Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Watching the 2018 Winter Olympics from the perspective of a Minnesota soldier’s daughter February 13, 2018

My dad, Elvern Kletscher, at Camp McNair in Korea, photo dated February 14 (1953).

 

WATCHING THE WINTER OLYMPICS the past several days, I’ve felt a closeness to my deceased father. He walked this soil, this mountainous land so different from the flat, open farm land of his southwestern Minnesota home.

 

This photo from my dad’s collection is tagged as “Kim, Rowe, Allen & me, May 1953 Machine Gun Crew.” That’s my father on the right.

 

He landed here in 1952 with a ship full of other U.S. Army soldiers, gun in hand. A young man sent here by his government to fight on foreign land in a region that still is without solid peace. He fought on the front lines. Kill or be killed. Buddies dying. Explosions and hungry Korean orphans begging for food across barbed wire and him eating bark from trees and cold that felt even colder than the coldest of Minnesota winters.

 

This photo, pulled from the shoebox which holds my dad’s military photos, is simply labeled “front line.” That would be “front line” as in Korea, where my soldier father fought.

 

When I see the blowing snow and rugged mountain ranges during Olympics coverage, I think of my foot solider infantryman father, ranging through and over those Korean mountains. Scared. Yet doing what he must to survive. Kill or be killed.

 

My father, Elvern Kletscher, on the left with two of his soldier buddies in Korea.

 

I think of him on Heartbreak Ridge, picking off a sniper who had taken many of his buddies. And I think of the fiery shrapnel piercing his skin and the Purple Heart he would claim decades later, when he was an old man. Because a fire had destroyed his military records. Because he had tucked most of his war memories away. Because no one cared about what happened on a Korean mountaintop in 1953.

 

On the back of this photo, my dad simply wrote “a letter from home.” I appreciate this photo of my dad taken by an unknown buddy in Korea.

 

I regret that I didn’t understand him and the inner turmoil he carried with him from Korea back home to Minnesota. I regret that I didn’t ask more about his war experiences, that I didn’t recognize the trauma he suffered as a result. I regret that healing never fully came, although he found understanding and solace in the company of other veterans with similar shared experiences late in life.

All of this I consider when I view the Olympic athletes in their designer clothing, medals around their necks, applause of crowds, praise of many.

All of this I consider when I see the sister of the North Korean dictator seated behind our Vice President.

All of this I consider when I view those Korean mountains flashing across my TV screen.

 

Dad penciled on the back of this 1953 photo from Korea: “Sgt Smith & me from the States to Korea.”

 

I think of my dad as I retrieve a shoebox full of his black-and-white Korean War era photos. I sit on the sofa filing through those curled images while Olympic athletes ski and skate and propel themselves down an icy tunnel. On the back of one photo, I read my dad’s cursive notation: me in Korea May, 53.

Sixty-five years have passed since he left Korea. I wish I could sit with him now, ask him about his time in Korea, about the stories behind those photos. Perhaps he would talk, perhaps not.

 

U.S. Army Cpl. Elvern Kletscher, my father, in the trenches in Korea.

 

I wonder, would he turn off the television or would he watch the Olympians perform? Could he handle seeing the backdrop of those rugged mountains where too many of his buddies died? Would he flash back to the horrors of war?

 

My dad carried home a July 31, 1953, memorial service bulletin from Sucham-dong, Korea. In the right column is listed the name of his fallen buddy, Raymond W. Scheibe.

 

The reality is that I can’t ask him. He died in 2003. But I can write. I can use my words to tell his story, to apologize for my lack of understanding, to honor him. And this I do as Olympians cross country ski, stop, sprawl stomach down, then fire their rifles in this land, this Korea. This land where my soldier father from Minnesota shot his weapon, too. Kill or be killed.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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24 Responses to “Watching the 2018 Winter Olympics from the perspective of a Minnesota soldier’s daughter”

  1. Beth Ann Says:

    I suspect the things that your father went through were very difficult to put into words and a part of his life that he probably did not want to talk in depth about. I could be wrong about that. I am glad you have so many wonderful photos, though. Those are priceless.

    • As with most soldiers who fought in such intense combat, he struggled to talk about his experiences. At the time he served PTSD was not recognized and soldiers were expected to simply resume their lives as if nothing had happened to change them.

      And, yes, I’m grateful for those photos. There were more, he said. But his film was confiscated by the military.

  2. Jena Says:

    Thank you for sharing. It’s wonderful that your Dad labeled the photos. Good looking and capable young man. I’m thinking he would be impressed that S Korea became a modern country and that his bravery and service helped enable gathering of Olympians

  3. Sue Ready Says:

    you have penned a very powerful post with a connection few people would even think of. I might suggest you send this posting somewhere to share with others who may have similar thoughts but may have not vocalized them as well as you did. Lucky for the photos which indeed do tell a story.

  4. Valerie Says:

    You have a story to tell that not many of us do. Thanks for sharing these thoughts and feelings about your father.

    • You are welcome. As a soldier during “the Forgotten War,” my dad did not come home to a hero’s welcome. He returned to Minnesota to resume his life as a farmer without any consideration by anyone for the atrocities he saw, the life-and-death situations he endured, the trauma he carried with him. It’s important for his story to be told, these photos to be shared.

  5. Jackie Says:

    I am so very thankful for the men, like your dad who fought for our country. I cant imagine the trauma, the things he saw and the things he probably wished he didn’t. I’m thankful that you got your dad back after the war when so many didn’t . You have penned a wonderful tribute to your dad and his buddies!

  6. Marilyn Donnell Says:

    Thanks Audrey and many thanks to your Father and all our veterans. God bless them all.

  7. Brenda R Says:

    I am grateful for your post and special perspective as the daughter of a Korean War veteran watching the Olympics. It reminds me of Michelle Obamas thoughts living in the White House that black slaves helped build. Having always loved maps, I was curious where Sucham-dong Korea was in relation to PyeongChang and Googled it. The link to the map was interesting, but several other links were to your blog, and another link had similar info referring to the same July 31st, 1953 memorial service bulletin & also referred to the Nebraska Army buddy of her father. I’m wondering if you know the author of a book called God Answers Prayers- Military Edition by Allison Gappa Bottke? If you’re wondering where you could send your post- perhaps KARE11 or someone there since it’s the station showing the Olympics…

    • Brenda, my story, “Faith and Hope in a Land of Heartbreak,” published in 2005 in the military edition book you reference. Harvest House Publishers published the book by then Faribault resident Allison Gappa Bottke. I believe she now lives in Texas.

      Click on the highlighted words in the final paragraph of this post and it will take you to that published story.

      Thanks for the KARE 11 suggestion. I need to think about that.

  8. As I read your words I couldn’t help but think what my Grandpa would have said. He never really talked about it to my generation or my mothers generation.

  9. Littlesundog Says:

    I got a little misty-eyed reading this. None of my family were ever in a war, nor did they enlist in the military. Your words totally took me to a place where we can honor the memories and soldiers who gave so much for our country. I am humbled to hear stories like this. I loved your collection of photos. It looked like he made the best of things in those tough times… and I don’t suppose anyone could ever see the burden in his heart for having lost friends, and especially a close buddy.

    • The photos, and there are many more, truly show that kinship of brotherhood that comes with counting on each other during war. About 10 years ago, I tracked down the daughter of Dad’s buddy Ray. My dad watched him hit by a mortar and die the day before he was to leave Korea and return home to Nebraska. Ray’s baby girl had never met her father. I have yet to meet Terri, who now lives in southwestern Iowa. But we’ve spoken and exchange Christmas cards. She was so thankful I reached out to her given no one ever talked about her dad. Her mom remarried. My stories of my dad and her dad and a photo of her dad meant the world to her.


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