Posts Tagged ‘Vietnam War’

Extraordinary stories of ordinary people

Extraordinary stories of ordinary people


“That’s Mary Ford,” I said, pointing to the faded image of the Army nurse on the man’s tee shirt.

He nodded.

“She was my sister. She’s in here, too,” he said, holding up a booklet.

“I know. I’m the one who put her in there.”

We shook hands and both started crying.

In September of 2006, South Dakota dedicated its Vietnam War Memorial with a three-day celebration. Today, the state observes its first “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day”, an official state holiday to honor those who served in Vietnam.

I was on the planning committee for the 2006 event, the third war memorial dedication in our state. I’d worked on the previous two as well, for the World War II Memorial in 2001 (literally days after 9/11) and the Korean War Memorial in 2004. My duties were to design, write and oversee the production of all the printed materials like invitations, signs, apparel, name badges, banners, concert tickets and so on. And the commemorative program booklet which for the Vietnam War Memorial Dedication included the pictures and stories of more than a dozen South Dakota veterans.

Thousands of veterans, along with friends and family members, submitted photos and stories for the dedication website and a book “The Vietnam War: South Dakota Remembers” that was published in conjunction with the event. I read and reviewed all of them.

I knew some of those people. Dennis Foell, Nick Roseland, Dale Christopherson, the Harford brothers (Warren, Jerry and Doug), Dale Bertsch, Francis Whitebird. Others I didn’t, like Mary Ford. But their memories and images were no less compelling or personal to me.

Some Vietnam veterans wouldn’t attend that weekend and given the reception they got when they first came home after the war, that’s to be expected. Sometimes a “Thank you and welcome home” 30 years later is too little, too late.

There are moments from that fall weekend in 2006 that I will always remember. The biker with the Vietnam Veteran patch who saw the “committee” designation on my shirt and asked if he could hug me. I said yes. The quiet man who handed me his “Find a Buddy” card to hang on the board and whose “buddy” turned out to be the older brother of one of my friends. A few quick phone calls later, they were reunited for the first time since shipping out together. And meeting Mary Ford’s brother who had brought his family to the dedication in her honor because she couldn’t attend herself. The smiling, compassionate woman who’d entered the service on Halloween 1967 and served two tours in Vietnam as an Army nurse died in 1998.

It’s March 30, “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day” in South Dakota. Who are you thanking today?

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 On August 1, 2007, the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota collapsed during the evening rush hour, sending vehicles and their occupants plummeting toward the Mississippi River. Thirteen people died, 145 more were injured. It was a Wednesday; for some reason I remember that clearly. The news footage that night and for days after was filled with images of mangled steel bridge supports, the crushed shells of vehicles, rescue crews pulling victims, living and dead, out of the water and off of the crumbled sections of the bridge. I remember calling my friend Lynnette, who lives near the Cities, to make sure neither she nor anyone in her family had been crossing the bridge on the way home that night. The odds that they would be were astronomical, I’m sure, but calls like that are something we do when people who are important to us are in the proximity of tragic events.

On August 1, 2011, a memorial to the 35W bridge collapse was unveiled. It’s called the I-35W Remembrance Garden and it sits along West River Parkway about a quarter-mile upstream from where the tragedy occurred. The memorial contains a granite wall with a message in stainless steel letters that reads:

“Our lives are not only defined by what happens, but by how we act in the face of it, not only by what life brings us, but by what we bring to life. Selfless actions and compassion create enduring community out of tragic events.”

Two days after the unveiling, the memorial wall was vandalized and that message was reduced to a cryptic jumble of words because some disrespectful idiot pried 22 of the letters off the wall. Stupid, pointless, inexcusable. No reason could justify such action. The remaining letters have since been removed because the incomplete message was confusing to visitors. The builder of the memorial hopes to have new letters made and the memorial repaired later this month.

I have a thing for memorials and monuments. I am proud to have worked on the dedication events for South Dakota’s World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War Veterans Memorials. When I travel, I visit memorial sites when I have the opportunity. And several times a year, I make random donations to small communities who are raising funds for local memorials whether they be for veterans, founders, or in celebration of a community surviving 100 years of existence on the Midwestern prairie.

Memorials are erected in honor of the famous and the nameless, in recognition of victories and losses, to celebrate histories and inspire futures. But they all have the same purpose: to make us remember. So to the I-35W Memorial vandal, when they catch you (and they will), how will you be remembered? As the jerk who defaced a memorial to the dead and a tribute to the living.

Have a memorial or monument that has special meaning to you? I’d love to hear about it!