Serve those who served

  • Published
  • By Brig. Gen. Eric S. Overturf
  • 442nd Fighter Wing commander
Many Americans will start a three-day weekend today as we celebrate Veterans Day with a federal holiday, Nov. 11, to honor America's veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice.

I didn't grow up in a military family, so to be honest, I didn't really understand the meaning of Veteran's Day until I joined the Air Force and met some veterans who enlightened me through their words and actions.

One of the most memorable was Col. Charles McGee, the famed Tuskegee Airman who rose above prejudice and segregation at home to defend our nation in the skies over Europe, eventually setting the Air Force record for the highest number of combat sorties with 409.

I had the incredible honor of commanding a group that included one of the original Tuskegee fighter squadrons, and Col. McGee graciously volunteered to serve as one of our honorary commanders. Listening to his stories of flying escort for B-17s and shooting down a German fighter was a priceless opportunity to share aviation stories with a living legend.

I also had the privilege of spending time with Karl Rothdiener, who was part of the German army that Charles McGee was flying over and fighting against in WWII. Herr Rothdiener was my landlord when we were stationed in Germany, and paying the rent often turned into a living history lesson as he described battle lines and bunkers and fallen friends from 50 years ago as if they were yesterday.

I will never forget the sense of pride I felt as he described the fair treatment and lifelong admiration for the American values of freedom and justice that he learned as a United States prisoner of war.

I never met one of the veterans who made the biggest impact on me, because he'd already made the ultimate sacrifice before I knew anything about him. Chief Warrant Officer 2 Bryan Nichols was an Army reservist who was killed in action along with 29 other servicemen in a Chinook helicopter crash in Afghanistan in August 2011.

I learned about Warrant Officer Nichols through the words of his widow when I met her at a Reserve Officer's Association banquet. Listening to her story of resilience in honoring Bryan's memory while she forged ahead with her life was an inspiration to me and my family.

These men and women served in different places and even different nations, but they all left me with a rekindled feeling of pride in our country, and reminded me what Veterans day is really about - honoring the sacrifices of our veterans, learning from their example of service to something greater than themselves, and giving thanks to our veterans and their families for the gift of freedom they've given to our nation.

So this Veterans Day and throughout the year to come, take time to attend veterans' events, consider volunteering at the Missouri Veteran's Home, or just take a moment to thank a veteran and listen to their story of service.

As service members, it's our privilege to serve alongside the men and women who have made our country so great. Veterans remind us of those who have made great sacrifices to defend this country, and the men and women at Whiteman Air Force Base continue that legacy every day.

As you thank the veterans who have walked in your shoes, I want to thank you and your families for the sacrifices you make every day.