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Meet the Army Veteran Who's Never Missed an Inauguration Day Since Nixon

It doesn't matter whether Sammy Lee Davis voted for that president or not, he said, he attends each ceremony out of a 'sense of duty.'
Vietnam veteran Sammy Lee Davis, 70, at his home near Freedom, Indiana.
Vietnam veteran Sammy Lee Davis, 70, at his home near Freedom, Indiana.Brock Stoneham / NBC News

On each Inauguration Day, decorated Vietnam veteran Sammy Lee Davis is furnished with a front-row seat to history.

Davis, a Medal of Honor recipient, has been an eyewitness to every American president taking the oath of office since Richard Nixon's first swearing-in on a cold January afternoon in 1969. Davis is returning to Washington this week and says he is eager to watch Donald Trump become the next president of the United States — marking his 14th ceremony he will get to experience first-hand.

Related: What to Know About Donald Trump’s Inauguration

"How unique it is to have that privilege," said Davis, 70, who calls everyone "sir" or "ma'am" and lives outside a tiny Indiana community called Freedom, where he keeps framed programs from each inauguration he's attended.

While a particular president might inspire a trek to the nation's capital for such a revered event — President Barack Obama's first inauguration in 2009 beckoned an estimated 1.8 million spectators — the desire to go is different for Davis.

Vietnam veteran Sammy Lee Davis, 70, at his home near Freedom, Indiana, where he keeps framed programs from each of the inaugurations he's attended.Brock Stoneham / NBC News

It doesn't matter whether he voted for that person or not, Davis said, he goes to each ceremony out of a "sense of duty — an obligation I feel in my soul."

"I didn't die for my country," he said, "but I'm living for it."

It was that same unwavering allegiance that convinced him to enlist in the Army in 1965 after his family moved to Indiana from California. Two years later, at age 20, Davis was sent to Vietnam, where he first joined an artillery unit about 20 miles outside Saigon and learned to put together and shoot an M16.

While in the Mekong Delta, Viet Cong fighters hit his camp in a mortar attack. Davis was wounded. He managed to fire back and rescue three other injured American soldiers across a river before returning to the skirmish, according to the U.S. Army Center of Military History. Of the 42 American soldiers in Davis' artillery battery who fought that day, just 12, including Davis, were not injured so badly that they couldn't stand.

Upon his return to the U.S. the following year, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Davis with the nation's highest military medal for valor.

Sgt. Sammy Lee Davis receives the Medal of Honor from President Lyndon B. Johnson on Nov. 19, 1968.the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library

That moment was immortalized in the 1994 Oscar-winning movie "Forrest Gump." In footage from the ceremony used in the film, Davis' head was replaced by actor Tom Hanks — Davis in some ways mirrored the Gump character, although Davis in real life never pulled down his pants to show LBJ his war wounds.

While Davis was one of a hundred or so Medal of Honor recipients to attend Nixon's first inauguration, the dwindling number of honored veterans — there are about 76 still living today — has made his guaranteed appearances something of an anomaly.

Davis and other recipients are invited to each presidential inauguration through the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, which helps cover expenses for the trip.

"You have to remember these are all military members, so those that regularly attend have a certain commitment to supporting the commander in chief because of the role that that person plays," said Victoria Kueck, the society's director of operations.

Davis for years had gone to the inaugurations with his first wife, Peggy Jo. They married in 1968 and raised three children together before her death from cancer in 2004.

Vietnam veteran Sammy Lee Davis attends President George W. Bush's second inauguration on Jan. 20, 2005.Robert M. Bush / Congressional Medal of Honor Soc

Davis remarried the following year to a woman named Dixie, the widow of a Vietnam veteran who had also died from cancer.

They travel the country frequently when Davis is invited to speak to schoolchildren, and they'll be at this year's inauguration after first attending Obama's 2009 swearing-in together.

Davis said he has met Trump at past veterans-related events and appreciates his vocal support of the men and women in uniform.

"It's amazing to see this transition of government happen smoothly and calmly," Davis said, reflecting on his experiences. "When you turn around and look down at the Mall, there’s so many people. Everyone’s there for the right reasons."

Here are Davis' impressions of some of his more memorable swearing-ins:

Richard Nixon: Jan. 20, 1969

This was Davis' first inauguration he attended. He and his wife were newlyweds, and they turned the D.C. trip into their honeymoon.

It was a whirlwind day, he recalled, given his stature as a 22-year-old Medal of Honor recipient: "Everyone wanted to shake your hand."

That night, he attended one of the six inaugural balls, and was so nervous he chain-smoked Lucky Strikes before he could step foot inside the Shoreham Hotel ballroom.

But not long after the inauguration, President Nixon sent Davis a personal note that surprised him, according to Davis' memoir, "You Don't Lose 'Til You Quit Trying." He he has held onto the missive as a reminder of better days before Nixon's second term ended in disgrace:

"Dear Sergeant Davis, I want you to know how honored I was that you attended my Inauguration as President of the United States. Your magnificent service to the cause of peace and freedom as so eloquently demonstrated by the honor you have received will be a constant source of inspiration and strength to me in the years ahead."

Ronald Reagan: Jan. 20, 1981

Davis as a Vietnam veteran had previously met the two-term California governor, also a military veteran, and formed a friendship.

Sammy Lee Davis grabbed a wooden platform board taken from Ronald Reagan's first presidential inauguration in 1981.Brock Stoneham

During Reagan's first inauguration, Davis said, he and another veteran got a special request from the president-elect: They were asked to come to the platform and sit behind Reagan. "I said, 'I would be honored, sir,'" Davis remembered.

It was the first presidential inauguration held on the West Front of the Capitol, giving those in the platform area an expansive view of the National Mall below.

When the ceremony was over, Davis said he watched as Secret Service agents ripped up a platform and its wooden blocks were up for grabs. So he took one, and has kept it as a memento ever since.

Barack Obama: Jan. 20, 2009

The anticipation ahead of Obama's first inauguration was so high, the entire Mall was opened as a public viewing area. Davis watched from the Capitol as Justice John Roberts administered the oath of office to Obama, followed by a 21-gun salute and armed forces musicians playing "Hail to the Chief."

"I was honored to be there," Davis said. "I had high hopes in what he would be able to do for our country."

Vietnam veteran Sammy Lee Davis and wife Dixie Davis attend President Barack Obama's first inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009.Congressional Medal of Honor Soc