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A Day to Remember Heroes

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- -- The meaning of Memorial Day has changed for me throughout the years and I ask that you take a few minutes this weekend to think about what it means to you. When I was a kid it meant a long weekend, placing flowers and flags at the cemetery, and watching John Wayne movies with my grandpa. After I joined the Air Force, it meant sharing the bond of service with those men and women who sacrificed and came before me. Then in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 200, the meaning of Memorial Day became a lot more personal.

The years on the road after 9/11 took me to places that I had never heard of and places I had only read about. That road also led me to meet some of the finest Airmen in the world. The list of those great Airmen is too long to write here, so I will just tell you about one of them. He was a security forces officer by the name of 1Lt Joseph Helton.

He was assigned to us as a flight commander and came to our unit about three months into the deployment. Our mission was to partner with and mentor sixteen Iraqi police stations spread throughout southern Baghdad. As the operations superintendent, I worked with 1Lt Helton daily and we even went on several patrols together. This was his first deployment, but right away you could tell he possessed special leadership and maturity that would no doubt make him become one of the shining stars in security forces.

As our year-long tour came to a close, we found out that 1Lt Helton would finish out his final few months in Iraq with another unit doing the same mission as us. He took the news in stride like a true professional. For the rest of us, that year was mentally and physically tough being outside the wire daily and dealing with insurgent activity. It was good to be going home and our unit was fortunate, because we had gone an entire year without a casualty. In my mind there was no way that the one Airman who stayed behind could become one.

Four days after returning home, I learned that 1Lt Helton had been killed by an improvised explosive device while on patrol. I had mentally let my guard down and words are inadequate to describe how hard it was to finally come to terms with what happened. So now, the meaning of Memorial Day has changed for me again.

For me, Memorial Day now means that I take time to remember heroes like 1Lt Helton, take time to share his story and ensure his sacrifice is not forgotten. It is also a day that makes me proud to be part of the finest Air Force in the world and serve with Airmen who keep the legacy of valor established by past generations strong and unbroken.