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Honoring Our Veterans, A Rich Heritage

SAF/PA 2005 Air Force Public Affairs

Veterans Day

What does Veterans Day mean? It comes down to one sentence that may not have meant anything to some of you before Sept. 11, 2001: Freedom is not free. 

The events of Sept. 11 have changed our focus. We are now fighting a global war on terrorism against violent extremists who want to end our way of life. This war is about two incompatible visions of the world - democracy, justice, freedom, and hope on one hand; intolerance, repression, violence and fear on the other. 

Freedom has never been free. This belief resonates strongly in the hearts of our nation's veterans. For those who have put their lives on the line for our country, freedom has a special meaning that many will never know. 

Ask a veteran who stormed Omaha Beach in World War II, who almost froze on Korea's Chosin Reservoir, who slogged through the steaming Mekong Delta in Vietnam, who chased the Republican Guard all the way back to Baghdad or who is still fighting Al-Qaeda insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq. These people could tell you the meaning of freedom. 

Today, the return of our service men and women gets due fanfare. People shake their hands at airports and thank them for their valiant service. Unfortunately, there were times in our nation's history when our veterans didn't return to this warm welcome. Sadly, Korean and Vietnam War veterans didn't get a hero's welcome at all. America has taken great strides to try to heal the wounds of these veterans. It took time, but our citizens have recognized the price they paid even though they may not have agreed in principle to U.S. involvement. 

The words "freedom is not free," etched in marble on the Korean War Memorial in Washington, honor Americans who fought in the "forgotten war." By recognizing the contributions of these forgotten heroes we can continue to heal those wounds and ensure we never forget them. 

Veterans Day allows everyone to appreciate the enormous sacrifices our men and women in uniform continue to make. In towns and cities across the nation Americans thank their neighbors who have been called to serve and balance their civilian life with their patriotic Guard and Reserve duty. These are our teachers, firefighters, shop owners, lawyers, police officers and many times, even our own family members. 

Since World War II, an estimated 26 million Americans have patrolled the skies, guarded our shores and served on the flightlines, front lines, and supply lines. Right now Airmen are on alert 24/7 on the Korean peninsula as a deterrent to conflict while diplomats in Washington seek peaceful resolutions to issues in the area. We have inherited an enduring legacy that was born in battle -- was paid for with American and Korean blood -- and has resulted in a partnership that has grown stronger every day for more than 50 years. Through this friendship, our combined Republic of Korea - U.S. team is well-equipped to face any threats the north can muster. The combined show of military capability provides stability in a region that has had continual unrest. 

Airmen also toil around the clock in temperatures averaging well above 100 degrees as they build bases, load and unload air cargo, and launch aircraft at locations in the Middle East. The United States Air Force flies an average of 150 sorties a day over Iraq and 75 a day over Afghanistan. 

Since Operation Enduring Freedom began in October 2001, followed by Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, the Air Force's Air Mobility Command has flown more than 49,500 missions. Those missions have moved 1.3 million tons of cargo and ferried nearly 2.8 million troops to the region. These airlift operations are second only to the Berlin Airlift in scope. 

Those are impressive numbers, but our Airmen's contributions are not limited to the battlefield. They are not only fighting insurgents in the Middle East, but are continually participating in many humanitarian efforts. They are helping to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure and are ensuring the success of the first elections in Afghanistan and Iraq. They have recently delivered more than 17,000 tons of supplies for victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Our Airmen have flown nearly 50,000 evacuees to safety and aeromedical evacuation teams airlifted thousands to treatment facilities. Our pararescuemen rescued more than 6,500 in the aftermath of those devastating storms. 

As these figures indicate, we've been there for America. Luckily, Airmen are not alone in the fight. Dramatic improvements have been made in joint service cooperation during the last two decades. We are proud that the increasing use of joint force planning and training is occurring within our defense establishment. 

But as Air Force Chief of Staff General T. Michael Moseley has said: the mission of the United States Air Force is to fly and fight. If we are to operate as a true joint coalition interdependent team and win this war on terrorism we can never stray from our concentration on this task. We fly and we fight. 

When I say fly and fight, it's no longer an old-school dogfight or aerial battle you may have seen on film. In this new, technological age we have made tremendous advances. We now fly a spacecraft that orbits around the earth to provide data links for aircraft. We remotely pilot unmanned aerial vehicles over Afghanistan and Iraq from half a world away. We provide close air support to ground forces with our A-10 Thunderbolts. We fly refueling and surveillance missions around the world and combat air patrols over our own soils to protect our citizens and other assets valuable to our national security. This is what we do. This is what I mean by flying and fighting. But the bottom line has been and still is to defend our nation and win the war on terrorism. 

Your Air Force stands ready on all fronts because of the unique capabilities it offers our nation. We are the youngest service - formed because we proved an independent air arm was necessary and vital to American defense. When sworn in as the first Air Force secretary, Stuart Symington said: "In this day when a powerful counterattack is America's only real answer to aggression, there can be no question that we need the world's first Air Force." 

We have built our own successes and our ability to fight anytime, anywhere on the great men and women who have "crossed into the blue." These include fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants adventurers, former race car drivers, logisticians, strategists and a crop of great pilots. They were all pioneers who helped form and guide our fledging Air Force. 

One of these pioneers was General Carl "Tooey" Spaatz, who was the first chief of staff of the independent Air Force and a main developer of tactical air doctrine. During World War II, he was a commanding general in every important air campaign - in Germany, the Mediterranean, Africa, and in the Pacific. He was one of the chief strategists who resolved the intricate maze of logistics into an effective strategic bombing campaign for the defeat of Germany, Italy and Japan. On D-Day, he commanded the largest armada of aircraft and airmen ever assembled under the control of a single commander. In today's terminology he was one of the first combined forces air component commanders! 

Gen. "Tooey" Spaatz was an important figure in Air Force history - part of the "greatest generation." This year is the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. As time passes, fewer of that generation remain. However, Hollywood films from the 1940s' classic "Twelve O'Clock High" to the more recent "Band of Brothers" and "Tuskegee Airmen" have raised awareness and, as a result, a new generation is gaining an appreciation and respect for what World War II veterans experienced. While their numbers continue to decrease, they deserve our thanks every year. 

General Spaatz would be surprised at how the Air Force has branched out from its traditional roles. The obvious example is battlefield Airmen. Air Force combat and tactical air controllers were involved in some of the coalition's heaviest fighting in Iraq. Now their mission is likely to include aerial surveillance of suspect insurgents as well as bringing in aircraft as a show of force and actually directing bombs and bullets on target. 
Another example would be the continuing support Airmen offer playing a critical role in Army convoy operations as drivers and security augmentees. Some thought that Airmen could not do the same jobs as their Army counterparts, let alone man a .50 caliber machine gun to protect an Army convoy. In a matter of months, Air Force transportation units transformed their usual load-drive-deliver mission into one with Airmen trained for a different kind of battle. They've escorted convoys over more than 400,000 miles of dangerous roads. 

The unit responsible for this duty, the 332nd Expeditionary Wing at Balad Air Base, Iraq, has a pedigree dating back to the Tuskegee Airmen and their 332nd Fighter Group. Then, as now, escort duty to ensure the safe delivery of resources, supplies and personnel is paramount to the mission of the 332nd units. While nearly 60 years have passed, the 332nd tradition of excellence continues. But, as always, it comes at a cost. 

Airman 1st Class Elizabeth Jacobson, a motivated 21-year-old from Riviera Beach, Fla., was assigned to the 17th Security Forces Squadron at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas. Airman Jacobson had been in the Air Force for two years and was described by her wing commander as "an outstanding Airman who embraced life and took on all the challenges and responsibilities with extraordinary commitment to her country, her comrades and her family." 

She had been in Iraq for a little more than three months and was excited to be deployed and providing convoy security. She was doing a job she loved in support of a cause she believed in. Her potential was limitless and she had her whole life ahead of her. A life cut tragically short by an improvised explosive device near Camp Bucca, Iraq on Sept. 28. She is the first female Airman killed in the line of duty in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

Col. Timothy Hale, 386th Air Expeditionary Wing commander, spoke about Airman Jacobson's courage, dedication and the unanswered questions filling the space where a young Airman once stood. "Of course, we don't have any of those answers. But because we have the questions, we clearly have a responsibility to stand in the breach for her," he said. "We are not just the beneficiaries of her bravery; we are the stewards of her sacrifice." Words that hold true for all veterans and the sacrifices they have made, and will make in the future. 

Airmen take pride knowing they share many parallels with the visionaries and pioneers that helped make your Air Force the greatest the world has ever known. Like their predecessors, they do their often demanding tasks with the utmost integrity. They endure hardships and learn to live extended periods without their families with a firm commitment to service before self, and an unyielding belief that freedom isn't free. And just like the brave men and women who came before them, they continue to set an unwavering standard of excellence in everything they do. 

And so it is with today's Airmen... an integral part of Total Force including active, Guard and Reserve warriors standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen. 

Americans everywhere have rediscovered a great pride in our nation's veterans. Because of veterans past, we are free. Because of veterans present and future, we'll remain free. Thank you.