VIDEO: Saluting soldiers' sacrifices
Veterans come from all walks of life. They're ordinary people living ordinary lives who are asked to do extraordinary things for their country.
Their acts of bravery and sacrifice to preserve American freedoms should never be taken for granted.
That was part of the message Major General Gerald E. Lang with the Minnesota Army National Guard delivered in Alexandria on Sunday, Veterans Day.
Lang, who lives in Sauk Rapids, is the assistant deputy commanding general for the U.S. Army Materiel Command at its headquarters at the Redstone Army Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. He's commanded at the company, battalion and brigade level and has earned many military decorations, including the Bronze Star and Meritorious Service Medal.
Family members of veterans are often overlooked as well, Lang noted. Although they don't carry a rucksack, they do carry a weight, the burden of worry, he said. Family, he added, is a soldier's greatest source of strength.
Lang encouraged those attending the Veterans Day service to be generous in expressing their gratitude to veterans. "A simple heartfelt thank you from you all means more than any medal I can pin on their chest," he said.
Today's military includes a new kind of combat veteran - women, Lang noted. He went on to tell the story of Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester with the Kentucky Army National Guard. She and her squad were shadowing a U.S. supply convoy in Iraq when it was attacked by about 50 insurgents.
Hester maneuvered her team through the kill zone, cutting off the insurgents' escape route and engaged in a 25-minute firefight where she killed at least three of the enemy combatants. Hester became the first female U.S. Army soldier to receive the Silver Star since WW II.
Lang also told the story of a Minnesota hero from the Red Bulls unit - Staff Sergeant Chad Malmberg of St. Paul. Outnumbered in an ambush by almost two to one, his convoy repelled an attack near Baghdad. Malmberg prevented his 35-member team from taking any casualties and earned a Silver Star for his bravery, the first Red Bull soldier to receive the honor since World War II.
Today's soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are fighting an asymmetrical war with no front lines against an enemy that doesn't wear a uniform and isn't fighting for freedom, Lang said. Instead, they hide in streets and towns using IEDs and terrorist tactics to spread fear and destruction.
Those who are enlisted in today's Army National Guard are extremely bright, Lang noted. Ninety-eight percent of them are high school graduates who have a keen ability to learn their military jobs quickly and proficiently, he said.
Qualifications for the Guard are high. Only about three in 10 18 to 24-year-olds meet today's eligibility requirements, Lang said.
He described today's recruits as physically fit and well-trained. Like Hester and Malmberg, they will run to the sound of gunfire instead of away from it, he said.
Lang encouraged older veterans to listen to the stories of today's young soldiers and engage them by inviting them to the VFW, Legion or church.
The sacrifices today's soldiers make are immense, Lang said. The war in Iraq has wounded 32,000 U.S. soldiers and another 15,000 have been wounded in Afghanistan.
His voice cracking with emotion, Lang described what it was like to visit the wounded soldiers - to meet those with no legs or no arms or those who are recovering from serious burns. Instead of looking for sympathy, these soldiers feel guilty that they're no longer in the fight with their buddies.
"If you ever are depressed or feeling sorry for yourself, visit one of these heroes," he said. "It's a life-changing encounter."
In addition to Lang's address, other highlights of Sunday's ceremony at Living Waters Church included presentation of flags; Pledge of Allegiance; singing of the National Anthem, America, and America the Beautiful; recognition of soldiers who are prisoners of war or missing in action; Taps; and a silent prayer in memory of all veterans.