Thousands of people crowded into Craig Park in the heart of Greenwood to honor veterans, service members and first responders and to celebrate freedom on Saturday.

The Fourth of July season started this weekend with the Greenwood Freedom Festival, the city’s largest festival and one of the area’s most popular events. Local residents came out to enjoy a parade, food, beer and wine vendors, kids’ activities and live music. They also came out for a spectacular fireworks show.

Prior to the fireworks show, Grace Assembly of God again recognized the people who protect freedom and keep the country safe during the Honor Our Heroes ceremony. The church began holding the ceremony after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and it originally took place at the church’s campus. Since the ceremony began, it has grown each year, and eventually was incorporated into the city’s annual Freedom Festival.

The featured speaker for this year’s ceremony was retired Lt. Col. Oliver North, a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and former president of the National Rifle Association (NRA). While in the Marines, he received several awards for service in combat, including the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for valor, and two Purple Hearts for wounds in action.

North, who is also a best-selling author of over 17 books, was a syndicated columnist and the host of “War Stories” on the FOX News Channel prior to becoming president of the NRA in 2018.

Before North spoke to the crowd, both in-person and those turning into Korn Country’s live broadcast, State Rep. Michelle Davis (R-Whiteland) opened the event with a prayer.

“We are so blessed to have men and women who work diligently for our safety and well-being,” Davis said. “Even when their jobs are difficult and thankless, help us to remember to thank you for their sacrifices and service to our community.”

She also prayed for God to give them strength, and asked for God to lead them and others.

“I ask for you to open up their hearts, renew their minds and guide them as they continue to keep us safe in this great state of Indiana,” Davis said.

Greenwood Fire Chief Darrin Hoggatt and Police Chief James Ison also led those in attendance in prayers for first responders.

“As they encounter stressors in their daily lives in the fire (and) in the EMS service, fill them with honor integrity, pride, courage, service, and unity, not just to the peers, but to this community,” Hoggatt said during the prayer for firefighters and EMTs.

Ison prayed for the protection of those who protect the Greenwood community and asked God to protect officers as they set out each day to do their job.

“Please guide them in their decision-making and provide them wisdom, courage, and compassion,” Ison said. “Please ease their minds and provide them reprieve from the unimaginable tragedies that they witness on a daily basis. Most of all, Lord, please allow each and every one of them to make it home safely.”

Mayor Mark Myers introduced North Saturday night, saying the city was very honored to have North as the featured speaker.

North began his speech by discussing the word hero, saying it was tough to use in today’s vocabulary, as it has many definitions that come to mind. One definition came to mind for North on Saturday.

“In my definition, a hero is a person who puts themselves at risk for the benefits of others,” North said. “That certainly defines the first responders, the law officers, the members of our armed forces and the veterans we’re here to honor tonight.”

Later, North discussed the upcoming celebrations for the 246th anniversary of the founding of the United States: the Fourth of July. This event would not have happened, and the freedoms that endured from that day, would not have been possible without American heroes. Many people are not aware of what all happened when the Continental Congress came together to declare independence from Great Britain, he said.

In June 1776 — after the 1775 battles of Lexington and Concord — the Continental Congress created a five-member committee and ordered its members to draft a secret document for declaring independence. The committee met for 14 days in a boarding house in Philadelphia before reaching an agreement on a draft. The next day, June 28, 1776, they shared the draft to those who asked for it, before it was tabled for editing, North said.

During this process 86 changes were made, and a few days later, on July 1, the chairmen of the five-member committee began creating the final draft. The next day, the chairman — a farmer from Virginia — delivered his favorite draft. The farmer was Thomas Jefferson, he said.

Two days later, a final reading of the resolution occurred. The document is the only founding document of any nation that reflects on the laws and the natures of God, North told the crowd.

“It remains the only seminal document of any nation on the planet Earth that they pay homage to God almighty,” he said.

No other proclamation declares that all people are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There is no other instrument of popular intent that places the founders in the hands of God, North said.

“(To) quote, ‘for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor,’ “North said. “Those prayers and pledges were carried forward (for) 12 years for ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Today, the faith of our forefathers is most evident in the oath that many of our heroes take in the pledge of commitment to serve our country.”