Boots on the (home) ground

Boots on the (home) ground A queue of pickups carrying members of the National Guard's Company B, 109th Medical Battalion gathers at the intersection of University and Clark streets as Thursday afternoon's parade honoring the troops ends near Slagle Hall. (Photo courtesy of Gary Keller, USD) by David Lias A long-anticipated bus ride from Wisconsin to Vermillion, a parade throughout the city, pleasant time chatting with loved ones and friends in the cool grass of The University of South Dakota.

Those are just some of the high points of the April 1 welcome that greeted members of the National Guard's Company B 109th Medical Battalion as it returned to its home base in Vermillion.

The community saved its best for last, however. Company B members were honored in a rousing deactivation ceremony Thursday afternoon in Slagle Auditorium on the USD campus.

Earlier in the day, the Vermillion community showed its appreciation through its actions.

At the deactivation ceremony, words, not actions, were used to demonstrate how much the Guard unit has been missed since it was called up over a year ago for service in the Middle East.

"When you think about it, one year, one month, 10 days � a simple statement that doesn't convey much meaning," Vermillion Mayor Roger Kozak said. "But when it is put into the context of the days away from home, and the number of days being in harm's way, one year, one month, 10 days has a whole new meaning."

Last Thursday's events in Vermillion, he said, brought world events right to the community's doorsteps.

"It is one thing to watch the evening news and listen as reports are received from lands on the other side of the globe," Kozak said. "It is quite another when we are here, with each other, celebrating a safe return."

"We've all been waiting for this day for quite a while," said South Dakota Adjutant General Michael A. Gorman.

He remembers the tears of concern and apprehension that

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were shed in February, 2003 when Company B was activated for service in a send-off ceremony in Vermillion.

"Today, there are tears of joy and tears of thanks," he said. "We have them all home."

America would not be a powerful beacon of freedom and democracy, Kozak said, without the service of exceptional men and women in the armed forces.

"Our nation was born in battle, and it has survived and prospered because Americans have always been willing to defend what we hold dear as a nation," he said, "even at the cost of those we hold most dear as individuals."

Gorman told the near-capacity crowd in Slagle Auditorium that they are privileged to know some of the best soldiers in the nation.

"I am so proud of each and every one of the soldiers in the unit," he said. "They saw hard duty, but the defense of freedom is always worth the effort. Because of your service, because of your bravery and dedication, the world is better off, and the people of America are more secure."

Kozak, speaking on behalf of the Vermillion community, offered thanks to the members of Company B for their service.

"We will never be able to tell you enough how proud we are of you, and how everyone we meet offers his or her thanks for what you have done, and what you do," he said. "Our prayers for your safety and well-being have been answered, because we are here once again, together as a community."

The mayor urged everyone to continue to offer prayers for the safety of American troops who are still in harm's way, "so that they may have as wonderful a return as you have had today."

Seventy-five soldiers from Company B were mobilized last February for the mission in the Middle East. Seven remain in service there; everyone else, he said, has safely returned home.

Company B dealt with heat, with sandstorms, with loneliness, with spartan conditions, and with constant dangers.

"But you persevered, you accomplished the mission in an outstanding manner, and I want to thank you for that," the general said.

Company B provided medical services to nearly 40,000 patients at three locations. It completed over 600 ambulance missions, transporting 1,011 patients.

"They served more patients than any other level one or level two medical facility in the entire field," Gorman said.

The unit treated 11,800 coalition soldiers, 26,000 Iraqi soldiers, 1,447 Iraqi civilians and numerous high profile Iraqi patients.

"All of the soldiers of Company B deserve our eternal gratitude for the part they played in Operation Iraqi Freedom � an operation to help a country achieve democracy in a very dangerous part of the world," Gorman said.

South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds offered a two-pronged thanks � to the members of Company B, and to their families � for the sacrifices they've made in the past year.

"Any time something important is done, there seems to be a price that is paid," Rounds said. "That freedom that you look forward to is something that a lot of other people in the world don't have the privilege of enjoying."

The governor said the many rights that Americans take for granted don't exist in other nations.

"We live in a special country where, for generations, young men and women have sacrificed

to see that those freedoms have been ours to enjoy," he said.

Sept. 11, 2001, reminded Americans that the freedoms and safety that we had come to expect had to be bought with young men and women, like the members of Company B, standing guard, offering their time and efforts.

Because of those sacrifices, Rounds said, he could stand before the audience at Slagle Auditorium and share his thoughts.

"That freedom of speech is not given to us or defended by the speech writer," he said. "It is defended every single day by young men and women wearing the uniform of the United States of America."

American soldiers guarantee a free press and the freedom to worship in our nation.

Citizens of the United States are free to seek the job or profession of their own choice.

"That freedom has not been bought by a businessman," he said. It is protected, he said, by the U.S. military.

"Where there is no freedom, people want to leave. Where there is no freedom, people desire it," Rounds said. "Where there is no freedom, unless someone steps forward and bravely says 'we're going to make a change,' then other people suffer."

Rounds said he is convinced that the people of Kuwait and Iraq, for generations to come, will talk about the kindness, generosity, sacrifice and bravery of the young men and women wearing the uniform of the United States.

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