Command Sgt. Maj. Patrick Couser of the South Dakota National Guard was the featured speaker at the Yankton Middle School Veterans Day program Friday.

Each Veterans Day, we are reminded that being a soldier isn’t just about defending our freedoms. It’s also about helping others achieve better lives.

That was the message from Command Sgt. Maj. Patrick Couser, third senior enlisted leader in the South Dakota National Guard and the 10th South Dakota Army National Guard state command sergeant major, who spoke at Yankton Middle School’s (YMS) annual Veterans Day program Friday morning.

As part of recognizing all of America’s veterans past and present, Couser described the dedication and sacrifices made by veterans, as well as traits particular to U.S. service men and women.

“Our present warriors are serving in over 180 countries throughout the world. Like their predecessors, they are facing challenges on a daily basis and they are displaying both the warrior spirit and the compassion so typical of the American serviceman,” Couser said. “Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are world class. They fight valiantly and demonstrate the true warrior’s spirit, but they also have in their hearts a very compassionate spirit. We see that demonstrated all around the world — from the playgrounds in the Middle East, in hospitals in Afghanistan and in small villages in Africa.

“These warriors offer an extended hand to help.”

Couser noted that Americans who serve their country are also motivated by a patriotic love: love of country and love of freedom.

“The American veterans past and present do not march to foreign soil armed with notions of glory. Conquest was never their goal,” he said. “To the contrary, they went to distant lands with a simple notion: that all people and all nations have the right to live in a world free from tyranny. They fought with an equally simple conviction: that some principles in life are worth dying for.”

Couser mentioned the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a soldier who, though his name has been lost, is continually honored by his military brethren for his sacrifice.

“It was also this day on Nov. 11, 1921, that the remains of an unknown soldier were solemnly delivered to Arlington National Cemetery, which overlooks our national capital. His flag-draped casket was carried aboard the same simple carriage that once carried the body of Abraham Lincoln. That fallen soldier, whose name only God knows, had been killed while fighting for his country in the trenches of Western Europe,” Couser said. “On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, that soldier was finally laid to rest in his native soil. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier serves as a reminder to all Americans that the price of freedom has never been cheap. Those interred beneath its grand stones are a reminder of the tremendous debt this nation owes to its veterans.”

No matter where or when our veterans have served, they served with distinction, he said

“Our past warriors served in places like the hedge groves of Normandy, the hilltops of the 38th parallel and the jungles of Vietnam. They distinguished themselves through the flack above Britain, Berlin and in the dangers of the MiG Alley in the skies over Korea,” Couser said. “With determination and valor, they devastated the enemy’s fleets at Midway. On the beaches of Guadalcanal and at Inchon, they witnessed hell’s fire to secure a foothold for liberty and democracy.”

Like the Unknown Soldier, many of the warriors went off to war and never returned to see their country again.

“During the Second World War, whole communities paused in silence as a family changed a blue star to a gold star in their window signifying the loss of a son or a father,” Couser said. “Today, we collectively mourn each and every soldier, sailor, airman or marine killed in combat, but the family’s loss is still the same. The personal loss that can never be replaced will always be appreciated.”

Today, there are fewer soldiers than in the past, and those few bear the burden of many, he said.

“Service to this country is a bridge over which more than 40 million Americans have passed during wartime alone,” Couser said. “During World War I, 12 percent of the U.S. population served in the armed forces. Today, less than 1 percent of the population chooses to wear the uniform.”

Today, the armed services are voluntary. Those who volunteer recognize that it is necessary for the greater good and to keep our nation safe and free, he said.

“Back in the day, up to 10 percent of citizens would be eligible to serve. Nowadays, the criteria are so stringent, medically and everything, so it’s only the 1 percent that serve,” Couser told the Press & Dakotan. “I wish more could serve.”

Today, more than 8,600 members of the South Dakota Army National Guard (SDANG) have been deployed since Sept. 11 and more than 72,000 veterans live in South Dakota.

“It’s true, we are strong and free, but we would never have come this far without our heroes we call veterans,” Couser said. “We owe them our freedom, and today especially, we owe them our gratitude.”

The program also featured readings, music and song by YMS students, including a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by the YMS seventh- and eighth-grade orchestra, a reading, by Hannah Irwin, of the poem “In Flanders Field,” and a reading by Presley Sedlacek of her winning VFW Patriot’s Pen essay, “What Makes America Great.”

Follow @CoraVanOlson on Twitter.

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