Heitkamp: Thank you to those who make the difference

WASHINGTON -- On a brisk November morning in our nation's capital, I joined a group of young North Dakota students from Bismarck High School as they made their way to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to pay their respects to the fallen servicemember...

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp

WASHINGTON -- On a brisk November morning in our nation’s capital, I joined a group of young North Dakota students from Bismarck High School as they made their way to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to pay their respects to the fallen servicemembers who never made it home from Vietnam.
The men who served in that war, many of whom did not receive the welcome home they deserved so many years ago, were in the minds of these young students as they walked past this solemn memorial of black marble.
These students have been truly inspirational. Though they are decades removed from the turmoil of the Vietnam War, they clearly understand the sacrifice and service that the individuals whose names are set in stone - including 198 servicemembers from North Dakota - provided this nation.
Over the course of six months, I gave a series of 15 speeches on the Senate floor to tell the stories of North Dakota’s fallen servicemembers from the Vietnam War. It’s one of the most meaningful projects I’ve done in the U.S. Senate, made even more so by the fact that I was able to collaborate with 150 Bismarck High School students who were learning about these servicemembers as part of a school project.
These students took the time to gather the stories of these fallen heroes by talking with those servicemembers’ friends and families, and became emotionally invested in a project that helped pay tribute to these servicemembers’ lives. These students learned in a very personal way the importance of service, and to be thankful for what we have and what those before us gave up to make our freedoms possible.
Thanksgiving offers us the opportunity to spend time with loved ones, and celebrate our blessings - many of which are made possible by those who serve our country and our communities. North Dakota is home to countless men and women who defend our communities, state, and nation day-in and day-out, often without the recognition they deserve.
These leaders police our neighborhoods, are the first on the scene of emergencies, and serve in countries far away from their homes protecting each of us.
When I had the opportunity to serve as attorney general for North Dakota in the 1990s, I saw firsthand the dedication and the respect our law enforcement have for our communities. The vast majority of our firefighters, paramedics and first responders volunteer their time away from their families including during the holidays - often putting their lives on the line. It is up to each of us to keep our communities safe, but these dedicated volunteers are doing it every day on the front lines responding in a moment’s notice to protect others.
Our state also continues to have a proud tradition of military service. Combating threats around the world, these servicemembers often put their lives on the line for our country - often changing the course of history. They step up without regard for themselves, and it’s our obligation to provide them with every resource necessary to do their jobs and return home safely. The families of these servicemembers also give up a great deal, sacrificing memories and time with their loved ones.
Ultimately, we must remember that the actions to step up and serve, in various forms, speak louder than words. As North Dakota’s cherished President Theodore Roosevelt stated in his 1901 Thanksgiving Proclamation, “Let us remember that, as much has been given, much will be expected from us; and that true homage comes from the heart as well as from the lips and shows itself in deeds.”
The students from Bismarck High School stood up to honor and thank those who lost their lives in the Vietnam War, and help enable those servicemembers’ legacies to live on. As we sit down with our friends and family this Thanksgiving, please take a moment to thank those who serve - and honor those who have served - our country and our communities in many different ways.
Heitkamp is a Democrat who represents North Dakota in the U.S. Senate. Contact her at

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