Hill City honors its veterans

By Gray Hughes

Hill City area veterans gather at Hill City High School on Nov. 8 for a Veterans Day program.

Veterans Day is a day for reflection and appreciation for those who have served.

At Hill City High School on Thursday, Lt. Col. George Nichols, mission support deputy commander at Ellsworth Air Force Base, spoke to students and members of the community about sacrifice.

“Thank you so much to the Hill City School District for allowing me the opportunity and privilege to come here and speak today,” he said. “On behalf of the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Air Force, my wing commander at Ellsworth Air Force Base, it is an absolute honor and privilege to be here before a lot of veterans, those who have served, the spouses and family members that have made sacrifices.”

Nichols has previously been stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and has received multiple medals for his service. His wife also serves as a lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force as a nurse, and his son is in the Army as a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne.

He started his speech by thanking the people of the Black Hills for welcoming him and his family to the Black Hills, who all moved to the area in June.

He then spoke about the Hill City schools and their history of service.

That legacy of service stands to this day, he said.

The speech then shifted to focusing on remembering those who have served and those who have died serving the United States.

“I am standing before you building on a legacy of veterans who served valiantly, courageously and committed to patriotism and freedom that all of us, not just in the United States but around the world, has,” he said. “Some paid the ultimate sacrifice. I wear a bracelet to remember one of my brothers—not a personal brother—but one of my brothers in arms who died in Iraq. He was my student body president at my college. Would you believe the sacrifice and commitment that our young men and women make today, who are willing to raise their right hand, and commit to serving our country in defense of the Constitution of the United States against all enemies?”

The difference between committed and being involved is sacrifice, he said.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

“Having just arrived in the Black Hills from Germany, my family had the honor and privilege to walk the hallowed grounds of not one, not two, not three but multiple cemeteries in honor of our veterans that served in the European Theater and died for freedoms for people they didn’t even know,” he said. “Our worst battle in history in the Argonne Forrest in France was a hard loss for our country and our men and women who served. When walking those grounds, and seeing the names one by one, I am reminded of the heroes that came before me.”

What is interesting about the history of World War I compared to more recent wars such as World War II or the Vietnam War is that all of those who have served in World War I have since passed, with Frank Buckles, the last known American survivor of World War I, passing away in 2011 at the age of 110.

The reason why more recent wars are still etched into our minds is because there are still veterans alive who served in those wars.

“We can still honor them and witness their courageous abilities and still stand for freedom and patriotism and love of country,” Nichols said. “I work at Ellsworth Air Force Base. There’s about 3,000 of my best friends and 2,000 more family members, and I will tell you that today, those that are serving, are just as proud and honored to have served as those that have come before us, and, today, you raise your right hand and volunteer to serve, the percentage of Americans that do that is less than 1 percent. Less than 1 percent. It is certainly something to be said for those who decide (to serve).”

Nichols then reflected on his time in college and as a part of his college’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

His father, who served in Vietnam, did not want Nichols to enter the military and wanted him to receive a college education.

Nichols said he was able to do both by joining ROTC, however, he failed his first two semesters of college.

“Don’t do what I did,” Nichols said, drawing laughs from those in attendance. “I lost my ROTC scholarship because I chose not to focus on what matters. I chose not to be committed to what mattered.”

The colonel in charge of Nichols’ ROTC took him aside and talked to him about commitment and dedicating himself to what matters.

The colonel told Nichols that he needed to commit himself because the military is about commitment.

“Our life must mean something while we are on this earth, and the only way for it to mean something is to either serve or give back,” Nichols said. “I felt, at that time, I did graduate, I did commit to a person who believed in me, and 18 years later, I stand before you not knowing what is next when I grow up. We can all attest to that.”

Nichols closed his speech by telling the students in the crowd to be good to their teachers and parents.

They are making sacrifices to better those they serve, he said.

“We all serve in some capacity,” Nichols said.

Hill City High School, though, was not the only place in Hill City that honored veterans this week.

At the Hill City Senior Center on Friday, there was also a gathering to honor area veterans.

Julie Wickware-Klein, mayor of Hill City, and Todd Grabow, a retired command sergeant major in the United States Army, spoke to a room filled with veterans.

“Veterans Day is very important, not just to recognize our veterans and thank you for your service but to recognize any man or woman serving currently, too,” Wickware-Klein said. “We are very fortunate and blessed to live in the country that we live in and have the opportunities that we have.”

She then read a proclamation honoring veterans.

Grabow, the invited guest speaker, followed.

He discussed his upbringing in Milbank, which he considered a patriotic town.

“But then for a small town like Hill City to take time out today to do this, we are lucky to live in this environment and we are pretty…lucky to live in Hill City, South Dakota,” he said.

He then reflected on World War II and Vietnam War veterans who did not receive what he described as a proper “thank you” for their service.

Today, he said, there are parades for people who return from serving their country.

“I know a lot of you never got the thank yous when you came home,” he said. “But, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for everything that you’ve done.”

He then discussed what he did in the military, which included being a truck driver and hazardous materials technician in Iraq, where he was first deployed in February 2003.

His daughter, who was in second grade when Grabow was first deployed, now serves in the military.

“I knew, kind of, what did that to her,” he said.  “And it never would have donned on me, but the speaker at the Veterans Day ceremony talked a lot about service and sacrifice, and I as guilty of it as anyone in here, about talking about the younger generation and how maybe they’re not as hard working as those who had gone before us, but I will tell you what, I have served beside some pretty tremendous what we would consider Millennials nowadays, and these kids will surprise you.”

Grabow then reflected on the history of Veterans Day.

With Veterans Day being the 100 year anniversary of the end of World War I, people also need to remember those who are currently serving.

Americans, too, need to reflect on how lucky they are to live in a nation where voting and education is a right and how necessities such as water are readily available.

Looking around the room at the senior center, which was filled with not only the veterans but also their spouses, Grabow then reflected on the sacrifice families of those who have served have also made.

“You know, the water heater goes out, something as easy as a flat tire on the car, that’s just routine when you are home,” he said. “They are left to deal with that when you are gone. So I would like to personally thank all the spouses in here, as well.”