I don’t think I’ll ever forget the weekend of Sept. 15, 2006. It’s one of those memories in life you’ll always remember, no matter how long you live.
I was working as governor at the time and that weekend we hosted the dedication ceremony for the state’s Vietnam War Memorial in Pierre. We tried to pull out all the stops to honor our heroes. We scheduled flyovers from various war planes like the B-1B Lancer bomber based at Ellsworth, the F-16 Fighting Falcon stationed at Joe Foss Field in Sioux Falls, and the Vietnam-era Huey helicopter. We threw a parade that lasted more than two hours with 187 entries, 258 motorcyclists and 40 marching bands. We created a field of white crosses with duplicated dog tags for every soldier who died, so families could take the cross and dog tags of their loved ones home. And we had a grand fireworks display over Capitol Lake. In total, more than 32,000 people came to town for all the activities that weekend. We did our best to give our Vietnam veterans the welcome home they never received.
But the thing I’ll always remember are the concerts. In preparing for this weekend, we asked the veterans how they wanted to celebrate and they came back with a unified response — through music. We brought in bands the veterans of that era requested — Creedence Clearwater Revisited, the Steve Miller Band, Big & Rich, the Beach Boys and the Red Willow Band. In front of a packed crowd, Big & Rich performed their hit song “8th of November” with on-stage guest Niles Harris, the Deadwood man who inspired the song which tells the story of a boy who left South Dakota to fight for the red, white and blue in Vietnam. Unforgettable.
Fast forward a few years to a different concert. Jean and I attended the annual Christmas Concert in Hoven at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, or as it’s better known, The Cathedral of the Prairie. As we went to leave, I received a tap on the shoulder. I turned around to find a lady who said, “Thanks for giving me my husband back.” As you might imagine, I was pretty confused. She went on to explain that her husband had served in the Vietnam War and upon returning home was not the same. War had changed him and not for the better.
He’d remain the same until 2006. That’s when, much to his protest, she managed to talk him into driving to Pierre to attend the dedication ceremony. As part of our tribute, we arranged for an appearance of the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall, a moving model of the permanent memorial in Washington, D.C. He looked up at the names on the wall – the names of friends he lost during the war – and that’s when it all clicked. He realized he needed to get help. He sought counseling and turned his life around.
As I was talking to his wife, I received another tap on the shoulder - this time from the Vietnam hero. “Thanks for giving me my life back,” he said. I told him it wasn’t me, but rather the 1,900 volunteers led by Vietnam-era veteran John Moisan. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who will never forget that September weekend in 2006. Unforgettable indeed.
I have said this before, but I think it’s worth repeating: It’s not the speech-giver who protects our freedom of speech. It’s not the reporter who protects our freedom of press. It’s not the politician who protects our right to vote. And it’s not the preacher who protects our freedom of religion. All of our freedoms are defended and protected by the men and women who wear and have worn the uniform of our great nation. Veterans Day is our opportunity to honor these heroes and thank them for their sacrifice which allows us to enjoy life in the greatest country in the world: the United States of America.