Military Heroes, Families Respond to State of Union Message

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 2006  - The family of a fallen Marine President Bush honored as a hero during his State of the Union address last night and five servicemembers invited to attend the address expressed gratitude today for the nation's support for the military.

Sara Jo and Bud Clay of Pensacola, Fla., parents of Marine Staff Sgt. Dan Clay, and Clay's widow, Lisa, of Aurora, Ohio, said during television interviews this morning that they felt honored to be invited to sit with first lady Laura Bush during the address and to have Clay honored.

During a Fox News Channel interview today, Lisa called it "incredibly comforting" to hear the president read from a letter Clay sent to his family before being killed in action Dec. 1 in Fallujah, Iraq.

The words in Clay's letter, Bush said during his speech, could just as well be addressed to every American. "I know what honor is," Clay wrote in the letter. "It has been an honor to protect and serve all of you. I faced death with the secure knowledge that you would not have to. Never falter! Don't hesitate to honor and support those of us who have the honor of protecting that which is worth protecting."

Lisa praised her husband's dedication to his fellow Marines and their mission in Iraq. "They believed in the mission and all the accomplishments they are making," she said.

Clay's mother said she felt honored to have her family sit with Mrs. Bush during the address. "We were simply so grateful to be able to be there, and everyone was delightful to us," she said. "It was a little overwhelming, but a real pleasure."

"Our nation is grateful to the fallen, who live in the memory of our country," Bush said during last night's address. "We are grateful to all who volunteer to wear our nation's uniform. And as we honor our brave troops, let us never forget the sacrifices of America's military families."

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jamie Dana, one of five servicemembers also invited to sit with the first lady during the address, said during a CNN interview today that she felt privileged to serve as a representative of the Air Force and U.S. military.

Dana, who became the first military working dog handler allowed to adopt her 5-year-old German shepherd partner from active duty after the two were injured in Iraq, said she credits quick-acting Air Force and Army medics with saving her life. Calling these medical professionals "heroes," Dana thanked them today for the life-saving support they gave her and that they provide other servicemembers every day. "They're miracle workers. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for them," she said.

Dana also expressed appreciation for the support she received at all levels, from the Air Force and Pentagon leadership to Congress to the White House, that enabled her to overcome obstacles to adopting her working dog, Rex. The two had been inseparable, training together for three years and deploying as a team to Pakistan, then Iraq, before the attack.

While recuperating from her wounds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here, Dana asked to adopt Rex, but learned that law prevented it because Rex was not ready for retirement. An act of Congress changed the law to allow dogs to be retired early when their handlers are severely injured.

With the two now together, Dana is awaiting a medical board to evaluate her case, but said she'll always keep Rex at her side wherever she goes. Her dream is to eventually work as a veterinarian, she said. "Rex will accompany me wherever I may end up," she said. "And hopefully we will be able to do some search-and-rescue work after I am strong enough to handle it."

Like Dana, honorees Army Sgt. Wasim Khan and Marine Corps Sgt. Nicholas Graff had been wounded in Iraq. Also joining them in the first lady's box were Navy Cmdr. Kimberly Evans, the first female Navy officer to command a provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan, and Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Joel Sayers, who rescued 167 Hurricane Katrina survivors in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast.

After coming to the United States less than 10 years ago, Khan, a native of Pakistan, was driven to do something good in the world. Currently a patient at Walter Reed, he was wounded in Baghdad by a rocket-propelled grenade in June 2003.

For Khan, of Queens, N.Y., the Army represented an opportunity to express his passion for peace, equal rights and freedom, defense officials said.

Khan was conducting security operations when a rocket-propelled grenade shattered his leg and sliced his body with shrapnel. In April 2005, he was honored for his courage and sacrifices at the 2005 American Veterans Disabled for Life Awards Gala.

Graff, another servicemember honored, wasn't willing to let combat wounds keep him from his mission in Iraq. Despite injuries received in November 2004 during Operation Al Fajr in Fallujah, the Arabic linguist quickly volunteered to return to Iraq as soon as possible after his recovery in the United States to lend his skills.

When he was back in Iraq, Graff served as a vehicle commander and provided support to Operation Matador. Officials credit his linguistic skills, operational knowledge and combat experience as a team leader and vehicle commander for helping prepare deploying Marines for their missions in Iraq.

Bush also honored Evans, who commanded the provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan during her seven-and-a-half month assignment. She directed operations over a physically challenging environment that spanned three provinces in western Afghanistan, defense officials said. In addition, she stood up a new forward operating base and PRT covering Laghman and parts of the Nuristan province, in the Hindu Kush mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

In recognizing the Coast Guard's vital role in homeland security, Bush honored Sayers, a rescue swimmer who played a key role in helping rescue trapped residents held hostage by Hurricane Katrina's rising floodwaters. From his aircraft, Sayers spotted a woman waving frantically from a small hole in the roof of her home.

Sayers was lowered from his helicopter to the roof, where he learned that the woman's husband, who had no use of his legs, was trapped in the attic. Recognizing that the attic hole was too small to rescue him, Sayers helped hoist the woman to the helicopter then descended back to the home with an ax in hand to rescue her husband.

A TV crew captured the rescue on film, and Sayers' heroism was broadcast around the world to epitomize the determination and compassion of the rescue effort, officials said.