By Rhonda Keenum
As I sat in traffic waiting to drop off our kids at school on Dec. 15, the lead story on the radio was about ceremonies in Baghdad marking the end of U.S. military involvement in Iraq.
I was moved by the memories and emotions that report triggered, taking me back to Sept. 11, 2001, when I was also sitting in traffic – across from the Pentagon just minutes before a hijacked airliner struck, killing our dear friend Army Lt. Col. Jerry Dickerson and 124 others.
I thought about how the world has changed since 9/11. Our nation became more vigilant, concerned about the terror that had come to our homeland and fearful of what might follow. Then came military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq involving more than one million service personnel.
As time has passed over this decade, concern about another terrorist attack has waned, and those far-away conflicts have largely disappeared from the front pages of our newspapers. Families with deployed loved ones are paying attention, but for so many Americans the focus is on issues close to home such as jobs, dance recitals, PTA meetings and church events.
My thoughts returned to the families of all who died on 9/11. I thought about the 4,476 U.S. service personnel killed and 32,000 wounded in Iraq. I thought about the 1,880 deaths and nearly 15,000 wounded in Afghanistan. I am especially mindful of the Mississippians who have died, including Army Spc. Larry Kenyatta Brown of Jackson and Marine Lt. Shane Childers of Gulfport, the first two from the Magnolia State to be killed in Iraq and Marine Cpl. Casey Lynne Casanova of McComb, our only female casualty. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with all of our Mississippi brethren who have stepped forward in defense of freedom.
As we move into a new year, it is my hope that we pause to remember their sacrifices and pledge to support returning veterans and their families, survivors of the fallen as well as those who continue to put themselves in harm’s way.
Given the state of our national economy, many veterans may face challenges entering the job market. I was heartened to read that a number of major U.S. companies have pledged to hire 100,000 veterans and their spouses by 2014. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is also on board, joining up with the U.S. Department of Labor and Employer Support for National Guard and Reserve to promote the “Hire A Hero” program.
Other veterans may choose to continue their education. Institutions of higher learning are reaching out with opportunities. Nowhere is that more evident than at Mississippi State University, where the Sonny Montgomery Center for America’s Veterans provides wide-ranging services to assist veterans returning to civilian life and the classroom, as well as their families.
The Center is named after MSU alumnus and author of the modern-day GI Bill, G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery. It was recently recognized as one of the “Top 20” most veteran-friendly universities in the nation. Among its services are academic and career counseling, admissions and scholarship assistance and help with VA/Defense Department issues, in addition to being a welcoming place for veterans in need of encouraging words.
Mississippians are a patriotic bunch. We proudly salute those who continue to serve in uniform here and around the world, and I have every confidence we will do our part to welcome home our returning heroes. We can all express appreciation in some way, whether it is the offer of a job, a reassuring comment from a fellow student on campus or simply a “thank you” to a Guardsman or Reservist who lives down the street. They deserve to know that we remember their service and sacrifice.
Rhonda Keenum is a former member of the White House staff in the administration of President George W. Bush. Her husband, Mark Keenum, is president of Mississippi State University. Contact her through Kyle Steward at KSteward@pres.msstate.edu.