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Vietnam veteran: ‘God spared my life in Vietnam’ so that I could be ‘keeper of the flame’

Vietnam veteran urges others to serve their communities in any way they can

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The New York Daily News on Monday told the inspiring story of 71-year-old Vietnam veteran, Charlie DeLeo, known as the Statue of Liberty's "keeper of the flame."

In the article, DeLeo shared the resolute promise he made inside the Statue of Liberty after God returned him home safely from Southeast Asia to his beloved New York City.

"I said (to God), 'If you can do something special with my life, I'll honor and glorify your name,'" DeLeo recounted. "I believe God spared my in life in Vietnam."

Now DeLeo is sure that God was preserving his life so that he could be the "keeper of the flame."

DeLeo takes his promise very seriously, still volunteering four days a week at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty more than 40 years later. The article noted that his duties across the decades have varied from changing lightbulbs inside the Lady Liberty's 42-foot arm that holds the torch, to painting the crown and scaling the copper exterior, to rescuing injured seagulls that crashed into its windows.

DeLeo, a Lower East Side native, served as a Marine during the Vietnam War, where he was earned a Purple Heart for bravery when a mortar shell hit his base. Upon returning home, one of the first visits DeLeo made was to his beloved Statue of Liberty. Donning his dress blues, he sprinted up the stairs to the observation deck.

"Little did he know that more breathtaking perches awaited," the article reported:

In March 1972, during another visit to the statue, he asked for a job on whim — and was hired. Three years later, the Daily News wrote about the "Keeper of the Flame" and he enjoyed instant (if fleeting) celebrity. Letters from kids around the world poured in, with DeLeo taking the time to respond to each one individually. He often paid out of his own pocket for miniature Statue of Liberty toys to send back with the letter.

DeLeo has been the "keeper of the flame" longer than anyone else in the Statue of Liberty's history and has made the 151-foot climb up the narrow ladder to the statue's torch more than 2,500 times in his career, according to a Christian Broadcasting Network story. More than 800 lightbulbs keep the torch lit, and as "keeper of the flame," it was DeLeo's duty to regularly change them.

Now DeLeo is urging others to serve their communities, too

While walking with Daily News reporter Wes Parnell through Lower Manhattan to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, DeLeo offered simple, but powerful, words of wisdom.

"Always do your best," he advised. "Life is to give, not to take. To love, not to hate. To trust and to wait, and to be just and live by faith."

He encouraged others to serve their communities in any way that they can.

"If you don't have the desire to serve in the armed forces, that's okay with me, you can serve in your community," DeLeo said. "It doesn't cost because love, you can give freely. A smile, you can give freely."

And finally, DeLeo commented on his beloved Statue of Liberty, saying, "I like to think that the statue speaks a silent universal language. One of hope, that anyone who speaks freedom can understand."

One last thing…
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