Amid somber gray clouds and sporadic mists of precipitation befitting the occasion, guests gathered at Memorial Park in Dickinson on Saturday, Sept. 11, to for a remembrance ceremony hosted by the District 8 American Legion Riders featuring special guest speakers and a free lunch for attendees as a tribute to the nation's fallen heroes.
Guest speakers included veterans of the Global War on Terror, a military mother of two former service members, the reading of a letter from a combat veteran by the Stark County Veteran Service Officer, and an accompaniment of personal stories of a fateful Tuesday 20 years prior that shook the world.
The ceremony began with an invocation by Karen Hutchins, the North Dakota American Legion Department Chaplain, spoke of love and commitment to service. The invocation was immediately followed by the National Anthem and Pledge of Allegiance.
The first guest speaker was James Miller, a combat veteran of the Global War on Terror with multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Miller's speech focused on living up to the expectations of those who died for their country in the years following the attacks on 9/11, and spent the majority of his time highlighting the voices of those who would not be on the dais to share their story.
"The events of September 11, 2001, called brave men and women to serve their country as members of the armed services. Like so many before, this generation did so in an entirely volunteer service," Miller said of the service members who have died in operations in support of the Global War on Terror. "These are the ordinary men and women who did the extraordinary — these are our examples we should look to and emulate. They all had one thing in common, they loved this country. Republican and Democrat; White and Black and Brown; man and woman; young and old. These titles we so often fight about each day do not define us. Let us not forget the most important title — American."
Miller added, "The question before us, as always, is how do we preserve the legacy of those we lost on that fateful day and the years that followed? How do we keep their spirit alive in our own hearts? We have seen the answer in each generation of Americans -- our men and women in uniform, our diplomats, intelligence, homeland security and law enforcement professionals -- all who have stepped forward to serve and risk their lives to help keep us safe. Across our country today, Americans are coming together in service and remembrance and it is vital that we remember 9/11 just as we are doing here today — But for me the most important task we have before us is to live like 9/12, with unity and love for this country."
The next guest speaker was City Administrator Brian Winningham, a retired Army Lt.Col whose career spanned multiple decades and focused on counter-terrorism. Winningham is the former Commanding Officer of the 720th Ordnance Company, deployed with multiple teams in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, and was the command element of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal forces during Operation Avid Recovery, in Lagos, Nigeria.
Winningham's speech focused on a world without a strong American presence, the lessons learned fighting terrorism for most of his career, and remaining vigilant so that another 9/11 never repeats.
“I remember that everyone in my position understood the dangers of terrorism, and we tried to tell the higher ups about it. It was during the Clinton era and the forces were more focused on other things. At that time, I did like so many military people do and sent my wife and children to visit their family in California while I was in England attending a school that only three U.S. officers had ever graduated from. I was on my last problem of the course and was leaning over a mortar bomb downrange trying to complete the problem. The instructor came up to me and said, ‘The Twin Towers have just been attacked,’” Winningham said. “I thought that he was trying to get me to make a mistake and fail the task, so I just focused on the task. When I was done, he looked at me and said, 'No, the course if over, the United States has been attacked. I was worried for my family at that point and now 20 years later as I stand here the memories of 9/11 are still so vivid. They are even more so now because of what's happening. Here we are 20 years later and it's devastating for so many who have spent all those years trying to ensure that this never happens again. We have to make better decisions now so that we don't allow the next 9-11 to happen.”
Winningham added. "When we swear an oath, it's to the constitution. We take that oath very seriously and the time that I spent in Afghanistan, and for each veteran of those conflicts, we created an incredible vision for what could be. Those people in Afghanistan and Iraq have experienced true freedom for 20 years. We created an opportunity for them, where they were free from the Taliban's control and are free men and women. I worry for them, but I worry for us that we have lost sight of the bigger picture of what can happen when we become complacent. It's a shame that we don't have the political foresight to do what we know how to do best, which is complete a mission.”
Next guest speaker was Bobbie Ackerman, a mother of two service members, who shared her story of what it felt like to have children in the military serving their country and the hardships experienced by family members of service members.
She shared the story of an audio tape recording made by her son for his children, the final messages should the unfortunate occur. Ackerman highlighted the effects deployments have on military mothers, and the challenges of staying positive in a seemingly dim situation. Ackerman's children served in the United States Army and United States Air Force overseas.
"We still have that record tape," Ackerman said of her son's audio recording, noting that she was fortunate that both of her children returned home safe. "My prayers are for the families and mothers who are not as fortunate. Our hearts are with them."
To close the guest speakers, Stark County Veteran Service Officer Jessica Clifton read a letter written by Army Specialist Jerry King who was killed in action and unable to share his own story.
In two operations to clear the outskirts of the village of Turki in the deadly Diyala Province, Specialist Jerry King and the rest of the Fifth Squadron faced days of firefights, grenade attacks and land mines. Well-trained insurgents burrowed deep into muddy canals, in a throwback to the trench warfare of World War I. As the fighting wore on, B-1 bombers and F-16s were called in to drop a series of powerful bombs.
Two months later, King, the former honors student and double-sport athlete from Georgia, sat down at his computer to write an informal journal. King was killed in action when suicide bombers attacked an outpost he was manning.
"I was very humbled at the event, listening to the stories and sharing the story of Specialist King. It was an distinction to honor our fallen and service members alike," Clifton said. "I'd like to thank our District 8 American Legion Riders for making the day possible and sponsoring the event."