Guest Commentary: Remembering our veterans and service members

The Fourth of July in South Dakota is a great time.  Across the state, families and friends gather together to watch fireworks, attend parades and barbeque.  This holiday is also an important time to think about the men and women who have made it possible for us to celebrate our freedom. I hope everyone will join me during the busy Independence Day weekend to remember the sacrifices that have been made by our veterans and active service members to keep our nation free.

I will be thinking of the service of veterans like Eddie Pina, a Rapid City resident who was a Green Beret and served two tours in the Vietnam War. I recently met with Eddie and presented him with several medals he earned for his service, including the Bronze Star Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster and the National Defense Service Medal with four Service Stars. Eddie was a Master Parachutist and is a member of the Century Club with over 150 jumps.

Because of Eddie and veterans around the country, we are able to continue celebrating our freedom each July. There are more than 70,000 veterans living in South Dakota. They are our neighbors, coworkers, family and friends. Throughout my time in Congress and currently as Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee that handles veteran�s issues, I have fought to ensure that we live up to our obligations to veterans. I was humbled to recently receive the Veterans of Foreign Wars 2011 Congressional Award and am committed to continue fighting for veterans.

More than 300 South Dakota National Guard and Reserve Forces are deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq right now, with more South Dakotans serving in branches of the U.S. military throughout the world. Here at home, the world-class individuals at Ellsworth Air Force Base continue to play a crucial role in our nation�s security. B-1 bombers have played an important role in Afghanistan and recently flew missions over Libya. Our men and women in uniform and their families have made and continue to make incredible sacrifices to keep us free.

The folks in our state are terrific in their show of support for our service members. We saw this recently when the Department of Defense honored St. John�s Lutheran Church in Yankton with the 2011 Freedom Award. The church was selected as a finalist from more than 4,000 nominations submitted by service members or their families. The church�s pastor, Lt. Col. David Gunderson, is a chaplain in the South Dakota Army National Guard and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010. His employers at St. John�s Lutheran Church remained committed to Gunderson while he was overseas and used the money for his salary, which he refused while deployed, to expand access to grief counseling and hymnals in Afghanistan.

Some of my favorite memories of South Dakota summers are of the time spent with family and friends over the Fourth of July. Folks always go to great lengths to celebrate the birth of our country. So as we gather this year, take a few moments to remember our brave service members and veterans on the 235th Independence Day.

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