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SPEECH | May 30, 2016

Heartland Foundation Memorial Day Event

(As prepared)

Adm. Cecil D. Haney, U.S. Strategic Command Commander: Distinguished visitors, ladies and gentlemen, veterans, friends and family of our fallen heroes – good morning.  What a beautiful place to honor and pay tribute to those who have given their lives in defense of our country.

Lee [Mr. Terry], thank you for that very gracious introduction. I am very proud to be here with you all, representing the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and civilians who are part of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) and Team Offutt, as well as personnel who are deployed around the globe. 

As I often tell audiences, my wife Bonny and I are thrilled to be part of such a fantastic and caring community that always takes time to honor the heroes of our nation, no matter whether in parades, Veterans Day activities, the Offutt Appreciation Picnic, or events such as last weekends Families of the Fallen walk.  

So how about a round of applause for Paula Pogge and the volunteers for their hard work, not just in organizing this wonderful ceremony, but for all the activities in the Omaha Metro area that support our service men and women, and especially in honoring the fallen and their families.

Governor [Pete] Ricketts, thank you for your remarks. This community is also blessed with tremendous leaders like you and the many other elected officials and community leaders, who continuously show their support for USSTRATCOM and Offutt Air Force Base, our military members, their civilian counterparts and their families.

Now, I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say this community is also full of real heroes.  Harley Sanwick, who presented the colors and led the Pledge of Allegiance served in Vietnam. Jacob Hausman, who served in Iraq and just spoke, is using his experience to help others. 

They are two examples of veterans who have served our country with honor, integrity and courage.  They represent all veterans, some of whom risked their lives, while others lost their lives.  Some of whom were drafted while others volunteered and some who wear their scars while others keep them hidden.  But all our veterans should hold their heads high, and I ask you to join me in thanking them for a sacrifice that can never truly be understood or repaid.

Memorial Day, however, is a day we pause to honor our service members, our police officers, our fire fighters, and all first responders, whose lives were cut short protecting our nation’s freedoms and liberties. 

Today we pause and recall the service and sacrifice of so many different and remarkable people. 

Today, we remember their stories of valor. 

Today, we pay tribute to their heroism. 

Their stories are often painful, but they are stories we must tell.

Stories like that of Omaha’s own Kerrie Orozco, who last year was brutally shot in the line of duty.  Shot and killed by a felon she and a fellow officer were trying to arrest. Shot and killed trying to make our community safer, one day before going on maternity leave.

Stories like that of Nebraska’s Marine Capt. Dustin Lukasiewicz, who died last year when his helicopter crashed in the mountains of Nepal, having saved the lives of three people earlier in the day during a humanitarian mission in response to a terrible earthquake there.

Or stories like that of Staff Sgt. Benjamin Prange, from Hickman, Nebraska, who, in 2014, was killed after an IED attack on his vehicle during his third tour to Afghanistan.  Those he left behind described him as “fearless –literally unafraid of any circumstance, professional, an inspiration, so much more than a soldier, a role model, and a hero.” 

There are so many examples from across this great nation of those who chose to support and defend America, who made the ultimate sacrifice. U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Thalia Ramirez, from San Antonio, Texas, and originally a native of Kenya, was on her second deployment to Afghanistan when her helicopter was shot down by enemy fire in September 2012. 

She was at the end of her rotation having flown more than 270 missions. Although the battle space was no longer her burden to bear, she put the love of country over herself and offered to fly that day.  She selflessly flew the mission because she believed in what she was doing.

Earlier this month, Navy Seal Charles Keating, from Arizona, gave his life in a firefight while successfully rescuing a team of military advisors who had come under attack from ISIL.  This was his third tour to Iraq.

These deaths are a tragic reminder of the daily sacrifices made by our fellow citizens, our neighbors, and our friends. They came from every race and religion, from the city and suburbs, from every imaginable walk of life.  They answered our nation’s call when we needed them most. 

Each had their own reason for serving, but each one was part of an all-volunteer force who chose to serve.  Each chose to put themselves in harm’s way to defend our communities and our country. Each left their mark and their legacy on those they left behind. I know those who follow in their footsteps aspire to continue making our world better – whether making our communities safe or defending against the barbaric and brutal behaviors of violent extremist organizations around the globe.

Our heroes, however, are not the only ones who pay a price. Every fallen hero leaves painful memories and great sorrow at home. I know the families of Kerrie Orozco, Dustin Lukasiweicz, Benjamin Prange, Thalia Ramirez and Charles Keating, and all those who have given their all in defense of our country, are forever changed. 

For those Gold Star families in the audience, families who have lost their loved ones in a military conflict, or anyone who has lost a loved one killed in the line of duty – for you, and each Gold Star Family across our country – I am personally humbled by your sacrifice and inspired by your resilience. How about a round of applause for these incredible families?

Thank you all for being here, for taking the time on this beautiful day to keep the memory and spirit alive of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Each embodied courage, pride, determination, dedication and selflessness. Each gave their all. 

They give me hope for the future because their legacy inspires a new generation to volunteer – to answer the call and protect our freedoms – because as we have heard this morning, “Freedom is not free.” 

So as we pause to remember, to reflect on this Memorial Day, just as we have from 1868 when the day was first observed, let us continue to support the families and friends of the fallen.  Know that their sacrifice supported something greater. Let us continue to salute their remarkable service to a grateful nation beyond this special day.  Thank you for being a part of this Memorial Day ceremony. May God bless you, and God Bless the United States of America.