Retired four-star Gen. William Begert has given Memorial Day speeches around the world, but the one he is scheduled to give Saturday in Lewiston will be a little more personal.

It will be his first Memorial Day address in the city where he was born and raised.

“It’s different when you’re doing it in your hometown, where you grew up and you have such deep roots, and your family has deep roots,” Begert said. ” It’s going to be a really special day.”

Begert, who retired in 2004 as the commander of the Pacific Air Forces, will be the featured speaker at this year’s ceremony in Veterans Memorial Park, where the 29th memorial stone with 216 names of local servicemen will be unveiled Saturday.

President of his senior class at Lewiston, Begert graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1968. He began as an instructor for the C-141 Starlifter transport planes. During Vietnam, Begert served as a forward air controller, flying more than 300 combat missions over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

In the years after the war, Begert served as an instructor at the Air Force Academy and a commander of various squadrons and wings. After he was vice commander of the Air Force in Europe in the late 1990s, he left a position at the Pentagon to become commander of the Pacific Air Forces from 2001 until his retirement in 2004.

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Stationed at Hickman Air Force Base in Hawaii, Begert was in charge of the Air Force from the Western California coast to the East Coast of Africa and from the North Pole to the South Pole.

His role was critical during the aftermath of 9/11. His Pacific forces were “deeply involved” in the planning and execution of the invasion of Afghanistan.

“The first plane to cross the fence on the first night was an F-16 from Misawa Air Force Base in Japan that we had sent to the Middle East,” Begert said. “In fact, the first flight across was led by a female fighter pilot in that squadron. They were the ones to knock down the enemy defenses that let the rest of the airplanes come in.”

The Air Force faces some readiness challenges today, Begert said. The Air Force has never been smaller. Funding constraints is a direct result of budget sequestration in Congress. He estimates the Air Force has a pilot shortage of perhaps 1,400.

But that strain hasn’t prevented the Air Force from fulfilling its mission on a daily basis.

“The actual capabilities of the Air Force are amazing and remains amazing,” Begert said. “Starting with the First Gulf War on the 17th day of January 1991, not a day has gone by in the past 26 years that Air Force airplanes have not flown combat missions in either Iraq or Bosnia or Kosovo or Afghanistan or Syria or some place. Every single day there’s been combat mission associated with the U.S. Air Force for 26 years.”

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Despite his 36-year military career, Begert has never forgotten his Maine roots. He would often spend at least a week every summer in New Gloucester near Sabbathday Lake. Although he was never stationed in Maine, Begert said his two children consider Maine home.

He still plays golf with his high school buddies several times a week at a local golf course.

Begert even took his two grandchildren, ages 12 and 16, flying earlier this year in California, with each in a plane with an instructor pilot.

“At one point, we were all flying the airplanes in formation together. That was pretty cool,” Begert said.

But Memorial Day is a time Begert gets reflective on his career and his friends.

“People that I served with in squadrons in Vietnam, as well as academy classmates who have been killed either in combat, airplane accidents or, just at this point, natural causes,” Begert said. “I think about a lot of these folks and how fortunate I’ve been in my own career to have the opportunities that I did, and how they did not have those opportunities.”

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His address will reflect that service and the sacrifice many have made for freedom, he said.

Six members of Begert’s family will be memorialized on the granite stone that celebrates the Civil Air Patrol. Also on the same stone is Thomas J. Field of Lisbon, who was one of 19 Americans killed in the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, which was featured in the book and movie, “Black Hawk Down.”

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Retired four-star Gen. William Begert

BREAKOUT BOX

The annual Memorial Day parade and ceremony will be held Saturday, May 27. The parade will start from Kennedy Park in Lewiston at 9:30 a.m., head down Lisbon Street, Main Street and finish in Auburn. The ceremony at Veterans’ Park in Lewiston, located along the Androscoggin River next to the falls on Main Street, begins at 10:30 a.m.


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