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Column: On National Vietnam War Veterans Day, we honored those who served

The Brainerd VFW paid tribute to Vietnam Vets that day and many came to share their stories and memorabilia.

Vietnam veterans talking at a table.
Veterans share their experiences from the Vietnam War Tuesday, March 29, 2022, at the VFW in Brainerd.
Contributed / Mark Persons
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BRAINERD — National Vietnam War Veterans Day was this past Tuesday, March 29. That day was chosen because it was officially the last day U.S. combat troops left Vietnam in 1973.

The Brainerd VFW paid tribute to Vietnam Vets that day and many came to share their stories and memorabilia. Sue Sterling, writer and VFW Auxiliary President, was able to sit down with some of those vets to hear from their own mouths how the Vietnam War affected them.

Why did they go over? When? How were they treated when they returned? How has that experience formed who they are today? Those are the questions six local Vietnam vets were asked. Here are their answers and how this community played a role in their transition.

They deployed to Vietnam when they were 19-21 years old. Only one said he was drafted; the others enlisted. They served between 1968 and 1973 — a very turbulent time in America. Their memories were both bitter and heartening. Most people did not want to hear about what they went through, nor were the vets willing to talk about it. Some of the bitterness has receded leaving them feeling proud of their service. They will never forget the people they met and the friends they made in-country, and often wonder what happened to them.

One of the veterans, a 1st lieutenant out of ROTC, was a C130 pilot in the Air Force who flew refugees out of Saigon at night. Fast forward 20 years. He was a pilot for Northwest Airlines when an engineer from Boeing Airlines came onboard to check his instruments. In their conversation the engineer said he had been flown out of Saigon with his grandfather in a C130 plane when he was 6 or 7 years old. On the same day our veteran was flying refugees out. Could he possibly have rescued that young man from that war torn country? They’ll never know for sure, but the two of them became friends. That meeting left this vet feeling that his years of service made a difference in the lives of the many people he served. After his time in Vietnam he went on to serve more years of active duty flying in Europe and the Middle East. His experience in Vietnam gave him an appreciation for home and the freedoms Americans have.

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Communication was very limited for the soldiers in that war, but one soldier who learned his wife had just given birth to a little girl was fortunate to connect with an Air Communications Specialist who was able to put through a call from Saigon to St. Paul to the amazement of all the operators who transferred it from Saigon to Honolulu to San Francisco to Minnesota. When the call finally got through to Bethesda Hospital, the nurse went running down the hall to his wife yelling, “Your husband is on the phone from Vietnam!” That was a memory that still brings smiles.

Most of the veterans spent 11 months “in country,” some even two years. Most came back trying to decide what they were going to do next. Their experience there gave all of them a world-wise education that changed the direction of their lives.

What was their biggest help when they returned? Most hearteningly, the answer was family and friends. The veterans of World War II were there to support them and give them advice also, and Minnesota’s education benefits put them on the road to a future career.

Some of these men came back bitter but acknowledged that their experiences in Vietnam made them better. The news media of that time made many of them feel like statistics. Now, 50 years later, they consider themselves statesmen. They had their struggles, grew through them and now they want to give back; to help other veterans coming home from duty. That’s why the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization exists. Their mission is to serve our veterans, the military and our communities. To advocate on behalf of all veterans.

Each veteran interviewed appreciates the support they have in this community. Folks who see their veteran’s cap insignia often stop and thank them for their service. They didn’t get that respect when they served in the 60s and 70s. Today’s returning soldiers are seen as heroes and they get the respect they deserve. The VFW is here to offer them and their families support, and that support is as close as the nearest computer or smartphone. The Brainerd VFW information is at https://www.brainerdvfw.org/ or check out their Facebook page at www.Facebook.com/BrainerdVFW .

War will always be hell. Some will come home, others will not. To those who did come home, we thank you. For the families of those who didn’t, we salute you. To the men and women everywhere who served and are still serving, know this community stands behind you. May peace and freedom reign!

Related Topics: VFWVETERANSBRAINERD
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