Honoring the fallen in St. George: ‘Our American freedom was earned and is maintained at a great price’ (2024)

ST. GEORGE — The themes of duty, honor and country were at the forefront of the Memorial Day Ceremony at SunRiver Veterans Honor Park Monday morning.

The event’s organizers said it was probably the largest crowd they’d seen in its 13-year history. U.S. Air Force Col. Erin J. Knightner, the keynote speaker, flew in from Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

“Duty, honor, country; those words may ring true to some in the audience more than others,” Knightner said. “If you are one of the lucky ones to be present and hear that meaningful and familiar phrase today, I’m grateful for your service.”

Knightner said while this weekend might be packed with family fun and outdoor activities, it is important to pause the summer festivities to remember the true meaning of Memorial Day.

Our American freedom was earned and is maintained at a great price and great sacrifice by very few and for so very many,” she said. “This weekend, I hope you’ll take time toreflect on those who paid the ultimate price to preserve our liberties and freedom.”

Knightner has served in the U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps for over 27 years and is currently the Chief of Clinical Operations and Command Chief Nurse for Air Force Material Command and the United States Space Force. She oversees clinical and behavioral health care services, drug demand reduction, nursing practice and force development in support of 7,500 medical personnel and 375,000 military beneficiaries across 12 military treatment facilities.

Kinghtner’s military servicehas primarily been defined by the longest war in American history. She said almost 2,500 Americans lost their lives during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Freedom’s Sentinal and nearly 4,500 in Iraq.

“I would say it’s fair to speculate that the death toll from fighting conflicts on dual fronts continues to rise each day,” Knightner said. “Unseen wounds fester from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, andwe continue to seek ways to support our veterans despite national shortages of mental health professionals.”

In 2011, Knightner said America was still at the height of Operation Enduring Freedomand 98,000 troops were in Afghanistan. She was deployed to provide medical support as the Chief Nurse at Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan was a home base for refuelers for aircraft over Afghan airspace and a transit center for 5,000 troops at any time awaiting transportation to Afghanistan or back home.

“More thanonce,I cared for a young soldier, sailor, marine, airman in the clinic only to see his namedays lateron a casualty report,” Knightner said. “While we were there, Osama bin Laden was hunted down and killed, and as we were glued to the TV when it was announced to the world, my OR nurse, impatient to get home, asked, “’Can we go home now?’”

In 2021, Knightner was in the midst of the winding down of the conflict in Afghanistan. She provided refugee medical support during Operation Allies Welcome and Operation Allies Refuge in Virginia. During this time, she said the United States kept its vow to thousands of Afghan citizens who were promised assistance at the end of the conflict.

“You would be amazed at their stories of commitment and sacrifice. Inspired at how much they risked to experience our freedom we often take for granted,” she said. “Simultaneously, service members’ wounds were reopened watching an ending we did not expect: the Afghan government collapsed, and the largest airlift in history demonstrated to the world not only our amazing hearts and souls and commitment to our word but our absolute military might and capabilities under pressure.”

Attendees who were service members or veterans were askedto stand. Knightner thanked them for answering the call of duty and said theyhad made America’s military the world’s most powerful and respected armed force.

“I ask that you support today’s service members perhaps better thanyou weresupported if you served in an era where our nation failed to express our gratitude,” Knightner said.

She added that the country is heading into the “Great Power Competition,” where rival nations compete to be the global leader on the international landscape. Knightner told the audience that today’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and guardians look to them for encouragement as their legacy leads into uncharted territory with old and new adversaries.

“While we’ve all been called heroes, we are not the heroes. We were allowed to come home and continue our lives,” she said. “The true heroes are the onesnot with us here today, butnonetheless,the nation is grateful for your selfless service and sacrifices.”

Service members’ families were also recognized at the ceremony. Knightner said that supporting a military member may be difficult at times. She thanked her own family as well.

“My 11-year-old son is also here today,” she said. “I thank him for his patience for all my time away and to my mother who flies in to rescue us when the schedule is not as family-friendly as my recruiter said it would be.”

Additionally, Knighter researched the Utah Medal of Honor recipients. She shared the tales of heroism and bravery she discovered.

Capt Mervyn S. Bennion from Vernon was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. He was one of the first World War II dead returned from overseas for stateside burial. Bennion was the Caption of the USS Tennessee, which was moored alongside the USS West Virginia during the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

“Even after being wounded on the ship, he continued to direct his sailors and died after being trapped by a fire but only after first ordering his sailors to leave the ship,” Knighter said.

She noted that in the movie “Pearl Harbor,” Bennion was portrayed by actor Peter Firth.

Jose F. Valdez was a native New Mexican but entered the Army at Pleasant Grove. Valdez was killed in January 1945 in France in a battle with the German army. Knighter said the Medal of Honor citation states he forced a German tank to withdraw the rifle and covered other soldiers as they fled with German soldiers nearing their patrol.

A bullet-wounded Valdez called for support, crawled to safety, covered the retreat of his soldiers and later died of his injuries. In Pleasant Grove, the local community has honored Valdez by naming the National Guard building after him.

In closing, Knightner asked the audience to remember, reflect and be grateful every day.

Knightner received her commission in 1996 from the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Hawaii. Before her current assignment, Knightner commanded the 90th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, where she supported 3,000 active duty assigned to the nation’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missile strategic mission. Then, she was the Chief Nurse of the 88th Medical Group, leading nursing care in the second-largest hospital in the Air Force.

After the event, David Mendoza, Veterans for Foreign Wars Post 2628commander, passed out plastic red poppies. He said the red commemorates the blood shed for the fallen members of the service and that they are not forgotten.

The Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution, American Legion Post 142, Marine Corps League 1270, Riders of Southern Utah, Knights of Columbus 4th Degree Honor Guard and Veterans of Foreign Wars also supported the annual Memorial Day Service.

Special guests included members of the St. George fire and police departments and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

Photo Gallery

U.S. Air Force Col. Erin J. Knightner (middle) was the keynote speaker at the Memorial Day Ceremony at SunRiver Veterans Honor Park, St. George, Utah, May 27, 2024 | Photo by Stephanie DeGraw, St. George News

The 2024 Memorial Day Ceremony at SunRiver Veterans Honor Park reportedly had one of the largest crowds on record, St. George, Utah, May 27, 2024 | Photo courtesy of Valerie King, St. George News

L-R: Gerald Harris, Marine Corps League No. 1270, with Peter Jensen and Mark Woodbury, members of Red Cliffs of Zion Sons of the American Revolution attend the Memorial Day Ceremony at SunRiver Veterans Honor Park, St. George, Utah, May 27, 2024 | Photo courtesy of Valerie King, St. George News

Marine Corps veteran Tom Cover, the Master of Ceremonies speaks at the Memorial Day Ceremony at SunRiver Veterans Honor Park, St. George, Utah, May 27, 2024 | Photo courtesy of Valerie King, St. George News

L-R: Heather Jenkins sits with her husband U.S. Army Colonel Colby Jenkins (who gave the opening prayer) at the Memorial Day Ceremony at SunRiver Veterans Honor Park, St. George, Utah, May 27, 2024 | Photo courtesy of Valerie King, St. George News

A memorial wreath is placed by members from Marine Corps League No. 1270 and American Legion at the Memorial Day Ceremony at SunRiver Veterans Honor Park, St. George, Utah, May 27, 2024 | Photo courtesy of Valerie King, St. George News

Color Country Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution member Heather Jenkins distributes American flags to ceremony attendees at the Memorial Day Ceremony at SunRiver Veterans Honor Park, St. George, Utah, May 27, 2024 | Photo courtesy of Valerie King, St. George News

High School student Lydia Ricks sings at the Memorial Day Ceremony at SunRiver Veterans Honor Park, St. George, Utah, May 27, 2024 | Photo courtesy of Valerie King, St. George News

U.S. Air Force Col. Erin J. Knightner speaks at the Memorial Day Ceremony at SunRiver Veterans Honor Park, St. George, Utah, May 27, 2024 | Photo courtesy of Valerie King, St. George News

Flags fly at half mast to honor our military fallen at the Memorial Day Ceremony at SunRiver Veterans Honor Park, St. George, Utah, May 27, 2024 | Photo courtesy of Valerie King, St. George News

Marine Corps League No. 1270 gives a seven-gun, three-volley salute at the Memorial Day Ceremony at SunRiver Veterans Honor Park, St. George, Utah, May 27, 2024 | Photo courtesy of Valerie King, St. George News

Members from Color Country Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution and Red Cliffs of Zion Chapter Sons of the American Revolutionattend the Memorial Day Ceremony at SunRiver Veterans Honor Park, St. George, Utah, May 27, 2024 | Photo courtesy of Valerie King, St. George News

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Billion Johnston sings the National Anthem at the Memorial Day Ceremony at SunRiver Veterans Honor Park, St. George, Utah, May 27, 2024 | Photo courtesy of Valerie King, St. George News

Pastor Rick Nerud, Calvary Chapel St. George, offers the closing prayer at the Memorial Day Ceremony at SunRiver Veterans Honor Park, St. George, Utah, May 27, 2024 | Photo courtesy of Valerie King, St. George News

Marine Corps League No. 1270 leads the flag procession at the Memorial Day Ceremony at SunRiver Veterans Honor Park, St. George, Utah, May 27, 2024 | Photo courtesy of Valerie King, St. George News

Bagpiper John Mayer leads the Knights of Columbus 4th Degree Honor Guard at the Memorial Day Ceremony at SunRiver Veterans Honor Park, St. George, Utah, May 27, 2024 | Photo courtesy of Valerie King, St. George News

Patriot Guard Riders ride at the Memorial Day Ceremony at SunRiver Veterans Honor Park, St. George, Utah, May 27, 2024 | Photo courtesy of Valerie King, St. George News

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2024, all rights reserved.

Stephanie DeGraw is an award-winning journalist. For 25 years, she engaged in journalism, broadcasting and public relations. DeGraw worked for the Salt Lake Tribune, Associated Press and The City Journals. She was a reporter for a CBS television station in Twin Falls, Idaho. She graduated from Weber State University with a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism and Broadcasting.

Email: [emailprotected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Honoring the fallen in St. George: ‘Our American freedom was earned and is maintained at a great price’ (2024)
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