One of our nation’s founding fathers, Patrick Henry, put it this way: “The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.”

These are the signature characteristics of American veterans. Their strength, vigilance and courage occupy a revered place in the collective conscience of a public made free by the willingness of some to protect all others.

Veterans Day is a time to honor them, living and dead, from the patriots who fought for independence in the late 18th century to the men and women who saved the lives of their fallen comrades on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. Some came home to become movie stars, professional athletes, generals and presidents. Others, like the four chaplains of different faiths who went down with a sinking troop ship after passing out life jackets to everyone else they could, would not live to see their legacies honored.

In May 2014, The American Legion Magazine asked its readers, website visitors and social media followers to select from a list of 100 beloved U.S. veterans. More than 70,000 votes were cast. The choices span our nation’s lifetime.

Here are the top 25, with descriptions written by authors, experts, historians and, in a few cases, those who knew them best. After you’ve read them, click through the rest of the gallery for links to some of the Web’s best biographies of these celebrated Americans.

Top 25

Top 26-100