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Soon, the 38,000 motorists who drive Lincoln’s Big X every day will know Staff Sgt. Patrick Hamburger’s name.

But at a ceremony Friday to rename the bridge in his honor, those who knew him best talked about who he was.

“He was a playful, joke-playing kid,” remembered his ninth-grade industrial arts teacher, Charmain Satree. “He loved life and what it had to offer.”

He was cocky and confident, said his boss, Mike Watson. “I was impressed with his enthusiasm, and the way he always called me sir.”

And he was a bridge-builder in his own right, said his friend and fellow soldier, Josh Ommert.

“Our unit was brought closer because of Pat. He raised the standards in our unit and he brought everybody together.”

Then Ommert looked around the crowded auditorium at the Nebraska Army National Guard Armory, near the base of the bridge. He saw the hundreds of people — the mayor and the lieutenant governor, officers and enlisted men, Patriot Guard members and Gold Star families and members of the American Legion and VFW, his friend’s fianceé and daughters.

“This is way too serious for Pat,” he said. “He never wanted it to get too serious. That’s the last thing he’d want. If it got too serious, he’d make a joke.”

But then he said this about his friend: He would not have traded places with anyone that day in Afghanistan. He would have not wanted anyone else to get hurt.

Hamburger was killed Aug. 6, 2011, in Afghanistan when his Chinook helicopter was shot down. The National Guard flight engineer was 30.

His family, led by his brother, Chris, had been trying to get a bridge named in his honor since 2012, with help from Bridges For The Fallen. The volunteer group has helped 466 Gold Star families get bridges dedicated across the country, and is working with 1,300 more.

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Rob Mador started the group in Massachusetts after his friend was killed in Afghanistan.

It can be a struggle to convince governments to make the change, he said. The Hamburger family had some trouble getting traction.

“But I can be pretty convincing,” Mador said after the ceremony. “They did the right thing.”

Lincoln’s renamed bridge is his group’s first in Nebraska, he said.

“So this paves the way for a lot of other healing as well. These bridges are really nothing more than mechanisms for healing.”

Mayor Chris Beutler called the bridge renaming a small action that he hopes carries a larger meaning.

“As we travel the bridge over the course of our lives, let us be reminded of the service and sacrifice of a brave soldier. Let us too be mindful of all veterans who have served their country.”

And that’s what the family wanted, said Hamburger’s father, Doug Hamburger. It requested the bridge be named the Staff Sergeant Patrick Hamburger Veterans Memorial Bridge, so it will honor all veterans.

“For a Gold Star mother or Gold Star dad, the worst thing they can ever think will happen is people will forget their child,” he said. “Thanks to the naming of this bridge today, Pat’s going to be remembered forever.”

He urged those in the audience to think of his son when they cross the bridge. He urged them to think of others, too.

“Please take a moment and say Patrick’s name, and we would like you to think of a veteran who’s important to you, someone that you know, and say their name as well.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.

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