A column by Gov. Dennis Daugaard:
In the spring of 2012, I had the chance to visit somewhere I’d never expected to go. I joined Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee for a Department of Defense trip to Kuwait and Afghanistan. I am not well-traveled, so I had no idea what to expect.
Our first stop was Kuwait. Although it was springtime, we saw very little vegetation. Only along some parts of the road did we spot any growing plants – plants that had been planted and watered. We drove through blowing sand and dust, and traversed areas where overland oil pipelines and overhead electric transmission towers dominated the countryside. The dust was so bad at one point that we could not see the sun. The SD National Guard soldiers I met in Kuwait were just weeks from their scheduled return to South Dakota, and their mood was upbeat.
When we arrived in Afghanistan we were directed to wear helmets and flak jackets. America was actively at war here. We traveled in armored helicopters and when we flew, it was largely at night. Our helicopter was equipped with machine guns mounted on both sides. Armed soldiers accompanied us throughout our stay. In one daytime flight I noticed the walls surrounding most homes and some fields. The walls weren’t built to contain or exclude livestock, but to provide security. One group of SD National Guard I met had the duty of providing security for transports. The mood of these guardsmen was more serious and tense.
Enroute home, we flew to Landstuhl, Germany, where the most severely injured troops were being sent. I remember a conversation with a soldier who had been shot in the lower extremities and would suffer permanent damage. His two buddies had also been shot. He judged that the person who shot them was about 10 years old.
When I arrived back in South Dakota, the prairies were lush and green. No escorts were needed, nor any body armor. I saw well-kept houses surrounded by green lawns. Kids were playing outside.
In America, our abundance and freedom is so commonplace that we often take things for granted – clean air, running water, kids playing, feelings of safety. Yet there are many places in the world where these things are uncommon or even rare.
On July 2, a group of South Dakotans who understand this more deeply than the rest of us will return home. After 10 months in Kuwait, the 155th Engineer Company will return to South Dakota. I expect the soldiers of the 155th will spend this holiday weekend fully appreciating the freedoms we have in America, and we should do likewise.
This Independence Day let us celebrate the beliefs upon which America was founded – that every person is born with unalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our freedoms have led to a prosperity that no one in 1776 could have imagined.
But beliefs alone did not secure America’s way of life. Rather, it was those beliefs made tangible through the sacrifices of those who have worn our country’s uniform. It is thanks to the men and women of the 155th Engineer Company and all of those who have served that you and I are free.
Happy Independence Day, America.