There are few things as emotionally moving as military funeral rites. The crispness of the rifle squad with their flinch-inducing volleys, the plaintive yet peaceful wail of “Taps,” the final salute, and the meticulous folding (13 folds) and presentation of the stars and stripes to the family “on behalf of the president of the United States and a grateful nation.”

I was reminded of this last week when I attended rites at Minnesota’s Ft. Snelling National Cemetery for a friend of mine. Over the years, I’ve attended a number of these but mostly for my dad’s generation, all of whom were World War II vets. No matter how many times you attend such a service, I can’t see how one wouldn’t choke up from the power and symbolism of this tribute.

As a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans, my father has served as a volunteer member of the honor guard at the national cemetery near my hometown for “around 28 or 29 years,” he says. In that time, he and another honor guard volunteer of about 30 years have served at hundreds if not thousands of funerals for their service brothers and sisters.

The two are among current survivors of the 16,112,566 individuals who are said to have been members of the U.S. armed forces during WWII. My dad was an infantryman in Europe with the U.S. First Army. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there were 2,272,000 American veterans still living, as of Sept. 30, 2009. The median age for a WW II veteran in February of that year was 86 years, with death calling another 850/day at that time.

I asked my dad once how he felt about attending all these funerals, particularly given his age and his awareness of his own mortality. All he said was “because these guys deserve it.”

That’s pretty representative of the selflessness of that generation, I believe. They aren’t the only folks who answered when the call came, but they did so en masse and unselfishly. When called, they responded – men and women both – those here at home stoking the production engine and those sent abroad to wage battle. They freed a subjugated world, built a nation that served as a continuing beacon of freedom and promise to the world, forged the greatest economic engine on earth, and passed on that legacy to future generations to carry forward.

When you settle down with family this weekend, bear in mind the sacrifice and the spirit of such folks. There’s an Independence Day because folks such as these stepped up – and have continued to step up – for 234 years to guarantee it.