Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

When war becomes personal… September 13, 2016

Rows and rows of names fill the panels comprise the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall.

Rows and rows of names fill the panels comprising the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall.

WHEN WAR SEEMS IMPERSONAL, like simply a list of stats and battles, we need only read the names and hear the stories.

I remember the few stories my father shared of his time on the front lines during the Korean War. He watched his buddy blown apart by a mortar the day before Ray was to return home. Ray’s death haunted my dad. And it still haunts me, a generation removed.

Thousands came to view the temporary wall in Faribault.

Thousands came to view the temporary wall in Faribault.

The Military Mobile Museum brought equipment to the fairgrounds.

The Military Mobile Museum brought equipment to the fairgrounds.

A field of crosses honors Minnesota soldiers who have died in wars since 9/11.

A field of crosses honors Minnesota soldiers who have died in wars since 9/11.

That war story lingered as I visited the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wallviewed military equipment, chatted with veterans and walked between rows of crosses Labor Day weekend at the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault.

Posted near the Traveling Wall.

Posted near the Traveling Wall.

Chemical agent paper spotted inside a military vehicle.

Chemical agent paper spotted inside a military vehicle.

Even this military truck was named by soldiers.

Even this military truck was named by soldiers.

The visuals before me reflected the reality of war. When I looked closer, I discovered how soldiers, even in the thick of the Vietnam War, personalized gear and equipment. War became as personal as chemical agent paper, bullet holes in a boat, an eight of Spades playing card and the nickname “Gator” on a helmet.

Gulls and flags and names...

Gulls and flags and names…

Nothing is more personal than a name. Nearly 60,000 names are inscribed upon the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall.

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This cross in the Vietnam KIA Field of Honor memorializes Gordon Gunhus, a native of Rice County where I’ve lived for 34 years.

Visitors peruse the crosses honoring the most recent war dead from Minnesota.

Visitors peruse the crosses honoring the most recent war dead from Minnesota.

A white rose

A white rose and label mark the memorial cross for Glenn Dusbabek of Waterville, about 15 miles west of Faribault.

More names were printed upon labels and posted upon crosses at the fairgrounds, some nameplates accompanied by photos of dead soldiers.

Brent Koch is from Morgan, in my home county of Redwood.

Brent Koch is from Morgan, in my home county of Redwood.

I remembered some of those soldiers from media reports. They were sons and daughters. Buddies. Classmates. Husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles.

A close-up of a tank on display reveals the harsh words of war.

A close-up of a tank on display reveals the harsh words of war.

A collage of photos personalizes the Vietnam War.

A collage of photos personalizes the Vietnam War.

Inside a tent reserved for remembering those missing in action and those who were prisoners of war, a member of the Shattuck-St. Mary's School Crack Squad stands at rigid attention.

Inside a tent reserved for remembering those missing in action and those who were prisoners of war, a member of the Shattuck-St. Mary’s School Crack Squad stands at rigid attention.

War is difficult and horrible. There is no denying that. Men and women die. Families grieve. And soldiers live with the aftermath of their war experiences, physically and/or mentally wounded. We can make it easier for them by remembering, by honoring, by thanking and by caring for them.

An overview of the Traveling Wall (background) and the military equipment displayed recently at the Rice County Fairgrounds.

An overview of the Traveling Wall (background) and military equipment displayed recently at the Rice County Fairgrounds.

I don’t recall ever thanking my dad for his service in Korea, for the great personal sacrifices he made. I wish I had. He’s been dead for 13 ½ years now, his war stories and trauma mostly buried with him. If only I had understood in 2003 what I understand today—that he suffered greatly and that I should have listened with more compassion and understanding.

FYI: This concludes my series of posts focused on the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall exhibit in my Minnesota community.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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23 Responses to “When war becomes personal…”

  1. Littlesundog Says:

    Your last paragraph spoke to me… how many times as we evolve do we wish we had listened, or thanked someone? And perhaps that is the gift of realization, whenever it does come – we can still listen, we can offer thanks and provide kind words. It is never too late. Thank you for sharing this series with us.

  2. Those who are remembered never die..

  3. Beth Ann Says:

    Another heart wrenching post. We have no idea, do we?

  4. I would like to get my cousins together to write down our father’s military history, especially since two of my uncles have recently passed. I still remember the struggles my one uncle had and due to the nature of his death was not allowed to be laid to rest in a military cemetary – such an injustice in a way in that he served and fought for his country and he did not get that final honor in passing. Your post floods me with a mix of emotions, especially in that they all did get to come home and live their lives.

    • This is a great idea, Renee. Get those stories now.

      I hope to some day meet the daughter of my dad’s Army buddy, Ray. I tracked her down five-plus years ago and I really want to meet her. She’s not that far away–in southwestern Iowa.

    • That would be nice for the two of you to meet. I enjoy hearing about what they did and where they served. I find it is a piece of our family history. For instance, a female family member flew planes (in a time when that was not really accepted) and a male family member worked in the blimp division.

      • Now those two pieces of your family history really are interesting.

      • Gunny Says:

        I would encourage anyone to get as many family stories together as they can! My mother’s side, I have managed to find 4 major (10 or more pages) stories written by the children and grand children of their immigrating Norwegian (grand) parents. If one can find a discharge paper (DD214) or copies of the ones (I have multiple) they had, this often will tell the reader dates of enlistments / dates of discharge and awards earned in that period. These award often will tell what conflict or duties they were assigned during that period. Even these do not do justice to veterans. Often times, these events and the service members participation are classified, and so very little acknowledgement is given or is “glossed over”.

      • I have a copy of my dad’s papers. He was awarded the Purple Heart more than 50 years after he should have received it. I was there for that ceremony and it was moving and profound.

        Get those stories is right.

  5. Don Says:

    I live in a town with many military personnel around due to having an Army Base and Air Force Base close by. I cannot count the number of times I have witnessed someone in a locale restaurant paying for their meal and then telling the waitress that they wished to also pay the bill for a service members table too. Remembering and Appreciation for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice or those who currently are serving should never be forgotten………………………………….

  6. Don Says:

    Do you know, was he at Eielson Air Force Base (next to the town of North Pole), brrrr it really gets cold out there in the winter!

  7. Valerie Says:

    We talked with a veteran at the Traveling Wall in Faribault and that made all the difference. I knew several guys who served in Viet Nam…I wrote letters to them. Fortunately they all came back alive. We were at the memorial at dusk for taps in the evening and it was special.

  8. Gunny Says:

    OK – You hit a string. PFC Gordon Gunhus, (Americal Division) USA is / was a cousin of mine. Never met him, never knew he existed, Find-A-Grave Memorial# 91379641, He arrived in country (Viet Nam) in December of 1969, I was already there as of September. He was KIA on March 29, 1970. His remains were recovered and returned. Sadly, his father passed away in 1971 and his mother in 1986. The memorial in Washington D.C. is one of the only or one of the very few, where mementos are left for the fallen. To those of you who wrote to us, thank you for your support. In many ways, I wish I still had letters from those days. Alas, Standard Operation Procedure (SOP) was to burn anything that could fall into enemy hands, including letters. Audrey, with your permission, I would like to use that photo of his marker (shown above) in the family history.
    Funny, I do not recall our vehicles as being as clean as those on display!

    • Gunny, how uncanny is this that I would choose to photograph Gordon’s photo/cross out of all the crosses displayed. It is, indeed, a small world. Thanks for providing the additional info about him and I am so sorry for the loss of your cousin.

      Thank you for your service during the Vietnam War. Yes, I’m sure those letters would be of great value to you now. I know when my dad was in Korea, his film and some photos were taken, likely for the same reasons you list.

      Yes, you have my permission to use the photo of Gordon’s cross in your family history book. Thank you for asking.

      • Gunny Says:

        Thank You Audrey.

        My Cousin Gordon and I did not know each other at the time. It is only recently that I found that I had two cousins in the military around the time I was in service. In my recent (in the last 12 months) I found Gordon Gunhus from my mother’s side and another cousin from my father’s side. Both were in Viet Nam at the same time I was. Both did not make it home alive. The newest, biggest building in Da Nang was the mortuary. Every vet has a story and sometimes these are not pretty, some are funny, a number are sad and some are just outright outrageous. We should all “stop and smell the roses” each and every day of our lives. Our lives are God’s gift to us to use wisely but he also knows we need to enjoy life. God Bless,


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