Memorial Day is a great time for backyard barbecues and pool parties, but it has a much deeper significance. It’s a day when we commemorate the brave men and women who paid the ultimate price so that we can enjoy our freedoms in peace. Today, we are able to spend a carefree day of relaxation with friends and family because of their courageous sacrifices. However, we should never forget the true meaning of Memorial Day: remembering our fallen. The greatness of a nation is not measured by the wars that are won but by the peace and prosperity for the people that the victories bring.
Throughout our state’s history, Nebraskans have been at the forefront of America’s military engagements, putting themselves in harm’s way to protect the liberties we hold dear. From Europe to Southeast Asia to the Middle East, Nebraskans have traveled across the globe to keep their homeland safe.
June 6, 2019, will mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day—the Allies’ amphibious invasion of Normandy that turned the tide in World War II. The largest of the invasion’s five landing sites, Omaha Beach, bears the name of our state’s most populous city. Despite high winds, choppy waters, and intense enemy fire, Allied forces accomplished their goal of securing footholds along the coastline of Normandy. Around 2,500 American soldiers, including several Nebraskans, lost their lives on D-Day.
The death toll would have been even higher if not for the ingenuity of Andrew Jackson Higgins, an engineer born in Columbus and raised in Omaha. He designed the specialized landing crafts, Higgins Boats, used on D-Day to transport troops and vehicles to the beaches. President Eisenhower once called Higgins “the man who won the war for us,” due to the strategic importance of the boats he built for the military.
Nebraskans have not let Higgins’s history-altering engineering feat go unnoticed. While teaching at Columbus High School, Colonel Jerry Meyer and his students spearheaded an effort to found a memorial to honor Higgins. Thanks to their initiative, Nebraskans can now visit the Higgins Memorial in Columbus. It features a life-sized replica of the Higgins Boat as well as memorials to the valorous men who rode it to battle.
Sixty years ago, Major Dale R. Buis of Pender, deployed to Vietnam as a military advisor. Buis, the father of three young boys, had only been in the country two days when Vietcong guerillas ambushed the compound where he was staying. He died during the attack—on July 8, 1959—becoming one of the first casualties in the Vietnam War.
In fact, Dale Buis is the very first name listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC. For years, however, online databases mistakenly recorded Major Buis as being from Nevada. When Pat Schoenfelder of Imperial learned of the error she took action. She conducted research to verify his hometown, and then contacted database managers so that Major Buis’s online profile could be corrected. Thanks to her efforts, Dale Buis is now appropriately remembered as a native son of Nebraska.
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Fifteen years ago, the 267th Ordnance Company of Nebraska’s National Guard was stationed at Camp Speicher, north of Tikrit in Iraq. On July 11, 2004, Sergeant 1st Class Linda Tarango-Griess of Sutton and Sergeant Jeremy Fischer of Lincoln were in a convoy returning to base when their vehicle was struck by an explosive device. Both died from injuries sustained in the attack. Linda Tarango-Griess was the first woman of the Nebraska National Guard to be killed in action.
Last week, I had the privilege of sending off and welcoming home a flight from Nebraska to Washington D.C. taken to honor Purple Heart recipients—like Tarango-Griess and Fischer—who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Passengers on the flight were either veterans of those wars or Gold Star family members who had lost loved ones in the conflicts. They were able to visit the monuments, memorials, and sacred grounds of the Nation’s Capital thanks to the dedicated volunteerism of Bill and Evonne Williams. The couple from Omaha has now organized 13 honor flights for nearly 3,500 veterans.
Bill and Evonne also initiated the creation of a photographic memorial, “Remembering Our Fallen,” to honor military members who have died since 9/11. Their idea to build a physical memorial originated after reading the story of a grief-stricken father who worried that his son’s sacrifice would be forgotten. Moved by his concern, they pledged to do everything in their power to make sure the families of the fallen know their loved ones are remembered, appreciated, and honored.
Today, I am profoundly grateful for the Nebraskans who have fought and died to secure our liberties. I am also proud that our state’s citizens actively cherish their memory. Nebraskans like Jerry, Pat, Bill, and Evonne exemplify the spirit of Memorial Day in how they’ve honored our state’s fallen heroes. I encourage all Nebraskans to follow their lead by finding ways to pay respect to Nebraska’s veterans, both past and present.
If you have any thoughts you would like to share about how we can better honor our military veterans, I would like to hear them. Give my office a call at 402-471-2244 or email me firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pete Ricketts is the governor of Nebraska.