First Sergeant John Okerson Speaks at SIC’s Veterans Day Recognition Ceremony
This year marks the 100th anniversary of The Armistice of 11 November 1918, that ended fighting on land, sea and air in World War I. Honoring and welcoming local veterans, Southeastern Illinois College held their annual Veterans Recognition Ceremony on Friday, Nov. 9.
Retired United States Army First Sergeant, John Okerson was the keynote speaker at the event where he paid tribute to those who have served and are serving in the United States military.
“These men and women took an oath to fight for our rights, our freedoms and to ultimately give their lives in that defense, even if they don’t know you,” said Okerson. “Can you imagine someone willing to give their life for you, even if they don’t know you? In cities and communities across our great country, there are men and women who have, and are still willing to do just that.”
First Sergeant Okerson enlisted in the United States Army on September 11, 1992 from the Marion, Illinois recruiting station and retired on August 31, 2013 after 20 plus years of service. He spent three-quarters of his career as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; serving with the Infantry, Combat Engineers, Field Artillery and as an IED-Defeat (Improvised Explosive Device) Instructor for deploying units.
“It is American veterans who have made America safe,” said Okerson. “Veterans have accomplished remarkable things throughout our nation’s history. America would not be America without veterans. Period.”
Okerson spoke of how we, as grateful Americans, should be helping our Veterans.
“Those who defend us for enemies must be supported,” said Okerson. “We need to serve Veterans as well as they served us. Veterans have given us freedoms, security in the greatest nation on earth. It is important that you do not put a price on that. We must remember that we must appreciate them, we must honor them, but most of all, we must help them.”
First Sergeant Okerson’s military awards and decorations include three Bronze Star Medals, four Meritorious Service Medals, six Army Commendation Medals, eight Army Achievement Medals, the Humanitarian Service Medal, the Iraqi and Afghanistan Campaign Medals, the Global War on Terrorism Service and Expeditionary Medals, the NATO Medal, the Armed Forces Service Medal, the Korean Defense Service Medal, the Combat Action Badge,
Parachutist, Senior Parachutist and Master Parachutist Badges, Air Assault Badge, and the German, Italian, Spanish, Belgium and Honduran Parachutists Badges. First Sergeant Okerson is a member of the Ordnance Order of Samuel Sharpe and the Forces Command Sergeant Audie Murphy Club.
Okerson and his wife Crystal reside in Harrisburg with their three daughters Nicole, Ilaria and Adalynn, and a granddaughter Jeralynn. He works part-time as a fitness instructor at Reform Gym. After leaving the military, he has continued serving others through his volunteer work with numerous non-profits and community organizations. His passion, however, lies within the veteran community where he serves as the volunteer leader of our local chapter of Team Red, White and Blue. His outgoing personality and active lifestyle were a fit with an organization such as Team RWB. John works tirelessly to provide both physical and social opportunities for veterans throughout Southern Illinois. He is also very active with the American Legion (a past Post Commander), the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Veterans Honor Flight of Southern Illinois, Wounded Warrior Project and as a Veteran Advisor for State Representatives and Senators.
The National Anthem was sung by SIC student Braden Cummins and the Pledge of Allegiance was led by the Pre-K class of the Mary Jo Oldham Center for Child Study. Executive dean of student services, Chad Flannery welcomed the audience to the ceremony. Lauren Luce gave the benediction at the end of the ceremony.
“It is important to us that we honor our veterans for their sacrifice,” said Flannery. “As John mentioned, these people do not personally know us, but they are willing to give their lives for us to protect this great country. We are able to celebrate them and their efforts in keeping our freedom.”
Okerson was also joined by Color Guard from Harrisburg Post 167 and Carrier Mills Post 364 and Michael Hillegas Chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution members, Kathy R. Morris, Sharon L. Tanner, Janice Hall, Sheila Albright and Candy Evans to remember those who died defending their country and to support those who have returned home from service or who are currently serving in the military.
Currently, close to 45 veterans and dependents of veterans currently attend SIC using veteran education benefits. Certifying and recertifying educational benefits, special recognition events, discounts, free access to the fitness center, care packages, assistance with grants and scholarships and college credit for military experience, are just some of the additional things the college and its Veterans Service Office have provided its veterans over the years.