And I don’t want to be anywhere else.”