Staff Sgt. Clint Romesha ended his speech Saturday afternoon at the seventh annual Patriot Guard Fallen Heroes Memorial and Honor Ride with words that spoke to the heart of everyone in attendance at the Dickinson Recreation Center.
“There’s an old saying that those who stay home serve also,” said Romesha, a U.S. Army veteran and the nation’s most recent Medal of Honor recipient, before receiving a standing ovation.
Romesha, a California native who now calls Minot home, was the guest of honor at the memorial that paid tribute to the families of four North Dakota soldiers who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jane Yanney of Bismarck, whose son Pfc. Jonathan Yanney died in Afghanistan on Aug. 18, 2009, said the amount of support shown to her family at the event proves that while her son may be gone, his sacrifice is being remembered.
“They haven’t forgotten him,” Jane Yanney said with a smile as tears welled in her eyes. “I think that’s the main thing, that he’s not been forgotten.”
The families of Yanney — who once lived in Hettinger — Spc. Paul Beyer of Jamestown, Spc. Keenan Cooper of Wahpeton and Staff Sgt. David Kuehl of Wahpeton received plaques and a battlefield cross statuette from the Patriot Guard.
As she stood outside following the memorial, Jane Yanney looked around the crowd as hundreds of people hopped off motorcycles for the honor ride that would pass through Gladstone, Regent and New England before returning to Dickinson.
“It’s an honor,” she said with another smile. “Jonathan would have loved it.”
The Patriot Guard began as a group that would attend the funeral services of U.S. military members who died in Iraq and Afghanistan to stand guard against protesters, most notably the Westboro Baptist Church.
In his speech, Romesha described his first funeral detail assignment in Colorado after returning from Afghanistan when he met members of the Patriot Guard.
“We laid that hero to rest and, afterwards, me and the guys went over to talk to them,” Romesha said. “We said, ‘What are you guys doing here?’ They said, we’re from the Patriot Guard. We show up to every funeral. We’re that buffer zone, so when they come calling and throw stuff and say names, we’ll take the hit for you guys. We’ll stand here and take that for you, so you can do what you need to do.”
Romesha said many members of Patriot Guard groups are Vietnam veterans.
“We can never say it enough but, for the Vietnam vets, welcome home. Because you guys never got that,” he said to applause.
Romesha has been doing some public speaking since being awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama on Feb. 11. He is “taking a break” from the oil field work that brought him to North Dakota.
“To me, personally, I’ve been asked, ‘How do I feel, coming to events like this? Is it hard?’” Romesha said. “For me, I’m just wearing this award for the time being. I’m the bearer of it. It’s a heavy load at times, but to share it with everyone helps lighten that load as it gets dispersed out.”
While Romesha was the guest of honor, guest speaker Lt. Col. Davina French of the North Dakota National Guard may as well have been the comic relief.
French, who served as a captain during the Iraq war, was affable and entertaining as she told stories about the soldiers who served under her when she was captain of the 957th Engineer Company when the war began 10 years ago.
One of those soldiers was Spc. Jon Fettig of Dickinson, who died July 22, 2003, when the truck he was in was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade outside Ramadi, Iraq.
French described Fettig as a determined soldier who was quick to volunteer for a dirty job.
Larry and Shirley Fettig, Jon’s parents, were among the families of the fallen soldiers who attended the memorial. Shirley said she is thankful that her son’s memory is being preserved.
“If it’s just one time a year that he is remembered, that makes me feel good,” Shirley Fettig said. “That’s my worst fear, is that he’ll be forgotten.”
French said in her speech that while the Patriot Guard arose because of trying circumstances, it has united two somewhat unlikely groups of people.
“You guys were meant to be together,” she said, motioning first to the Patriot Guard and then to the families of fallen soldiers. “Of all the tragedy that has happened the last 10 years, to all of us, I’ve just got to tell you, the only note I had for this whole speech just says, ‘Thanks.’ Because I don’t know if you guys get enough thanks out there for helping us; for helping us return and for being a part of our lives. So, from my heart to you guys, thank you very much and I appreciate what you do.”