LAKE ANN — Bill Morse stepped back onto U.S. soil after serving in World War II feeling like America had won nothing. He came back to a country that had changed little since the fighting began.

But time has a weird way of putting things into perspective.

Time may never heal the fatal wounds suffered by the patriots who sacrificed for the greater good, but Traverse City area veterans are beginning to see patriotism and respect restored.

Since 2012, America's protectors have been honored at the annual TC Patriot Game — one of the highest-attended high school football games in Michigan.

The game has helped tilt a positive shift in an attitude toward service members that hasn't always looked like it does today.

Vietnam veterans who stepped back onto U.S. docks in 1973 were greeted with angry mobs of citizens who denounced their efforts, spit on their uniforms and shunned them. Now, all veterans, active military and first responders are welcomed to Thirlby Field in grand fashion to be recognized and respected for their service and sacrifice.

"I think it is kind of a long delayed 'thank you,'" Korean War veteran and Bill's brother Jim Morse said. "Some of the communities are just now getting around to it. In the last year or two, when I wear my veterans hat, a lot of the young people will come along and say 'thank you for your service.' They never did that 10 years ago."

Traditions like the TC Patriot Game are bridging a generational gap between the community and the struggles of the past. The game features rivals Traverse City Central and Traverse City West competing on the field as a way to commemorate those who fought to preserve their freedoms.

"It's not just a rivalry game," said the Morse brothers' great-great nephew Brandon Heath. "It's also about the veterans and everyone that has served before us, and we can get over that it's not just a rivalry game between West and Central, that it is also for a bigger meaning.

"It's about honor and respect. We are finally respecting veterans and the people who served before us that really didn't get honored when they came back."

The TC Patriot Game has provided a platform for the youngest generation to bear witness to the many who sacrificed to ensure the freedoms so many enjoy — something as simple as playing football under the lights on a warm Friday night in September.

The scale of the event is incredible — roughly 10,000 people are expected to attend — and veterans like the Morse brothers can finally feel the outpouring of support, honor and respect.

"I think that it is absolutely great because there are so many other generations that have no idea what this nation is founded on," Jim said.

Traditions are the glue that hold generations of Americans together. For Heath, the tradition of active military service members dates back to the Revolutionary War when Charles Morse II fought to secure the United States' independence.

Chatter of bomber crews and revolutionaries flew back and forth between Bill, 96, and his brother Jim, 89, as they waited for their great-great nephew to arrive. Dozens of photos, medals and memories lay atop a red barnwood picnic table on the family's 107-acre farm.

The brothers were born in the back bedroom of the large white farmhouse built only 20 feet away by Esther and William M. Morse after they married in 1918.

William and four of his brothers concurrently served in World War I, while Esther, Bill and Jim were left to tend the land. The work ethic and traditions instilled by the older generations trickled down through time, inspiring patriotism as it took many different forms.

Esther was known throughout the community as "the most patriotic woman you will ever know," Jim said. She began planting flags at veteran grave sites at the three Almira Township cemeteries 85 years ago. Bill and Jim helped as they mapped out and planted flags at 112 memorial sites when they were children. Jim continues to do so with his four sons today.

"The tradition is still being carried on," Jim said. "Hopefully this sense of patriotism will grow as those young people grow. I hope the patriotism multiplies and continues to grow and exist."

Bill and Jim were a product of their environment — like most of the Morse family. Raised in a military home with patriotic role models, who touted bravery, the Morse brothers knew their calling was to serve their country. Bill volunteered to serve during WWII, and Jim was drafted for the Korean War. Their father, William, was the chairman of the draft board when Jim was selected. Jim didn't shy away from combat — although he could have taken the farmer's exemption — and accepted his duty.

"It is all fostered from what you live," Jim said. "Just a sense of honor, commitment and tradition. You learn what you live, and our dad and mother taught us patriotism and love of country."

The brothers shared the same mindset.

"That is just what we do," Bill said. "When hostility comes on you, you do what you have to do."

The next generations of the Morse family felt the same obligation. Ole A. White married Helen Morse and chose the same path as the men before him, serving in the U.S. Army during WWII.

And when family members returned home, their service continued. Jim became a volunteer firefighter in Almira Township for 58 years, while White served on the road commission for 40 years. The road the family farm sits on was eventually named after White.

"Family ties and community involvement is one of the big reasons we have that pride and our traditions," Jim said. "It runs deeper than you want to believe. It is there in everybody, and you don't even know it."

Heath, a senior defensive end at TC West, is following the family tradition as he is the latest member of his family to enlist in active military duty with the National Guard.

His family also has a history of working as first responders — firefighters, emergency medical services and police officers. Heath plans to proudly walk that same trail his forebearers blazed, including his father, who served in the Navy for four years.

"(Our family tradition) means a lot," Heath said. "They gave up their lives, their time and their service. I want to give back and do what I can and follow in the footsteps of my Dad."

Heath joined the public safety course at West and fell in love with the idea of helping out his community. He hopes to one day wear a badge on his chest and be a police officer after his time in the service. Heath is also a member of the Westmen, an all-male choir that sings the national anthem at events across the state.

He finds brotherhood on the field, in the choir and in his community. He finds it necessary to emulate his ancestors.

"It is truly amazing to see that we can trace it back so far and it has continued on and on," Heath continued. "It is a cycle of patriotism in our family. It says a lot about our family and what we are willing to do for this country."

Over the last seven years, the community has rallied behind veterans to showcase their respect and appreciation for their service.

The TC Patriot Game has grown exponentially since its inception and has made a lasting impact on the community. Heath and his family have attended every TC Patriot Game and Jim has noticed the transformation of the event since the first time he went.

"It took a couple of years to decide what the TC Patriot Game really was — what its function or purpose was," Jim said. "It is more meaningful now that we have been there. Shaking hands with a lot of the veterans you know, but the youngsters who will come up and thank you for your service is really special. It is really outstanding and humbling."

Like the family traditions that Heath has embraced, the family hopes traditions like the TC Patriot Game will live on for a long time.

"You hear it a lot that freedom is truly never free," Heath said. "There is always a price to pay. They paid for it, they did their time and fought for our freedom."

Sports Writer