Lawmakers and state leaders saluted Oklahoma’s veterans Thursday during a joint legislative session. "I look around and can express nothing but gratitude for your service and dedication to our country,” House Speaker Chris Benge told more than 150 veterans who gathered for Veterans Awareness Day in the House chamber’s gallery. "The United States has freed hundreds of millions of people from the chains of communism and totalitarianism over the years and this world is better off because of it,” said Benge, R-Tulsa. "There is no reason to apologize for America’s strength.” Veterans stood and applauded. "Those who have given their lives fighting for freedom all over the world are the true heroes in this country,” Benge said. "Their sacrifice has made the human existence a stronger and better one. And that cause must continue.” State Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee said Oklahoma has a long history of supporting veterans and the military. "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” said Coffee, R-Oklahoma City. "It must be fought for, protected.” Lt. Gov. Jari Askins told lawmakers they should ensure that veterans in the state receive benefits and that they receive the highest level of care available. She encouraged them to visit veterans centers. "Veterans centers must be places to live, not merely places to exist,” Askins said. Pete Peterson, chairman of the Oklahoma Veterans Council, thanked legislators for providing benefits for the state’s about 400,000 veterans. Shawn Tracy of Norman, who served in the U.S. Army from 1987-90, said after the ceremony that veterans enjoy more benefits in Oklahoma. "This state does more for veterans than any other state does in benefits, tax exemptions,” he said. Richard Divine of Norman, who served in the Army from 1948-78, said Veterans Awareness Day at the state Capitol allows veterans a chance to visit with their legislators. "They do a lot of work for us so we have to thank them once in a while,” Divine said.