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Alexandria community rallies for fallen soldier's bridge dedication ceremony

“When you pass over that bridge, I don’t want you just to remember what Greg Wagner did; I want you to remember the way he did it, with kindness, compassion, respect and dignity,” Phil Stiles said

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Dan Wagner, brother of the late Greg Wagner, speaks to a crowd of about 500 people Thursday during the bridge dedication ceremony at Hanson High School. (Sam Fosness / Republic)

ALEXANDRIA — Veterans Day was a special one for the community of Alexandria, as they rallied to pay a special tribute for one of their own fallen soldiers.

It’s been 15 years since the late Greg Wagner was killed in Iraq while defending America during the War on Terror, but his sacrifice will never be forgotten. On Thursday, over 500 people packed in to the Hanson High School gymnasium to take part in a bridge dedication ceremony in Wagner's honor.

Some of South Dakota’s top-elected officials and the secretary of South Dakota’s Veterans Affairs Department trekked to Alexandria to lead the ceremony and name the Highway 38 bridge after Wagner, who died in the line of duty at the age of 35. The Greg Wagner bridge is located on the east edge of Mitchell, crossing over the James River.

“This is so humbling to see so many of you here for Greg. I can’t tell you how truly of an honor it is to name a bridge over the James River for my brother, ” an emotional Dan Wagner said of his late brother and fellow soldier. “It is my understanding that Greg’s squadron had to form a circle and recite the Lord’s prayer. And so may the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.”

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Dan Wagner, brother of the late Greg Wagner, left, unveils the sign named after his brother on Thursday during the bridge dedication ceremony at Hanson High School. (Sam Fosness / Republic)

Before he was killed on May 8, 2006 by an improvised explosive device (IED) in a Baghdad, Iraq, neighborhood, Wagner capped off an illustrious military career, earning himself a Bronze Star medal and a Purple Heart — one of the most coveted U.S. military medals. The Alexandria native climbed the military ranks to become a staff sergeant in the 665th Maintenance Company, which was based out of Mitchell.

As South Dakota Air National Guard soldier Phil Stiles put it, Wagner was a “true inspiration.” He pointed to Wagner’s ability to lead with “compassion and respect” as qualities that he will carry with him forever.

“When you pass over that bridge, I don’t want you just to remember what Greg Wagner did. I want you to remember the way he did it with kindness, compassion, respect and dignity,” Stiles said, igniting a standing ovation from the crowd.

As one of the soldiers who served alongside Wagner during the War on Terror, Stiles recounted the tragic IED explosion that took Wagner’s life and said it was a moment that left him feeling angry.

“It was a neighborhood where soldiers would spend hours handing school supplies and candy for the children, and there I was standing on that same ground in the same neighborhood, angry, frustrated and heartbroken,” an emotional Stiles said of the area where Wagner was killed. “I told the hundreds of Iraq citizens gathered around the vehicle that this will change nothing. We will be back. We will continue to patrol and hand out candy and school supplies in this great neighborhood, because this senseless attack will change absolutely nothing. I did that because that’s exactly what SSG Wagner would have done.”

U.S. Senator John Thune spoke to the positive characteristics that Wagner lived by, saying he had a “smile that could light up any room.”

Thune pointed to Wagner’s determination to serve in the U.S. Army at an early age as a symbol of the courage and dedication he had for his country. But above all, Thune said Wagner’s sacrifice on the battlefields of Iraq served a greater purpose.

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“This son of the prairie decided very early on in life that he wanted to serve his country. He paid the ultimate price. In doing so, he served a purpose and a cause that was greater than himself,” Thune said.

While some have questioned the longevity of America’s military presence in the Middle East following the deadly terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Thune said the U.S. military’s role in Iraq has made the country a better place.

“He went to a place so far away that most people would say ‘what are we doing there?’ But today, that country is a better place. It’s more stable, more secure and more democratic. And by extension, our country and the American people are more safe,” Thune said.

A time to remember veterans

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Jimmy Weber sings a song to honor the late Greg Wagner on Thursday during the bridge dedication ceremony at Hanson High School. (Sam Fosness / Republic)

In the spirit of Veteran’s Day, Thune emphasized the importance of remembering and honoring all fallen military service members, pointing to it as a way of preserving the freedom and liberty that America has had since 1776.

“It’s so important for future generations to understand what has come before them. In between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial are memorials that honor fallen soldiers and veterans. All those memorials serve an important life purpose, and that is to remind the next generation of what those who have come before them have done,” Thune said.

Greg Whitlock, secretary of the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs, said the bridge dedications that began in 2019 were established to remember the state’s military veterans in a “unique way.”

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As Whitlock and Lt. Governor Larry Rhoden trek across the state each year to dedicate bridges after South Dakota soldiers, they’ve been able to witness the pride each community has for their own fallen heroes.

“On this Veterans Day, there is much to commemorate and much to be thankful for. It is true that America is strong and free, but we would have never come this far without the heroes we call veterans,” Whitlock said. “The valiant courage, bravery and selflessness of South Dakota men and women who served and sacrificed will not be forgotten. And today, we are here to honor one of those heroes.”

To bring the ceremony to a close, a well-known South Dakota country music artist and longtime friend of Wagner’s, Jimmy Weber, sang “God Bless the USA,” which brought the crowd to their feet.

Related Topics: SOUTH DAKOTAJOHN THUNE
Sam Fosness joined the Mitchell Republic in May 2018. He was raised in Mitchell, S.D., and graduated from Mitchell High School. He continued his education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English. During his time in college, Fosness worked as a news and sports reporter for The Volante newspaper.
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